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Sep 24, 2021 - 8:59 AM
281 posts since 11/22/2009

I have a resonator which is need of refurbishing. It is hand carved—releaf carved—the carving has been enamaled painted and the whole resonator finished with several coats of diluted extra hard varnish.

My question is what to use to remove the varnish as I want to re-enamel paint the carving and re-varnish.

Many thanks.

Sep 24, 2021 - 11:49:15 AM

11752 posts since 10/27/2006

It depends on the varnish, too often a generic term used to cover many types of finishes. Some are soluble in mineral spirits while others are best removed with alcohol. Paint strippers will raise the grain so I avoid those. A heat gun works on many finishes if you are careful, leaving much less to remove by other methods.

Edited by - mikehalloran on 09/24/2021 11:50:20

Sep 24, 2021 - 12:23:22 PM



3741 posts since 2/20/2016

I think you're opening a huge can of worms here; nay, a barrel of rattlesnakes.

1. Any effort at mechanical stripping is likely to damage the detail on the carving.
2. If you use solvents, there is a danger of driving the varnish and the paint deeper into wood, or causing softened paint and varnish to pool up in the recesses of the carving. If it does, then it may be necessary to remove the residual mechanically. See #1.

While alcohol will remove a portion of most alcohol based varnish, some of the varnish is likely to be left behind, and might have to removed mechanically.

Mineral spirits is likely to be pretty much ineffective at removing any oil based varnish that is more than a year or two old. That brings you back to harsh chemical based strippers. See #2 and Mike Halloran's comment on paint strippers.   And I will add that chemical strippers often tend to soften the wood, sometimes for a very long time.

I suppose that expert restorers of carved furniture at the best museums may have techniques that will work. Such people may be hard to find, and may tell you that years of experience are necessary before one can execute such a restoration well. I suppose it can't hurt to try to find such an artist and see if they will talk to you, but you may want to cease and desist until then.

Edited by - rcc56 on 09/24/2021 12:25:45

Sep 24, 2021 - 12:38:16 PM
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15 posts since 9/3/2021

What is the piece worth and are you SURE it is hard varnish?

Some things I do as a rule:

1) Start slow. I always start with a bit of heat (hair dryer or an infrared heat gun), some plastic scrapers, and a kitchen scouring pad suitable for non-stick cookware.

2) Keep going slow. Then I try out a bit of denatured alcohol to test the finish. Sometimes the finish liquifies right here and I realize I’m working with shellac and not varnish… if it softens then I might have a mix of shellac and lacquer. Depending on what I see - I might also try heating up some vinegar and checking to see what that does. I am always shocked at how often a finish is not actually what I thought it was by feel/look or what I was told.

- If at can get the finish off with heat or a very weak chemical - then I stop here and take my time - assuming the piece is worth the effort. If not, then I:

3) Go big and get it over with. At this point - my goal is to get everything off the piece in one go as quickly as possible. I used to favor the thickest/heaviest methylene chloride (MC) and lay down a thick coating, cover with tin-foil to trap in the evil, and walk away for 30+ minutes - then rinse the whole thing with denatured alcohol (or whatever was directed) and clean up the creases with plastic scrapers (often ‘created’ from pieces of old credit cards or hotel keys). A good consumer product (no MC) I’ve found is the “D Super Remover New Generation Stripper”.

It seems weird to start really cautious and then skip over a much of “safer” chemicals — but I’ve found that has a worse impact on the wood than just getting it over with once you realize you’re dealing with a difficult finish.

Another useful tool for fine crevices or doing things like removing varnish but leaving underlying lacquer is something like a air-eraser (basically an airbrush you can use as a sort of mini sand blaster).

Good luck!

Sep 24, 2021 - 2:00:08 PM
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13939 posts since 6/29/2005

I spent a lot of years dealing with historic building restoration.  The mantra is "preserve, repair, restore".  In other words, the best thing is to clean it up and leave it as it is unless it's broken or has been very badly messed with.

With really old carved furniture and fancy architectural trim that you know has been finished with oil based paint, the way it's done by professional trained restoration people (not painting contractors), is usually with a heat gun and dental picks and scrapers, very carefully. It may take several passes to get all the finish off and it's painstaking work—you have to soften the finish enough to be able to scrape it, but not enough to burn the wood.

You have to test a small section before going further.

If it's painted white and old, the likelihood of lead is almost certain, and you should do it outside wearing a respirator and wash any dust off your hands very thoroughly.

Sep 24, 2021 - 2:44:07 PM
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1009 posts since 11/8/2014

Originally posted by Hot Club Man

I have a resonator which is need of refurbishing. It is hand carved—releaf carved—the carving has been enamaled painted and the whole resonator finished with several coats of diluted extra hard varnish.

My question is what to use to remove the varnish as I want to re-enamel paint the carving and re-varnish.

Many thanks.

Post a photo, it might help with the advice.

Sep 25, 2021 - 7:56:10 PM

8988 posts since 8/28/2013

A toothbrush can work to get old varnish out of the depths of carvings with minimal damage (you'll need more than one). Of course, the varnih has to be softened. Make sure it's actually varnish first.

Whatever procedure you decide on, try it first on an area of the resonator that doesn't show.

Sep 28, 2021 - 3:11:40 PM

281 posts since 11/22/2009

Many thanks everybody for some excellent advice--much appreciated.

I think first of all I will contact the company that make the varnish and ask them.

Sep 28, 2021 - 7:28:17 PM

686 posts since 2/15/2015

I use shellac or oil.
Shellac is easy to use.
Oil? Simply re-oil and get back to playing

Sep 29, 2021 - 2:58:40 PM

60 posts since 4/26/2018

As a violin maker, original wood and original varnish are the sacred parts of the instrument and the only things that you can not replace.

Clean and conserve, not strip and revarnish.

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