How to Strip Paint From Wood
Sanding, Natural Options and the Best Chemical Paint Strippers to Use
If you have some painted woodwork or furniture you want to restore, you might need to strip the old paint from the wood. You can sand off the old paint, but it may give you an uneven finish or damage the wood. Sanding is also labor-intensive, dusty, and if the item was painted before 1978, it might have lead in the paint, which should never be sanded for health reasons.
Fortunately, you can strip paint from wood without needing to sand it by using a paint stripper, a chemical compound that softens the paint and makes it easier to scrape from the wood. A paint stripper is one of the best ways to remove paint from wood. Paint stripper is notorious for being harsh, but newer formulations have dialed back some of the more caustic elements.
Manufacturers also make paint strippers that use natural ingredients to get the job done. Natural products take a bit longer than the other versions, so your decision will depend on your stance on eco-friendly chemicals and the amount of time you have to accomplish your task.
For this project, a regular paint stripper was used on an old painted milk door to bring it back to its original state. Follow along to learn how to strip paint from wood in a few easy steps, including tips for speeding up the process and safety recommendations.
Natural Options to Remove Paint From Wood
If you prefer to strip paint without using chemicals, several home remedies or natural alternatives include heat guns, water pressure treatment, sanding, scrapers, vinegar, and citrus-based paint removers. Citrus-based paint removers contain some chemicals, but the active ingredient is plant-based and likely more eco-friendly.
Vinegar contains a mild acid that softens the paint, making the paint easier to scrape away. It's easy to heat a vinegar water solution and dab the warm liquid on the surface. Let it sit for 15 minutes before scraping. Retry if it doesn't work the first time.
A heat gun is another excellent option, also softening the paint. Applying heat is also one of the fastest ways of removing paint. It does not add any chemicals to the project; however, when heating the paint, it aerosolizes and can become a harmful vapor. This method is a little risky because it may catch fire or burn the wood.
Water pressure, sanding, and scrapers are mechanical methods of removing the paint by rubbing, abrading, or applying pressure to release the paint from the surface.
This project should be undertaken in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors. Be sure to wear gloves, a mask, safety glasses, an apron, and protective clothing before beginning. Do not attempt this project in open-toed shoes or shorts.
How to Strip Paint From Wood
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Metal putty knife
- Protective eyewear
- Paint stripper of choice
- Mineral spirits or water
- Steel wool
Apply Paint Stripper
First, apply the paint stripper according to the manufacturer's directions. Most products will advise you to brush on the stripper in a thick coat using brushstrokes in one direction. Remember, the thinner the layer, the less effective the stripper will work. Don't skimp on this step. You will begin to see results in under 20 minutes.
If you are using an environmentally-friendly stripper that isn't as potent, or you have a ton of layers of paint to strip, wrap the entire piece in plastic wrap after the first coat is applied. Wait 15-24 hours for the stripper to start peeling back the paint.
Wait for Paint to Bubble
You'll know the first layer of paint is ready to be stripped once you see it bubble. If you have plastic wrap over your wood, slowly peel back a corner to check.
Whatever you do, don't leave the wood too long with the stripper and paint on it. When you start scraping, you want the stripper to still be wet to the touch. If the stripper and paint dry, they can harden back into the wood and become harder to remove.
Scrape With Metal Putty Knife
Carefully start scraping back layers of paint using a metal putty knife. Be careful not to be too aggressive here because you could gouge the wood. In most cases, not all the paint comes up with the first pass, and that's okay. Don't force it. Just scrape back whatever paint comes up easily.
Don't use a plastic putty knife for this project if you're using a heavy-duty paint stripper because the stripper could melt the plastic.
Reapply Stripper as Necessary
You might need to add and scrape off three to four coats of stripper before all the paint is removed. A lot will depend on how many layers of paint are on the wood and the type of paint and stripper used.
Clean With Mineral Spirits
Once you've gotten as much paint off as you can, clean up the remaining stripper using mineral spirits and a cloth. Some environmentally-friendly strippers will tell you to use water instead. Follow the manufacturer's directions, but keep in mind that water can open up the grain of the wood.
Use Steel Wool on Stubborn Spots
After cleaning up most of the stripper with mineral spirits and cloth, use a fine piece of steel wool dunked in mineral spirits to get the last bits off. Steel wool helps lift more paint and stain than cloth alone.
Prep Wood for Refinishing
Once you get off as much paint as possible, it's time to prep the wood for refinishing. Optionally, give the wood a final rub down with some paint thinner. Once dry, give the wood a light sanding to smooth the edges. It's ready for refinishing.
Does paint thinner remove paint from wood?
Paint thinner was not made to remove paint from wood; however, if you have newly painted oil-based paint, you can try to remove it with paint thinner and a wire brush. For all other paint removal projects, stick to using a paint stripper if going a chemical route to remove paint from the wood surface.
Do you have to strip wood before painting?
If you're painting over an old paint job that's not crumbling, feathering, or chipping, you don't have to remove the old paint. If you intend to stain the wood, you would need to strip any old paint or varnish for the stain to penetrate the wood. You might want to sand the wood if it has a glossy sheen so the new paint adheres easily.
Do I have to sand all the paint off wood?
For most projects, you only need to sand and scrape off loose, cracking, chipping, or peeling paint. However, all paint needs to be sanded off the wood that will be stained.
Litchfield, Michael W. Renovation. Taunton, 2005.