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Five Methods For Removing The Finish Off The Furniture You're Refinishing - Ways To Strip Furniture

What is UP my friends and fellow busybees. I hope you are all doing well and have been having a great week- we have been getting our first glimpses of spring this week, thankfully, because we got yet another snow storm last Friday which seems to be happening like every week lately.. But at last, the snow is finally beginning to melt, the sun is shining more and more often, and I’ve been able to open up the garage door and move some of my work out into the driveway again! I absolutely love this nicer weather because I can be so much more efficient and effective when working when I have that additional space– if you didn’t already know, I work out of the garage of my home and that is a single car garage that houses my tools and other supplies that won’t be affected by the cold, any inventory I have that is waiting to be made over, and my workspace for where I work on my pieces so.. Safe to say, the open floor working room is fairly limited, so when I can spread out across the driveway, I absolutely take advantage of that!


For today’s episode I wanted to walk you through 5 different methods you can choose from when deciding to do a furniture makeover and you need to remove the existing finish on the furniture piece you have sourced. I also have a bonus one at the end that you may or may not have known about when working with a specific finish, so make sure you stick around for that.


I wanted to walk through these different options because I feel like you only ever really hear about or see people doing maybe like 2 of these things, but I want you to know that these options do exist and, depending on the piece you’re working on, one of these other approaches may be easier or more effective than choosing one of the other ones. Also so you know that, regardless of how much money you have to invest in tools or supplies at this time to do your makeover, there is always an option that will work well and is within your budget. For each of these methods, I’ll also give you the pros and cons from my perspective of choosing them.


So the first method you can use to remove the finish off of your furniture piece is by using an electric sander. This is probably the method that is used most often and you see commonly because once you’ve invested the money into it, you kind of want to use it whenever possible. I know that’s how I feel, so this is definitely one of my most commonly used methods regardless of if the piece has a stain, paint, or other finish on it. Even if you’re working with a raw wood finish and you just want to prep it to receive whatever finish you intend to put on it, an electric sander is a quick and efficient way to sand the piece and work up through those higher grits to prep the wood for having a sleek, even finish.


There’s lots of different options in terms of size and type of sander, from little detail sanders and palm sanders to the Surf Prep 3x4 Electric Ray sander I have to round orbital sanders, which I also have, I use one from Dewalt that works great. A reminder that any products I mention, as always, will be linked in the show notes of today’s episode.


Some of the cons when it comes to an electric sander is that the upfront cost is more of an investment, especially so for some of the higher end sanders. So that might make sense for you if this is something you plan to do a lot of, or you have other uses for an electric sander so you want to invest in a more professional one rather than at a lower entry point. Depending on the size, brand, and other features like corded vs. cordless options, electric sanders can range anywhere from around the $20 mark to around $1000 for a complete system and all the fixins’.


Another con to using an electric sander to remove the stain or paint or topcoat on the piece you’re working on is that it will require a bit of a time investment to get it all off, unless you get a really lucky piece where the finish just seems to flake off immediately. Those are great, but unfortunately far and few between. If you haven’t done a makeover before, you may have seen tutorials of people posting their makeover steps and have seen someone sand the top of a dresser in 20 seconds – chances are that was a timelapse video or sped up, so just be prepared that sanding down a piece can take up to hours to do, depending on the size and shape of the piece and what you’re trying to sand through.


Speaking of the shape of the piece, another con is that if you don’t have a piece that is completely flat on all sides, then you will likely also require an added investment of more supplies in order to be able to fully sand your piece down. This could mean sandpaper so that you can hand sand some edges that are curved or more intricate details (I guess in theory you could use a sandpaper pad made for the sander for this too, but I hoard those things and keep them for the sander typically), or you could also buy some sanding foam pads so that it contours to the shape of your piece so that you can sand over it with ease. Sanding blocks sometimes have the same give that the foam pads have and would work in those cases as well.


The last con of using an electric sander is that it can be fairly messy if you don’t have a dust extractor or vacuum connected to the sander, or at a minimum, a little dust bag connected to the sander. Dust can get all over you and the area you’re sanding, which may not be a big deal if you’re working outside or if you have an open space in the garage that you don’t mind getting dusty, but just keep that in mind if you maybe have your home gym or motorcycle or something else of value that you want to keep clean. If not, you will likely have some dusting to do afterwards!


On the flip side, a pro of using an electric sander is that it is quite tidy to use if you do have it connected to a vacuum or dust extractor. I just have a Shop Vac that I use with my SurfPrep sander and it does a great job of capturing any dust that may otherwise land on me or the surrounding area, which is amazing because sometimes I am storing pieces that are completed and waiting to be sold in the garage so I can be sure that they won’t get covered with dust when that is the case.


Another pro is that it’s relatively easy on the body and doesn’t require a whole lot of elbow grease or effort to get the thing sanded– you just move the sander along the piece and let it do the hard work. If you find that you have a sore bicep or forearm after you’re sanding, it could mean that you are pushing down on the unit and if you heard last week’s episode, you know that this is a mistake I used to make early on when refinishing furniture as well but it is something you don’t need to do. Assuming you’re using the correct sandpaper grit, just having the sander against the finish is enough for it to do its work and remove the finish on the piece.


Another reason I typically opt for an electric sander is that it can be used in varying temperatures– which is music to my ears for a Canadian like me. We honestly only typically have like, 5 months a year when it’s “nice” out, so this is a big factor for me to consider. When it’s super cold I probably wouldn’t opt to use it in case the piece was too brittle and cracked instead of being sanded down or if it were to affect the sander, but I haven’t found it to be an issue in things like -10 or -15 degrees Celcius. Which is amazing!


The second method you can use to remove the finish is the downgraded version of an electric sander, which is a piece of good ol’ sandpaper. Manually sanding down your piece is absolutely an option, and something that is a low barrier, low cost option– especially when tackling your first makeover if you don’t know if it’s something you’ll ever try again and you’re not looking to invest a lot of money into the project.


For those who don’t know, the way you differentiate which sandpaper to choose is according to the grit. The grit refers to the rating of the size of the abrasive material on the sandpaper– the higher the number, the more fine the abrasive is. Which means that if you want to really eat through a thicker finish, you would use a lower grit between 80 to about 120 grit, but if you were just trying to scuff sand a piece and remove a glossy or shiny finish off of the piece before going in with paint, you could use between 180-220 grit and it should do the job. The higher grits that are 250 and over are really fine so they’re great for lightly sanding between coats of finish to ensure you end up with a smooth, sleek finish in the end.


The two cons related to using sandpaper are probably ones that you can guess: it requires a whole lot of elbow grease, and it takes longer to remove the finish compared to using an electric tool to do it for you, obviously. It is a great workout, though!


The pros to using sandpaper, like I mentioned, is how inexpensive the product is so it’s a really low barrier of entry so literally anyone can use this method and complete a makeover for under ten bucks.


Another helpful and useful thing that sandpaper allows for is the bending of the paper as needed so you can really get into any small crevices and hard to reach areas that an electric sander or other method may not allow for. There’s also other supplies you can use in addition to the sandpaper to help make the hand sanding process easier, quicker or more enjoyable like using a sanding block to help run the sandpaper across a smooth, flat surface or investing in some contour and angle sanding grips so you can wrap the sandpaper around them to fit to the angles and contours of the piece more easily.


And if you’re new to the world of furniture flipping and are interested in dipping your toe in and making over a piece either that you already have in your home, a piece you find at the thrift store or maybe even a freebie curbside find you came across on garbage day, I’d love to help you through it. I know how overwhelming it can seem with so much information (and often conflicting or confusing information) out there for you to consume. I was once there myself, but since then I have worked my way through hundreds of makeovers and done the trial and error so you don’t have to. I’ve compiled everything you need to know to crush your first furniture makeover into the No BS Guide To Your First Furniture Makeover which will walk you through step-by-step on how to complete your first furniture flip, as well as providing you a supplies checklist so you know you have everything that you need to get the job done. Click here to get your No BS Guide To Your First Furniture Makeover. AND, as a valued blog reader, for a limited time you can save 20% off using the code BLOG at checkout. Get yours today and get to flipping!


The third method for removing the finish off of your furniture to refinish it is to use a stripper. Now, this is a method that I honestly don’t use all that often because, for me, it’s just not worth it based on the results I have gotten compared to other methods, but I know it’s some people’s go to option!


These are chemical strippers or removers that you apply to your furniture piece that is designed to remove paint, finishes and coatings while also cleaning the underlying surface. Now, there are times when this will work to remove stain but not typically (in my experience, at least!) so it gets used for painted surfaces that are largely flat. You apply the product, let it sit on the piece, and it eats away at the finish so you can then come back and scrape it away. Sometimes it gets it all right away and sometimes you need to do multiple coats before you unearth the wood beneath. Again, every piece is different.


I have an upcoming blog post in the 101 series called Paint Stripping 101 where I will do a deeper dive into the different types of strippers, how to use them, what the differences are and discussing some of the health and safety things to be aware of when using these products, so stay tuned for that if you are interested in learning more. But I will give you a quick flip tip in the meantime on how to ensure the stripper really eats away at the finish: once you’ve applied the product, lay some big pieces of plastic wrap over the finish with the product on it and pat it down because this will stop the air from getting to the stripper and drying it out before it has time to work its magic. Not the most sustainable option, but it helps you not have to use as much product and from having to do multiple rounds of stripping for the most part.


One of the cons of using this product is the fact that it does have more health and safety considerations, simply because it is the method where you’re using chemicals to complete the task versus just using your own energy or a tool to do it. This includes the consideration that there are chemical fumes that will be in the air, so you want to ensure you’re in a well-ventilated space and not doing this if you’re working in your living room or something like that where you may have children, pets or other people in your household around because they will be inhaling those fumes. You also want to ensure the face mask or respirator you’re wearing when using this product is one that will protect you against these fumes and isn’t simply a respirator that protects against dust particles.


Another negative or con to consider when deciding if you want to use a stripper for removing your furniture finish is that it does have some limitations, as it does take a longer time to get the finish removed typically– the ones I have in my stash require it to sit for 20 minutes to up to 24 hours before you scrape the finish off. It also can’t be used in all situations, such as excessively cold (and probably excessively hot) temperatures in order for it to work properly. Though I do think the bigger issue is the cold for this one– like I said, as a Canadian, there are few months in the year when this is even a possibility for me which is why it isn’t one of my go-to methods.


Using a stripper also usually requires additional supplies to be used after you have stripped the piece back, like using mineral spirits to neutralize the stripper and clean away any remaining chemicals and then possibly using a microfiber cloth to clean off any remaining residue. Plus, there could still be finish remaining that you then will need to wait for everything to dry before you can sand away anything remaining. So just keep that in mind!


The biggest pro or positive thing about choosing a stripper to remove the finish, assuming it’s a finish that the stripper will work well on, is that it does the work for you. You can essentially set it and forget it, compared to spending the time actually working on removing the finish so this can help from an efficiency standpoint if you get it on and then go and work on another piece while it does the hard work for you and then you can just come back to it, quickly scrape away the finish and residue, and then continue on. I also know some refinishers who will apply the stripper at the end of their work day, cover it with plastic, and then leave it to do its thing overnight so that when they come back in the workshop in the morning, they can hop right into it quickly and easily.


Another pro about using a stripper is that it is a relatively quick and easy clean up process. As long as you figure out your system before you start, you can just peel up the plastic wrap little by little as you scrape away the finish as you go so that at the end, all the gunk is on the plastic wrap that you can just ball up and throw out. A little warning to make sure you read the directions of how to properly dispose of the products to ensure that the potentially hazardous waste is dealt with appropriately – like I always say, read the labels of every product you use because you never know how it may differ from one you’ve previously used!


And because I know you’re interested in painted and refinished furniture if you’re listening to this episode, I think you’ll love receiving the Friday Furniture Focus which is the weekly newsletter I send out to my email list every Friday with furniture flipping inspo and education. I share what I’ve been up to and working on that week, furniture facts and furniture fixes so you can learn new hacks for completing your makeovers, share some furniture fangirling of pieces I’ve seen from other refinishers that I’ve been swooning over lately, and you can discover new furniture artists you may not have come across before through the Furniture Friends Q&A section where I feature refinishers to get know more about them, their pieces, and their businesses and side hustles. If you’re interested in receiving the newsletter, head to the show notes of this episode or pop on over to MelDidItHerself.ca and sign up today!


The fourth method for removing an existing finish off of your piece of furniture is to use a heat gun. Now, this is one that I don’t see people opting for quite as often as the previous methods I’ve mentioned, so I thought it was important to mention as an option. This doesn’t work for just any finish though, as it won’t remove a stain or just a topcoat, however for paint finishes– particularly latex paints– this is an absolute godsend.


I find latex paints can be super annoying when you try to sand them away because the friction from the sander or sandpaper just kind of heats the paint up and it starts getting gloopy and gummy instead of sanding the finish away, and it can get gross and gummy with strippers sometimes as well. With the heat gun, it just essentially warms it up so that it isn’t adhering to the piece quite as much so that you can get your metal scraper under it and then work your way along, lifting the paint up as you go.


A pro of using this approach is, honestly, that it’s sooo super satisfying to do. Head to my Instagram and scroll back a little bit and you’ll see some timelapses I’ve done when doing this on a piece– it just glides so smoothly and picks up every little piece of the paint so I love it for that reason. Total ASMR vibes.


It’s also a pretty inexpensive tool to add to your arsenal compared to some other tools, and it can be useful for other things in life that aren’t furniture related, so that’s how I justified adding it to my toolbox! I use the Wagner FURNO 300 Heat Gun and I forget exactly how much I paid but it was definitely under 50 bucks. To make removing latex paint quicker, easier and more enjoyable, that was absolutely an investment I was willing to make.


The clean up process when removing the paint finish with your heat gun is also quite quick and easy. Similar to the stripper, you can just push the finish into a little pile as you work your way across the piece and then put it all into a little container or whatever to keep it in one spot. It’s also cool because the paint is obviously quite malleable when it’s warm and being scraped up but then once it cools, it goes back to being brittle so you can kind of crumble it so.. Some added fun for your breaks, if you so choose! I dunno.


There are some cons to choosing this method though: like I already mentioned, this isn’t an option with every piece you encounter. I mentioned I do it with latex paint but as I sit here, I can’t actually recall if I’ve attempted to do it with other types of paint like mineral paint, chalk paint or acrylic paints so I can’t speak to its efficiency when there are the mediums you’re trying to remove. Maybe I’ll keep this in the back of my mind as something to try out and do a video on in the future if I think of it.


There are also health and safety concerns to consider when using this approach as well, because you are using a high heat source to heat up a chemical product. As such, there are chemicals or fumes and particles in the air that you need to properly protect yourself and those around you against– similarly to when using stripper– and there is also the fire hazard and potential for burning yourself since it is a tool that gets very very hot, very very quick. So please do use caution if you attempt this, and this is one step that maybe we don’t let the little ones help us out in the workshop with!


Another con to consider is that since it is really high heat and you’re typically removing the paint from a wooden surface, there is always the potential to burn the wood surface too if you aren’t careful– which could then impact your design plan for the piece if you aren’t able to remove that burn mark. To avoid this, my recommendation is to always keep the heat gun moving, and of course, to consult the directions that come with the tool that you purchase for proper use instructions.


The fifth method for getting rid of a finish on your furniture you’re flipping is the thing I use most often these days since I first tried it out: using a carbide scraper. A carbide-tipped scraper is essentially a hand tool designed to scrape different surfaces to remove the finish on them manually. It has a carbide steel blade which is very durable that is attached to a handle with a ball on top so you can apply firm, even pressure when scraping and to give you good control of the tool. And you do just as the name implies… scrape the finish off. Again, feel free to peek back on my Instagram or TikTok because I also definitely have timelapse videos of me scraping the finish off a dresser top so you can see just how quickly it works.


I have a Purdy and Bahco carbide scraper and they work amazing, the blade still works great and it’s reversible too so if it starts to dull, before either sharpening it again or getting a new blade, you can flip it over and it’s good as new. I want to say it was like $40 for the tool and I can confirm that it is worth every single penny.


A con to choosing this method is that it does require a bit of elbow grease and mobility so if you have arm, wrist or elbow issues, this might not be the best option for you so do keep that in mind when deciding. I should have mentioned it earlier but the same goes with using sandpaper to manually sand your piece, though I think that one is more obvious!


Another thing to consider when deciding whether or not to use a carbide scraper is that typically it will get the large majority of your finish off however it might still require some touching up afterwards with sandpaper or an electric sander to make the surface perfectly stripped, smooth and ready for whatever finish you plan on putting on it in your makeover.


I have also found that in instances where you have a super thick finish that you’re trying to work through or if you’re scraping the finish away from the base that isn’t solid wood, it can sometimes eat away at the material beneath a bit and then require you to do some filling and repairs prior to going in with your paint. That could have been user error, maybe I was in some mood that day and digging in a little too deep, but worth mentioning nonetheless.


The biggest pro is that, for me, this is the quickest option when you’re trying to strip the finish off of your piece for pieces that are flat. You can get rid of it in less than 5 minutes in most cases, which is amazing and makes your makeover process so much quicker and more efficient. That’s why I will often choose this method, even if I just start by scraping first and then finish it off with another method like sanding.


This method is also super flexible in any weather conditions because it doesn’t require a certain optimal temperature for it to work well or anything like that, you can use it in the dead of winter and again, as long as it isn’t so cold that the wood it brittle and will crack, it works just as well as if it were 20 degrees out. It also has relatively quick clean up as whatever is scraped up just falls to the ground and then you can easily sweep it all up.


Now I mentioned one bonus method at the beginning of this episode and that is mineral spirits. I thought it was worth noting that if you have a piece that is wood and just has a wax on it to finish it and you want to get rid of that wax to either makeover the piece or even just to re-wax the piece since it can wear down over time, you can just use mineral spirits and that will eat through the wax finish and get rid of it without affecting the wood beneath. Just wipe away any excess product with a damp microfiber cloth, let it dry thoroughly afterwards and you’re good to go!


And something you may not know about me… I love little motivational messages. They literally always get me fired up, and I keep a running list of ones that are especially catchy or speak to me in the Notes app on my phone. So I’m going to end every podcast episode with one of those that I have noted down over the years, in hopes that you leave our time here each week feeling inspired, motivated, and ready to take on whatever comes your way that week.


So this week’s Mel’s motivational message is: The capacity to learn is a gift, the ability to learn is a skill and the willingness to learn is a choice.


Alright, that’s it for now. Make sure you go grab your No BS Guide To Your First Furniture Makeover. As always, I appreciate your time, and I’ll catch you guys next week!


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