Revealing what's hiding beneath that old varnish requires both elbow grease and certain safety precautions.

By Erica Sloan
April 27, 2020
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wooden furniture
Credit: Manuel Rodriguez

Perhaps you're the lucky owner of a 1950s dresser with undeniably "good bones," but it's sporting a dated color. Or maybe you've inherited a set of antique chairs with paint so old, it's beginning to peel. In any case, your furniture's paint job may be the only thing between you and a future heirloom. The three most common ways to remove it are via chemical stripper, heat gun, or power sanding disk. For first timers and those tackling small- or medium-sized pieces indoors, the chemical method is your best bet; this way, you'll avoid fumes from melting paint and will spare your floor from a showering of paint chips and dust.

We turned to Thomas Eberharter—owner of home-design company Raven's Knee, in Croton-on-Hudson, New York—for his advice on using a chemical stripper to reveal your old furniture's inner beauty.

Test for lead.

Before you begin, make sure that the item's current coating does not contain lead (note that lead-based paint wasn't banned in the U.S. until 1978). Stripping this off could create lead-laced dust, which is toxic when inhaled. To determine if you're at risk, make a small cut in the item's surface with a utility knife to expose its layers, then wipe the groove with a 3M LeadCheck Swab ($10.47, homedepot.com). If the swab turns red, it's positive for lead, and you should outsource this project to a lead renovation, repair, and painting firm certified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Prep your work area.

Designate a workspace outdoors, in a garage, or in a well-ventilated room. Place the piece of furniture on top of six-millimeter plastic sheeting, extending it a few feet in all directions to shield the floor or ground from any possible seepage. You'll also want to remove any hardware or other parts that won't be stripped, like knobs and pulls (and if they can't be taken off, cover them in blue painter's tape).

Gear up.

Any chemical with the power to dissolve paint shouldn't touch your skin—so be sure to wear a long-sleeve shirt, pants, and boots to protect yourself. Strap on safety goggles and a fume respirator and put on nitrile work gloves before getting started with the stripper.

Scrape away.

When choosing a product, avoid anything containing methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane or DCM), which creates noxious vapors that can cause coughing, dizziness, and nausea. Safer options—like the methylene chloride-free version of Zip-Strip Paint Stripper—swap in chemicals like dibasic esters, benzyl alcohol, or N-methyl-pyrrolidone (NMP) instead. Get started by applying the stripper one section at a time, waiting for it to bubble (15 to 30 minutes, depending on the product you use), and then carefully scraping it off. For flat areas, use a putty knife, and on rounded ones, use extra-coarse steel wool to avoid gouging the wood, which may be softened a bit by the stripper. Continue lifting off as much of the goop as you can, discarding it in a cardboard box, and repeat until almost all of the paint is gone.

Clean your space.

Gently sand the piece to clear out every nook and cranny, and to smooth the surface of the wood (strippers can raise the wood grain). Douse the contents of the cardboard box with water—they're highly flammable—and dispose of it outside, per your municipality's requirements. Mist water over the plastic sheeting and fold it inward (concealing the dirty side) before trashing that as well. Then, give the room a deep-clean to rid it of any remaining debris: Vacuum the full work area (use one with a HEPA filter), and wipe down all surfaces with your regular household cleaner.

Finish it off.

Now that your piece is free from its outdated coating, it's ready to be stained and sealed—a process that helps preserve the color and integrity of the wood over time. Consult our professional guide to dive in.

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