The very first time I tried to strip furniture, it was an unmitigated disaster. I lived in California at the time, and had a tiny little balcony as my workspace. The desk I was refinishing barely fit out there, so I had pretty much no room to move around. If that wasn't enough, it was a sunny 90+ degree day, so I was miserable the whole time I worked.
I started by dumping Citri-Strip on the top, just like the friendly internet people told me to. I let it sit for 30ish minutes, as instructed. But when I went to remove the stuff, instead of a nice goopy stripper/finish/stain combo, I found a completely dried mess that would not come off the desk. Somehow I fixed it. I don't really remember how. But I was terrified of stripping furniture for years afterword.
Eventually, I got over it and tried again. And again. And again, until I had a rock-solid method for removing old finish. Multiple times I posted projects and brushed over the stripping part, telling you that someday I'd feel confident enough to show you my method. That day has finally (finally!) come.
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- Finished Furniture - I've stripped both painted and polyurethane covered furniture, and this process works for both types!
- Citristrip - I firmly believe this is the best stripping agent on the market. See above.
- Plastic Putty Knife - The plastic aspect is important. A metal putty knife runs the risk of scratching the wood.
- Mineral Spirits - This helps remove any remaining stripping goop after the majority of it has been scraped off.
- ScotchBrite Pads - I cut these in half to make them easier to use. Additionally, I buy them in bulk, since I'll run through a 20-pack in 3-4 projects.
- Orbital Sander - I have a Dewalt, and it probably my favorite and most used tool. I can't imagine stripping a furniture piece without a functioning sander - any flat areas of wood would be difficult to get the same shade.
- Assorted Sandpaper - You'll need a variety between 40 and 240 grit.
- Cheap Foam Brushes - I like using disposable brushes for this, so that I don't have to mess around cleaning them with mineral spirits when I'm done.
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How to Strip Furniture
Step 1: Add CitriStrip
Pour a liberal amount of stripping agent onto your piece. Goop it on. A little does not go a long way here. You need a thick layer of stripper everywhere, else the stuff will dry out before it's had time to work. The thicker the layer, the better.
Do you see in the above photo where the goop is visibly thick and orange? It should be like that everywhere. To be totally honest, the above photo was only an "okay" job of gooping on the CitriStrip; some of the thinner sections dried out and didn't remove the paint as well as it should've.
Step 2: Cover With Plastic Wrap
Cover the CitriStrip with plastic wrap immediately after finishing applying it to a section. Don't wait until you've applied stripping agent to the whole piece - it's likely to dry out before you've covered it up.
Step 3: Wait Thirty Minutes
I've found 30 minutes to be the perfect amount of time to let the stripping agent work. It's enough time for it to be effective, but still short enough that the CitriStrip doesn't dry out.
If you're stripping paint off of a piece, it should be pretty obvious when it's time to remove the CitriStrip. If you poke with your finger, and the paint shifts around, it's ready to come off. It can be a bit harder to tell with clear finishes, but if 30 minutes has passed, it's probably ready.
Step 4: Scrape Off Finish
Using a plastic putty knife, scrape the stripping agent off the piece. This gets messy quickly, so be sure you have a tarp or blanket on the ground, and a designated bin for the used goop to go.
Step 5: Clean with Mineral Spirits
Remove the remaining residue with mineral spirits and a ScotchBrite pad. The mineral spirits help break down and separate the residue, while the ScotchBrite pad scrapes it off the piece without damaging the wood.
While the photo above is of a different project, you can see how there isn't any CitriStrip residue left, although there are still a few areas of finish that didn't get scraped off. It'll come off in the next step!
Step 6: Sand
Starting with the lowest grit sandpaper you have (I typically start with 40 grit, but 60 grit is fine too,) sand the piece. Do not move onto the next sandpaper grit until all the finish, goop, and stain is removed from the piece. I typically clog up 1-2 pieces of 40 grit sandpaper with residue on each project, just to give you an idea.
Once piece is sanded down to the bare wood, I'll start working my way up in grits to smooth it out. I typically go up to at least 180 grit sandpaper, sometimes I'll do 240 if I want the piece extra smooth.
And then your piece is ready for stain! It's going to look so pretty!
Extra Tips for Success
- Weather Matters - A key part of my first furniture stripping fail is that I attempted to strip furniture on a hot day, in the full sun. The stripping agent dried up and was ineffective before I even finished applying it to the rest of the desk. Always strip furniture in the shade to prolong the drying time of the product, and try to be in an environment that's between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Product Matters - I am one of those people who buys the generic brand of almost everything. I am rarely convinced that one particular brand is vastly superior to another. But, friends, do yourself a favor and use Citristrip. This post is not sponsored by Citristip. I have never talked to a single Citristrip representative, nor have they ever sent me anything free. But I have tried a variety of stripping agents, and I always come back to this one. It's strong enough to break down finishes, but won't irritate your skin. You can cover it with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out, while other stripping agents will eat right through plastic wrap.
- Work in Sections - Work in small sections when applying or removing the stripping agent. The more time the CitriStrip is exposed to the air, the more opportunity it has to dry out. Keep it covered with plastic wrap when you're not actively working with it.
- Intricate Details are Hard - While stripping down intricate details isn't too difficult, sanding them so that they match the surrounding wood can be a major pain. While sometimes I'll use a Dremel sanding attachment to sand intricate areas, this can risk sanding away the pretty details. Most of the time I'll just hand sand the area and decide that imperfections add character.
It took me forever to come up with a fail-proof system that worked for me. Hopefully it works for you too, but if your first furniture stripping attempt isn't successful, keep trying! You'll get there! It just takes a bit of practice. And anything you screw up can probably be fixed - don't panic, just do some research and keep trying.
I'm so glad I kept practicing; stripping furniture is a beautiful way to restore a piece!
I'll be writing another post on staining furniture soon... so make sure you're following me on Pinterest so you don't miss out! And if you want to see more of the two projects pictured in this post, check out the dresser here and the nightstand here. Finally, if you found this guide helpful, be sure to save it to Pinterest so you can find it again later!