Refinishing furniture with chemical stripper.

Furniture Refinishing:

Refinishing An Old Dresser - Part 1
Stripping The Original Finish

In This Article:

Furniture stripping paste is brushed on and the surface is scrubbed. The stripper residue is removed with a power-washer and the wood is allowed to dry.

Related Articles:

Skill Level: 2-3 (Basic to Intermediate)

Time Taken: About 8 Hours (Over 2 Days)

By , Editor


I bought this old dresser from a friend-of-a-friend who needed to get rid of some furniture.

I paid a whopping twenty-five bucks for this piece. When I examined the details of this dresser, I realized that it was solid wood except for some plywood on the back and bottom.

Even though I was swamped with home improvement projects, I envisioned a furniture refinishing project in my near future.

Antique dresser.

The sellers of this dresser were in a hurry to move some furniture out of a rental house that they owned, and I spent a couple of hours helping them. In return for my efforts they offered to give me some pieces of furniture. I did accept a nice solid-cherry dining table with a broken leg, which I knew I could fix. But this dresser was in decent condition, so I insisted on giving them a little money for it.

Label inside dresser drawer indicating furniture is made from solid cherry and maple woods.

After I parked this dresser in my garage, I noticed this sticker inside one of the top drawers.

I don't know if this dresser would qualify as a true antique, but it seemed pretty old. The fact that the sticker states "solid maple" and "solid cherry" was a pleasant surprise.

I'm not an expert on identifying species of wood, but the dresser case and the drawer fronts look like cherry, and the drawer boxes and some internal parts on the case look like maple.

I realized that I had gotten a pretty good deal. At the time, I wasn't looking to acquire any more furniture. It was about a month before I got married for the second time, and I was facing the prospect of trying to fit my wife's furniture into the small 1,400 square foot house that I bought 2 years ago. I already had some furniture. More was on the way. I felt a bit crazy for bringing this home, but I couldn't pass it up.

It seems that these good deals come when you're not looking for them.

The dresser had some strange white spots on the top. I couldn't tell if these spots were paint, or something that had damaged the finish.

There were also some stains that had penetrated into the wood, and I wasn't sure if they could be removed.

Stains on top of old dresser.


Scratches on surface of old wood furniture.

There were a lot of scratches on the top. Since the top is solid wood, I knew that I could sand these scratches out.

If the top had been a veneer, there would be a risk of sanding through the veneer, which would get ugly. Deep scratches in veneer would be better treated by filling them with wood putty.

This dresser sat in our garage for about three months, just taking up valuable space. On Labor Day weekend I decided to take a break from my other projects and tackle this refinishing job. The weatherman was predicting warm and sunny weather, and I prefer to do furniture stripping outdoors.

The weather turned out a little too good... the temperature reached the low 90's by mid-day and there was a steady breeze. That's abnormally warm for Northern Michigan in early September. It was perfect beach weather, but I convinced my wife to stay home and work.

There was a flip-side to this perfect beach weather... the furniture stripper paste kept drying out. In order to work properly, these chemicals need to stay wet. But I had a solution.


Stripping Furniture Finish:

We set up a work table and covered it with a sheet of plastic, held down with large spring clamps.

Work table set up for applying furniture stripping chemical.


Furniture stripping supplies: Cup, brushes, chemical stripper.

The basic supplies we used for stripping the finish:

  • Furniture stripper
  • a one-quart plastic cup
  • an old 2" paint brush
  • a scrubbing pad
  • a plastic-bristle brush.


I set up a "wash rack" by placing an old piece of white wire shelving on a pair of sawhorses.

Furniture wash rack made from wire shelving and plastic sawhorses.


Drying rack made from wire shelving and sawhorses.

I also set up a drying rack by laying wire shelving on another pair of sawhorses. I figured wire shelving would be best because air could circulate beneath the drawers.


Wearing a pair of chemical-resistant rubber gloves, we painted the stripper on the outside of the drawer box.

Applying chemical furniture refinishing stripper with a brush.


Spraying rubbing alcohol on finish remover to maintain wetness.

To keep the stripper from drying out, we sprayed the wood with rubbing alcohol. We used an ordinary garden sprayer that is manually pumped to pressurize.


Then we scrubbed the surfaces with a small plastic-bristle brush. We also tried using a scrubbing pad, but it was less effective than the brush.

We found that the softened finish would work its way deep into the bristles, but the scrubbing pad's surface would just get covered with gunk. We periodically cleaned out the brush with a power washer. The pad wasn't so easy to clean.

Scrubbing paint stripper with a plastic-bristled brush.


The CitriStrip Fiasco:

In the pictures above we used a furniture stripping product that contains nasty chemicals like methylene chloride.

At first we tried using Citristrip to remove the finish. While it appeared to be working (because we could see the changes in the surface), it just wasn't completely dissolving the finish. Of course it had problems with drying out, and we re-wetted the stripper by spraying it with rubbing alcohol, which has always worked in the past. If we applied Ctristrip to a very small area, such as one side of a drawer, it was possible to keep the stripper wet while scrubbing it, and after power washing the surface would be completely clean.

But stripping one side at a time would take f-o-r-e-v-e-r. When we tried to apply Citristrip to an entire drawer box, inside and out, we had to almost constantly spray alcohol on the stripper while it sat for 20 to 30 minutes and softened the finish. I realized that I could use a quart of rubbing alcohol for each drawer box. And there were eleven drawers to strip.

So after fooling around with Citristrip for almost 3 hours and not even completely stripping two small drawer boxes, I decided to try the conventional chemical stripper.

I'm not knocking Citristrip. It's a great product. It's all natural. It's made from orange peels. While they say it's toxic (apparently orange peels can be poisonous in high concentrations) it is certainly much less toxic than methylene chloride and all the petro-chemicals used in other strippers. And I'm sure it's much less damaging to the environment.

I've had great results with Citristrip in the past... but that involved stripping stained oak trim from a house built in 1907. I'm sure that trim was coated with old-fashioned varnish, and this dresser was probably finished with lacquer. I understand that lacquer has been used on furniture since the early 20th century, as furniture manufacturers discovered the productivity improvements of applying fast-drying lacquer with spray guns.

I suspect that Citristrip doesn't dissolve lacquer as rapidly as it dissolves varnish. Maybe our problems were amplified by the hot and breezy weather conditions. We solved the problem by switching to a methylene chloride-based chemical stripper. I'd prefer to avoid that stuff, but we couldn't.


Power washing furniture to remove stripper residue.

After the stripper had been allowed to work for 10 to 15 minutes, I power-washed the drawer boxes.

It's important to be very thorough when washing. Any spots of stripper that are not removed will interfere with the drying of the finish, and I won't know about it until it's too late.


To power wash the inside of the drawer boxes, I held the drawer up with one hand and blasted it with the power-washing wand held in my other hand.

This was kinda awkward, because the power-washer wand is quite long and I couldn't get my arms far enough apart.

Power washing underside of drawer to remove stripper residue.

My wife declined the opportunity to hold the drawers on an angle while I power washed them. She's smart... she saw how much water got splashed around. I pretty much got soaked while doing this, but I didn't mind because it was about 90 degrees outside.

I wanted to power-wash these drawer boxes from the underside because the water drained better. When I tried just laying the boxes facing up, they would fill up with wash waster, and some of the stripper residue would stay behind. It seems to me that it's important to make sure the water drains off immediately.

No Power Washer?

Before I bought this little 1200 PSI electric power washer I had stripped some stained wood trim and used a garden hose to wash off the stripper. It worked okay, but I had to scrub the wood with a stiff-bristled brush while washing. Power-washing is much easier. It might be worth renting or borrowing a small power washer if you have a large amount of stripping to do.


Warning About Power Washers:

At 1200 PSI, the power washer I used is the lowest pressure machine I have ever seen. Be aware that gas-powered power washers often develop MUCH higher pressures, often 2,000 to 3,000 PSI. While these high-powered machines will do the job quicker, they can also tear up the wood if you get the nozzle too close. Also, the high-powered washers take a lot more effort to hold onto, and you might find your arms getting tired. My little power washer that I bought a couple of years ago at Big Lots had the perfect power level for this job.


Stripping The Dresser Case:

We laid a sheet of plastic on the lawn and set the dresser on a couple of blocks of wood to keep it off the ground.

Setting up work area to apply finish stripper to old furniture.


Applying chemical paint stripper with a brush.

We applied stripper to the sides with a paint brush.


Then we scrubbed...

Scrubbing furniture stripper with a plastic-bristled brush.


Rinsing chemical stripper with a power washer.

...and power-washed.

Note that I should have been wearing safety glasses in the above pictures. (I took them off to set up the camera, but I forgot to put them back on... honest!) Eye protection needs to be taken seriously. It's really easy to get paint stripper splashed in your face. If you get chemical stripper in your eyes, flush them with water and seek medical attention. Don't takes chances with your eyesight.

Lori and I worked together to apply stripper to the front...

Applying chemical furniture stripper with a brush to front of dresser.


Applying chemical furniture finish stripper with a brush.

...and top.

We found it was really easy to splash each other with paint stripper, which irritates the skin on contact. Be careful when working with another person... and wear eye protection!


Scrubbing The Top:

We used a floor brush to scrub the stripper. Being a larger brush, this worked faster, but it required more effort.

Scrubbing furniture stripper chemical with a plastic-bristled floor brush.


Furniture tipped on angle to dry after washing off stripping chemical.

After power washing the entire unit, we tipped it forward to let the water drain. I also set up a large fan to blow on the dresser, which helped dry it faster.

After drying for a couple of hours, we moved the dresser and drawers into the garage and let them dry overnight with a couple of fans blowing on them.

The day after we stripped the dresser, I moved it into the sun to dry completely.

I strapped the dresser to a mover's dolly to make it easier to move.

Furniture after stain, varnish or lacquer has been stripped.


Residue left behind from furniture stripper chemicals.

After drying, there was some white "sludge" on the surfaces.


This patch of sludge on the face frame was the worst... but it came off with some light sanding.

Residue left behind after finish has been stripped.


Continue to Step 2: Sanding and Surface Preparation.

Read Warnings And Cautions Below

More Info:

Tools Used:
  • Electric Power Washer, 1200 PSI
  • Old Paint Brushes, 2"
  • Scrub Brushes with Plastic Bristles
  • Plastic Paint Cups
  • Small Garden Sprayer, Hand-Held
  • Sawhorses
  • Wire Shelving
  • Safety Glasses
Materials Used:
  • Chemical Paint Stripper Containing Methylene Chloride, About 1 Gallon
  • Rubbing Alcohol, About 4 Quarts
  • Plastic Sheets
Related Articles:


Warnings And Cautions:

Working with chemical paint stripper, or even natural-based stripper products, can pose some hazards.

1) Paint stripping chemicals must be kept away from your skin. If you get stripper or the residue on your skin, wash it off immediately. Wear eye protection.

2) Follow the stripper manufacturers directions.

3) Use with LOTS of ventilation. Work outdoors if possible, or at least open several windows and use fans to move fresh air into one window and another to push stale air out another window. Avoid breathing the fumes from chemical paint stripper, this website includes Methylene Chloride in a list of substances "Reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens". However... methylene chloride appears to be ranked as less carcinogenic than alcoholic beverages and wood dust, which they list as "known carcinogens". Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn't have drank all that beer while I sanded the wood in Part 2 of this project.



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Written January 11, 2009