How to use paint stripper
Chemical paint and varnish stripping products work by partially dissolving the paint or varnish so it is easy to scrape off, says Anna-Lisa De'ath, but care is needed
Chemical paint stripping is the best method for stripping carved wood with hard-to-reach, intricate areas (like the mirror above), 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.
You can find more information on other methods of stripping paint from wood
You will need
- Paint stripper (either chemical or solvent-based)
- Old paintbrush
- Safety goggles
- Face mask
- Metal scraper or putty knife
- Wire wool
- Wire brush
- Mineral spirits
- Old cloth
What are the different types of paint stripper?
There are two different types of paint stripper – Solvent-based paint remover and Solvent-based paint remover and Caustic paint remover. Solvent-based paint remover 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.
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. 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.
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
How to use paint stripper on wood
Obviously every paint stripper is slightly different, so always read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. However, as a general rule, your first step is to apply a thick layer of stripper with an old paint brush that you can throw away afterwards. Make sure you force the product into any intricate or carved areas. Don’t paint the stripper on like emulsion, dollop it on generously then work it into the surface.
Be patient. Different products work over different timescales. Leave it alone until the product has worked its magic, according to the instructions. You’ll know the first layer of paint is ready to be stripped once you start to see it bubble and blister. 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. If the stripper and paint then dry, they can harden back into the wood and become even more difficult to remove. You want the stripper to still be wet to the touch when you start scraping.
Once the paint has softened, scrape it off with a metal scraper or metal putty knife. You can use steel wool or a wire brush to get rid of stubborn areas of paint or varnish. Take care if you’re using metal scrapers when stripping wood to avoid scratching or gouging the wood when removing the paint or varnish.
If there’s still some paint left, re-apply the stripper and go through the process again until it’s all gone. Then, if the manufacturer’s instructions tell you to, wash the stripped item to neutralise the active chemicals. You can clean up the remaining stripper using mineral spirits and a cloth, but some environmentally-friendly strippers will tell you to use water instead. Follow the manufacturer’s directions, but bear in mind that water can open up the grain of the wood.