Sanding and varnishing a church podium

Hi, ~ What do people use to sand hard-to-reach areas, like engrave letters on wood, and round surfaces? ~ Also, how can I check and test first what is the proper varnish I should use on that type of very old wood? ~ I am a member of a very old church (well, at least for new-world standards) (http://stmarysharlem.org /) and I want to make sure that I am doing the least possible harm; if any ~ I need your advice please! ~ Thanks lbrtchx
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To get around those hard to get to areas, try pushing sandpaper strips across the areas with a small wooden implement.
For small areas that you can't get any real movement that have finish buildup, try your Dremel tool with the appropriates set up.
On the other hand, you can do some good removal with a homemade scraper. Cut down an old steak knife into a thin, flexible shape (grind off the cutting edge!) and use the tip to get into hard to reach places. These can be found anywhere and can be ground easily to a useful shape.
To see what kind of finish you have on the wood, you can use the old "rule of thumb" on a place where you won't see your test. Make sure you do this in an area that hasn't been waxed, oiled, preserved or anything else as it will screw up the test.
The following is considering you were talking about clear finsihes.
This works pretty well, but isn't a perfect test: On the wood, put a large drop of anhydrous alcohol. Next to it, put a large drop of lacquer thinner. You may need to add a drop now and then to keep the surface wet. Give it a couple of hours to work on the surface.
If the shellac drop gets gooey, you have shellac for a finish. You will have further proof if the drop of lacquer thinner does nothing.
On the other hand, if the lacquer thinner side gets gooey, you have a lacquer finish. If both sides get gooey, some wise guy got cute and mixed them.
In any event, both of these finishes are easy to sand down and can be easily top coated with more of the same.
If neither of those dissolves the finish, you may have varnish or possibly polyurethane. If the piece is old, you probably don't have polyurethane. If you have varnish you can Google "varnish repair" and "varnish removal" and you will get all you need to refinish.
Robert
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On Thu, 04 Sep 2008 22:33:36 -0400, Albretch Mueller

If I could not remove the letters, I'd use small pieces of sandpaper and magnifying glasses. May want to avoid steel wool. This may be very tedious and time-consuming.

Test on the underside of the piece.

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You don't say why you are doing this, but if refinishing is what you're after, sanding may not be the right way to go at all. A lot of carvings get their look from the tools that were used to produce them. If you sand, particularly if you sand incised lettering, you will round over the nice crisp edges that were left by gouges and chisels.
I would suggest that you look into stripping the finish chemically - an unpleasant, tedious process, but one that won't remove any wood (if you are careful!). There will be many hours of painstaking work involved, but it will leave the details the way the original craftsman intended.
You will have to find out what the original finish is first - if you're lucky, it will be shellac, and you won't need anything nastier than denatured alcohol to strip it. If it is truly varnish, it gets more difficult and messy.
You have some homework to do before you start - good luck!
Scott
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