Best Way to Strip Off Old Burlap?

Best Way to Strip Off Old Burlap?

I have an old trunk that was apparently covered at one time with burlap. Most of the burlap has disintegrated and is long gone. I would like to refinish this trunk. The trunk’s surfaces are covered with what I assume are the remains of the adhesive used to secure the missing burlap. What is the best way to remove this substance? I have tried sanding, but it is a slow and labor-intensive remedy. The sandpaper clogs up really fast.  I have wiped the chest down with naphtha, acetone, alcohol, mineral spirits and even warm water in attempts to loosen and remove this substance. A card scraper works, but again, is there a quicker, more efficient way to proceed? – Gary M. Crofcheck

Tim Inman:  Furniture restorers and veterinarians have something in common: our “patients” can’t talk to us. If only that old trunk could tell us what that glue is, or when that burlap was put on, or how and by whom.

Regardless of when and where, there are two “most likely” adhesives to consider in this case. One is simply good old hide glue. The other is a gummy material often referred to as “mastic.” True mastic comes from a natural tree resin. In fact, the tree is commonly known as mastic. It exudes the resin much like pine trees ooze rosin. This material was collected and used to make a rubbery semi-flexible adhesive compound to bind things like fabric and leather to furniture – and often tile to floors. Modern mastic materials are compounds of similar but manmade materials. Unfortunately, it is pretty inert. Most solvents will not liquefy it, and it gums up the abrasives when you try to sand it away, as you know. Much stronger solvents or heat would be my line of attack.

First, I would try the strongest methylene chloride paint remover you can find. (The heavier the can, the more methylene chloride content inside, as a rule, because the specific gravity of methylene chloride is very high compared to alcohols.) Do a test spot to see if this is going to work. Put on a generous dollop of remover and then cover it with plastic to hold in the remover vapors. Wait an hour or so to see if this is working. Heat might also help, so try putting the piece in the sun while the remover is in place. Work outside, of course. If this doesn’t work, then a contractor’s heat gun and a scraper are about your next best friends. Fortunately, other things will bond to the leftover mastic. So 100 percent removal probably is not necessary.

On the other hand, if the adhesive is hide glue, then water and heat will do the trick. As you will quickly tell from the relative space I’m giving each adhesive, I’m betting you’re dealing with mastic.

Chris Marshall: Here’s my experience with a tenacious old tile adhesive I believe to have been mastic: after trying a variety of removal chemicals on it with no success, I finally was able to peel it off the walls of our bathroom with a heat gun and a paint scraper. The brownish, dried adhesive held on some ugly, thin painted metal tiles that just had to go. To my relief, using a heat gun and working carefully didn’t damage the drywall underneath. When I heated it up, the adhesive simply released its grip, blistered up and was easy to scrape off without leaving residue behind. Heat was the miracle cure in my situation! But, use caution if you try this: a heat gun can quickly turn a surface from super hot to scorched black — you don’t want to send that old trunk of yours up in flames.

Rob Johnstone: One solvent that you didn’t mention is lacquer thinner, which might be just the ticket. If the burlap was attached with contact cement, lacquer thinner is the best solvent. If that does not work, you could always test with some paint remover. If all else seems to fail, go nuclear: start with some 36-grit sandpaper and just work up through the grits. If you don’t skip any grits, you will be surprised how quickly each successive sanding will go. Remember, you are only trying to remove the previous sanding marks in each step. But, I really hope the lacquer thinner does the trick.

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  • Graeme Coles

    My mother was a demon for eucalyptus oil for removing pine gum, tar, red-lead plant and similarly recalcitrant sources of fun for kids. Given its composition, I’m not surprised it dealt with such nasties!. Another option, that is likely to be much cheaper, is a product called “Miracle Kum-Klean” (sic). I’ve used it to clean up both dried acrylic and oil-based enamel from inside favorite paintbrushes. Worth a try.

  • Ramon Pullmann

    I would try the Blue Bear soybean-ester based paint remover. It’s non-toxic, washes up with water and softens and removes paint and epoxy. I have not encountered the glue that you’re up against, so I don’t know how the Blue Bear would work on it.

  • Garrison Traver

    In my early years as an antiques dealer I stripped dozens of trunks. Probably over 100. Started in 1976. Everyone wanted them stripped and lacquered for end tables and coffee tables then. These trunks were made for heavy traveling in ships, rail cars, stage coaches and open horse drawn wagons! The flat tops were for stacking and camel backs were for the top of coaches to repel the weather.

    They always used a water based glue that would soften if you can get the glue under the canvas wet. The surface of the canvas always had protective paint that would repel water when new. I always cut around the edges with a sheetrock knife first. Sometimes you can just pull up a corner with a knife and peel back that section easily when dry. Hot water helps, if the interior has a clean lining don’t completely soak the trunk with a water hose! These new clothes steamers work well for a section at a time. Once the canvas is off get the glue wet and use a pull type paint scraper and fiber scrubber to get all the glue off.

    If the paper or cloth interior is messed up you can hose and scrape it until clean. I have relined them with wallpaper or with thin cotton calico fabric. I have also sanded a lot of interiors and left them bare wood.

    If the canvas is clean or if it has even halfway decent leather you might consider leaving it alone, you will appreciate its history later. The biggest mistake I ever made was stripping the canvas and interior off a very clean Louis Vuitton trunk!