How to strip paint from wood

Whether you’re upcycling an old piece of furniture, restoring a staircase or revamping a door, it’s important to strip the wood correctly to ensure the perfect finish

How to strip paint from wood
Published: June 23, 2022 at 1:40 pm

You might be lucky enough to have a period home with original features covered in decades of paint that you’re sure will come up beautifully with a bit of tlc, or you may have found a piece of old furniture in a junk shop that’s covered in shiny brown varnish that’s just crying out for a makeover.

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Whatever your project, first you’ll need to get those layers of old paint off the surface to reveal the beautiful wood beneath. There are three main methods you can use to remove paint from wood: sanding, using a hot air gun and chemical paint strippers. Each one has its pros and cons and some are better suited for intricate surfaces than others.

Lead paint safety alert

If you suspect you have lead paint please make sure you follow expert safety advice as lead paint can be dangerous.

We have this guide to removing lead paint and the UK Goverment has this informative leaflet

Stay Safe!

How to remove paint from wood

As we’ve discussed, there are three ways of removing paint from wood: sanding, using a hot air gun and chemical paint strippers. Read on to discover which method is best for your project.

Sanding

Sanding is best kept for small projects, unless you want to hire an industrial sander to remove paint and varnish from your floorboards. Be aware that both sandpaper and wire wool can cause damage to wood unless you work gently and carefully. When you sand wood you take the surface off, and you need to do it as evenly as possible without rubbing it thin in places or gouging the surface. Power tools make sanding easier because their design forces you to apply even pressure and they take a lot less elbow grease than doing it manually. Whether you’re sanding by hand or with a machine, you should take it slow and easy until you get a feel for it.

Hot air gun

A hot air or heat gun is a tool that produces a jet of hot air that is projected from the front opening and is then used for stripping paint. The heat is produced by a fan drawing air in at the rear of the gun, passing the air over heated elements to create a stream of hot air. It’s similar to a glorified hair dryer, except it works at a much higher temperature (from 100°C – 550°C), so therefore needs to be treated with respect.

Do not attempt to dry your hair with a heat gun! An electric hot air gun will remove paint in no time but can scorch the wood if you’re not careful. Scorching is less important, of course, if you’re planning to repaint the wood. Bear in mind that a hot air gun can only be used as a paint remover, not a varnish remover, as varnishes tend to go very sticky and gluey when heated.

Here's a detailed guide to using a heat gun to remove paint

Chemical strippers

Chemical paint and varnish stripping products partially dissolve the paint or varnish. You can buy paste and gel paint stripping products, which are handy because they’re so thick that they stick to vertical surfaces – perfect if the item you want to strip can’t be moved, such as stair spindles. Chemical stripping is the best method for stripping carved wood with hard-to-reach, intricate areas, but in reality, you will probably use a combination of mechanical and chemical methods for your project, especially if you have layer-upon-layer of old paint to take off. Chemical paint removers deliver the best results, remove varnishes and paints faster than sanding, and tend to be the least harsh. Care needs to be taken when using chemical strippers, however, as these present their own health and safety issues.

What are the different types of chemical paint stripper?

  • Solvent-based paint remover

Solvent-based paint removers take off all kinds of finishes. They are usually gentle on the wood and won’t damage it, which is why they’re often used in the antique trade. There’s no discolouration and solvents get the wood cleaner, deeper down into the grain. However, as you tend to use more of it, this can be more expensive than using a caustic stripper. Solvents can also have quite a strong odour and should only be used in very well ventilated areas. You may also have to work a bit harder to remove thick paint build-ups than with a caustic paint stripper.

In brief, solvent strippers are:

More expensive and messy to use

Not as effective at removing heavy paint

Cause no damage or staining

Can have a strong odour

Give a cleaner, finer finish

Perfect if you want your wood to have a natural look

  • Caustic paint remover

Caustic paint removers take off most finishes and are especially good at removing thick layers of paint and varnish. They emit fewer fumes than solvent-based paint strippers, are cheaper to buy and tend to work faster. However, caustic products usually contain a strong alkaline which may react with chemicals in the wood, resulting in staining or scorching of the wood. This is more common with dense woods, such as mahogany and some types of oak.

In brief, caustic removers are:

Perfect for removing heavy paint build-ups

Great for intricate mouldings

Best used for stripping pine doors that will be repainted or stained

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Most suited for use on plaster, stone and metal (However they may not be suitable for aluminium)

Authors

Anna-Lisa De’Ath is a freelance magazine editor and journalist specialising in homes & interiors, gardening and crafts

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