So, you did your research and decided refinishing your furniture is what you want to do. Yay! Here is my step-by-step experience for chemically stripping and staining wood furniture:
MATERIALS (most purchased at Home Depot):
*Chemical stripper (I used a fast-acting stripper that turned the paint and varnish to goo in about 15 minutes. There are environmentally-friendly and less noxious strippers available, but those take way longer to work.)
*Plastic stripping tool
*Chemical stripper wash
*Wood stain (I used a classic oil stain by Minwax, but I read that gel stains are a bit easier to work with, especially for non-horizontal surfaces.)
*Polyurethane finish (I used a Minwax Wipe-On Poly that I was really happy with.)
*Several cheap brushes
*Plenty of lint-free rags (I used old, cut-up tee-shirts.)
*Metal container (or an empty and dried-out paint container)
*Sandpaper (medium-coarse in a 180-grit and fine in a 220-grit)
1) PREPPING YOURSELF AND THE WORK AREA
Make sure you are in a well-ventilated and open area (I worked on the patio and away from the door and windows). Spread a dropcloth down with cardboard on top. Wear fitted clothing and tuck your sleeves into protective gloves.
2) STRIPPING THE OLD FINISH
Pour the chemical stripper into a metal tray. The stripper will be viscous and gooey. Liberally spread it with a brush over a portion of the furniture to be stripped. I worked with small areas at a time. You'll know the stripper is working because the surface will begin to ripple and bubble. After the recommended application time, remove the stripper and paint (it will be a goo that comes off in sheets) with the stripping tool, disposing of the waste in the metal container. Don't worry about getting every little piece of paint off...it will come off when you apply the after-wash. If a considerable amount of paint is left, or you did not get down to the wood surface, apply another liberal coat of stripper and repeat the process.
Once the majority of the paint is removed, you'll need to neutralize the surface. Pour the after-wash into a plastic container, and 'wash' the wood with steel wool (much like you'd use a sponge and soapy water). The steel wool allows you to really get into the surface and also remove those remaining specks of paint and finish. Repeat until the surface is completely bare and clean. Let the furniture dry for 24-48 hours before proceeding. This is what my table looked like after stripping (and adding new legs, see below):
*If you get any stripper on your skin, you'll know immediately (it will begin to burn like crazy). Run to a sink and douse your skin under running water for 5-10 minutes. Water neutralized the type of stripper I was working with, so this prevented my skin from being eaten away. Hey, I wasn't kidding...that stuff was NASTY.
*I began to do the legs of the table and realized it would be nearly impossible to remove the paint from every crevice of the curves. I ended up tossing the legs and bought new unfinished legs from Lowe's. Thanks to Husband for drilling new holes so we could assemble the table.
3) PREPPING FOR STAIN
At this point, you should have a nice and bare piece of wood furniture. Yay! Sand the entire piece with the medium-coarse sandpaper. I'm sure this is MUCH easier if you have a hand-sander, but for my fellow city-folks, be prepared for a workout. You want to make sure the wood is raw and will easily take the stain, so sand liberally.
If your wood is softwood, you'll need to condition it beforehand. I think this is because soft wood won't take stain evenly, so if you don't condition it beforehand to fill the pores a bit, you'll end up with blotchy and uneven color. You can test for soft wood by seeing if you can leave an indentation with your fingernail on the underside. I ended up conditioning every part of the table (top and new legs), even though I think the top was hardwood.
Apply the conditioner liberally with a brush. It'll be watery and yellowish in color. After 5 minutes or so, wipe off the excess with a rag. You should stain within at least 2 hours of conditioning the wood.
There are many different versions of stain to choose from. I went with a classic oil-based stain. This is what my dad always worked with, and what was available in the widest choice of shades. I generally knew what to expect.
You can apply stain a few ways - with a paintbrush, a foam brush, or a rag. I originally opted for a foam brush, leaving the stain on for 15 minutes before trying to wipe it off. Unfortunately, the brush applied way too much stain, and it was so tacky that I could barely wipe anything off! To make matters worse, the new legs, being a different type of wood (unfinished pine), absorbed the stain like a sponge and turned a deep brown. To remove the excess stain, I ended up applying a liberal amount of stain right on top of the tacky disaster, and wiping away immediately (same premise as removing nail polish with nail polish in a pinch).
The wood tabletop was left darkened, but not nearly as dark as I wanted. So I did about 3 super thin coats, applied with a tee-shirt rag, in circles (almost as if I was lightly buffing the wood). I wiped the excess off within 5-10 minutes with medium pressure. Any light spots can be spot-stained. Each coat should dry for 6-8 hours before re-coating. This is what the table looked like just after 2 coats of stain, but before evening out the light, uneven marks:
5) FINISHING WITH POLY
At this point, you should have a piece of furniture that is relatively uniform in color. You'll need to apply a polyurethane topcoat to seal in the stain and ensure the piece is water-resistant and will stand up to everyday wear. I opted for a satin-finish Wipe-on Poly, which is a mix of regular poly varnish and mineral spirits. It's very thin and designed to be applied in several layers. The great thing about this is that it's totally idiot-proof (ie: the one step that I had NO problems with) and easy to apply on irregular surfaces (curves and vertical planes). It's also great for use in areas that are dusty...the surface dries to the touch fairly quickly, so you can avoid having dust settle into the wet varnish.
I poured some of the poly into a shallow, plastic take-out container. Using a tightly rolled tee-rag, I applied the poly in long, single strokes (going with the grain of the wood). I overlapped previous strokes to ensure that I was getting a uniform look. Because it's applied so thin, and in several coats (I've read people recommend anywhere from 4-10 coats), you won't get application marks and will eventually end up covering the entire piece. Each coat should dry 2-3 hours before re-coating. Before re-coating, lightly sand the surface with very fine-grit sandpaper (I think this is to remove bubbles or imperfections), but I only did this between the 1st and 3rd coats. I did 4 coats total.
Let the piece dry 24-48 hours before use. I wouldn't even handle it for at least 8 hours. I'm so happy with how our table turned out...the slightly imperfect color is awesome and gives it a handmade feel. I completed the whole project over 2 weeks, with 2-3 days of work at a time. For fun, I also stained our new Ikea Tryta bench (which comes as unfinished pine wood). Does it look like a $9.99 bench to you?