What exactly am I stripping?

You have a piece of wood or veneer furniture that you want to give a second life to. You’re getting ready to strip it. First you need know what product was used to finish so that you use the appropriate solvent.

You believe that you can tell what product was used just by looking at it? Don’t be too overconfident. The easiest way to identify the product is to perform a test on a hidden corner with different solvents.

Furniture that has an oil finish usually has a natural colour and a flat finish. Mineral spirits will remove the finish. Sanding will probably be required to remove the colour.

Furniture with a wax finish also has a natural colour and is flat. You can use several types of solvents: mineral spirits, denatured alcohol (acetone) or lacquer thinner.

Furniture with shellac—and in good condition—offers a smooth and very reflective surface. If it’s not in good condition, it will be tarnished, show cracks and is sometimes sticky. Shellac will disappear with denatured alcohol or lacquer thinner.

Furniture with a lacquer finish is more or less glossy. The finish cracks over time, especially if it’s exposed to low temperatures. This product is removed with a lacquer thinner.

Furniture finished with varnish provides a look similar to shellac. Mineral spirits are recommended to remove this finish.

A polyurethane finish is often used on newer furniture. It’s more or less glossy finish yellows over time. It can only be removed with a chemical stripper.

In summary, mineral spirits, denatured alcohol, lacquer thinner and chemical stripper are the four solvents used. Here they are placed in order of power.

Start testing with the most mild solvent (which one?) then go on to the next one until you obtain a reaction on the finish. Use a cotton swab to apply the solvent and rub it on a hidden surface. Then rub the tested surface with a white cotton cloth to determine if any residue remains.

It’s very important to wear gloves when you do the test. Make sure you have a cloth nearby to wipe up any drops. A drop of solvent leaves a permanent mark. Keep the solvent away from all heat sources: cigarette, lighter, barbecue, oven, stove, etc. Always work in a well-ventilated area.

Photo: iStockphoto LP

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