From refinishing hardwood floors to flipping vintage furniture finds, there are plenty of reasons one would need to remove stains from wood. While sanding can sometimes be all it takes to get the job done, some old stains are stubborn and have simply penetrated the wood too deeply for sanding to be an effective solution.
Below, we’ll outline a stain-removal method that will both protect the wood surface and maximize the effectiveness of sanding, making your wood refinishing project a smooth process that yields great results.
What Is Wood Stain?
Wood stain is colorant that is applied to wood to alter the natural color of the wood.
Before You Begin
Oftentimes, the most difficult part of removing stain from wood isn't actually removing the stain, but removing the finish that's been applied on top of the stain. Common finishes you'll run into are polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, varnish, and many more. Simply sanding through these finishes isn't recommended, as they'll build up on the sandpaper, rendering it ineffective.
Additionally, when working with ornate wood pieces such as furniture legs, sanding simply isn't a viable option. To increase the effectiveness of your sanding efforts, chemically removing the wood finishes is often the best choice.
Whenever working with chemical stripping agents and wood finishing products, always work in a well-ventilated area and wear proper safety equipment like protective gloves and a respirator. Additionally, when working with liquid products that are prone to splashing, protective eyewear should always be worn.
Equipment / Tools
- Plastic scraper
- Protective gloves
- Medium steel wool
- Plastic cup
- Old natural paintbrush
- Synthetic paintbrush
- Stripping gel
- Plastic sheet or cling wrap (optional)
- Soapy water
- Mineral spirits
- 120- and 220-grit sandpaper
- Chlorine bleach
How to Remove Stain From Wood
Follow the steps below to strip stains and sealants from wood surfaces.
Prep the Wood Surface
Before stripping the finish, remove all hardware and clean the wood surface with soap and water and let dry.
Apply Stripping Gel
In a well-ventilated area, apply the stripping gel to the wood surface following the manufacturer's instructions. Rather than coat the entire piece, work on designated sections at a time. Allow the stripping gel to sit for 30 minutes to 24 hours depending on the product's directions.
Cover the Gel (optional)
While not a mandatory step, covering the gel with plastic can keep it from drying out, allowing it to have a longer working time. This can maximize its effectiveness for stripping thick wood finishes.
Scrape the Stripping Gel
Use a plastic scraper to scrape away the gel, taking the finish with it. Scrape the material directly into a trash bag.
Remove the Stripping Gel
Remove the remainder of the gel and finish using medium steel wool and mineral spirits. Follow up with a damp cloth to fully clean the surface, then let the wood dry thoroughly.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions on your specific stripping gel closely. If the instructions specify steps for neutralizing the stripper, follow the steps to do so before refinishing the wood.
Sand the Wood
Once the surface has thoroughly dried, sand it using 120- to 220-grit sandpaper to remove any remaining wood stain and finish.
How to Remove Wood Stain With Bleach
For deeply penetrating wood stains that are clinging to the wood, bleach can be an effective removal option. Refrain from using wood bleaches or two-part bleaches, as these will alter the wood's natural color. Standard chlorine bleach will only remove dyes and pigments from the wood, leaving the wood's natural hue intact.
Apply Bleach to the Wood
Once the finish has been stripped from the wood piece and the stripping gel and any sawdust has been thoroughly cleaned from the wood, carefully apply chlorine bleach to the surface using a synthetic paintbrush. Brush on an even layer to promote an even end result. Let the bleach dry for at least four hours.
Pouring the bleach into a handheld dish will make brushing it on the wood a much easier task, but refrain from using metal dishes as the bleach can react with the metal.
Neutralize the Bleach
While your wood may look great, the bleach must be neutralized before any finishes can be applied or the bleach may react with the finish. To neutralize the bleach, create a 1:1 solution of water and vinegar and thoroughly wipe down the entire surface of the wood. Let dry thoroughly.
Sand the Wood
Once the wood fully dries, knock the grain back down with 120-grit sandpaper, then follow with 220-grit sandpaper to smooth the surface.
Durrani T, Clapp R, Harrison R, Shusterman D. Solvent‐based paint and varnish removers: a focused toxicologic review of existing and alternative constituents. Journal of applied toxicology : JAT. Published online 2020.