How to Get Started with a Furniture Stripping Business
Description of Job
• Clean valuable old furniture.
• Use chemicals to strip furniture of one or more old coats of paint, varnish, or other finishes.
• Prepare furniture for application of new finish.
The Need and Demand for this Business
Family heirlooms, an old favorite chair, or just a change in decor—sometimes it makes eminent sense to strip an old varnish, shellac, or paint finish from a still- usable piece of wooden furniture. Once the piece has been brought as close as possible to its original raw wood state, it can be re-stained and refinished.
The process can result in a rejuvenation of a valuable old piece at much less cost than buying a new piece.
Challenges Faced by This Small Business
This is not rocket science, but furniture stripping involves a great deal of hands- on dirty work and the use of caustic and toxic chemicals. You have to work within local, state, and federal regulations on the use and disposal of chemicals and waste materials.
Communicate clearly with your clients to make sure that they have reasonable expectations about the final product. Some finishes can be completely removed, and others cannot. Some modern finishes, including certain polyurethane and acrylic products, are difficult if not impossible to strip.
There are also some environmentally safe stripping solutions that don’t require special handling or disposal; depending on the finish being removed, they may be as effective as harsh chemicals.
Use chemically impervious gloves, eye protection, and protective clothing in your shop; make sure there is adequate ventilation to remove fumes.
Make sure your contract with the customer limits your liability for damage or loss of the furniture; don’t accept a very valuable antique or an irreplaceable heir- loom if your financial exposure is too high.
What You Should Know Before You Start This Business
The most common methods for stripping furniture are hand stripping, cold tank dipping, and hot tank dipping.
Hand stripping is the slowest, most labor-intensive, most expensive, and gen- erally the safest way to remove a finish. A chemical stripper is applied to the fur- niture with a brush, and after a specified period of time the solution is removed with rags and brushes; multiple applications may be necessary. Residue is cleaned off with lacquer thinner or other solvents.
For the cold tank method, the furniture is immersed in a tank filled with a chemical stripping solution. After a period of time, the chemical is scrubbed off and residue is washed off with water or a solvent. This method is generally the
quickest and least expensive option for commercial users and works best on pieces with just a single coat of finish; homeowners working on just one piece would end up wasting a great deal of costly stripping solution.
The most intense commercial stripping method uses a heated tank of caustic lye which removes many types of finish but may be too harsh for delicate pieces. The lye is washed off using water. A side effect of the use of lye is that it may darken some types of wood. For that reason, most pieces must then undergo a second dipping, usually in a tank of oxalic acid or a similar chemical to lighten the wood and neutralize any leftover lye. Hot dipping is well suited to removing layers of paint from architectural elements of a home, including doors, moldings, and banisters. It can also be used on painted furniture.
Modern chemicals are much easier to work with and less likely to cause any damage to furniture than older methods, but any stripping process has the poten- tial of causing some discoloration or other stress.
The most difficult finish to remove is paint, especially on pieces that have a lot of detail. For example, the paint on flat surfaces of a dresser may come off relatively easily, but it requires a lot of handwork to get the coating off of carved decorations, spindles, joined edges, and interior angles. Some practitioners use sprayers to get a stripping solution into tight spaces and objects as fine and small as jeweler’s or surgeon’s tools.
The final step may be to return the near-raw wooden piece to the customer for application of a new finish, or you may offer that service yourself. Some furni- ture strippers partner with expert furniture finishers.
How to Get Started In This Small Business
Advertise your availability at home centers, community centers, and retail stores. Make your services known to interior decorators, auction houses, and used fur- niture dealers. Place ads in newspapers and shoppers.
Ask satisfied customers to recommend you to friends and acquaintances; offer a bonus or discount for new business they send your way.
The amount of up-front expenses for a furniture stripping business depends on the level of service you plan to provide to your customers. The least expensive setup (and the most expensive service to sell) is hand stripping; considerably more expensive are operations that offer cold and hot dipping.
For hand stripping, you’ll need tarps and level work surfaces, a selection of stripping chemicals, a set of brushes of various sizes and firmness, wooden
scrapers, disposable rags, and steel wool. You’ll also need containers for the safe disposal of flammable rags and other debris, and for disposal of used chemicals. To protect yourself, you’ll need heavy rubber gloves, safety glasses or a face
shield, and a strong ventilation system. For dipping, you’ll need several tubs large enough to fully accommodate a
piece of furniture and hold caustic chemicals and acids. You’ll also need to ar- range for safe disposal of large quantities of the solutions.
How Much to Charge for this Service
Charge an hourly rate for your time and the use of chemicals, tanks, and tools. You can offer the client an estimate of hours, but be careful not to lowball the price for intricate pieces. Plan on at least 50 percent more time for removal of paint than for shellac or varnish, and add more time for pieces with intricate carv- ings and inside angles.
If the customer has not already removed hardware such as knobs, hinges, and badges add time or a fee for that service. Add a freight charge for pickup and delivery.
Many companies also add a charge for disposal of hazardous wastes, either as a percentage of the total price or as a flat fee.
Legal and Insurance Issues
Special notes: In dealing with your client’s property, seek to limit your liability for damage or loss to the actual replacement value of items in your possession. You should protect yourself against claims for sentimental value or loss of use.