How to remove varnish from wood furniture

Strip furniture as part of your next upcycling project with our step-by-step guide to removing varnish

large wooden dining table in contemporary space
(Image credit: Getty images)

If you are a thrifty furnisher and have a penchant for pre-loved, you will need to know how to remove varnish from wood furniture. As I well know.

Most of the furniture in our house – dressers, tables, a buffet, nightstands – have come from Facebook Marketplace or are second hand. You just can’t beat the high quality craftsmanship of antique and vintage furniture. And you really can’t beat the price compared to buying new. These pieces usually need a little (or sometimes a lot!) of TLC and so we’ve learned over the years how to breathe new life into a piece of furniture with paint and stain. This easy DIY project requires removing the old stained finish or varnish first so learning how to strip wood furniture was a must. 

There are a few options for stripping furniture and it really depends on the finish as to which one is the easiest option. We look at chemical (stripping agent) and mechanical (sanding) so that you can find the right one for your project. Sometimes using a combination of methods is necessary for the best results. 

And armed with this know-how you can not just strip furniture, but other wooden items too – check out how to strip paint from wood for more.

How to remove varnish with a stripping agent

There are different types of stripping agents that can be used to remove the stain or varnish. If you’re working with an old stain that is thin and already wearing off, you can use a product like Zinsser StripFast Furniture Refinisher. Thicker varnish will need more work. Learn how to remove varnish, ready for a new finish with decoupage, lime, or the best furniture paint.

What you will need:

  • Rubber gloves
  • Stripper
  • Steel wool
  • Stripper Wash (I like Zinsser StripFast Stripper Wash)
  • Lint-free cloth
  • Drop cloth (or sheet to protect work area)

1. Prep your work space and materials

tools for stripping varnish from wood

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

Find a place outdoors where you can lay your drop cloth and place your furniture on. The stripper has a very strong scent so you do not want to do this inside.

2. Apply the stripper

using steel wool and varnish stripper to clean old wooden furniture

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

Wearing gloves, apply the stripper using steel wool, gently going over the old stain. You will begin to see the finish rub off. Continue until all of the stain has been removed, it may require multiple pieces of steel wool. Use your lint-free cloth to wipe off the old finish as you go. 

3. Clean with stripper wash

table with varnish removed

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

Using a stripper wash, go over the fresh wood with steel wool to remove any leftover residue. Use a lint-free cloth to give it a final wipe down. Now your piece is ready for a new finish!

cleaning down furniture stripped of wood varnish

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

How to remove stubborn varnish residue

If you’re removing old paint or really thick varnish, you’ll need a more abrasive stripping agent like Citristrip (available on Amazon in various forms). This gel-like stripping agent goes on thick and needs to sit for a period of time on the surface, usually 15 minutes or so. During that time the old finish will begin to bubble up and then you can use a plastic scraper to remove the old finish. This process may need to be repeated depending on if there were multiple layers of paint or varnish to remove. Sanding may be required to remove stubborn residue. I always recommend using a prestain like Minwax to even out the surface after removing the finish and before applying stain. 

Can you remove varnish with oven cleaner?

A method that’s trending on TikTok and Instagram with mixed reviews is using Heavy Duty Easy Off Oven Cleaner to strip furniture. You spray the product on your piece, allow it to sit for about 30 minutes then use a scrubbing brush to go over the piece. Finally, you spray the furniture with water to remove the finish. 

I decided to try this so I could see how it worked for myself. From my experience, this method should only be used if the layer of stain you want to remove is very thin. It does not work well on painted or heavily varnished surfaces. 

before and after of stripped wood

Before and after of some wooden tables I upcycled by first removing the varnish. Using a pre-stain helps even out the wood before adding a new finish

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

How to remove varnish by sanding

Sanding is the other way to strip the old finish from furniture. You can use a belt sander with a coarse grit to remove thick coats of paint and varnish moving the sander along with the grain of the wood. You can use a finer grit for thinner finishes. You’ll want a small detail sander to get into the hard to reach corners and nooks of your piece. Again, you’ll want to use a prestain before applying a new stain finish to even out the wood. 

People always want to know, is it better to strip or sand furniture? Sanding takes a lot of time and effort, especially for larger pieces. Using a sander together with a stripping agent will make the project go quicker. 

Learning how to strip furniture isn’t hard, you just have to be willing to jump in and try! Once you have removed old finishes, the fun begins as you can paint the wooden furniture for a brand new look of your choice. With these tips you’ll be able to upcycle old, outdated furniture into beautiful showcase pieces for your home. 

Dori Turner

Dori Turner writes blog posts and feature articles on affordable design and DIY from her home in the heart of Oklahoma. She has a passion for teaching others how they can transform their home on a budget.