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Remove finishes to refresh old woodwork

By Pat Logan
www.creators.com

Q. I live in a 100-year-old house, and I need to strip and refinish the interior woodwork. There are different types of wood. How can I strip the old finish without harming the wood?

A. Many old houses have beautiful woodwork, and a lot of it, so you have your work cut out for you. Think of it as a labor of love, because just imagine how good the wood will look when refinished. Since it is your own home and you will likely be meticulous with the detailing, it will probably look better than when it was new.

In a 100-year-old house, the woodwork was either painted or left natural and finished with clear varnish. The more durable and harder-to-remove finishes, such as urethane, were not available back then. Even though varnish is easier to strip, don’t start rejoicing yet. There likely are several coats of varnish or paint on woodwork that old.

The three primary techniques for stripping old varnish and paint from woodwork are chemicals, sandpaper and heating. There were many types of wood and finishes used with a house as old as yours, so you will likely have to use all three. Some pieces will require the application of two or more stripping techniques.

The easiest and most gentle technique for removing the old finish is chemical stripping. This is particularly true for smaller pieces of wood that you can remove from the wall. After you apply the stripper, place the pieces on end in a can to catch the runoff. This stripper can be used again on another piece.

There are several types of chemical stripper from which to choose. A paraffin stripper is the least expensive and fairly easy to use. It strips well, but it leaves a paraffin residue that must be cleaned off with paint thinner. A slightly more expensive, no-clean grade does not leave a residue. It might still be a good idea to clean off the wood with some light sanding.

The best type of stripper to use is called water wash. These chemicals strip varnish and paint thoroughly and are easy to use. The force of water from a garden hose is usually enough to rinse away the old finish and stripper chemicals. When using this, don’t leave the stripper on very long, and dry the wood quickly.

You have two options for this form of stripper: liquids or pastes. Paste types work well on vertical pieces that you cannot remove from the walls. It is also handy to use on pieces with fine detail. Liquid strippers are best for larger flat surfaces.

Sanding with a power sander is effective for removing old paint and varnish from large flat areas. Power sanding can remove a lot of the underlying wood quickly, so make sure you are not working with a thin veneer. Be very careful when working on parts with raised detail.

If you plan to do some of the work on detailed pieces with a scraper, using a heat gun softens the old finish for easier removal. Use an electric heat gun.

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