Stripping a Tough 1960's Finish

A finisher runs into a 1960's-era finish that resists stripping, and gets advice on how to tackle the job. June 28, 2005

I have a customer who wants to have kitchen cabinets re-finished with book-matched yellow birch - straight lines and flat surfaces. The only curve is the edge of all the doors and drawers. The indestructible substance covering the wood is not responding to any of the other strippers I normally use. I'm hoping that by describing the cabinets, someone might be able to recommend a suitable stripper for on-site use? I have experience with three: Zip-Strip, Dad's, and Bix.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
I sand the frames and then I hook up a vacuum to my sander, which really keeps the mess down. I stopped using stripper in homes about ten tears ago.

From contributor D:
I agree with Contributor B. Sand them down and then spray them. I do it quite a bit with birch cabinets with plywood doors. As long as they were just varnished and not stained, this method is the ticket. If they have been stained, I just do damage repair, prep and spray. I’ve never used strippers.

From contributor P:
I like to take the doors and drawers back to the shop and strip them there. I use a semi-paste MC (ethylene chloride) stripper and it works on almost everything. If that doesn’t cut it, an alkali-fortified stripper has more strength. On-site sanding with a vacuum attachment is a lot less messy than stripping. You may need to do a little stripping if there are shapes that don't sand easily.

From contributor S:
I would proceed with caution. It is not well known, but catalyzed and oven-cured factory finishes were used in this period. Some of them were as tough to strip as anything currently in the market. A heavy duty stripper will barely soften some of them. Since it is mostly flats though, it is do-able.

It may help to open up the coating first by sanding it with 80 grit paper. Then apply a heavy duty paste stripper and wait. (I think the brands you've tried will do). Scrape off what you can with a sharp pull-scraper and repeat if necessary.

Sanding a finish off instead of using chemical means makes sense for on-site, but like Contributor P, I would remove all doors and drawers and take them to the shop where they can be stripped. Refinish work is my specialty for many years and for reasons too varied to list, I personally almost never find sanding a finish off to be efficient in terms of time or end quality.

Another note of caution to look out for is that ost cabinet finishes of this day on birch have a toned finish. By this I mean color was added to the coating. This means as you sand, you will take some color off. So, if you plan on recoating, that is sanding the existing finish a little and then applying a coat over that, be very careful and do your prep sanding gently and evenly.

From contributor M:
In the 60's, Urea Formaldehyde coatings were being used on cabinets and furniture. This stuff was like Polyester today. I would suggest doing some heavy testing if you can't strip it. They were terrible to repair, and you may find that your coating will not work on them. Take some doors back to your shop and run some tests before you make a decision to take on the job.