Wood Refinishing: Sometimes You Need the Big Guns

By Bernie Bottens | Posted: 12/26/2012 10:00AM


Bernie Bottens woodworkingnetwork wood finishing   Last week’s installment didn’t come off the way I had envisioned it. No matter how many times I proof read my work before sending it to my editor, there is something about seeing it in print (or online) that shifts the perspective. In this particular case, the perspective was changed by the headline.

Two years ago, when I started writing on the subject of wood finishing for professional cabinetmakers and industrial finishers, my goal was to provide some light in, what I perceived as, a dimly lit room. I am honored to have the support of Vance Publishing and to be able to write an article for them of my choosing every week.

But the internet is the internet. The vast quantity of information on it is available to all…professional and amateur alike. So I hope that you professionals and knowledgeable finishers and builders will forgive me for having taken the time and space to write a warning about using the stripping concoction I suggested to you last week.

I did not want to hear that someone had taken to stripping something in their garage with the door shut tight and have them blow themselves to kingdom come when the water heater or the furnace ignited the fumes. That’s not what I meant by providing light in a dimly lit room and I don’t want such a thing happening on my watch.

Chemicals such as acetone, toluene, and methanol are flammable. Of that there is no question. Yet, they are available in quantity in the paint department of any big box home store as well as on the shelves of any paint store. They are there for those who need them.

But you may be hard pressed to find finishes based upon those chemicals on the shelves at the big boxes. And paint stores cater to both the home owner and the professional painters. But, by and large, the home owner will leave the harsh chemicals alone because they stink and they are hard to work with. Yet, they are the stock and trade of the professional finisher.

So here comes Bernie suggesting a professional-grade stripper that is an alternative to the methylene chloride-based strippers that the pros use. This one will melt the shellac and take it off with a chip brush instead of a scraper. And, for the record, Frank, The Duke of DuraVar, detests using a metal scraper on his antique refinishing projects. It’s just not good to use sharp instruments on delicate wood creations. If he can, he’ll melt the finish off instead of scraping it off.

Yes, I did that. I did that to let you pros out there know that there is an alternative that was suggested in both my conversations with friends who are pros at stripping and refinishing. I consider Frank and Dave to be my mentors.

Why bring all this up, you ask? Well, one of the things that I profess is that shops that diversify have a better chance of survival over the long term than those who do not. Tool Time Bernie tries at every opportunity to give you the tools that you need to survive in this economy. Some ideas about how to strip something may come in handy someday soon. I’m here to put new tools in your tool belt and create more light in your room.

Certainly, my stripper isn’t going to work on any finish that is very robust. If you have to strip a conversion varnish or a two-component urethane or any of a number of really chemically resistant modern finishes, then you will be out looking for a gallon of aircraft or epoxy stripper. Then, it’s time to bring on the big guns because nothing else will come close. Frank and Dave are also in agreement on that point as well.

Enough said.

The Singer sewing machine sits in my garage this week. As I said in my last installment, the next step will be repairing the veneer. I am almost done with that. But, life being what it is, I’m also almost done decorating the Christmas tree and putting the house in order for the Holidays. Ha!

I’m certain that we will be talking in our next installment about bleaching wood. I have been to two paint stores this week to find two different wood bleaches. I hope to be able to discuss that as my Christmas Week installment.

Until next time…spray on!

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About the Author

Bernie Bottens

Bernie Bottens (WoodworkingNetwork.com/blogs)writes and teaches on the subject of wood and wood finishing in industrial woodworking. He and his wife, Carol, live in Vancouver, WA. Bernie has been teaching wood finishing to shop owners, shop foremen, spray technicians and finishers all over Oregon, southwest Washington, and northern California for the past 9 years. Prior to that, he owned his own cabinet shop. His shop credentials include apprenticing and becoming a journeyman exhibit builder. Before that he taught in the public schools for 20 years. Bernie is the owner of Kapellmeister Enterprises, Inc. and Kap Coatings Consulting. Reach him at kapenterprises@msn.com.

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Vince Bober    
New Hampshire  |  January, 04, 2013 at 12:05 PM

Bernie, I have followed with interest the subject project. You are correct in assuming that amateurs will read your articles. I am one of them who has restored vintage wood boats and vintage veneered furniture. I respectfully disagree with some of your approach. Wouldn't a professional refinish shop use a dip tank to remove finishes? You mentioned in the first article that that you were going to re-glue joints and repair lifted veneer prior to stripping, yet in the second article, after stripping, you talked about making these repairs. Aren't the glue surfaces very difficult to properly clean after stripping, especially under the lifting veneer? I would also be concerned about damaging the lifted veneer. For one piece of furniture, why not use a commercial stripper from Home Depot, Lowes, or your local hardware store (if you are fortunate enough to have a local store), apply it according to directions and then cover it with plastic(saran) wrap and let the stripper do the hard work. The shortened bristle chip brush is great for intricate and curves surfaces, but, as an amateur I have no problem with carefully using a properly sharpened scraper on flat surfaces. A last remark, do most amateurs (or even some industrial workers) understand that a respirator is not a dust mask? Thank you for reading this. Respectfully, Vince Bober

Bernie Bottens    
Vancouver, WA  |  January, 04, 2013 at 12:10 PM

Vince, Okay, you got me! I didn't repair the veneer first as I had originally planned. Time got away from me and the need to move forward so that I could continue to write became an issue. I waited until I had the pieces stripped to do that. As far as a dip tank, I suppose that there are large stripping operations that use such a thing. The guys that I hang out with use a large metal tray of some kind just to keep the mess contained. My imitation of that was to buy the plastic washing machine tray at The Home Depot. It really saved me from making a mess in my garage as I worked on this project. F.Y.I., there is a smaller version that is available in the plumbing department. It is used under water heaters and would be great for small projects. Yes, your technique of using a regular stripper would be another way to proceed. I just tried to offer an alternative to that. Both of my mentors mentioned the lacquer thinner/acetone/methanol version. I decided to try it just for the experience of doing something different because both my guys volunteered that information out of the blue. If I were to use a methylene chloride-based stripper from Home Depot, etc, I would have proceeded exactly as you suggested. The plastic keeps the methylene chloride, a very volatile chemical from evaporating. Thus, its effect is maximized. As far as knowing the difference between a dust mask and a respirator, your guess is a good as mine! I have no idea. I think that the pros know the difference. Guys working in my area all use proper respirators. Whether or not the filters are fresh and functional is another matter that I don't want to get into!


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