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How to remove varnish or a wood stain

Updated February 21, 2017

If you own an unsightly piece of wooden furniture, you can restore it to its former beauty by removing the stains and varnish from the wood. Varnish and paint stains may be difficult to remove; however, the right varnish remover will do the job and lead you on your way to restoring your wood furniture.

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  1. Select a varnish remover that doesn't contain paraffin. Paraffin is a waxy substance that softens the varnish when applied to wood. It is highly toxic and not quite as effective at removing the varnish, as often you will have to apply turpentine to the wood to further remove the varnish. The best type of varnishes are those labelled as "water-rinsing" or "wash-away" because you don't have to scrape away the wax once it has been applied.

  2. Remove any handles, hinges or locks from the wood furniture.

  3. Wipe down the wood furniture with a wet sponge or cloth. Tear off any pieces of tape or upholstery if there are any.

  4. Place the wood furniture on top of a plastic tarp or cloth in an area where you have a lot of space to work with. Varnish remover can produce toxic smells, so it is best to do it outside if possible, or in a basement or garage. Open all windows if you can.

  5. Dip a paintbrush in the varnish remover and apply it in swift brush strokes on the flat piece of the furniture. You can also pour a little bit of the varnish remover on the wood and use the brush to distribute it. Add more varnish remover as you go along.

  6. Cover the wood furniture with aluminium foil to deter the varnish remover from evaporating.

  7. Wait about 30 minutes. You can work on another section of wood while you are waiting for the varnish remover to do its job. The wood should look bubbly and have cracks in it after this time.

  8. Put on a pair of rubber gloves and start scraping off the varnish with a wide-bladed putty knife if you used a wax-based varnish remover. Do this until you've stripped away all the varnish from the wood.

  9. Apply water to medium-fine steel wood to peel away the varnish if you are using a wash-away varnish remover. Dry the area off with a towel or cloth and let the area dry for several days.

  10. Tip

    Wear a face mask and rubber gloves to protect your skin from the toxic fumes of varnish remover.

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Things You'll Need

  • Varnish remover
  • Aluminium foil
  • Mask
  • Rubber gloves
  • Paintbrush
  • Wide-bladed putty knife
  • Sponge
  • Cloth

About the Author

Krista Martin has been writing professionally since 2005. She has written for magazines, newspapers and websites including Live Listings, "Homes & Living" magazine and the "Metro Newspaper." Martin holds an honors Bachelor of Arts in English from Memorial University of Newfoundland and a Master of Journalism from the University of Westminster.

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