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Furniture Strippers 101: What are they, how do I use them, and how do I avoid making mistakes?

What is UP my friends and fellow busybees. I have been teasing this post for awhile and it is finally here– I am back today with another instalment in the 101 series highlighting the basics of furniture refinishing and today we are doing an overview all about furniture strippers!


As always before we get into it, a disclaimer that I encourage you to use these posts as a starting off point for your own research on what products you prefer, the health and safety implications to be aware of based on the products you use, and all that other liability-related stuff. I’m sharing my experience and the knowledge I have, so let it be a jumping off point for you but don’t take it as the end all be all, got it?! Okay cool, now let’s hit it.


So if you read Five Methods To Remove The Finish Off Your Furniture, then you know that using a paint stripper isn’t one of the methods I gravitate towards all that much these days. However, it is definitely some people’s Go To and I do think it has a time and a place for certain projects even for me, in fact this past week I went hard in the stripper on a little desk I saved on garbage day and my god did it help give the piece a total glow up. So in today’s post I’ll go over what furniture strippers are, the different types and the advantages and disadvantages of each, things to consider when choosing your stripper, some popular brands and the ones I usually gravitate towards, how to use it and my tips for doing so, and finally some common mistakes to avoid when using a paint or furniture stripper.


So furniture strippers are products that are designed to remove the existing finish or paint from a piece of furniture, which allows you to start your furniture makeover from a clean base to work off of. Even if you intend on painting the piece you’re working on, stripping the existing finish down or off completely will make all the difference in achieving a flawless finish because any bunches, bumps, knicks or grime will get removed in the stripping process so that won’t be sitting beneath the finish that you opt for in your furniture flip.


So I kept today’s information high level to discuss furniture strippers as a whole, and those fall into two main categories: mechanical strippers and chemical strippers. We’ll start with mechanical strippers, which you likely already know and use but just don’t necessarily refer to them as such. Mechanical strippers use a physical method (such as sanding or scraping) to remove the existing finish or paint on a piece of furniture.


Since this typically involves using a tool of some sort, this can be a more economical option in the long-term if you plan on doing more than just one furniture makeover because you can buy the tool, whether it be a carbide scraper or an electrical sander, and although you have that upfront cost that may be higher than purchasing a chemical stripper, you can get way more uses out of that tool in the long-term versus having to continually buy more of the chemical stripper.


Assuming you’re taking the proper precautions to protect yourself, the mechanical strippers are typically considered to be safer to work with because your risk of exposure to chemicals isn’t there. And if you don’t know what you should be wearing to keep yourself safe, make sure you pop over and read the Head-To-Toe Safety Equipment & Safety Gear To Wear When Painting & Refinishing Furniture Guide after this.


One disadvantage of choosing mechanical strippers over chemical ones is that it is typically more labour-intensive, even if you’re using an electrical tool, chances are you’re going to be harder on your back as you wait for the piece to be sanded or scraped compared to letting a chemical do the job and just wiping the finish away. This is especially true when you’re trying to get through a piece of Frankenstein furniture that has layers and layers of paint or other finish caked up from multiple refinishing jobs over the years that you’re trying to work through… like that little desk that I mentioned earlier. Thick thick primer and then plenty of latex paint. That’s a surefire way to gum up your sandpaper pads in an icky, sticky way.


Using a mechanical stripper can also be less effective if you’re ever working on pieces that don’t have a lot of flat edges and are either smaller and tight to reach or are maybe more ornate and have many ridges, curves and contours that are hard to get tools into.


A risk that may be present when you go to use a mechanical stripper, especially if you’re new to using these tools and products, is scratching up the surface of your furniture piece. If you aren’t careful, you could damage the material underneath the finish if you’re sanding or scraping the piece too hard or too long, or potentially in the wrong direction. I’ve talked before about how when I first started out doing furniture makeovers, I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to be pushing down when using an electric sander and I also wasn’t switching out my sanding discs often enough so essentially I was making marks in the wood beneath the finish and would then either blow through veneer if that was what was on the piece, or would leave those little swirl markings in the wood from pushing down on the orbital sander or leaving it in one spot for too long. Lessons that sometimes you need to learn the hard way, but lucky for you, you’re here to learn from mine!


The other category of furniture strippers are chemical strippers. These work by dissolving the existing finish or paint on the piece using chemicals in the formula of the product you apply, which makes it easy to wipe or scrape the finish away after the product has sat long enough to eat through it. This is probably what most often comes to mind when you think of a furniture stripper, so I’m going to mainly focus on this category for today but I thought it was worth noting the mechanical stripper aspect as well, since it’s likely the approach you’re more commonly taking on your furniture makeovers.


When it comes to chemical strippers, I find it to be most effective to choose over other alternatives when you’re working on a piece that needs multiple layers of paint or finish removed from it. These are typically older and more vintage or antique pieces, just because they’re been around so long and have had multiple lives with different makeovers, but that wood is often also much older and therefore can be more dry, brittle and easier to crack, flake or become damaged. This means that using a chemical stripper in these instances also probably makes most sense, so that you avoid adding unnecessary additional impact to those older, more fragile pieces. You’ll know them when you encounter them.


Choosing the chemical stripper option typically means– assuming the stripper did its job correctly, which I have seen it not do at times, so take that for what it’s worth– but it typically means that the job will be less labour-intensive. In theory, the finish should be all bubbled up or separated from the furniture piece essentially and it’s just a matter of scraping it up. Which, added bonus, is sooo satisfying and gives total ASMR vibes. There’s rarely a time when I won’t film myself scraping up paint stripper so that I can later look back at the timelapse and feel that satisfaction again. And usually post it for you guys too so you can also enjoy it, of course.


And if you’re someone who really loves hearing about these helpful hacks and creative tips for your furniture flips, as well as love seeing pretty painted pieces and rad refinished relics, I highly recommend signing up for my Friday Furniture Focus newsletter! I send it out every week jam packed with furniture facts, furniture fixes, share who’s pieces I’m furniture fangirling over, introduce you to furniture artists and their businesses so you can get to know more about them and their work, and so much more. If you’d like to sign up you can click here and keep an eye on your inbox for all that great stuff.


One negative of chemical strippers is that they are definitely more harsh and can be dangerous to work with, particularly if you aren’t wearing the proper safety gear and working in the ideal setting. That means proper ventilation, preferably with open doors or windows to allow fresh air in. You also want to be wearing a respirator so that, regardless of ventilation, you aren’t inhaling the chemical fumes that can be damaging to your lungs and other organs.


There are definitely less harsh options being created of chemical strippers as time goes on due to the increase in demand for more eco-friendly strippers and a focus on sustainability. According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global eco-friendly furniture market is projected to reach $8.08 billion by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 6.3% from 2020 to 2027. So that means more consumers, more demand, more requests, and thus more supply made to meet said demand.


If you’re interested in learning more about the chemicals and hazards of paint strippers, one creator I highly recommend you go follow is Aimee from OoakUpcycle. She is a sustainability consultant by day and so she lives and breathes this stuff and shares so many helpful resources about what you should be reading in the labels of these products and what that means relative to other chemicals and hazards. She also shares about safety data sheets, which you can find for any product that you get and it will outline things like the ways you can properly protect yourself from said product. And overall she’s just a rad furniture refinisher with such a bright personality and a couple cute doggos, not to mention some gorgeous painted and refinished pieces so, go check her out and learn something new if you haven’t already!


There’s also the cost factor when it comes to chemical strippers– per use, chemical strippers are definitely more costly. If I’m working on a decent sized piece and need to strip the whole thing, I’m usually going through pretty much a full container of the product which ranges in price but is never less than $15. Whereas, for example, my carbide scraper that I use as a mechanical stripper only cost me about $35 and I’ve probably already used that to strip over 20 pieces of furniture and she’s still good as new. With the chemical strippers, you’re typically paying a higher ticket for the ‘set it and forget it’ convenience of it.. Which, fair enough! That may be totally worth it cost-wise for you, depending what your time and effort costs to you.


Chemical strippers may also benefit you if you are working on pieces that have a lot of details or are more ornate and thus are harder to get a sander or scraper into those spots. Instead, allowing a chemical to lift up that finish and then scrubbing it away with an old toothbrush or another hard bristle brush may, honestly, save you hours compared to trying to hand sand those details. Take it from me because I have absolutely hand sanded pieces before out of stupidity of not thinking it through and realizing I should just grab a paint stripper and I have totally regretted it. That piece ended up being one of those that sat at the back of the garage 35% completed for like 7 months before I forced myself to start back up on it and just get it done and outta there. If you know, you know.


In terms of choosing which category of furniture stripper to choose and which product, there are a few things you can take into consideration based on the project that you’re doing. First off, what type of finish are you trying to remove? That can help narrow your focus- like I said, if I know I want to get rid of a latex paint, I almost always grab for a chemical paint stripper. Again, you’re also going to want to consider what type of wood or material is underneath the finish you’re stripping off. Older woods that may be more brittle might be a good indication to reach for a more gentle chemical stripper, depending on the piece. Sometimes with certain glossy finishes I can just tell that a scraper would eat through the majority of the work in no time and so it’s a no brainer. So take a peek at what’s underneath before you commit to one method or the other.


You may also want to consider how new or experienced you are with the different techniques, and your level of mobility or if you require certain accommodations due to injury or other issues. You may also have a preference of method to choose, regardless of the piece you’re working on, due to wanting to stick to natural or eco-friendly strippers. While others, on the other hand, may prioritize speed and effectiveness and the ingredients in the product aren’t as big of a priority to them– no way is better or worse, it’s all up to you! However, whichever method you opt for, do make sure to read up on what the requirements are for that product to keep yourself safe and protected, especially in the long-term when using these products and tools.


There are a ton of options out there when it comes to chemical strippers and depending what country you’re in, the selection may vary but I’ll discuss a couple options that are available in Canada and the U.S. I believe. So the one I typically grab for is EZ Strip, I get it from Home Depot and I used it once and it did the job decently and so I just keep grabbing for it. What I do like about it is that the consistency is somewhere between a liquid and a gel so that it’s still really easy to spread across your surface however it doesn’t immediately run off the sides and get your space all dirty and frigged up. Another popular product is Citristrip, I see a lot of people using it and when I used it I personally wasn’t super impressed with the results I had gotten, however I will say that it was earlier on in my furniture refinishing journey so I may not have been doing the method that I do now to apply it and so that could have contributed to the results I got. So might be worth trying it out for yourself if you’ve been wanting to! I do recall the smell wasn’t as harsh and chemical-y compared to some other products (hence the name, it has a citrus scent), I do believe it was more expensive than the one I use now, but it was more of a gel consistency so it has that goin’ for it, which is nice. Shout out to you if you know the meme.


Another popular brand I see furniture refinishers using is Klean-Strip, however this is one of the options that is a methylene chloride-based stripper which is a much more harsh chemical than the first two options mentioned. Due to this, it is said to be better for tougher jobs and gets the job done quickly and easily. Since it is one of those heavier-duty strippers, proper safety precautions are imperative more than ever. I do believe I have used this stripper in the past and if I recall correctly, it did work well but it was a super strong scent that lasted in the workshop well after I was done using it, and it was liquid so I just find that a little more difficult to keep tidy based on the method I use for chemical strippers.


Now what is that method, you may ask? It’s definitely not rocket science applying a chemical stripper, you just apply it to your piece and let it sit essentially. I do one side of the piece at a time so that the product can stay on it easier instead of having some sides be vertical and trying to race to get it on and keep it on there. I recommend applying more product than you think you’ll need and I typically apply it with either a foam brush or if I have a super cheap chip brush that I don’t mind throwing out afterwards. Sometimes if I have a roller on its last legs I’ll just use that too before tossing it.


Then I find the key to actually getting the stripper to really work well, particularly if you aren’t using one of the super heavy duty strippers with the harsh chemicals, is to lay some SaranWrap or plastic wrap over the section after you put the stripper on. This creates a protective layer between the product and the air so that it doesn’t dry out as quickly, and I find it really presses the product into the furniture so that you don’t have to put as much elbow grease into it when you go to scrape it all away. I also typically leave the product on for longer than the directions indicate when using the less intense strippers, so when it says to leave it 15-45 minutes, I’ll typically leave it for an hour, an hour and a half. I find that’s the sweet spot where it lifts up a little bit more of the finish, but due to the plastic wrap, it isn’t drying up yet and making your life twice as hard having to scrape away the sticky, dried up stripper plus the hardened plastic wrap now glued to it.


Then when I go to remove the stripper and finish beneath it, I use a scraper to remove everything--usually a metal one because if it’s a plastic one, the chemicals may eat away at it over time, but do use caution if you’re using a metal scraper that you’re staying parallel to the furniture and not gauging the material you’re stripping as you scrape the finish away. Then I essentially uncover only a little bit at a time so that the plastic wrap is staying over it for as long as possible. I’ll push one section back to the end of that portion of the piece and then do the same on the sections beside it until all the gunk is sitting at the end of that portion of the piece and then scoop it all up together and dispose of it. Another thing worth noting is (as I always recommend!) to read the directions of the product you’re using to find out the proper disposal instructions because there’s likely something specific written down due to them being such intense chemicals. Many of these products are flammable, so it’s really important to look into it and you can check with your local waste management facility to find out their guidelines for its proper disposal.


After I’m done removing the stripper and the finish beneath it, I’ll grab some mineral spirits and fine steel wool and go over that surface, which removes any leftover chemical stripper and usually gets rid of any paint or primer or anything that was leftover that the stripper didn’t work on. Once I have a nice surface, I’ll wet a microfiber cloth and wipe off any residue from the mineral spirits and leave the surface to dry thoroughly before going in with my next step– whether that’s to then sand it to really get it looking fresh, prime it for painting, or just going in with wood conditioner to prep it for stain.


There’s some common mistakes that I have done myself and heard of others doing while using chemical strippers, so I also wanted to highlight those today. The first is not using enough product. If you know me, you know I am cheap as fuck so better believe I try to make any product that I invest in last as long as humanly possible. It’s a blessing and a curse. But this was why initially I wasn’t seeing the results that others were when using chemical strippers– I was being too stingy and putting the thinnest layer possible over the surface and thinking the finish was just going to jump off the surface. To get the best results, it’s important to apply a thick and even coat across the entirety of the surface– one way I make sure I have enough is once I have it all over the surface and everything is covered, I’ll go back with my foam brush or chip brush and kind of pat or bounce the brush across the surface to essentially create little peaks and to get any remaining product off of the brush and bunched up on the surface. This was a handy trick I learned from Karin at DesignsByKarin, go check out her Instagram for some handy furniture flipping hacks if you aren’t already following her!


Another issue that can arise is if you leave the stripper on for too long– and yes, I am fully aware that I just said that I leave the stripper on for longer than the directions indicate, so take my advice with a grain of salt. But if you keep an eye on it and check on the stripper periodically, you should be good. You just don’t want it on there so long that it begins to dry out, which then makes it less effective. Once you see the finish begin to bubble and lift and that’s happening on the majority of the piece, you should be good to go to scrape it away. And again, if you maybe need to leave it on even longer and can’t monitor it during that time, that is a case when I would highly recommend utilizing the plastic wrap over it because I know some refinishers that will put stripper on and cover it with plastic wrap and then leave it overnight to work its magic and it is still moist in the morning when they go into the workshop to get started the next day. Sorry for saying moist.


If you find that you’ve put on the stripper and it’s been almost as long as the directions say to keep the product on and you aren’t seeing anything happening, I would recommend trying to apply more product and then letting it sit awhile longer before trying to remove the finish. If it really isn’t budging, don’t be afraid to apply a second coat and let it sit and then try again– sometimes you get really stubborn finishes and that’s just what they need. Don’t take it personally and let it deter you from finishing the project, I have my moments and am stubborn sometimes, too!


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 end every blog post 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: Big earners are big learners.


Alright, that’s it for now, I appreciate your time, and I’ll catch you guys next week!


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