DIY: Stripping Furniture Varnish

When I first moved into the flat almost a year ago, the living room was still a building site, so all the living room furniture was stored in the garage. 

What I didn't know when I did that, was that the roof leaked.

I worked this out pretty quickly, but not before the top my Ercol dining table was damaged. The water sat on the surface of the table and it left a big watermark with some black mold marks all across the centre.

Before and after

Before and after

Lucky for me my mum has quite a bit of experience restoring furniture, so she suggested we strip the varnish back to see if it helped. It wasn't a perfect result, the table is made out of Elm which is quite porous so the water got into the wood and the stain goes right through the depth of the top. There is no way to remove the stain completely, but I much prefer the lighter colour and stripping varnish is soooo satisfying. 

Sofa before

Sofa before

Sofa after, stripped legs and finished upholstery

Sofa after, stripped legs and finished upholstery

We also stripped the legs on the sofa, which also look so much better in a lighter colour. Often with mid-century pieces cheaper, lighter woods were finish in heavy dark varnish to make them look like tropical hardwood. Now those "cheaper" woods are actually as desirable because solid wood of any species is so much better than MDF. There are some beautiful pieces to be had with a bit of elbow grease.

If you want to have a go yourself (and I recommend that you do), here's the method we used.


You will need

  • Disposable latex gloves
  • Paint stripper. Black Friars is Mum’s brand of preference. It’s gentler than Nitromors which is the big brand name in (that kind of) strippers
  • Old paint brush (you’ll be chucking this later)
  • Metal scrapers (Poundland does some scrapers in their DIY section which are really thin and flexible. And only £1 for 5 of them)
  • Newpaper
  • Wire wool, in grades 00, 000 and 0000
  • Methylated spirit
  • Furniture wax (the cream kind that comes in a tin), we used clear
  • Soft cotton cloth (something that is disposable as you won’t get the wax out, an old t-shirt or something would be perfect)

There’s a lot of materials here for which initial outlay could be expensive (Mum came with supplies, lucky me!). Depending on how much you have to do, or if you’re doing more than one thing, it would pay off in the end. 


Method:

Take item outside (because the stripper stinks and isn't very good for you to inhale in an enclosed space).

Put on your disposable latex gloves, pour the striper into a glass container (metal and plastic can react with the chemicals) and paint on with a brush.

Painting on the paint stripper

Painting on the paint stripper

Wait a 1-2min and then scrape off the old varnish going in the direction of the wood grain, wiping the goop off on a piece of doubled up newspaper as you go along. When we did the table, we did sections about A3 size and by the time you’ve finished painting on the stripper the first bit you painted is ready to be scraped off. Sections that aren’t flat (like the edges of the table) we rubbed with 00 grade wire wool rather than scraping; hold taught across the curve and saw/file with the wire wool kind of like drying your back with a towel (!)

Scrape . . .

Scrape . . .

In the direction of the grain . . .

In the direction of the grain . . .

Until it collects on the blade . . .

Until it collects on the blade . . .

So you dump the residue on your newspaper

So you dump the residue on your newspaper

Repeat until you’ve been over everything you want stripped once and see what you think. We did the table twice because the varnish was pretty thick in places, but we probably over did it a bit. You can also patch treat places where you need a bit more varnish removed, rather than having to go over everything.

Leave to dry a bit (we went off and had lunch)

Wipe down with methylated spirits and 000 grade wire wool to take off any residue (mum also said if it’s a delicate piece this might be enough to take it back to the wood alone)

A rub down with methylated spirit cleans off any residual varnish and paint stipper

A rub down with methylated spirit cleans off any residual varnish and paint stipper

Apply furniture wax with grade 0000 wire wool. Leave to soak in/harden (it will suck up a certain amount, you will have stripped out some of the oils in the process and the wood will want something back into its pores) and buff off excess with soft cloth.

You might want to do this stage inside. We applied the wax outside but realised it wasn’t soaking in because it was a bit too cold, so took it back in and I left it overnight to warm though/soak in and buffed in the morning.

Table before, with the water mark

Table before, with the water mark

Table after, with a bit less of a water mark

Table after, with a bit less of a water mark

Enjoy your revived furniture with it's new, modern look!