The Dangerous Book for Martha Wannabees
October 29, 2010 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Should the words “old-fashioned” and “homemade” ever appear in the same sentence as “furniture stripper”? Is there a chemist in the house?

So, has anyone ever used lye to strip furniture? I know it’s dangerous stuff, but surely goggles, gloves, and possibly a mask ought to be enough to protect me, right?

Backstory: I have a piece of cheap pine furniture from the 70s that I’d like to refurbish, a bar. The wood is currently stained quite a dark color, and seems to be protected by some kind of coating, possibly polyeurethane (at least that’s what my father seems to think it is. It’s actually from their wedding-gift dining room set, and it’s been kicking around their basement for years).

Despair of my taste if you will, but what I plan to do with it is actually a sort of knock-off Chinoiserie (the layout of the drawers reminds me a bit of an apothecary cabinet). That is to say, I want to take it from darkly stained to jet black.

My first thought was to do this with lacquer, but reading up on it lacquer seems a bit fussy for the amateur. So now I’m thinking of ebonizing with India ink. (Like what this guy did to his chair. Nice, no? Seems simple too, compared to everything I’ve heard about dealing with lacquer, which requires many coats and bubbles up and looks terrible if you don’t know what you’re about, apparently.)

But, from what I understand, first I’ll have to strip this protective coating off so the wood will take up the ink. My brother once attempted to strip the piece, and tested a few spots on the back with some kind of stripper --- he doesn’t remember what --- but found it too difficult to remove and gave it up as a bad job. I’m thinking I might need to use something more heavy duty, and have run into some internet recipes for an old-fashioed furniture stripping solution using lye, water, and possibly cornstarch.

Will this even work on polyeurethane (if that is in fact the coating on the wood)? And is there some easier way around this? I’m not opposed to a bit of sanding, and since what I’m trying to do is make the piece darker, will putting ink over the existing stain be okay? Are the any other precautions I should take regarding application and disposal, if I go the lye route?
posted by Diablevert to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
Try this stuff?

Intended for what you're doing, not quite as hazardous as caustic lye. (Still, wear the gloves/goggles/mask.)
posted by Citrus at 9:51 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It can be tricky to tell the difference between polyurethane, lacquer, and varnish. A solvent that works for one may not work for another. I would not mess around with lye based on some internet recipe - this is coming from a person who currently owns and uses lye. There are safer modern products to strip anything, work with those first.
posted by nanojath at 9:57 AM on October 29, 2010

I don't know if lye will work, but I DO remember the horrible choking caused from getting lye in contact with the wrong thing in Chemistry class. Please be careful.

And also [insert I don't really know what I'm talking about statement here], couldn't you just sand it down? Instead of stripping? or is that not feasible for whatever reason?
posted by brainmouse at 10:04 AM on October 29, 2010

What's the reason for not using commercial stripper?
posted by electroboy at 10:34 AM on October 29, 2010

Having stripped a chair with standard shop-bought stripper - the wire scrubber to really scrape the stuff off after the stripper has done its thing, and rags to wipe off the resulting stripper-polish gunk are the important thing. So whatever your brother used might work, if you apply the wire and elbow grease method, rather than going for something excitingly home-made.
posted by Coobeastie at 10:35 AM on October 29, 2010

You could use black high-gloss oil based paint and just paint over the mystery finish. Two coats with plenty of time to dry between should do it.
posted by travertina at 11:06 AM on October 29, 2010

Response by poster: Well, from what I understand, at least one commercial stripper has been tried and not worked. And from a bit of googling, it seems like a hot lye bath is the stripper of last resort that can take pretty much anything off - I felt like, if it already is a tough job, why not skip dicking around with trying this and trying that to see if it works on the mystery coating and try the thing that if it doesn't work nothing will?
posted by Diablevert at 11:32 AM on October 29, 2010

I'd try a few more poly/varnish/shellac strippers before going with the lye. There's a reason it's a "last resort". It's nasty stuff.

Also, I kind of like travertina's idea of going over the finish with a black paint. You should investigate that angle, as well.
posted by Citrus at 12:55 PM on October 29, 2010

Hot lye bath sounds like a world of trouble. I'd try a different stripper.
posted by electroboy at 1:49 PM on October 29, 2010

Commercial furniture strippers are plenty nasty, and sometimes don't work all that well with polyurethanes or other modern finishes. LOTS of elbow grease and mess will be involved.

Painting over the finish would be the easiest thing to do. Light sanding on all the surfaces to give the paint something to hold on to.

True lacquer might actually be OK over the polyurethane, as it's solvent based, and a pretty aggressive solvent that will probably stick OK to the poly base. However, it can be a headache to apply without a spraygun and booth.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:05 PM on October 29, 2010

Stripping furniture is generally environmentally unfriendly, in a bad-for-your-lungs way. If it's pretty dark, and the existing finish is thin, just paint it black. Or, paint the edges chinese red, wax the edges ever so lightly, then paint it black. The wax acts as a resist, and you get the red underneath. I've refinished furniture, and learned that it's often not worth it unless it's really good furniture. Even then, I will only refinish furniture that was varnished, so I can remove the top layer, and rehab the existing finish.
posted by theora55 at 2:42 PM on October 29, 2010

Hot lye might do the job, or it might do the job plus leave you horribly burned. Do your research thoroughly before going down that road.
posted by thatone at 3:15 PM on October 29, 2010

Best answer: Chemist here. I wouldn't recommend it, because lye solutions are in the "take the safety messages seriously" catagory of chemicals. However, what you're talking about is probably no more dangerous than cleaning your oven or bleaching your bath tub, chemically speaking.

I've had a quick google, and couldn't find a specific recipe. What sort of concentration are we talking? Obviously you want to work with the lowest concentration and volume as you can (Don't make a bucketful of the stuff like one website I saw! Probably start with about a cup of solution and see how far it goes)

Lye, or sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda is particularly dangerous when ingested and if you get it in your eyes. Wear safety glasses!!! Label containers!!!! Do not store lye solution in anything that could be mistaken as a drinking vessel!!! (The MSDS says not to induce vomiting if you do ingest it. They mean it. It burns on the way down, and will burn on the way up too, whilst your stomach is full of acid that can neutralise it)

The msds also warns against inhalation, so probably best to do this outside (though not on grass, or you'll kill it!) If you get lye solution on your skin, it'll feel soapy and will take forever to wash off, and hurts like hell if it gets beneath your finger nails, so it's a good idea to wear gloves. However, wearing gloves can make you less aware of where the chemicals are, and can lead you to spread caustic over everything you touch. (Don't scratch you're nose!) So have some way of cleaning the gloves nearby, like the garden hose. And then make sure you then wash the tap, and the hose, and anything else you may have touched too. This is also useful for spills. Keeping a bottle of vinegar on hand to neutralise it if you get it on your skin is also a good idea. Disposal is generally "wash down the sink with lots of lots of (and lots) water", as it's very water soluble. I assume though that you will at some point create some gunky scraped off stuff, which could also be quite toxic. I would double bag it, wash the bag down, and put it in the bin, though your local authorities may not like that.

The major issue, though, is not thinking something through carefully before you do it. Like when you go to carefully load yourself up with a bunch of stuff to take outside, only to be thwarted by the door handle. Trying to open the door with your foot is a really bad idea if your carrying an open bottle of 50% lye. So keep your work space clean, don't splash the stuff around, have a plan for where you're going to put something before you pick it up and cover it in lye. You know, the usual common sense stuff that seems so obvious until you find yourself opened the door with your foot.
posted by kjs4 at 4:56 AM on October 30, 2010

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