Stripping an Old Finish


As messy as it is, sometimes stripping off an old, unwanted finish is unavoidable, especially if we want to appreciate the beauty of the grain hidden beneath a layer of paint or dark tinted varnish. When I found this Arts and Crafts style armchair, it had a heavy coat of a 1960s “antiquing kit” all over it. If you would like to see how I tackled this stripping job, just read on.

I could see on the arm where the dark tinted varnish (almost like a paint) had worn away, revealing the beautiful oak grain, so I knew this would be worth the effort.

Heavy sanding would destroy the character of the wood, so I reached for Formby’s® Paint & Poly Remover, which I have relied on for several years. As the label indicates, the chemicals that soften the old finish require protection:  glasses, gloves, dropcloths, and old clothes.

This is no small project, so I am working outdoors, protecting everything the Paint & Poly Remover might touch — including me!

I start by brushing on a thick layer of Paint & Poly Remover. As you can see, it begins to loosen the old finish almost immediately.

What a pretty sight! The old finish is practically sliding off the wood, making my job much easier.

After about 20 minutes the old finish had softened, so I carefully scraped off the worst of it, taking care not to scratch the wood.

I then used Formby’s® Paint & Poly Remover Wash and a synthetic pad to scrub off the remaining loose finish. This is much better than water, which causes the wood fibers to swell and get fuzzy.

A final pass with a fine grade of synthetic pad and some more Remover Wash reveals the clean, beautiful oak grain.

After just a light sanding to clean up any remnants of old finish, my Arts and Crafts armchair will be ready for a fresh coat of Minwax® stain and finish.

Until next time,

Thanks for stopping by!


Note:  These instructions pertain only to paint and any non-original coats of tinted varnish. The original finish on any antique should not be stripped, so be sure to have any antique evaluated by a professional before you begin working on it.

Be sure to check out the Minwax® Facebook page for more tips and techniques!

5 comments on “Stripping an Old Finish

  1. Jean Holland

    How did you get into the little corners and cracks? Just sandpaper and the scrubber that you used? Or did you use any other tools? I have a cherry dining table that I want to tackle but the legs are curvy and have some deep embellishments. I am not sure how to deal with the small places.

    1. Bruce Johnson Post author

      Good question, Jean. What you don’t want to use is a steel wire brush. Instead, get a softer brass bristle brush, about the size of a large toothbrush, and use it to clean out cracks and crevices while your remover is still wet. Good luck!

  2. Donna

    Will this same technique work on a lingerie chest that has been painted black and had fabric spray-glued to it? It also has hardward holes that were filled before being covered with fabric. (Does this even make sense?).

    1. Bruce Johnson Post author

      Boy Donna, sounds like this would be quite an undertaking. The Formby’s Paint and Poly Remover will work but, as always, you’ve got to decide is worthy of all the time and effort required to strip and refinish it. Good luck!

  3. Jeanette @ SnazzyLittleThings

    This piece is lovely! I had an old buffet with no markings and the finish was exactly like the 1960’s antiquing kit on your piece. I decided to strip it…I included a picture here of my progress so far. So many people have such a strong opinion of removing an original finish….but this piece was sitting in a damp barn until I rescued it. Not sure what to say to those folks–I just smile since I know this is how my grandfather made his living…which was refinishing old antiques. For as many pieces as he did, those valuable pieces were extremely rare. Even with all of his experience he rarely came across a piece that allowed him to retire. 🙂

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