Prep. It's probably everyone's least favourite part of the job, but starting with a perfectly prepared surface is absolutely essential to getting a beautiful, long-lasting result when refinishing furniture.
It’s a part of upcycling that can get overlooked, especially as some paints have in the past (and some still) promote the ‘No Prep’ idea, which is perhaps ok for a quick paint job at home but not the right way to go about getting a high quality finish that will stand the test of time whether in your own home or for your customers.
Issues like paint & finishes pulling up, bubbling, staying sticky, or drying patchy may be blamed on products used along the line when the problem can often be traced back to something amiss in the prep department.
As the old saying goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. And that goes double for you masking tape designers out there! There really is no such thing as No Prep.
It’s one thing prepping to paint a piece, where a good clean and scuff sand can be enough, but if you are planning to reveal the wood and keep it on show and perhaps even add a design over it, you need to ensure you’ve got a perfectly stripped surface to work on.
You could use several methods, including an electric sander, heat gun, or cabinet scraper. However, when you’re removing varnish from veneer, the wood you’re working with is very old and can be delicate. If you go too hard with a scraper or electric sander, you could potentially cause damage.
And that’s where paint strippers come in.
Some people just don’t like them, but I use them a lot, mainly because they’re quick and easy to use and, vitally, the process is gentle, so the damage to the furniture is minimal.
They can help get into the grain to lift old stains and finish out much better than merely scraping the surface.
Also, I have to say I find removing old varnish this way is super satisfying!
But the big question always seems to be which paint stripper is the best for the job?
In this video, I tested and compared three strippers, from the cheapest and most ‘toxic’ through to a more expensive, water-based brand that’s kinder to the environment and your health and then a mid-priced one that is just about the gentlest, kindest stripping product on the market.
The first stripper I looked at is a basic paint stripper called No Nonsense by Screwfix, but I’m pretty sure that both Wilko and B&Q’s version might actually be the same product.
So this particular stripper costs around £5 per litre, which is very reasonable. The downside is, it contains Benzyl Alcohol, which is toxic. It’s not biodegradable either, so don’t go pouring it down the sink, and be sure to wear gloves and a mask. And although it smells like almonds, don’t sniff it too closely either!
The second stripper I tested was Auntentico bio-strip. It’s lower toxicity than the Screwfix brand; it’s free of solvents, low odour, a water-based product, and it’s biodegradable. It costs £15.95 for 500ml.
So, straight away, that’s a big jump in price, and if you’re selling refinished furniture, you would have to think carefully about the price if you used a pot of that each time.
The final stripper I compared was Homestrip. A paint and varnish remover primarily for home use, which is £7.95 for 500ml and 12.95 for a litre. It’s non-toxic, PH neutral, and VOC free, which means there’s no need for ventilation or protective gear.
All of that sounds great, but will it be as effective as the others than contain more chemicals?
So, the next step was to put the three strippers to the test.
Something to bear in mind is that strippers perform differently depending on the finish of your piece of furniture. For the comparison, I used all three on the same veneer (two cabinet doors) and applied all three in the same way, in an even thick layer.
The first thing that I noticed was the application.
- No-Nonsense: It was very opaque, built up to a thick layer easily, and appeared to activate quickly
- Authentico: Smelled similar to the first but went on very differently. It was clear and quite runny, which made it harder to get down a consistent layer.
- Homestrip: It was opaque and had the textured of smooth wallpaper paste - it clung to the surface pretty well, so it was easy to apply thickly.
All of the products indicate that they can remove particular finishes in as little as 30 mins.
In my experience of using the basic brand, I’ve found it consistently more effective if left for longer - up to an hour - and possibly with a second application for an additional hour to ensure full and easy removal.
But going by the label, I left the products for just over half an hour first of all and then went back to see how they were getting on:
- No-Nonsense: It came off relatively easy but was quite runny and messy.
- Authentico: It came off well but was quite gooey and drippy.
- Homestrip: Came off relatively dry and quickly. It wasn’t runny, which made it easier to scrape off and then wipe the scraper clean.
So what’s the verdict?
Overall, each of the strippers handled the removal well. In less than an hour, I’d removed the varnish with each of the products; however, I did have to do quite a bit of sanding after cleaning the products away and left the door to dry to finish the job properly.
I think leaving it for the full hour before doing a check and possibly applying a bit more to be super sure could cut down on some of that work.
My overall favourite to use was the eco-friendly Homestrip. I have to say that I was surprised because I’d assumed that a product that was more friendly to the environment and your health would have done an inferior job to one of the more toxic brands. It was by far the easiest to remove, too, with no drips or sticky goo to deal with - which is one of the worst things about the job!
But ultimately, it’s up to you. If you want to go cheaper, just make sure you wear gloves and a mask and work in a well-ventilated area.
I'd love to see how you get on with your own stripping ;) Tag me in your posts @doneupnorth
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