Thursday, 2 September 2010

Happy How-to | Stripping varnish

I've always had an interest in DIY, I grew up around lots of bits of wood and tools and things. My dad is very much of the kind who Does Not Share and despite me hanging around while he was working I was often given short shrift and sent away to do something else. I think that had I been a boy he would have been more willing to pass on some of his knowledge, my mom has told me before that they would have called me Peter! As an adult I have kept my interest, mainly because Mr J has zero desire to do any jobs around the house that don't involve computers. I've gradually built up my own toolbox and learned to do basic things. I've also made a lot of mistakes along the way! I do enjoy it though.

When I started buying bits of furniture to do up I found that information on the internet was very vague and a lot of DIY forums were mostly inhabited by men who liked the sound of their own keyboard. I'm one of those people who prefers to have exact instructions for tasks but despite this I decided to try things out for myself and have found some methods I go back to time and again. I'm certainly not an expert by any stretch but I thought it might be useful for me to post what has worked for me in case it helps anyone else out there.

A lot of items that find their way home with me from car boots and charity shops are made from pine that has been varnished and has since discoloured by taking on an orangey tone and started to gather a build up of ingrained dirt around the edges. It's easy to be put off taking it home because it looks like it would be too much work to sort out.

You can go either of two ways, stripping and refinishing or painting a different colour altogether. Either way it is worth stripping the varnish back to get a good look at what you are dealing with and see if there is anything worth salvaging under there. If you are wanting to repaint you don't have to be as thorough as you would be if you are taking it right back to the bare wood, just enough to give a solid base for the primer to stick to.The first method people (including me!) try is sandpaper,or glasspaper as I was told is the correct term. The downsides to sanding are that the paper gets quickly blocked with varnish meaning you get through a lot. Another is of course you are flattening and smoothing out the wood grain as you go which can take the characteristic markings out of older pieces or you could lose details such as decorative edges if you are too overenthusiastic. Varnish sinks down quite far into the wood grain and it can be hard to get an even result, let alone sand down far enough to get it all off. Finally, sanding is hard work both physically and on your hands!

So if we aren't using sandpaper what can we use? I like to use liquid varnish and paint stripper, the most commonly known is Nitromors. This option can also be expensive but I try to squeeze as much value out of each drop as I can. The cheapest and best remover I have found was actually from Lidl in their homeware aisle along with the washing powders and the like. It is called Baufix and was around £3.99 for a large bottle. I have also had a lot of success with Colron Furniture Stripper though it is a little bit more expensive. It seems to work well on older (pre-1960's) finishes.Here is my demonstration item, as you can see it is very grubby. I have already stripped the lid to show the difference. Ok, because I am impatient!To do this you will need:
Medium Grade steel wool
Liquid paint and varnish stripper
A plastic filler knife or scraper, not metal.
A metal bowl or old baked bean tin, anything that is strong enough to stand holding the old product without melting.
White spirit and old, clean rags
Gloves and possibly a mask and goggles too, though I don't bother if I am outside (naughty me!)
Kitchen towel for wiping hands and spills

Before you start it is best to make sure all children and nosy pets are well out of the way and you are preferably outside in the fresh air. Baufix claims to have a 'pleasant fruit aroma.' It doesn't!

The easiest way to do this is to have the surface you are working on flat in front of you as it lets the stripper soak into the wood and do it's job more effectively. The varnish will have sunk into the grain of the wood and it will help to lift it back out again.Pour a large amount of the stripper on to the centre of the wood and spread it around the section you are working on, rather like buttering some bread. Don't worry too much about drips as they can be sorted afterwards.Leave the stripper to work for around 20 minutes. You can then use the plastic scraper to collect together the stripper which will have congealed into a rather lovely looking stretchy jelly-like substance. Scrape this into your metal container.
Reapply a new layer and continue until the wood begins to look paler. Still orange? Keep going!
You'll start to see the pale wood starting to show through.
Rub gently with steel wool to get the last bits from the corners and details. Run your plastic scraper firmly along the grain of the wood to remove any last bits of stripper and put these in your container too. The wood will be wet and prone to damage which is why I use a plastic scraper instead of metal, less chance of overdoing it and getting scratches.
Steel wool works much better when a surface is dryish so now you can rub along the grain to get rid of the last bits of varnish and gunk. Shake out the steel wool and keep folding and refolding to get the maximum use out of each piece.
Rub down with a rag soaked in a little white spirit.
Leave it to dry before gently sanding off any rough patches that may have cropped up. Usually the wood is nice and smooth and ready for you to add oil, wax or varnish. Dispose of your used stripper into a bin, not down the drain!

Hope that was helpful to someone. I still have a couple of sides of my box to finish. I'm not sure still whether to paint it or apply Danish oil. I've also got a very old antique blanket box. It has never had any finish on it and it is quite dirty and I'm not sure of the best way to deal with it. As it's old I'm worried about making a mess and ruining it. If anyone has any ideas I'd love to hear them.

Ms C

Just a quick edit to say I have visited most of the Lidl branches in my area and can't get any more Baufix in any of them! Quite a shame as it's rather good. As I have a lot of projects in the pipeline I'm ordering in a 5 litre drum in instead.

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