Wood furniture refinishing requires removing the old finish before putting on the new one. Traditionally, shellac and lacquer are the two most common type of finishes applied on wood furniture. They are also the easiest to remove compared to paint and varnish.
Shellac and lacquer are clear finishes and can be stripped off by denatured alcohol or lacquer thinner. But you must first determine the type of finish you are stripping to be sure before using the right remover. Make a test by applying denatured alcohol on the surface. If it melts it means the surface is coated with shellac. If it does not melt but only softens, most probably it is a mixture of shellac and lacquer
To know if the finish is lacquer apply lacquer thinner on the surface. If it liquefies then the coating is lacquer. A combination of lacquer and shellac finish is removed by a 50/50 mixture of alcohol and lacquer thinner solution.
If the piece of furniture you are trying to refinish is an antique you can check out the post What You Need To Know Before Refinishing Your Antique Furniture. It contains some steps prior to refinishing antique wood furniture.
Before starting on your project I recommend that you work on a well ventilated area wearing safety goggles or glasses and skin protection like gloves and long sleeved shirt. You may also want to lay some pieces of cardboard or newspapers on the floor around the furniture you are stripping for easy collecting of stripped off bits and drippings after work is done.
The materials you will need for the stripping project are:
* 000 steel wool
* denatured alcohol
* lacquer thinner
* fine grit sandpaper
* cheap or old brush (for applying the stripper)
* some pieces of rough cloth
* furniture scraper
* stiff brush
The procedure for stripping lacquer and shellac finish is basically the same with the difference only on the abrasive to be used which is either denatured alcohol or lacquer thinner. It is not necessary to use any other compounds.
Start by applying the appropriate remover on the furniture surface with an old brush. Let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes. You will know if the surface is ready for stripping when it had swelled or wrinkles had formed. You can then wipe it off with a rough cloth or scrub with a steel wool. In scrubbing with a 000 steel wool, you must do it along the direction of the wood grain. You should do these quickly on small areas, section by section, because lacquer thinner and alcohol evaporates fast. Change the cloth for wiping frequently to avoid re-applying the stripped finish on the surface.
Some sections may not have completely soften or liquefy after the first application so it is necessary to re-apply another coat of the stripper. For curved surfaces, use a brass or plastic stiff brush in removing the finish but avoid scratching the wood.
When it seems that the furniture has all been stripped of its old finish go all over again this time using a furniture scraper to totally remove any remaining residue. Sand the whole surface lightly with a fine grit sandpaper.
After the entire messy job has been done let the furniture dry for a day before applying a new finish.