Furniture Stripping: to sand or not to sand?
Are you thinking about refinishing that dining table yourself? Why not....go for it! But, before you begin you need to determine what is the best way to strip the piece preparing it for a beautiful new finish. Stripping is probably the part people dislike the most and gives them the most trouble. Sanding the finish off may be the most appealing because many people don't want to deal with the chemical stripper and the mess. Pretty good reasoning, but the question is, is it the best option?
Probably the most important question to determine which method is best is the question of solid wood or veneer? If you are dealing with solid wood, you are pretty safe to strip it with the sander. Looking under the piece at an unfinished area may give you a clue if it is veneer over press board or something else. Be especially cautious of newer furniture having parts that aren't real wood.
This table looks like real wood and probably most of it is, but chances are the top is veneered over press board or plywood and the beveled edge may not be wood at all. The edge many times is a composite material that can be difficult to mask if you strip the factory "graining" off. Probably the easiest thing you can do if that problem comes up is just make the edge dark.
So what is the issue with strip sanding a veneered piece? Well, the margin of error is much less. Sanding isn't as simple as grabbing a sander and going to town. Those sanders can do as much harm as good if you don't use them right. Here is an example of trouble you can get into with a sander:
That may look like finish that has yet to be stripped off but it is marks from the sander and areas where previous stain color remains in the wood. So what is the problem, just sand the rest off. Well, its not that easy. Much sanding has already taken place so we don't know how much veneer is left. As you can see in this picture, some has already been sanded through. The edge is the easiest place to do it when your sander goes too far off the surface and tilts on the edge, grinding through the veneer.
The light color at the edge is where the veneer is gone. On a spot that small, it is pretty easy to use graining liquid to color it back in. This situation could have been much worse if the person sanding the table didn't recognize the issue and sanded more veneer off. When we got a hold of the table, we chemical stripped the remaining finish off (prior to these pics) then we had to sand the rest of the marks out of the veneer without going through it.
Here it is after finishing sanding. A very fine line was walked here because it took a lot of sanding to get the marks out. Any deeper and large portions of veneer would have been ruined. Paying close attention to changes in the wood like seeing it start to get real light or the grain raises in a spot suddenly, you are getting close to running out of surface. The right sander really gives us a huge advantage in sanding veneer.
This is the Festool Rotex 150 sander. It is powerful enough to edge hardwood floors and delicate enough to sand veneer and finish coats. I used a 240 grit paper for fine abrasion but still had the power in the sander to remove material with the finer grit than say a 100 or 120 that a person may put on a palm sander. Experience and the "Mercedes Benz" sander made this a much safer job for us than a DIY finisher. This table is in the process of getting a happy ending as it is turning out very pretty. We will post finished pictures once we get it done.
Conclusion: Chemical stripping is your better option for a veneered piece. If you have sanded veneer and feel comfortable doing, it can certainly be done, just be patient, start at 100 or 120 rather than a 60 or 80 grit. Don't press hard with the sander, let it do the work. Check your paper for finish build up. That gummed up finish will put unwanted marks in the wood if you keep using the same piece of paper too long. Saving a few bucks on sand paper won't seem like such a good idea when that stain hits those sanding marks and become visible all over your table or dresser top. Cycle through to at least 150 but better to go to 180. This case I did 240 because I couldn't scratch into the surface much more. Bottom line, you can't rush finishing. Take your time, follow your process you decided to go with and you will be happy with the end result. It is a great feeling seeing a beautiful finished project when you know you put in the effort and did it right. Feel free to reach out any time you want to discuss a project. Advice is free, we enjoy talking shop! 256-714-6664.
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