On large flat surfaces it’s most efficient to remove the bulk of the softened or dissolved finish or paint using a wide putty knife. Scrape off the sludge into a cardboard box. No matter which type of stripper you use, keep it wet until it works its way through the coating so you can remove it easily. Don’t fight it. “Let the stripper do the work.”
Clear finishes on almost all old furniture and woodwork are either shellac or lacquer. These will dissolve into a “gunk.” After scraping off the bulk of the finish, reapply the stripper and remove the remainder with a cloth or absorbent paper towels.
Most paints, varnishes and modern high-performance finishes hold together pretty well—that is, they don’t dissolve—but they do separate from the wood. So you need to get under them with a putty knife and lift them off, as shown in the accompanying picture.
Be sure to round over the sharp edges of the putty-knife blade using a file so they don’t scratch the wood.