How to Strip Wood Surfaces

Feb 1, 2021 | Furniture FAQs and Tips | 4 comments

Stripping the original finish from wood surfaces yields the most beautiful results! My favorite chemical stripper is Citristrip. This stripping gel uses the power of oranges to strip multiple layers of paint and varnish. Because it’s a gel, it clings well to vertical surfaces and stays active for up to 24 hours. It’s safe to use inside and doesn’t have any harsh fumes, which is why it’s my go-to stripping product.

By using Citristrip as your chemical stripper and having a bit of patience, you can reveal the beauty of natural wood on your next project.

How to Strip Furniture With Citristrip

Why Should I Use Citristrip?

There are lots of chemical strippers on the market today. Some are a bit caustic (will burn your skin) than others. Citristrip is a bit more gentle. This chemical stripping gel uses the power of oranges to strip multiple layers of paint and varnish. Because it’s a gel, it clings well to vertical surfaces and stays active for up to 24 hours. It’s also safe to use inside and doesn’t have any harsh fumes, which is why it’s my go-to stripping product.

There are other low odor indoor use strippers on the market that you can try. I haven’t used them, so I can’t speak to their effectiveness. Here at Eight Hundred Furniture, I blog about the products that I know, use, like and trust.

Citristrip is one of them!

How Do I Use Citristrip?

Step 1 – Wear Safety Gear When Applying Citristrip

The first thing you want to do is get your safety gear ready. Protect your hands with chemical-resistant gloves and wear chemical splash goggles to protect your eyes.

Even though Citristrip isn’t as caustic as other chemical strippers, you should still wear protective gear.

You’ll also want to lay down some sort of tarp or plastic sheeting under your project. You don’t want to accidentally splash some on your floor – especially if you’re working inside. Take it from a girl who started her business in her living room!

Step 2 – Test Previously Painted Surfaces for Lead Paint

If you are removing paint, you should test it for lead before you begin work. You can get a lead test from your local hardware store in the paint aisle. There are different options to choose from and if you’re unsure what to buy, ask the person in the paint aisle to help you.

Lead Paint Test Kit

If your surface tests positive for the presence of lead, you’ll need to refer to the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines regarding lead paint. I’m not a lead expert, so I refer people to them. In full disclosure, this is why I don’t work on pieces that are previously painted. I don’t want to mess with lead paint, so I skip over them entirely.

Step 3 – Apply Citristrip

Squirt some Citristrip on your piece and smooth it out using a junky paint brush.

This one is from the dollar store.

Watch for drips along ledges as you’re applying the Citristrip. (This is why I recommend using a tarp.)

You want to spread the stripper out as evenly as you can. Try to make the surface as evenly orange/pink as possible. You don’t want to be stingy with CItristrip. Any thin spots won’t strip well and you may have to repeat the process.

Step 3 – Be Patient and Let Citristrip Work!

This is the step where most people quit too soon. They don’t wait long enough for Citristrip to work through the layers of varnish, paint, stain, etc. If it’s removed too soon, you’ll be left with a half-stripped surface.

How long it takes to work will vary in its working time. It depends on what you’re removing. Thick layers of paint may take a while while one layer of varnish and stain will work faster.

Make sure you read the label on the Citristrip bottle to see what the manufacturer recommends.

In my experience, I’m usually removing original stain and varnish. I let mine sit for about 30 minutes and then I check a small area. If it seems to be coming up easily, then I move on to the next stage. If it feels tacky and there’s a lot of resistance, then the stripper isn’t ready.

Some folks like to lay down plastic wrap to keep the Citristrip from drying as it works. I’ve tried this and it’s a good technique if you need to step away from your project for a chunk of time.

Step 4 – Removing Citristrip

Using a plastic putty knife, begin scraping off the Citristrip.

putty kinfe

I suggest using something plastic so you don’t accidentally gouge a nick in your wood. I’ve accidentally done that before! In addition to a putty knife, you may need to use smaller tools like toothbrushes or a wooden cuticle pusher to wiggle stripper out of hard-to-reach areas. If you can’t remove all of it at this point, don’t worry – the next step will take care of what’s left!

Cleaning the Stripped Surface with Mineral Spirits

After you’ve removed most of the chemical stripper “goo”, it’s time to clean the surface. I like using Odorless Mineral Spirits and Extra Fine 0000 Steel Wool. (Note: Steel wool is not the same thing as a Brillo pad. Brillo pads have blue soap in them, so don’t use those. Trust me!)

The mineral spirits will help to remove the stubborn “goo” that’s left. The steel wool will act as a gentle scrubber.

You will need multiple steel wool pads for this step. I like to unroll mine and re-fold them as I go.

If you need to scrub stripper out of detailed areas, dip a junk toothbrush in Mineral Spirits and scrub them clean, just like brushing your teeth! Again, this requires patience. Take your time and use whatever tools are needed to remove the stripper.

After your piece is clean, let it dry for 24 hours. This gives the Mineral Spirits a chance to evaporate completely.

Chemical Stripping May Require Multiple Rounds

Depending on the thickness of the layers you are attempting to remove, you may need to repeat the steps listed above more than once. It’s not uncommon and will lead to better results if you’re patient. The thicker the finish, the more you’ll have to repeat rounds of stripping.

See the oak table peeking out from the left side of this photo? It was a Craig’s List find and it had 5 LAYERS of paint on it! It took me weeks to strip, clean and sand this piece. Despite all of that work, there were still some lingering stubborn spots that I had to make peace with eventually.

Depression era console cabinet

There are more caustic chemical strippers on the market that will eat through multiple layers faster. They come with a laundry list of safety concerns though, so I would personally rather use something safe.

Of course, it’s totally your call in the end.

Follow a Sanding Schedule

Once your surface is completely dry and free of chemical stripper, it’s time to follow what’s called a “sanding schedule“. This is basically a progression from an aggressive grit to a finer grit.

End-grains (areas where the wood has been cut against the grain), such as the top ledges of tables, tend to soak up more stain. Give end-grain areas an additional sanding to better balance the absorption of stain.

I have created a handy guide to help you know what grit to use when you’re sanding. It organizes your sanding schedules and explains which grits you should use for different species of woods like oak, alder and maple.

You can grab the guide by clicking on the picture below.

Apply Your Stain of Choice

After your piece is sanded to the correct finishing grit (see my guide above), it’s time to apply your stain of choice!

I personally recommend General Finishes line of oil and water based wood stains. They come in gorgeous shades and provide consistently beautiful results.

For information on how to apply General Finishes Water Based Wood Stains, check out their Water Based Wood Stain playlist on their YouTube channel! It’s jammed packed with informational videos.

General Finishes Water Based Wood Stain in Antique Brown

If you’re interested in using their Oil Based Gel Stains, you can view their playlist here.

Ash Gray Gel Stain General Finishes Oil Based

Here are some projects I have created in the past using these beautiful wood stains! Click the photos to visit the corresponding blog posts.

Nutmeg Gel Stained tops sealed in High Performance Topcoat in Satin, Eight Hundred Furniture
Nightstands in General Finishes China Blue Milk Paint with Nutmeg Gel Stain
Refinished tops of nightstands using Ash Gray Gel Stain and Van Dyke Brown Glaze Effects by General Finishes, Eight Hundred Furniture
Nightstands in Empire Gray Milk Paint with Ash Gray Gel Stain
Graystone Water Based Wood Stain on reclaimed oak top of antique table in Driftwood Milk Paint
Writing desk in Driftwood Milk Paint by General Finishes with Graystone Water Based Wood Stain

Learn How to Strip and Stain Wood – Online Course

Looking for a more in-depth tutorial on how to chemically strip and re-stain wood surfaces?

You’re in luck!

My online course takes you through the process one step at a time. With 21 informational videos and lots of helpful handouts, you’ll be ready to tackle your refinishing project in no time!

The topics in this course include but are not limited to how you:

  • apply chemical stripper
  • remove and clean chemical stripper from the surface
  • follow a sanding schedule
  • apply water and oil based wood stains
  • apply water and oil based topcoats
  • dispose of oil based products
  • deal with projects that don’t strip well and can’t be stained

Learn more by clicking the image below! I’d love to learn online with you!

How to Strip Wood and Refinish With Wood Stains

Whether you join me in my online course or stick to this blog tutorial, I can’t wait to see what projects you create!

How to Strip Furniture With Citristrip

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I'm Jenn Baker - Milk Paint lover, photographer, blogger, and QVC Guest Host. Click below to learn more about me and my creative business.  LEARN MORE ABOUT JENN

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