How to Remove Paint From Wood Furniture

Man working on removing paint from wood furniture

 

aywan88 / Getty Images 

That piece of old wood furniture you bought may be a real gem hidden under layers of faded paint. If you could just remove that paint, you might reveal gorgeous hardwood or honeyed pine, ready to receive a new varnish, hand-rubbed oil, or maybe even a new paint color.

The best way to remove paint from wood furniture is the one that balances your desire for fully stripped furniture with your patience and tolerance for chemicals and scraping. Stripping paint from wood furniture is never easy because it's usually full of nooks and crannies, not to mention fine details that you don't want to muddle. But with a smart multi-pronged attack using the correct tools and materials, you will have beautiful wood furniture to be proud of.

Tools and Materials

Ignore gimmicky paint removal systems and stick to the basics. These items have long been proven to do the job right:

  • Heat gun: A heat gun looks like a hair dryer, except it blasts air that's hot enough to catch paper instantly on fire—or to melt paint.
  • Scrapers and scrubbers: Pick up a small variety of inexpensive metal and plastic scrapers, including a 5-in-1 tool, a bag of steel wool, and a metal bristle brush. Alternatively, you can try household items like old credit cards, teaspoons, flat-head screwdrivers, toothbrushes, etc.
  • Paint stripper: You can choose a caustic, solvent, or biochemical stripper. Caustic strippers use lye as the main ingredient and turn the paint into a thick, soapy film. Solvents quite effectively loosen the bond between the paint and the wood, but they are the most dangerous type to breathe. Biochemical strippers include popular citrus-based products. These work the slowest and require more scraping, but they are the safest to use and emit fewer noxious fumes.
  • Lead paint test kit: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes only two widely available DIY lead paint test kits: 3M LeadCheck, and D-Lead. Test old paint for lead, and if you find any, don't do any dry scraping or sanding.
  • Safety equipment: Use thick rubber gloves rated for chemical use, a breathing respirator, and safety glasses.
  • Sandpaper: Get a variety of coarse and fine sandpapers.

Test Paint for Lead

In 1978, the U.S. federal government banned the sale of lead-based paint on the consumer market. Lead has been traced to a range of health concerns, chiefly among children. By definition, the older your painted wood furniture is, the greater the chance it will have been coated with lead-based paint. Chip off the correct amount of paint required by the kit and test it yourself or send it off to a lab for professional testing. 

Remove or Cover Sensitive Areas

Anything that will not get stripped of paint that can be removed (knobs, pulls, hinges, etc.) should be removed. This will make your job much easier. If you have items that cannot be removed (such as upholstery), cover with heavy plastic sheeting and secure it with painter's tape.

Start With the Heat Gun

Remove as much paint as possible with the heat gun and metal scrapers. You may get lucky and this will remove all of the paint. Most likely, though, it will remove some paint but not all of it.

Heat guns applied to wood can start fires. Be sure to read all of the safety advice in the manual. Start with the gun turned to its lowest wattage and hold far away from the furniture piece. Do not point the gun in one place. Instead, move slowly in a circular motion. The weakest paint will begin to curl up. In more difficult areas, gently scrape with a metal scraper. The paint should soften and become clay-like, which can be scraped up and lifted away.

Proceed to Paint Strippers

After you have removed as much paint as possible with the heat gun, use a paint stripper to take off the rest. If you are at all averse to chemicals, a citrus-based stripper is best. The smell is not offensive, and some users even find it pleasant. It is non-toxic and non-corrosive.

Move the furniture outside or into a well-ventilated area. Put on your gloves and respirator mask. Sand the remaining paint lightly to scuff it up and make it easier for the stripper to work on the paint.

Apply the stripper as directed by the manufacturer, using the recommended type of brush. Wait the requisite amount of time for the stripper to soften the paint.

Scrape the Softened Paint

A familiar adage with paint strippers is: Let the stripper do the work. All strippers need a certain amount of time to do their job. Prior to that time, you are only creating more work for yourself. But if you wait too long, the softened paint will eventually harden. For example, citrus-based strippers should be allowed to sit for at least 30 minutes but no more than 24 hours.

You should only have to gently scrape away the remaining softened paint.