14 Feb 2012
That shabby old chest of drawers of yours can be transformed simply and inexpensively by stripping off the old paint and refinishing the wood in an up-to-date and eye-catching style.
By stripping old furniture down to the natural wood, you can ensure a smooth surface, free of bumps and blemishes, which can then be polished, varnished or even stencilled for a complete new look.
Stripping the paint
Paint on furniture can be removed either by hand using a chemical paint stripper. Hand-stripping usually gives the best results, as it adds an extra lustre to the bare wood.
To strip paint by hand, you will need a supply of proprietary paint stripper. Available in either jelly or liquid form, it is more economical to buy it in large 5-litre cans, rather than buying it in smaller 1-litre bottles. The directions on the can or bottle should tell you what you need to use to wash the stripper off with once it has soaked in – either water, methylated spirits or turpentine.
To apply the stripper, you need rubber gloves and an old 25mm or 50mm paintbrush. For peeling away the softened paint, use a stripping knife and a moulding scraper or coarse wire wool. Put the shreds, which will be caustic and therefore dangerous, in a jam jar or an empty paint tin.
For cleaning and finishing, make sure that you have a supply of coarse wire wool, as well as fine- and medium-grade sandpaper.
If you are working indoors, ensure the room is well ventilated before you start – paint stripper gives off unpleasant fumes. Put down some newspaper or an old dustsheet to protect your floor and furnishings.
On a chest of drawers, start with the drawer faces – removing handles and key escutcheons where possible. A dab of paint stripper, left to soak for a few minutes, will help loosen stubborn screws.
Wearing rubber gloves, pour some of the stripper into a jar and start brushing it on to the paint. Work the stripper into all the cracks and crevices with a brush making sure none of the paint is missed.
Having covered a drawer or the equivalent area, leave the stripper to act for several minutes. When the paint starts to bubble, remove the top layer with a stripping knife or a moulding scraper and scrape the shreds straight into a container.
Continue this process with each layer of paint – sometimes there are as many as five or six on an old chest of drawers – until you reach the wood. You will require several applications of stripper.
If you find any corners difficult to reach with a stripping knife, use the moulding scraper instead.
When all the paint has been stripped off, the next step is to wash down the wood. This will help to remove any remaining debris and it also neutralises the stripper.
Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on what neutraliser to use with your particular stripper. Soak it into a hand-sized wad of wire wool and thoroughly rub over the stripped surfaces until they are as clean as you can get them.
Finally, when the wood is dry, sandpaper it down to a smooth finish. Use medium-grade paper to work out the deeper scratches, then go over the whole surface with a fine-grade sandpaper. Rub in the direction of the wood grain when using wire wool or sandpaper.
If the chest of drawers is polished, you need to know which type of polish has been used before you can remove it successfully:
- French polish gives a fine, mirror-like surface that is very delicate and easily marked by heat or liquid. The surface shine is the result of the polishing techniques rather than the ingredients of the polish. French polish can be easily removed with methylated spirits. Wipe it on generously and then leave for a few minutes. When the polish has softened, scrape it off first with a scraper, and then with fine wire wool soaked in methylated spirits. When the wood is dry, sandpaper it down to a smooth finish.
- Wax polish and oily surfaces can be removed by rubbing the surface with fine steel wool soaked in turpentine or a turps substitute. Dry with an absorbent rag and repeat the process until you reach bare wood. If you are not sure what sort of polish is on your furniture, choose a small, unobtrusive part of the surface and rub real turpentine on the spot with a soft cloth. This will remove dirt, wax and oil finishes and quickly reveal bare wood. If there is polish left after applying the turpentine, rub on a little methylated spirits – if the surface has been French polished, it will go soft and sticky.
Once all the paint has been removed, and the wood has been left to dry, it is time to repair any faults that may show up once the wood is bare or to ensure the piece of furniture functions properly. Then you can treat the wood using varnish, wax or wood oil for a beautifully finished look.
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