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How to Remove Polyurethane From Wood Without Chemicals

I’m Zoe.
My mission is to teach you to  confidently build magazine-worthy DIYs. I used to be terrified of power tools, which is why I'm a firm believer that ANYONE can DIY.
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Price

<$25

Time

<4 Hours

Difficulty

Medium

sanding table to remove polyurethane and stain from wood

There’s an unspoken rule of DIY:

One project always leads to another, which leads to another. It’s a never-ending cycle really. Whenever we start a project, it always snowballs in 5 more and Andrew hates it. I can’t stop thinking about the next thing and he can’t stand to think about the next thing until the current thing is finished.

So when we were updating our screened porch, we thought we were almost done. We had almost completed 5 projects without coming up with a single new project to do. Almost.

Then I looked at our fire pit table. It didn’t match our new design and colors at all, but I didn’t want to build a new one. I looked at the poor table that had already been stained, painted, and sealed three times and insisted that we refinish it.

Andrew didn’t like the idea because stripping all that poly usually requires some pretty harsh chemicals. I looked around for natural removal methods and every time I thought I got close to finding one, I realized it really was too good to be true.

So I decided to modify a mild varnish remover that I found from Hunker, but I was going to take out the main ingredient: ammonia.

Did it work?

For us it did! We were able to get 3 coats of poly, paint, and stain off of our fire pit table and start fresh. Fair warning, you might be spending an hour (or several) sanding.

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How to remove polyurethane from wood without chemicals

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Before we dive in, I want to offer a word of caution. This method worked for us, but we had a few readers reach out saying that it didn’t work for them and actually stained their wood.

Upon further investigation, it seems that the baking soda was likely the issue. Baking soda reacts with the tannins in wood. Tannin levels vary from wood type, but woods with high tannin levels can have a chemical reaction when it comes in contact with baking soda.

Pine has very low tannin levels, which explains why this method worked fine for us. The low tannin levels weren’t enough to cause a chemical reaction with the wood but helped to strip the polyurethane.

Oak, mahogany, cherry, and maple tend to have higher tannin levels. If you’re planning to strip furniture that is made from one of these woods, I’d recommend trying another method like sanding or a chemical stripper.

Step 1: create your varnish removal mixture

Boil 4 cups of water and remove it from the stove. Mix together 1/2 cup cold water and 1 cup cornstarch until it creates a thick paste. Pour your 4 cups of water into a bucket and add 3/4 cup baking soda and 1 tbsp of vinegar. Stir it all together and then add in your cold water and cornstarch.

Step 2: put the mixture on your furniture

Cover your furniture with the mixture using a cloth or paintbrush. Let it sit on your furniture for a few minutes.

Step 3: scrub

Scrub your furniture with 3M Heavy Duty Stripping Pads or wire brushes. Don’t be afraid to apply some pressure!

When your furniture is no longer feeling slick, you’ve successfully removed the polyurethane and are ready to sand! Note: you can skip the scrubbing, but sanding is significantly quicker if you do complete step 3. I tried it both ways! If you do skip the scrubbing make sure the mixture is dry to the touch before sanding.

step 4: sand

Sand your furniture using 60 grit sandpaper until the majority of the color is gone and the natural wood is revealed.

Sand using 80 grit sandpaper to smooth your furniture back out. 60 grit will not leave your furniture feeling great, but you will spend a lot less time using the 80 grit than you had to spend on the 60 grit.

Sand using 120 grit sandpaper for a smoother finish. Continue sanding using higher grit sandpaper until you achieve your desired smoothness. We stopped at 120.

Step 5: wipe the surface

Wipe your surface to remove any remaining sawdust. Once the surface is wiped clean, you’re ready to refinish your furniture!

how to remove polyurethane without harsh chemicals

Sure, using harsh chemicals probably could’ve gotten the job done faster, but at what risk? If something says it might burn your skin, I say no thank you!

I would rather put in a little more time and know that I’m not at risk of damaging my skin or breathing in toxic fumes. So there you have it, you can remove polyurethane from wood without chemicals.

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  1. Scottncheryl says:

    This did not work! Total waste of time!

  2. Megan says:

    I think it worked! Lol I am a total newbie at DIY, and yet I’ve decided to try and conquer our orange oak cabinets.
    Question though, do you let it dry after scrubbing the polyurethane off, or sand while it is still damp?

    • Zoe Hunt says:

      I’m glad to hear it worked for you! If you’re going to be tackling a lot of cabinets, some chemical strippers would make the job go a lot faster.

      I waited about 10 minutes after scrubbing the polyurethane off before sanding, so it was still a little damp.

      • Jenny says:

        Go hi the only thing I am trying to do is remove the polyurethane from a new stained beam. I loved the beam when it was first sanded and stained! Then the guy apples a clear coat of gloss polyurethane, and I hate it!!!😫😫 what can I do plz help!!

  3. It worked just as you described. :). Thanks so much… worked great !

  4. Robert says:

    Thank you for this guide. I coated one of my table tops with a couple layers of polyurethane. Then I changed my mind and decided to repaint it a different color to match another piece. I wanted to fix the table without having to waste any more time or money at the store. This article helped me remedy my mistake with items I already had on hand in the kitchen. I went easy on the baking soda, just in case, and I used the rough side of a kitchen sponge to scrub. I’m glad your page popped up during my search for guidance.

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