Ways to Strip Old Finishes
Eventually a time arrives when you need to strip off the old wood finish. Maybe its paint, varnish or some other type of finish, the question is what’s the best way to go about it?
The common stripping methods are
- Chemical stripper
- Dipping in an acid bath
- Burning or heat gunning
- Or a combination of the above
New to the above is the invention of a stripping system which is a combination of brilliant products and expert methods, but first, we will discuss the basics.
Before you choose how you are going to strip your own finish what are the key factors that are important to you.
- Cost of materials
- Quality of the end result
- The value of the article, can you disk damaging it?
- Your available time
- Can you do it, what skills do you need?
- Health & safety issues
If you have never stripped old finishes before then you may expect that spending $30 - $50 will buy you all you need and within a short time you’ll end up with an amazing result. You just buy a tin of stripper and it all comes off, right? It should be like that but it isn’t. However read on, and you will save yourself a lot of anguish.
Rule #1 – Don’t damage the wood
Most stripping methods cause a degree of unnecessary damage.
- Many chemical strippers bleach or fur the wood
- Mechanical scrapers can easily gouge and mark the wood
- Acid dipping often stains, bleaches, furs and even warps the timber
- Sanding machines are not very useful on curves and corners or in any detailed areas
Underneath that old finish there is probably a really good sanded surface. If you use a destructive stripping method (and most methods are) then you will have a massive job at the end sanding and trying to repair all the damage you have done. What most people don’t realise is that the existing sanded surface can be reused and will likely look better than any sanded surface you try to recreate yourself. Just choose a method that is designed to re-use it, not destroy it.
It is possible to strip wood perfectly without any damage and without leaving any old residue. The products we recommend on this site are very capable of achieving that, if you follow their methods.
Rule #2 – Don’t waste your money
Chemical strippers are not created equal. How do you tell if one is more cost effective than the other? The quick test is coverage. With chemical strippers the price per litre is a bit of a deception. The thick chemical gel strippers have poor coverage and work out very expensive on a cost per square meter basis. The liquid spray-on strippers have very good coverage and even though they cost more per litre usually work out much cheaper overall. The trouble with chemical strippers is they can run and drip causing annoyance and wastage. We have found thickened sprayable stripper to be the best of both worlds. But more on that later when we talk about the system. The point to remember, don’t try to save money by buying cheapest cost per litre – that is usually the most expensive way to go.
Rule #3 – Think about safety
There are two key areas here, hazardous paint (e.g. old lead based paint) and hazardous paint stripping chemicals.
Lead based paint has the power to seriously harm your health and is commonly found in homes built prior to 1970 in New Zealand. This may be different in other countries but in our experience the older the home the more likely there is lead. This paint is harmful if it turns to dust, e.g. when sanding, scraping, flaking or heat gunning it. Without proper management you can easily end up with a toxic environment, even after the restoration work is done. Our recommendation is if you have a paint project to strip and it’s older than 1970 then assume it contains lead until it has been tested either by a laboratory or at least with a lead based paint test kit. Until this is done, only use a stripping method that is safe for use with lead based paint.
The safest way to strip lead based paint is with a chemical stripper and using a method with no sanding or scraping. Please read our section on lead paint for more information.
Another hazardous area is with the dangers associated with chemical strippers. Most are solvent based and you need to use the correct safety equipment such as gloves, a suitable solvent mask and eye protection. There are a range of low toxicity paint stripper products now available but we have not yet found one that really performs that great. We’ll keep looking.
Some chemical solvent strippers are much more acceptable to use than others. However just because they smell better does not mean they are safer. Always follow the safety recommendations.
Rule #4 – Have a method
Many mistakes that are made when stripping happen because you might not know better, or get frustrated and start to shortcut. Mistakes usually end up as damage to the timber that you can’t easily repair and you end up with a less than satisfactory result.
We are all about method and this website is dedicated to bringing you all the best products and methods. Follow these methods and you will end up with a job to be proud of.
Sand paper, a tin of stripper or a paint scraper are just possible parts of the paint stripping process. They are not answers that guide you from start to finish. Amongst these there are good and bad performers. There are other things you need plus you need a really good method.
In our search and in our opinion, there is only one product that really delivers well in this regard and it’s the Coopers Restoration System. Here is why we like it so much.
- It gives a great result, especially good for interior joinery, furniture and boats
- There is no dust
- There is no scraping
- There is no sanding saving a lot of hard work and time
- It’s a pack of the essential things you need to do it well
- It works out amongst the cheapest cost per square metre
- Almost anyone can do it
- It works on most paints, varnishes and finishes
- Safe on all woods, even ply and veneers
- Safe on metals, glass and window putty
- Its safe on lead based paint
- It’s a well supported product
- However it’s not a magic wand, but if you have tried other ways, you are likely to be impressed
We offer the Coopers Restoration System on this website. In each pack you get a DVD training guide and manual. We are also adding helpful information on this website as well. If you have a question, jump on our user forum and ask away. There are several expert restorers waiting for your questions including the inventor of the Coopers Restoration System, Simon Cooper.