How to Strip Paint From Wood

Removing Paint from Wood

White painted wood cabinet
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Do you have some woodwork or furniture that's been painted that you're looking to restore? There are several methods to remove paint from wood. Some people who don't want to use chemicals opt to sand the entire piece, but this may result in an uneven finish and damage if you aren't familiar with sanding. It's also incredibly labor-intensive and dusty. A final word of warning is that if you suspect you might be dealing with lead paint, the wood should not be sanded. 

One of the most relied upon techniques to remove paint from wood involves paint stripper and some careful scraping. We decided to use paint stripper 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. We also provide some advice for speeding up the process and some essential safety tips. 

Gather Supplies

paint stripping supplies
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Before you start, you will need these tools and supplies:

  • Paint stripper of choice
  • Mineral spirits or water
  • Metal putty knife
  • Rags
  • Steel wool
  • Sandpaper
  • Gloves
  • Protective eyewear
  • Ventilator
  • Apron

Apply Paint Stripper

Paint stripper coated on wood
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The first step is to gear up with gloves, safety glasses, an apron, and protective clothing. Do not attempt this project in open-toed shoes or shorts. Make sure you're located in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors. 

Next, apply the paint stripper according to the manufacturer's directions. Most products will advise you to brush on the stripper in a very thick coat using brush strokes in one direction. Remember, the thinner the layer, the less effective the stripper will work. Don't skimp on this step.

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 is coat is applied. Then, you must wait anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours for the stripper to start peeling back the paint. We started to see results in under twenty minutes. 

Wait for Paint to Bubble

Paint stripper bubbling on wood
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You'll know the first layer of paint is ready to be stripped once you start to see it bubble. If you have plastic wrap over your wood, slowly peel back a corner to check. Once it looks like this photo, it's time for the next step. 

Whatever you do, don't leave the wood too long with the stripper and paint on it. If the stripper and paint dry, they can harden back into the wood and become harder to remove. You want the stripper to still be wet to the touch when you start scraping. 

Scrap with Metal Putty Knife

A piece of wood with paint scraped off
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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. 

Repeat Stripper as Necessary

Wood stripped of paint
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You might need to add 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 as well as the type of paint and stripper.

Clean With Mineral Spirits

A cloth on top of a piece of wood
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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

Steel wool sponge on wood
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After we cleaned up the majority of the stripper with the mineral spirits and cloth, we opted to go back in with a fine piece of steel wool that was also dunked in mineral spirits. This step helped lift more paint and stain than the cloth alone. 

Prep Wood for Refinishing

Wood with paint stripped completely off
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Once you get off as much paint as possible, it's time to prep the wood for refinishing. We opted to give the wood a final rub down with some paint thinner. Once it was dry, we gave the wood a light sanding to smooth the edges. Refinish wood as desired. Good luck!

Article Sources
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  1. Litchfield, Michael W. Renovation. Taunton, 2005.