Paint stripper removes stain, too, right?

So if you strip a piece of furniture and it still looks stained, that must just be the color of the wood? I didn’t do such a great job of getting the finish out of the carving and stuff, but even where some snotty-looking stuff scraped off the wood doesn’t look “bare” to me - it’s still a dark color. I’m terrible at identifying woods, but is it appropriate to assume that I’ve gotten the finish off and can proceed once I get the rest of it? It’s a lovely color, but I’m afraid of screwing it up - never done this stripping thing before.

No, stain does just what it says…it soaks into and stains the wood. Unless you seal the wood first, and then apply stain to get a moer uniform look, the stain is in the wood, and sometimes pretty deep. The only way to get it out and have that “bare wood” look again is to sand it.

That might be because stain works by soaking into the wood. I don’t recall ever using a chemical to strip stain. The only way I’ve ever gotten rid of stain was to sand it down.

I’ve done quite a bit of furniture staining, very little painting, and no stripping. My feeling, however, is that paint stripper is not going to remove stain. Stains and dyes penetrate the wood at least to a small degree. They do not lie on top of the wood. To remove a stain requires, I think, sanding and/or planing (where possible). Be aware that furniture can be covered with just about anything: shellac, polyurethane, various blends of varnish, boiled linseed oil, various manifestations of so-called tung oil, milk paint, gel stains, dyes, etc. Getting everything off right down to bare wood can take some work.

You might find a very inconspicuous spot on the piece (the underside, for example, or the back of one of the back legs) and do a very little sanding in one small spot to see if you arrive at a lighter color of wood. I personally *wouldn’t *do this if it were a very valuable piece. I’d let an expert have a look instead. If you do sand the underside to see whether you find lighter wood, be aware as well that builders sometimes use “secondary wood” (cheaper) in generally unseen areas. That is, the wood on the underside, or back or on drawer sides/bottoms generally will not be the same type as the beautiful wood on the front and top and sides of the piece.

It’s possible that the wood was stained and then later painted during the craze where everyone wanted an all-white room. My wife has removed white paint from a dozen pieces, but usually came down to wood that had maybe been oiled only before being painted later in life. It took some sanding to get everything off (paint and oil) and then she oiled it up with boiled linseed oil.

I’ve been assuming that the original finish (it’s a family “heirloom”, the kind Uncle Joe finds when he’s cleaning out his garage after the big flood) was shellac or something. I’m fine with the color and don’t feel the need to get back to bare wood assuming I wouldn’t be screwing anything up by just redoing the finish on top of what I have. My understanding is that the previous finish (as opposed to stain) is gone when there’s no more shiny spots, right?

You can lighten a stain a little with a chemical stripper, but you’ll not remove it completely without serious sanding.
Just make sure you remove all traces of the previous finish or sealant before you reseal. Be very carefull to clean out any residue in the carvings. Make it look as good as finished before you put the finish on because the sealant is only going to highlight any imperfections - not cover them. You’re also asking for adhesion trouble when you don’t know the original finish and you put a new one on. Some finishes won’t stick to other previous ones.

Without getting into a long, boring blather about terminology, I’d say that the topcoat of the previous finish is probably gone once there are no more shiny spots. That doesn’t mean all of the finish is gone. Many pieces have multiple layers of finish. Apart from stain, there may also be oil. There may also still be an initial “washcoat” of something like shellac that was put on before the stain.

Solfy’s final point is excellent, though. Assuming you’ve removed all you intend to remove (and it sounds as though you have), what are you now going to apply? If there’s still a fair amount of oil on the wood, for example, shellac won’t stick very well. And if you’ve never applied shellac before, I wouldn’t go that route anyway, not without practice. Whatever you do, test it somewhere inconspicuous, or even on another less-important, similarly-finished piece from Uncle Joe’s garage.

Of course, there’s finishing and there’s finishing and there’s finishing. I participate in some woodworking boards where the posters are insane about the quality of the finish. You might not be so picky. But if you are picky, I’d urge you to do a little more research before applying anything to your heirloom.

There are wood bleaches that can remove some kinds of wood stain without sanding. Here is an articlediscussing the various options.