How to Remove Paint From Wood Furniture

Man working on removing paint from wood furniture


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That piece of wood furniture you bought is a treasure, a gem hidden under layers of paint. Now if you could just remove that paint, you would be in business. Gorgeous hardwood will beam through, ready to receive lustrous varnish or even paint again, but the kind of paint it deserves.

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. Imagine the difficulty of removing paint from a flat surface like house siding, then multiply it several times over for furniture. Yet it can be done quite successfully. With a smart multi-pronged attack of 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 hot enough to catch paper instantly on fire–or to melt paint.
  • Purchased Scrapers: Pick up a small variety of inexpensive metal and plastic scrapers, including a 5-in-1 tool, bag of steel wool, and a metal bristle brush.
  • "Found" Scrapers: From around the house, use old credit cards, teaspoons, old 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 and ingest. 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.
  • Safety Equipment: Use thick rubber gloves rated for chemical use, a breathing respirator and safety glasses.
  • Sandpaper: Both coarse and fine grain sandpaper.

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 myriad 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 6-millimeter plastic sheeting and hold it firm 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 for you. 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 enclosed 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 with an acceptable paint brush; usually, the instructions on the stripper will tell you which kind to use. Apply in a thin layer. 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. This means that strippers have a certain amount of time that is needed to do its job. Prior to that time, you are only creating more work for yourself. Wait too long and 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.