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Here is a method for stripping old varnish from wood that my dad showed me more than 50 years ago. It works well on the old time varnishes and some paints and It is fast. I had a set of oak chairs that had carved areas to strip and refinish and this method did the job without hours of scraping.

Go to the grocery store or hardware store and get a can of lye ( sodium hydroxide ). I used Gilets brand. Dissolve the can or a portion of it in a glass jar, maybe a half can to a quart or so of water. Don't use a plastic or aluminum container as the lye is caustic and will eat them. Wear eye protection, rubber gloves, long pants and long sleeve shirt. Do this out side. Paint a liberal amount of the solution on a board using a natural fiber paint brush, no synthetic fiber. Keep the board wet, maybe do it in the shade and wait about 15 minutes. Hose it off with the garden hose.

You can experiment with the strength and time to wait. Be careful as this stuff can burn. You will notice that the solution heats up as it dissolves. Don't splash it around when applying. It worked well for me over the years and had the advantage of bleaching out the stain as well as stripping the varnish on those chairs I did. It won't work on the newer poly type finishes. It's worth a try as it is cheap to produce and effective to use. Just be careful.
 
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