Stripping a finish
I want to remove the clear finish from a piece of furniture. What is the best chemical to use? This isn't a valuable antique, merely an old table that's showing wear.
—Brian Greene, Monrovia, Calif.
As a first step, Brian, do a little detective work to determine the furniture finish. Lightly dampen a cloth with denatured alcohol, and gently rub a spot about 1" in diameter. After about 15 seconds, see if the finish has softened and is transferring to the cloth. If it does, the finish is shellac. If not, repeat the process with lacquer thinner. A softened finish this time identifies furniture with a lacquer finish. If the finish is still intact, it's some type of varnish.
Denatured alcohol and plenty of rags will completely remove a shellac finish. You may want to speed the process with a synthetic abrasive pad, such as a green Scotchbrite. Substitute lacquer thinner as the solvent, and you can strip lacquered furniture. For varnish removal, use a more aggressive solvent such as Formby's Furniture Refinisher. If that fails, you'll need a paint stripper. In any case, make this an outdoor project with plenty of ventilation, and invest in a respirator, protective gloves, and eyewear.