Q: We have a set of beautiful cherry wood furniture. My 2-year-old grandson was visiting and got a bottle of X-14 bleach and sprayed areas on all the pieces. They are now blotched and faded in areas. I've tried "scratch cover" oils, which darken the wood for a while, but the faded areas reappear. What can I do? Will I need to sand all of the faded areas and try to match the stain?
A: Spot sanding and refinishing is really not the answer. Sometimes a thorough scrubbing of the wood with mineral spirits, followed by a couple of coats of new varnish, can restore the finish if the discoloration is only in the finish and has not penetrated the wood. However, if the stains have penetrated the wood itself, restoration will involve completely refinishing the pieces. In quality furniture, it's worth the effort.
You can have this done professionally or, with care and patience, can redo the furniture yourself. Here are some basic guidelines to refinishing furniture that has deep stains or scratches.
Use a commercial stripper to remove the entire finish on the damaged surface. If only sections are damaged, such as just the top, and the underside remains unmarred, you can refinish just the top and leave the legs and underside as is (but be careful to fully protect these areas during the refinishing process). This is a messy job, so work in a well-ventilated area with drop cloths and have plenty of rags handy for wiping spills and residue from the finish that you will be removing.
Stripping solutions are strong formulas--strong enough to remove the finish and strong enough to harm you and the environment if you are not careful. Avoid contact with your skin by wearing gloves (solvent-resistant gloves, not rubber, if you are working with a solvent-based stripper), eye goggles that wrap around the head and protect your eyes where glasses don't, and a respirator suitable for working with paint strippers. Also, wear old clothes, including a long-sleeve shirt to keep the stripper off your arms.
Work on one piece at a time. It will take a minimum of two days for each piece, depending on how difficult it is to remove the old finish, the size of the piece and whether there are ornate carvings and moldings. Flat surfaces strip the fastest; intricate carvings and curved or rounded pieces often require multiple applications of stripper.
The most important point on using a paint/varnish stripper: Don't rush it. Read the container label before starting and then follow the instructions completely. Once you apply the stripper, give it plenty of time to penetrate, but don't let it dry out. If it does, you're in for even more work. It's best to work in small, manageable sections, one at a time, rather than tackle the entire piece.
When the stripper has been in place for the recommended time, lightly rub the area with medium-grade bronze wool (not steel wool--steel wool fragments left in the wood will rust) or a paint-stripping scrub pad to loosen the old finish. Then, use a putty knife to remove the old finish from flat surfaces. A vegetable brush works great on curved areas, such as legs. A brass-bristle brush is also a handy tool for edges and corners. It will work better than a toothbrush and won't damage the wood.
When the finish has been completely removed, wash the entire surface to remove any residue. Use mineral spirits to wash solvent-based strippers, clear water for water-based strippers. Use water sparingly because it can raise the grain of the wood. Even the stripping process can raise some of the wood grain.
Once the wood has been stripped and cleaned and is thoroughly dry, you will need to sand the surface. Hand-sanding is usually best because an electric sander can remove too much of the wood surface in some areas (leaving an undulating surface) unless you are extremely careful. Start by using a 100-grit (medium) sandpaper for the first sanding; 180-grit (fine) for the second sanding; and for the final sanding, use 220-grit (very fine) sandpaper.
Check the wood for colorization following the first surface sanding. If staining remains, either dark rings or light spots from the bleach, you will need to treat the surface further, prior to applying a new finish. Oxalic acid is a good wood bleach for surface staining and can even out the surface colorization. When used on dark stains, such as the black-ring stains caused by a water glass, two or more applications may be applied to the stained area only. Neutralize the acid with a borax and water solution. Oxalic acid and borax are available at most full-service paint stores. Follow the directions and safety instructions on the oxalic acid container.
Two-part commercial wood bleaches are also available. However, they are stronger and require careful application. They tend to remove all of the natural color in the wood.
When the staining is no longer apparent, proceed with the sanding process. When finished, wipe the entire surface with a tack cloth to remove all of the remaining residue left from sanding.
You are now ready for the final steps in the finishing process. If the natural wood now appears in color like your original piece (test an area by wetting it with water--this should be the color when the final finish coat is applied), you can apply a suitable finish, choosing from regular varnish, polyurethane varnishes or even tung oil, which gives a natural oiled-wood finish and still provides protection.
If the stripped wood varies from your original color, you will have to stain the wood prior to applying a finish. Matching a finish can sometimes be tricky, and you may want to test various stains in an inconspicuous area to get a match prior to staining the complete piece. It's best to apply the same brand stain and finish.
During the refinishing process, you will have to dispose of numerous solvent-soaked rags, messy globs of old finish and used stripper, messy drop cloths and tools used during the stripping process. Be sure to keep these materials out of reach of children and pets. Air in a safe place outside, to allow chemicals to evaporate. Most cities have hazardous-waste disposal areas that will take this type of residue. Contact your city hall for instructions for your area.
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