My first advice regarding refinishing is – be cautious! The following statements are true and should be considered when contemplating refinishing an item:
The value of some early furniture with peeling old paint, when refinished, could be decreased by as much as 90%.
Many serious dealers and collectors of serious antiques will never give a refinished piece a furniture a second glance. They call stripped pieces “new antiques”.
There is good old finish, and there is bad old finish. Sometimes bad old finish can be good. Sometimes good old finish can be bad.
With 100% assuredness, once a hundred year old antique has been refinished, it will take one hundred years to build up the same wear, patina and surface again.
Probably 90% of the antiques available today are refinished. This is what people in general desire -- to see the natural grain of the wood, and to have a nice hard and shiny finish to protect the piece from wear and tear. However, the remaining 10% of antiques which retain a good and old surface are worth three or four times the value of a refinished piece.
With the above being said, refinishing antiques is a matter of personal taste and preference. If you are not comfortable living with a grungy old peeling paint, then by all means - don't. But, before you strip a piece of Ca. 1790 furniture in old surface and decrease its value by 90%, perhaps you should consider buying another piece – or buy one that has already been refinished.
There are a lot of Circa 1900 wonderful and affordable machine-made pieces just waiting to be refinished or painted to your liking. I find that a good washing with soap and water often does wonders for a piece you might find. Some pieces need a little more aggressive treatment ... and I sometimes use the finest grade of steel wool (OOOO) dipped in paint thinner/mineral spirits to lightly clean a piece of furniture. Remember: ALWAYS CLEAN IN THE SAME DIRECTION THAT THE GRAIN RUNS.
If these cleaning solutions don't work and you have not yet given up on the project – the next step would be to go with a commercial furniture stripper. Strippers are expensive to purchase and can be caustic and dangerous to use. If you use furniture stripper – be sure to follow the instructions on the label. Refinishing is messy and refuse must be disposed of properly.
If you choose not to refinish your own piece of furniture, there are commercial furniture stripping companies which will provide the service for you .... for a fee. Usually it is expensive to have the old finish removed, and then again expensive to have a new finish put on. A word of caution here is to be careful how much it costs to refinish a piece – to refinish a standard wooden kitchen chair can cost as much $75. but generally kitchen chairs can be purchased in a shop for around $25. My advice for non-advanced collectors is to buy something you like in the condition you like and enjoy it.