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Wood finish strippers can be toxic, so take precautions - January 13th, 2018


Q: I found a nice wooden chair at a garage sale, which I purchased very cheaply. The only problem is that I need to refinish it. How do I go about stripping off the old finish?

A: There are different types of wood strippers available, some which are quite harmful to eyes, skin and lungs. Make sure you read the manufacturer’s warnings and uses for the stripper.

Solvent-type strippers blend with the finish to dissolve it. Chemical strippers penetrate the finish to separate the finish from the wood.

Generally, the faster the stripper works, the more dangerous it is. Read the label carefully.

You should do this work outside in a well-ventilated area. Cover the work area with sheeting and wear protective goggles, gloves and apron or protective clothing and a respirator.

You’ll want to set the mood by laying out some drop cloths (plastic sheeting and newspaper work well). These will catch the sludge as it drops off your chair. Remove any hardware from the chair to avoid damaging it. Get dressed up in your protective clothing and get ready to apply the stripper.

Some strippers can be sprayed on the piece, but most will be applied with a brush. Some of the brush-on strippers are runny and some are more like a gel.

Apply a thick layer of the stripper and try to keep the surface level to keep the stripper from running off before it has time to work. You may need to strip the piece in stages to accommodate any vertical surfaces.

You don’t want the stripper to dry on the work piece. If it does, you will have to apply more stripper to loosen it up. To slow up the drying process, you can cover the chair with plastic or, if it fits, a large plastic garbage bag.

Once the stripper has worked for the specified time, use a scraper to remove what’s left of the old finish. Don’t use a metal scraper for a water-based stripper.

You also will need various items to remove the finish in tough-to-get-at places on the chair. Brushes, scrub pads, string and sharp toothpicks will help reach the nooks and crannies.

Where chair spindles meet seats or armrests, you can wrap the string around the spindle and use a sawing motion to scour out the joint. In the tough areas, you may have to reapply the stripper and rescrape.

You want the stripper to do the work. Don’t try to scrape the wood if the stripper hasn’t had time to work as you will only damage the wood.

As you are scraping, let the old finish/stripper mix dry out on the newspaper and then properly dispose of it.

The last step is to clean the wood. Use whatever solvent the stripper’s manufacturer suggests, usually denatured alcohol, mineral spirits or lacquer thinner. Scrub the wood with a scrub pad dipped in the solvent to remove any traces of the old residue.

Let everything dry out, and you are ready to begin refinishing.

Mike Klimek is a licensed contractor and owner of Las Vegas Handyman. Questions may be sent by email to Or, mail to 4710 W. Dewey Drive, No. 100, Las Vegas, NV 89118. His web address is