Question & Answer - Finishing

Stripping Options         

Q. My grandmother gave me her favorite table, but its top is a mess. Is there an easier way to strip off the old finish than using a messy paint remover?

A. For surefire success, go straight to a liquid stripper. It will quickly cut through any clear finish and take less time and create less mess than semi-paste strippers. Look for one with methylene chloride, the active ingredient in the fastest working removers. 

If you want to do some experimenting, stripper may not be your only answer. Many old finishes will literally melt away with alcohol or lacquer thinner. Alcohol dissolves shellac, and lacquer thinner removes most old lacquer. Furniture refinishers might also be effective. The problem is that one might be more effective than another on a given finish, since their chemical composition varies. 

Pour some of the solvent or stripper into a dish. Wipe it over small sections of your piece with steel wool (0 or 00 works well) or a synthetic abrasive pad if you will be finishing the table with a waterborne product. Scrub away, keeping your work area wet by re-dipping the pad. A gardener’s spray bottle is a handy applicator, especially for vertical surfaces. 

After the finish begins to break down, wipe away the slurry with paper towels or a rag. Repeat this process until you r piece has an even, consistent appearance. Damp rags tossed in a pile are a fire hazard, so hang them outside to dry before you throw them away.

Better Brush Cleaning

Q. I bought an expensive natural-bristle brush for varnishing, but I can’t seem to get it completely clean. The bristles are stiff after the brush dries. What can I do? 

A. Pros clean their brushes in stages, often with special solvents and conditioners. This technique will keep your brush soft for years. Along with mineral spirits or paint thinner, you’ll use a solvent called “brush cleaner” ($8 per qt.) or lacquer thinner ($4 per qt.). You’ll also use “brush conditioner” ($7 per 6-oz. tube). Ordinary mineral oil works as well ($4 for 16 oz.). Finally, you’ll need a special brush comb ($8).

Sticky Drawer Slides

Q. I built a set of kitchen drawers with ball bearing slides 10 years ago. Today, some of the drawers are sticking. Can I re-lubricate the slides? 

A. Yes you can, with white lithium grease from an auto parts store. Assuming you have ruled out mechanical problems (loose screws, overloading, etc.), first clean the slide’s ball bearings with a cotton-tipped swab. Use a plain household cleaner, such as 409 or Fantastik. Scrub the bearings clean with an old toothbrush.

When you’re done, wipe the slide with a dry rag. White lithium grease comes in two convenient forms at auto supply stores. You can buy a small tube (about $2) or an aerosol can with an applicator (about $4.50). If you use the tube, dab a little grease on the bearings with a clean cotton-tipped swab and rub it in with your finger. Work the slide back and forth a few times to distribute the grease. Wipe off any excess grease, and your slide should be good as new.

When Should I Sharpen My Blade?

Q. How can I tell when my carbide tablesaw blade needs to be sharpened? 

A. There are three signs that a blade is getting dull: burning on both sides of the cut, more resistance when ripping a board, and worn teeth.

Burning - If your blade consistently leaves burn marks on only one side of a WORN cut, your fence or splitter is probably out of alignment. If you see burning TOOTH on both sides of the cut, the blade is getting dull. 

Feed resistance - If it takes a lot of pressure to push a board CHIPPED through a rip cut, either the wood or blade is to blame. Boards may TOOTH spread or close up when cut, binding against the fence or splitter. Try testing the feed resistance with plywood instead. Is it the same as when the blade was new?

Worn teeth - Remove pitch buildup with a blade cleaner and examine the teeth with a magnifying glass. A 10X works best, but any magnifier will do. If any of the corners of the blade have started to wear away, or if you see any rounding over of the tops and sides, the blade should be sharpened. Cleaning the blade can also improve its performance. Pitch build-up won’t dull the blade, but it can affect the quality of your cut.

Does Polyurethane Need Sanding?

Q. I’ve used solvent-based polyurethane for years, and have always been careful to sand between coats. I have been told sanding isn’t necessary. Is that true?

A. Polyurethanes for floors or woodwork are often formulated so they don’t have to be sanded, but polyurethanes for furniture generally should be sanded. Sanding removes unevenness and dust in a brushed surface. If you want a silky, smooth feel to your finish, you must sand between coats no matter what kind of poly you use. By abrading the surface, sanding also improves the mechanical bond between coats. Sanding scratches effectively increase the surface area, so one coat adheres better to another. Some kinds of polyurethane don’t need to be sanded to bond well, but only if you re-coat before the finish hardens too much. The window is usually about 12 hours. If you wait longer, you should always sand.

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