The chair hiding under that chipped, dull finish or old paint may be a vintage antique, but even if it is not vintage, it is bound to look better with a new finish than it does now. The first step in any refinishing job is the least appealing: stripping the old finish. Paint and finish manufacturers have devised a number of low volatile organic compound alternatives to oil paints and varnishes, but the process of stripping furniture still relies primarily on noxious and corrosive chemicals. So get out your rubber gloves, goggles and apron and find a well-ventilated workspace.
Spread a canvas dropcloth on the floor, and place the chair upside-down on it. You'll find it easier to work if you have a bench on which to place the chair that raises it about 2 feet off the floor.
Put on goggles, a rubber apron and rubber gloves and open a can of paint stripper. The most effective products contain methylene chloride, which can burn the skin. You can use a product with a soya or orange oil base instead, but it will work more slowly, and you still need protection from it.
Pour a pint of the stripper into a 1-quart jar and paint it generously on the chair legs with an old paintbrush. Don't leave any part of the wood uncovered. Allow the stripper time to work until you see the paint or finish bubble or lift.
Scrape as much of the stripper from the legs as you can with a paint scraper. Deposit the used stripper on a sheet of old newspaper to make it easier to throw away. Work the corner of the scraper into crevices and molding to get off as much finish as possible.
Paint the leg with stripper again and wait for it to work. Rub it off with an abrasive scrubber, washing the scrubber off with lacquer thinner when it gets clogged. Use an ice pick or awl to get into corners and crevices.
Turn the chair over and strip the back and seat in the same way. If the chair has an intricate back, it may be better to strip that completely before you strip the seat.
Take the chair outside and wash it down with a garden hose. The water washes off most of the residue, and it neutralizes what little stripper is left. Let the chair dry for a day before you sand it.