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How to Strip Oak Cabinets

Samantha Hanly

Underneath old, dirty, ugly cabinets often lie gorgeous pieces of furniture waiting to be reborn. Before throwing away your old oak cabinets, consider cleaning, stripping and refinishing them to discover the beauty they once had and can have again. Stripping wood takes time, care and good safety measures, but is not as difficult or daunting a task as it may seem. It is much less expensive than purchasing new oak cabinets, and the beauty you recover from underneath the old finish will be well worth the time and effort.

Determine Finish

  1. Clean your oak cabinets before attempting to strip them. Use a commercial wood cleaner, mineral spirits or even a wax remover. Put on gloves and take an old, soft, clean cloth and pour some cleaner on the cloth. Gently rub the cleaner-soaked cloth on your oak cabinets to remove dirt and residue.

  2. Before you can remove a finish, you have to know what it is. Soak a cotton ball denatured alcohol and apply to a hidden area of the oak cabinets, for example, inside the cabinet. Let it sit for at least ten minutes. Alcohol will dissolve shellac. If you get no result, you can rule out shellac for a finish.

  3. To determine if your oak cabinet has a lacquer finish, apply a little lacquer thinner with a small, clean paintbrush to a hidden area. If the finish dissolves, it is lacquer.

  4. If you still have an undissolved finish, then your oak cabinets have some sort of varnish on them. Varnish will require a liquid paint and varnish remover. You can purchase this type of product in hardware stores, home improvement stores and online.

Strip Finish

  1. Always wear safety goggle, gloves and long sleeves to protect yourself when stripping oak cabinets. Work outdoors if possible, in the shade and protected from rain. The fumes created by furniture strippers are hazardous to breathe, so make sure your area is well-ventilated. Lay down ground covering, such as old newspaper, and place your oak cabinets on the covering.

  2. If your oak cabinets have a shellac finish, soak an old rag in denatured alcohol and gently apply to the oak cabinets. Make sure you get all of the fine detailing that may be on your cabinets wet. Be patient while you work. Let your stripped oak cabinets dry in the shade.

  3. If your oak cabinets have a lacquer finish, use a paint brush and lacquer remover. Follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding how long to leave on the lacquer remover. Use a putty knife to gently scrape away lacquer.

  4. If your oak cabinets are varnished, you will need to use a paint and varnish remover. This type of product is applied to wood and allowed to sit for 5 to 20 minutes, then scraped off with a putty knife. Be sure to read manufacturer's instructions for how long to let the remover sit.

  5. Apply more of any of the above removers as necessary. In addition to putty knives, try rubbing gently with steel wool and even using toothpicks to remove finish from the crevices in detailed decoration on your oak cabinets. Always go over the cabinet with clean remover once more at the end, and let dry in the shade.