Woodwork – Stripping, Staining and Waxing Wood

Bonjour mes Chéries!

In this blog post I’ll be going over how to strip, stain and wax wooden surfaces so strap on – it’s about to get hot and sticky!

Recently I have been restoring  some antique cupboard doors, window pains and door frames that had been painted over several times in the past century, all situated in the spare bedroom of ours.  Although my project is quite specific, these techniques could just as well be adapted to restoring furniture or any other wooden surfaces including wood veneer.  Wood restoration is not at all as difficult as it sounds and there are loads of excellent resources available on YouTube, my personal favourite being Dashner Design & Restoration, to help you get started.  This lad does easy to follow, no-nonsense videos, mostly restoring mid-century furniture and I would definitely recommend a peek for a total novice before attempting your own DIY project.  Seeing how the magic happens does make it a lot easier to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on whatever products you may use.

Here’s a few images of what I had to work with: layers upon layers of paint, broken door panels and awkward corners, especially around the window that could not be lifted out of its frame without braking the pains.  Even after rudimentary paint removal, lots old varnish, specs of paint and general gunk remained on the wood.  To restore all of this woodwork I needed to get most of that out, repair broken pieces and completely refinish the lot.

 

 

Now then, let’s get stripping – grab your weapons:

  • A pair of sturdy gloves (mine are thick latex, as I found out white spirit eats through rubber)
  • Chemical paint stripper (I use an acetone based bad boy called Decapex, but a good “nontoxic” alternative is a product called Citristrip)
  • Brush (nothing too fancy, but nothing that would leave behind too much hair either)
  • Scrapers – good to have a few different sizes, but I’ve made do just with one.
  • Rags or sturdy paper towels
  • White Spirit
  • Wire brush
  • Steel wool
  • Sand paper (120 grit or finer if you are restoring furniture)
  • Tub/container (for the scrapings)
  • Stain of your liking (liquid or gel)
  • Wax, oil, varnish or polyurethane to finish.

Just to kick things off, I started my project by lifting as much paint as I could with a heat gun.  Cheating, you may say, but in my view this is the most efficient way to start the rodeo.  If you wish, paint stripper works just as well – it will, however, take quite a bit more time than removing just the paint residue and varnish.

How to apply the stripper varies a bit whether you use the standard or nontoxic product, so do read the instructions on your tin.  My method here is a pretty standard one:  Apply a generous layer of stripping agent on the piece you wish to clean and let it sit anywhere between 3 to 30 minutes.  (Citristrip – 30min to overnight)  Keep going over the surface with your brush to stop the goop from drying and keep applying more product as needed.  Needing to clear up mere residue, the Decapex took effect in around 10 minutes. You can actually feel the surface getting tacky when the paint is ready to come off although different types of paints react differently to the chemical stripping: you can expect bubbling, flaking or running where as heavy lacquer will change from clear to opaque or appear murky yellow in colour.

It is vital you take care of good ventilation or wear a respirator, unless you want to fly high as a kite for the rest of the day – or choose a nontoxic product.  Either-or, don’t take this warning too lightly as these chemicals are harmful.  And trust me here, I got my adult voice on.  When managed properly, acetone based strippers are perfectly safe to use, but not fun to breathe in.  Safety first, kiddos… safety first!

Now, where was I…

Once you think the stripper has done its duty, grab your scraper and with long, steady strokes get rid of as much stripper gunk as possible.  Use a wire brush to remove the build up from grooves and dips in the wood.  You can also try lifting stubborn spots with the aid of bit more stripper and brushing the whole area thoroughly, always going along the grain to avoid scratching the wood.  Follow up with a piece of steel wool generously doused in white spirit to get rid of the rest of the stripper and wipe the wood clean with a rag.  As you can see from the before and afters below, the effects of the stripper are pretty dramatic, just comparing the two panels, one stripped with just a heat gun and the other with the paint/varnish residue removed.  Some repairs were also in order, which I did having already used the paint stripper as dexapex also eats through glue.

 

As I am dealing with antique wood, I did not see a reason to get rid of every mote of paint or each miniscule stain – at the end of the day those are just additional character.  However, if you are going for a fully clean slate look, you might need to repeat the procedure before leaving the project to dry, overnight if possible.  Same attitude of preservation applies to sanding: sand too thoroughly and you erase all the lovely patina, sand naught and your stain may not absorb properly.  So be restrained, try sanding by hand if you’re not sure what to expect from an orbital sander and use a fine grit of 120 or higher.

When it comes to colouring wood, there are an array of stains nowadays, most commonly in either liquid or gel form.  I personally prefer a good old water soluble liquid stain as I feel using it gives me more control over the gel stains that you apply thickly on the surface, leave to sit and wipe off the excess with a rag or a paper towel.  Liquid stain can be applied with a sponge, rag or a brush and layering gives the colour its final depth.  You can mix and match hues with ease or stick with a pre-mix.  I wanted to replicate and existing tint and had to mix two different hues to achieve it, chêne dorée and teak.  In passing, I would absolutely recommend testing the colour on a scrap piece of wood before going whole hog at it, (YES, I learned this the hard way a few years ago!) and building up your colour with several thin coats until the desired depth is achieved.

Pro tip – gently moisten the surface you are staining with a damp cloth for extra even stain, especially if you are using the gel variety.  Also, glove up – as you can see above, I had a little puncture in my rubber ones and had to live with horror fingers for a whole week.  Not my most flattering manicure, but admittedly, not the worst I’ve ever had either!

This deep golden hue I went for is as close as I could get to the original finish on these old oak cupboard doors.  The window pane, also oak and the second original element remaining in this room from the early 1900’s, would have had a similar colouring.  The door frame with its lovely panelled door are made of pine and much newer, but I chose to blend them in with the older woodwork.  I could have spared myself the effort of stripping out the fire place mantel as it was in pretty good nick, but as neither I nor my husband were too keen on the dark mahogany finish it made sense to refinish it to match the rest of the woodwork.

Unless you are using an oil based stain, a coloured wax or polyurethane, standard water soluble stain should take about an hour to four hours to dry thoroughly, after which you are ready to apply your chosen finish.  And please do, stain itself does very little beyond colouring the wood – without a protective finish the newly cleaned surface is easily scraped, damaged by moisture and collects dust like crazy.  I can’t stress this enough – not top coating your stained wood is like leaving the house in the winter without your shoes on.  Or driving around in the rain with the boot open.  Just don’t do it, OK – nothing stinks like cheap DIY to me than non-finished woodwork!  Personally, I prefer wax.  It has got a nice little sheen about it and it is easily applied.  If you prefer a high gloss finish, I would recommend an oil based varnish over polyurethane, but that is just my preference as a die-hard traditionalist.  Either does the job and protects your wood for years to come.

 

In preparation for the wax, lightly sand the piece, again with a high grit sandpaper and a feather light touch.  The product can be applied with a smooth brush, foam brush or a rag and takes around an hour to dry between each coat.  Once you are happy with the build-up, leave your project to sit for a few more hours, ideally overnight and buff all over with cloth.  My chosen product this time was Liberon’s antique style black bison clear wax that was a delight to apply.  You will need to clean your tools with white spirit, but that’s the only hassle with waxing, compared to heavier treatments like varnish or polyurethane that stick like shit to a blanket and take years to clean from the equipment.

 

So there you have it.  Don’t forget to treat yourself to a few videos on You Tube about wood finishing, it is not only incredibly relaxing, but makes it a lot easier to visualise each step I have just outlined.  Although this gargantuan effort of refinishing every single wooden surface of our spare room turned out pretty damn well, in hind sight, I would absolutely have done it before painting the walls and the panelling.  Uups.  What can I say – live and learn.  I suppose we had no intention of going this far with our little renovation project, after all, it was supposed to be a cheap and cheerful makeover before my mum arrived on her holidays in the beginning of last June.  Another uuuups.

C’est la vie!

I am a perfectionist, there are no doubts about that, and it feels pretty nice to do something properly in this old house of mine. And hold your horses – these are indeed the finishing touches before I finally get to crack on with that ghastly tiled floor!  I have waited a long time for this and nothing in the realms of gods and men can stop me now!

Let me know how you get on with your DIY projects.

Until next time, à tout à l’heure ! xxx

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