How To Remove Paint From Wood

How to Remove Paint From Wood Without Damaging the Wood

You know those kitchen cabinets or that retro piece of furniture has great potential somewhere under those multiple layers of paint.

If only you could find a way to uncover the true beauty of the wood surface that lays beneath a layer of nasty-looking paint?

Well keep reading, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know about how to remove paint from wood to reveal the (hopefully) lovely wooden surface buried under all that gunk.

First, you need to determine if your paint stripping project is worth the time and effort. Do you know if the original wood surface had a paint or varnish coating? Before you go through the trouble of removing paint from the whole piece, you should find out.

Choose a spot that’s not noticeable and scrape down through the paint as a test. If you find that the first layer of paint was applied directly to the wood, stripping and staining likely won’t be a good bet.

On the other hand, if your test scraping reveals varnish beneath the layers of paint, you can get started on your strip-and-stain rescue project. 

Leave It to the Pros or Do It Yourself?

Next, before you think about how to remove paint from wood yourself, you’ll need to decide whether you should leave the task to the professionals or give it the do-it-yourself treatment.

Are you comfortable with the size, scope, and complexity of the paint stripping job process? Be sure to ask yourself a few questions before you start making a mess trying to remove paint from wood yourself as one of your home projects.

But if you’re up for a challenge, maybe this is the DIY job to attempt on a lazy Sunday afternoon. While you will need a few hand tools and consumable items, but you won’t have to break the bank to complete such a project.

Who knows, if you succeed with unraveling the best of what’s underneath the exterior and restoring the wood’s authentic rustic look, you might be able to create something super unique as a special DIY gift for a friend or family member?

On-Site or Off-Site?

Can you transport the piece easily? You could take a door off the hinges or put a bookcase in a truck to deliver it to a professional to do the work.

Does the wood piece contain elaborate detail? You’ll face a significant challenge if the wood features intricate carving and crevices. You may need the services of a professional with a vat large enough to soak the item in a chemical paint stripper for satisfactory results.

If the answer to either of these questions is YES, you should consider letting an expert handle removing paint from wood at a professional site.

Do you have an adequate amount of room in your home environment that you can spare as a space where you can remove paint through the use of a strong-smelling stripper?

Remember that the process of removing the layers of an old paint finish with steel wool or a utility knife, followed by using a sander or sandpaper on the wood, will be extremely messy and may be damaging if the debris touches other surfaces or furniture.

Do you need to finish your project by a deadline? Are you working on something that would be a hassle to remove?

One option would be to hire a professional to come to your site to do the work, since a pro can remove paint and add a new finish much more efficiently than you can, as a general rule.

Leave It To The Pros Or Do It Yourself
Image: Deuxieme

The Big Question: Does the Old Paint Contain Lead?

The United States didn’t ban lead paint use in homes until the late 1970s, so if the painted wood dates before then, you may be dealing with lead-based paint, which could be toxic.

You can buy a kit to swab and test for lead at home. You’ll need to gather some paint chips and send them out for lab testing, or you can also hire an inspector to come into your home to do an X-ray fluorescence check.  

Lead can increase your blood pressure and damage your nervous system. It also poses a severe risk to any children or pregnant women in the home. If you’re determined to do the task on your own, be sure to take serious safety precautions over and above those methods required for removing other types of paint.

To prevent toxic chips and dust, you should use a chemical compound or heat gun to remove lead paint rather than a sander.

If sanding is the only option, wet-sand and uses a vacuum with a HEPA filter and shroud. Deposit any debris in contractor-grade bags that you then immediately seal with duct tape.

For safety reasons, you may want to hire a professional who holds EPA certification to tackle the paint stripping safely.

Does The Old Paint Contain Lead
Image: Lorford Santiques

What Method Should You Choose to Remove Paint from Wood?

“I’m ready to be a paint stripper. How hard can it be?” If you want to do a quality job, removing paint from wood shelves or rustic wooden furniture is not as easy as it sounds.

You’ll need more than a heat gun and sandpaper to bring out the true beauty of the wood surfaces beneath the painted surface. Be sure to follow a guide and use all precautions when you decide to remove paint.

Once you’ve decided to DIY, make sure you’re using the best products and processes for your job. When you want to remove paint from wood, you can choose sanding, heat, or chemical paint strippers for your paint removal projects.

Whichever method or product you choose, be sure to read all the fine print about the way to use it properly.

How to Remove Paint from Wood Using Sanders

Pick a power sander if you need to remove paint from a wide, flat wooden surface. Sandpaper is perfect for a small task.

Sanders are best-used outdoors since they create so much dust. If you need to use a sander for an indoor project, an attached vacuum can help with the mess.

However, sanders are a no-go for removing lead-based paint.

Step-by-Step Guide

Though you may be familiar with sanding, if you want your job to turn out well, here’s a step-by-step guide.

Step 1 – Clean

Start by cleaning your painted surface completely. You don’t need a fancy product. Your typical household cleaner, degreaser, and dishwashing liquid will do. Be sure to let the surface dry thoroughly.

Step 2 – Clear

Clear the object of any hardware, including handles, hinges, or knobs. Also, make sure to remove any screws or protruding nails if possible. Removing these items will make sanding and resurfacing the project easier.

Step 3 – Sand

When you begin, use coarse sandpaper on the wood surfaces. Eighty-grit is a good starting point. You’ll need to gauge the appropriate amount of pressure necessary to remove paint from wood without causing damage to the wood’s surface.

Pro tip: Be sure to sand with the grain of the wood, never against it.

As you remove more paint, you can downgrade and switch to medium- and then fine-grade sandpaper. Brush paint dust away as you switch sandpaper.

When you’ve finished sanding to remove paint, clean the wood with a damp cloth to remove any lingering dust.

If you’re sanding indoors, a vacuum bag is helpful to avoid getting dust into your home’s ventilation system.

Safety Tips for Sanding

Pro tip: To protect yourself from dust, you should use a face mask and goggles.

Remember, however – if you believe any of the paint dates to before 1978, you need to be concerned about lead poisoning.

Your project may require that you use a professional who has the proper safety equipment.

How to Remove Paint from Wood Using Heat Strippers

When the heat from one of these tools hits the wood surface, it softens and loosens the paint so you can scrape it off easily with a metal scraper. Heat stripping can help you eliminate numerous layers of paint that have been around for years.

Be aware of the potential for fumes and burnt wood, however, if you’re not careful. Have a fire extinguisher handy. Again, try to avoid allowing these to get into your ventilation system.

If you’re considering using the heat-and-scrape method to remove oil-based or latex paint from wood, you have three different heat options to choose from:

  • Heat guns, with high and low settings, are similar to hairdryers but with more power. They’re ideal for tight spaces. The challenge will be finding the right temperature balance. If your heat gun is not hot enough, the task will take a long time. If the heat gun gets too hot, you risk wood damage, hazardous vapors, or a fire.
  • Infrared tools melt away paint using infrared rays. These devices work quickly without creating dust or noise. They eliminate moisture, prepping the wood surface for a new finish. However, keep in mind that infrared tools are challenging to maneuver in small spaces.
  • Steam strippers loosen paint with the power of water vapor. On the plus side, they create minimal fumes and no dust, nor do they present a fire risk. Their negative side is that is the moisture they create can cause problems for your wood.

Heat and Repeat

When you choose a heat stripping tool, the process becomes more step-and-repeat than a step-by-step.

Hold the heating device in one hand and the scraper in the other. Direct the heat toward the paint surface, moving the tool back and forth over a small portion of the surface. When the paint starts to blister, scrape that paint.

Continue the process with the next section of the surface. The key to efficient paint removal with a heat tool will be finding a comfortable heating and scraping rhythm.

You can return to any stubborn areas, applying another blast of heat, if necessary. Sometimes another pass with the scraper will be enough to remove bits of paint from the surfaces.

Be sure to have a clean, metal paint pan nearby to rest the heating device upon when you’re ready to take a breather. You’ll also need a container to be the receptacle for the stripped paint gunk you remove.

When you’ve finished removing the paint, wipe down the wood surface with denatured alcohol and a clean rag.

Safety Tips for Heat Guns

With a heat gun, you won’t create a dust cloud as you would with a power sander, but you should still wear goggles. If you’re working inside, make sure the area is well-ventilated. Also, if you’re using a heat gun, you should have a fire extinguisher handy.

How to Remove Paint from Wood Using a Chemical Paint Stripper

These products come in paste, liquid, or gel options. If the wood you’re refinishing features intricate details, crevices, or odd shapes, you’ll get the best results with chemical paint removers.

They’re also great for cleaning up old paint from any areas you failed to strip completely using a heat gun. Removing paint from wood with chemicals takes time. Be prepared for some odor and mess!

Different Steps for Different Chemical Products

Depending on what type of chemical paint remover you use, you’ll follow a different set of manufacturer’s instructions. If the product does not contain precise instructions, follow the links on the product container to go online and find detailed instructions for use on surfaces.

You can typically apply chemical compounds to surfaces with a paintbrush, roller, putty knife, or sprayer, according to directions. The product will need to sit anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours to eat through the paint.

Some compounds require a scraper or wire brush for paint removal. Others rely on heavy paper strips to pull away the chemical and the paint from wood surfaces.

When you’ve removed all the paint, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to thoroughly clean any residue.

Safety Tips for Removing Paint from Wood with Chemicals

Each manufacturer knows their product best, so you should pay close attention to their safety recommendations. As with other paint stripping methods, you should wear goggles to protect your eyes.

You also need rubber gloves and a respirator mask with a chemical filter.

Avoid Any Chemical Stripper Containing Dichloromethane

Whatever brand you choose, check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain dichloromethane (DCM) or methylene chloride. At one time, this compound was the gold standard for chemical paint removal.

This hazardous chemical works quickly, but its toxic power makes it extremely dangerous.

You can still buy products with DCM as the active ingredient in the United States, although Europe prohibits residential use.

Even respirators don’t offer complete protection from these toxic vapors. Exposure can cause breathing problems and dizziness.

Repeated or extended exposure via skin or airways may damage your liver or cause cancer. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) hold the chemical responsible for multiple deaths.

Choose a chemical stripper that’s DCM-free. The reduced time it will take to remove paint is not worth the danger.

Best Chemical Paint Stripper
Dumond Chemicals Advanced Paint Remover Dumond Chemicals Advanced Paint Remover
  • Environmentally friendly water-based paint stripper that will effectively remove up to 15 coats of both oil-based and water-based paints.

  • Can also be safely used on lead paints, and is ideal for removing paint on both interior or exterior surfaces like wood, plaster, metal, or concrete.

  • Very user-friendly as this paint stripper can be easily applied by brush, roller or conventional airless spray within a matter of minutes.

  • A super potent water-based paste paint stripper that has zero VOCs, is odor-free, 100% biodegradable, and is pH neutral.

Other Tools and Tips for DIY Paint Strippers

Whether you choose sanding, heat, or chemical paint strippers to use in home paint removal projects, you’ll need to have a utility knife and a paint scraper or two handy to use to complete any paint-stripper tasks.

Experts and experienced DIY-ers recommend a five-in-one paint scraper. Called the painter’s tool because of its versatility, this will help your paint removal task go much more smoothly.

  • A metal pull scraper allows you to switch out the blades to suit the surface and provides more flexibility in tiny spaces or with intricate details.
  • Plastic push scrapers are best for removing paint from wood with chemicals or steam. Both these methods may soften the wood surface, leaving it vulnerable to scratching and gouging from a metal push scraper.
  • Metal push scrapers come with steel or carbide blades. You can refresh your steel blade anytime with regular sandpaper or a file. Carbide blade edges don’t dull as quickly, but you’ll need some talent with a diamond stone to restore those edges. 

You can buy yourself some time between sharpening or replacing the blade by rotating the head to expose a clean edge.

If the wood surface you’re stripping has crevices, carvings, or other detail work, you should also have some other objects handy for thorough paint scraping, such as:

  • Toothpicks can scrape paint chips or dust from tight spots in wooden joints
  • Old spoons are used to make ideal scrapers for hard-to-reach curved spaces
  • Sanding cords help clear residue from crannies in turned wood on columns
  • Plastic cards are handy as they can help trim any shape soft surface level materials
Best Paint Scraper Tool
Red Devil 4251 5-In-1 Painter'S Tool Red Devil 4251 5-in-1 Painter's Tool
  • The ultimate multi-tool for painter's as it can be used as a gouger, scraper, putty remover, spreader, roller cleaner & nail setter.

  • Fitted with a solvent-resistant heavy-duty nylon handle that is durable enough to withstand the years of paint removing jobs.

  • Equipped with a superbly engineered high carbon, precision-ground steel blade that extends through the entire handle for added longevity.

  • All-rounder multi-tool that can even be used as a hammer to punch nails with its brass-plated, solid steel nail setting head.

Ready, Set, Strip

So you’ve decided that you’ve up to the task, and you know the exact method you’d like to use to effectively remove paint from wood. 

Your tools such as (the above) recommended multi-tool or type of hammer you have on hand are handy. Your paint stripper of choice is ready. Now you need to prepare the room.

Mask any air vents in the space so that you don’t spread dust or other debris through the house.

Use six-mil plastic, secured with duct tape, to seal the work area from the rest of your living space. You should use the same plastic product, instead of drop cloths, to cover the floor for a minimum of six feet past the work area, taping if necessary.

Note of Caution

If you’re worried about spills or slips, put a layer of newspaper over the plastic.

Protect any hardware you don’t want to come in contact with the paint stripper. If you can, remove things like handles, knobs, and hinges. If you can’t, cover them.

Aluminum foil tape is best for heat stripping, while painter’s tape that’s solvent-resistant is effective against chemicals.

Once the area is protected, you need to dress for safety. The fumes and dust that result from removing paint from wood present a serious safety hazard.

Make sure you have the following items:

  • Safety goggles that wrap around to protect your eyes from all angles are an absolute must-have when working with chemicals.
  • Long pants and a long-sleeved shirt or full protective overalls are also essential attire to wear before breaking out the paint scraper, let alone the chemicals.
  • Disposable booties will not only protect your boots but will also eliminate the chance of damage to other rooms around your home.
  • A respirator with a particulate filter (for scraping/sanding) or a chemical filter (for solvents) will reduce the chance of potential health concerns.
  • Construction gloves (for heat stripping or scraping) or heavy-duty rubber gloves (for chemical stripping) for hazardous materials.

After you have protected yourself and the work area, you’re ready to start removing paint from wood.

Best Respirator Mask
Kischers Reusable Respirator Mask For Painting KISCHERS Reusable Respirator Mask For Painting
  • Engineered to the highest of safety standards with also keeping comfort in mind as this respirator is made from premium-grade silica gel.

  • Utilizes a dual filtration system that will effectively eliminate any hint of organic chemical vapor or fumes blocking 97% of organic particles.

  • An ideal face mask for both painting or paint removal jobs, yet can also be used for welding, sawing, grinding, or even asbestos removal.

  • Comes with a decent set of anti-fog safety goggles that sit perfectly on your face with the respirator fitted and won't pinch or fog up.

Time to Clean Up

Congratulations! You’re no longer a newbie paint stripper. You’ve revealed the wood surface to your satisfaction, but the job is not finished yet. You still have to clean up.

Get a spray bottle filled with water. Spray down the paper and plastic sheeting to control dust and debris. Fold them up, keeping the dirty side in, then tape them securely or put them in construction-grade garbage bags.

Go over the workspace and surrounding areas with a HEPA-filter vacuum.

Use water, household cleaner or dish detergent, and a clean sponge or cloth to wipe down any exposed surfaces.

Do a final once-over with plain water and a clean sponge or cloth. Now, your paint removal project is complete.

Time To Clean Up
Image: Pretty Distressed

In Conclusion

To thoroughly remove paint from wood, you need more than a scraper and some sandpaper. If you want to do the process the right way, you need to think about the surface, the tools required, and the best wood paint remover options.

It’s not an easy job, so you have to want to put in the effort to pull off this DIY job. If you don’t, search for professional paint strippers and simply choose one to handle this task for you.

While this isn’t a DIY job that will require an entire highly-priced and meticulously organized tool chest, you will need to make a small financial investment, and take all of the recommended safety precautions to protect yourself and your environment.

Once you’ve finished removing paint from wood and cleaning up to your satisfaction, you can decide on the next steps: a new finish and products to use to make the wood surface shine.