Luckily, in many cases these well-built pieces of furniture can be restored to their intended glory. Advances in wood refinishing techniques, particularly chemical wood strippers, can allow a determined person to remove the masking paint from a well-built piece of furniture and refinish it with a protective finish that will once again show off the skills of the craftsman who built it.
Stripping the Finish:
A better method, in my estimation, is to use a chemical-based paint stripper to remove the majority of the paint. There are a few caveats to keep in mind. First of all, you will likely want to use paint strippers outside where there is plenty of ventilation, as the fumes can be pretty overpowering, not to mention unhealthy. Second, be sure to wear recommended rubber gloves, and of course, safety glasses to protect your eyes.
Paint strippers come in a variety of formulations, including liquids, gels and thicker pastes. If your project is large and some surfaces are vertical rather than horizontal, you will want to avoid liquid formulas, as they don't cling well to vertical surfaces. And no matter which type you choose, you'll need to be patient. Working in small areas at a time, apply the stripper of your choice to the wood and let it sit for the amount of time recommended by the label. Then scrape the area with a rounded putty knife (or take a standard putty knife and round over the edges with a bench grinder so that the corners of the knife don't scratch the wood. Lift off as much of the old finish as you can with the putty knife, but keep in mind that you may have to use two or three applications before you get the majority of the finish removed. After the majority of the finish is gone, follow the directions on the label for removing the residue from the stripper.
Once you are ready to begin sanding, put a medium-grit sanding disk onto a random orbital sander, and begin sanding to eliminate any rough spots on the wood. When sanding, even with a random orbital sander, always work with the grain to reduce sanding marks that you'll have to take out later. Once you're happy with the medium-grit sanding, switch out the disk for a fine grit, and repeat the process. Work through about four levels of sanding disks, getting progressively finer as you go to smooth out the surface. Once you've completed sanding with the finest grit disks you want to use, go over the entire project with a thorough hand sanding (always working with the grain) to eliminate any marks left behind by the sander.
Inspection and Sealing:
The next step is to apply a pre-stain wood conditioner that will help to even out the color of the stain once it is applied. While pre-stain conditioners typically are used on softwoods to eliminate the blotchy appearance that staining gives to these woods, it can also help a previously-painted piece to be prepared for staining, much like priming before painting a project.
No matter how you choose to finish your project, you can be certain that your time, effort and patience will be rewarded.