Facelift for furniture

That shabby old chest of drawers can be transformed simply and cheaply by stripping off the old paint and refinishing the wood in an up-to-date, eye catching style.

By stripping old furniture down to the natural wood you can ensure a smooth surface – free of bumps and blemishes – which can then be polished, varnished or even stencilled for a completely new look.

Make sure, though, that you know what finish you are stripping. It could be one of several – paint, polish, lacquer or varnish – and they all need different treatments.

Stripping paint

Paint on furniture can be removed either by immersion in a caustic bath – a job for a specialist – or by hand, using a chemical paint stripper. Hand stripping usually gives the best results, as it adds an extra lustre to the bare wood: consider the caustic bath as a last resort – only to be used if the work proves impossibly hard.


To strip paint by hand, you need a supply of proprietary paint stripper. Available in either jelly or liquid form, it is more economical to buy it by the gallon than to opt for one of the smaller cans. The back of the can should tell you what to wash the stripper off with once it has soaked in – either water, methylated spirits or turps substitute.

To apply the stripper, you need rubber gloves and an old 25mm or 50mm paintbrush. For peeling away the softened paint, use a stripping knife and a moulding scraper or coarse wire wool. Put the shreds – which will be caustic, and therefore dangerous – in a jam jar or an empty paint tin.

For cleaning and finishing, make sure that you have a supply of coarse wire wool and fine and medium grade glasspaper.


If you are working indoors, ensure the room is well ventilated before you start – paint stripper gives off unpleasant fumes. Put down some newspaper or an old dust sheet to protect your floor and furnishings.

On a chest of drawers start with the drawer faces themselves, removing handles and key escutcheons where possible. A dab of paint stripper, left to soak for a few minutes, will help loosen stubborn screws.

Wearing rubber gloves, pour some of the stripper into a jar and start brushing it on to the paint. Work the stripper into all the cracks and crevices with a brush making sure none of the paint is missed.

Having covered a drawer or the equivalent area, leave the stripper to act for several minutes. When the paint starts to bubble, remove the top layer with a stripping knife or a moulding scraper and scrape the shreds straight into a container.

Continue this process with each layer of paint – sometimes there are as many as five or six on an old chest of drawers – until you reach the wood. You will need several applications of stripper. If you find any corners difficult to reach with a stripping knife, use the moulding scraper instead.

When all the paint has been stripped off, the next step is to wash down the wood. This will help to remove any remaining debris and also neutralizes the stripper.

Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on what neutralizer to use with your particular stripper. Soak it into a hand-sized wad of wire wool and thoroughly rub over the stripped surfaces until they are as clean as you can get them.

Finally, when the wood is dry, glasspaper it down to a smooth finish. Use medium grade paper to work out the deeper scratches, then go over the whole surface with a fine grade. Rub in the direction of the wood grain when using wire wool or glasspaper.

Stripping polish

If the chest of drawers is polished you need to know which type of polish has been used before you can remove it successfully.

French polish gives a fine, mirrorlike surface which is very delicate and easily marked by heat or liquid. The surface shine is the result of the polishing techniques rather than the ingredients of the polish.

French polish can easily be removed with methylated spirits. Wipe it on generously and then leave it for a few minutes. When the polish has softened scrape it off, first with a scraper, then with fine wire wool soaked in methylated spirits. When the wood is dry, glasspaper it down to a smooth finish. Wax polish and oily surfaces can be removed by rubbing with fine steel-wool soaked turpentine or turps substitute. Dry with an absorbent rag and repeat the process until you reach bare wood.

If you are not sure what sort of polish is on your furniture, choose a small, unobtrusive part of the surface and rub real turpentine on the spot with a soft cloth. This will remove dirt and wax or oil finishes and quickly reveal bare wood. If there is polish left after applying the turpentine, rub on a little methylated spirit – if the surface has been French polished it will go soft and sticky.

Varnished and lacquered finishes

If your chest of drawers is more than 30 years old and is varnished, you are dealing with oil-based varnish. This is made from resins dissolved in oils and solvents and is quite different from modern cellulose and polyure-thane varnishes.

The cleanest way to remove oil-based varnish is with a scraper. Tilt the scraper away from you and push it along the grain of the wood, working away from your body. Never use it across the grain.

To remove polyurethane varnishes use paint stripper. Cellulose-based varnishes can be. Removed with paint-stripper, acetone, cellulose thinners, ammonia, caustic soda or turpentine. You may need to test small areas first to see which works best.

Doing furniture repairs

Once you have stripped off all the old paint, you may find that various faults show up and that repairs are necessary before the new finish can be applied.

If the back of the chest of drawers is weak, nail some new battening on.

Any weak joints should be glued, pinned, then held in place for several hours – either with string or in a clamp. Make sure that the corners of the chest of drawers are protected from the cutting action of the string with some paper or a piece of wood.

Cracks and holes must be filled with plastic wood or a commercial non- shrinking stopper – both are available from DIY shops. You can also buy coloured fillers and stains to match the natural colour of the wood. Level filled holes with fine glasspaper. Large holes, greater than the size of a keyhole, should be plugged with a piece of similar wood cut to shape.

Make sure that the grain of the plug goes the same way as the rest of the surface, then glue it in place with a suitable adhesive.

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