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Chemical Process
Mechanical Process

Tip #45
Finishing Touches
Part 5 of 6 - Refinishing

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The messiest, most dreaded job in all of wood finishing is refinishing - the stripping off of an ancient, ruined finish in preparation for the application of a new one.

Yet, believe it or not, when done properly, it can also be one of the most rewarding jobs in wood finishing. Somewhere under those 37 layers of cracked varnish and wrinkled paint is the patina…a thin layer of beautifully aged wood, just on the surface of your object. If you can carefully strip off the old finish without disturbing this delicate layer, your refinished project will take on a glow and warmth that only the passing years can bestow on the wood.

Two Methods
There are only two ways to strip old finishes from wood - chemically and mechanically. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Chemical stripping is the messiest of the two. With this method, the old finish is coated with a substance that softens it and turns it to a “goo”. Then, you usually remove this “goo” with a putty knife or scraper and try not to get it all over yourself in the process. It may not be “fun”, but chemical stripping is the best way to remove a finish without disturbing the “patina” of the wood. Only the finish comes off - not the wood.

Mechanical stripping with scrapers, sandpaper and sanders is a lot less messy and (if you use a belt sander) sometimes faster. However, you'll have to be extremely careful not to scrape or sand into the patina of the wood. If you do get down to the wood and you find that it starts getting lighter and lighter in color as you go, STOP! When lighter wood shows, it means you've cut through the patina…and that's not good!

By themselves, one method or the other is usually inadequate for most refinishing jobs. Most refinishers use both methods in varying degrees, depending on the project. Let's look at each.

Continue to Chemical Stripping Process

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