Varnish Removal on Maple Tables

By Robert Ferguson

Varnish is a clear, protective coat or finish used primarily for a finish coat over wood, furniture and cabinets. The material provides a glossy finish to the project but is also available in a satin or semi-gloss. There are a few common processes to remove varnish from a table and it might take a combination of these methods to do a thorough job.


Stripping a table is a very messy project. Placing drop cloths under the table helps control the mess and protect flooring. When using varnish removers choose an area with adequate ventilation and avoid prolonged exposure to the fumes.


To get started, it helps to remove any loose varnish. A plastic putty knife does an adequate job and is less likely to damage the wood underneath versus using a metal one. Removing the loose varnish helps by providing an access point for the hot air or varnish remover to penetrate the old varnish. After scraping the table, dust it off to remove the loose debris.

Heat Gun

A heat gun, shaped like a common hair dryer, emits very high heat when in use. Although a slow process, a heat gun combined with a plastic or metal scraper will remove varnish. It is important to keep the heat gun moving at all times to avoid scorching or burning the wood. As the varnish heats up and melts, use the scraper to remove it from the table. Finish by wiping down the table with a rag and mineral spirits.

Varnish Remover

Varnish remover or stripper is a chemical used to remove varnish and paint. The stripper is highly toxic, so use it only in a well-ventilated area. Wear protective eye gear, gloves, and a respirator and follow the directions and warnings provided by the manufacturer. Apply the stripper to the surface of the wood using an old paintbrush. Allow the stripper to remain on the surface according to manufacturer's directions. It usually takes about 15 minutes before the stripper starts to break down the varnish but the time varies between brands. Use a plastic putty knife to scrape the loosened varnish off the surface. Wipe the surface with a damp cloth and repeat as many times as necessary to remove all the old varnish.


To remove varnish by sanding, use a power sander, such as an oscillating tool equipped with 120-grit sandpaper. The tool makes quick work of this project as it is designed to get in all the little nooks and crannies of the table. Always sand with the grain of the wood and keep the tool moving at all times to avoid creating low spots or depressions in the wood. Blow off the table with compressed air and wipe down with a clean damp cloth.


When using chemical strippers and power tools, it is important to avoid injury. Wearing protective eye gear, dust masks or respirators and using common sense will help provide a safe do-it-yourself experience.

© Demand Media 2011