How To: Remove Paint from Wood
Sure, it's messy and time-consuming, but removing paint from wood can be an extremely satisfying project. Follow our tutorial, and you'll be stripping paint like a pro.
It can be a mighty labor-intensive and time-consuming process to remove paint, which is why many DIYers dread or even avoid the task. That’s a shame, given that the results so often are worth the effort.
Fortunately, by following the simple steps outlined below, you can learn how to strip paint from wood and successfully remove paint with minimal aggravation and without causing damage to the wood during the paint-stripping process.
How to Remove Paint from Wood in 7 Easy Steps
Before you can apply a fresh new paint, you’ve got to get the old stuff out of the way. You might need to strip old paint for a few reasons. “Some reasons include changing from a solid paint to a transparent or semi-transparent stain or to fix significantly uneven wear,” says Octave Villar, manager of quality/applications for Behr Paint Company.
These seven steps are easy to accomplish and can make the job go more smoothly. Gather those tools and get started!
Step 1: Ensure the Wood is Worth Stripping
Some wood—especially trim—appears worn or rotted to the point that stripping will leave little left to paint. Before setting up to strip old paint from potentially worthless wood, try a few tests to determine whether your work will be worth the time.
Wood is tough enough to frame buildings, but it’s not invincible, especially if it has not been maintained well. If wood is rotted, you might have to treat it before painting. Rot is the most common problem to detect. Dry rot spreads more rapidly and can ruin wood. Check for dry rot by noting spore dust on the wood, a damp or musty scent, or appearance of fruiting bodies of fungus.
Wet rot occurs where moisture lurks. Test for it by gently poking a small portion of the wood to see if it is spongy. Signs of shrinkage or warping also indicate problems. Also check for large cracks or wood coming loose. For small problems, eliminate the cause of moisture before stripping and replacing. Fill small holes of cracks, let the filler dry, and sand it.
And know when to give up the ghost on removing paint from wood. “Stripping paint can be a messy and labor-intensive affair; sometimes it’s just more convenient to replace wood,” says Villar.
Step 2: Be Sure the Paint Does Not Contain Lead
Any home built before 1978 is more likely to have lead-based paint lurking on surfaces. According to the EPA, 69 percent of homes built between 1940 and 1959 contain lead paint, and 87 percent of those old fixer-uppers constructed before 1940 have lead. The dust from that lead can be toxic, especially once you start messing with it, and especially in children. Lead poisoning can cause a variety of symptoms, including seizures and developmental delays in children.
If you believe you have lead paint, be sure to test for it before beginning stripping. DIY kits give instructions for slicing through the paint to retrieve a small sample. Choose a rhodizonate-based or sulfide-based kit, depending on the paint color. If the paint tests positive for lead, follow the EPA’s recommended steps for lead assessment and abatement.
Step 3: Remove any Protruding Nails, Screws, etc.
Remove all hardware (nails and screws, brackets and doorknobs) from the wood. Cover any non-removable parts made of materials other than wood with protective tape.
Take a second to assess the wood’s condition and your desired results. Villar suggests thinking through the project to determine how much of the previous coating needs removal. Some jobs don’t require the use of chemical strippers. “Despite the additional labor, sanding is really my preferred way to remove paint,” says Villar. For minor jobs, like just getting past some peeling paint or to make a surface smoother, you might be able to skip the stripper step and simply sand instead.
Once you determine that stripping the paint is the way to go, always observe the proper safety precautions when dealing with paint strippers and take care to select the right product.
Before you begin work, don the safety gear that’s essential to wear in the presence of chemical paint strippers. That means gloves, glasses, and a respirator. Having closely consulted the manufacturer’s instructions, pour your chosen solvent-based paint stripper into an empty bucket.
Step 4: Apply Paint Stripper
Protect floors beneath the wood, wall edges, windows, or doors by taping off and covering them before applying the paint stripper. Shake the can well before opening and pouring some into a shallow container. Concentrating on one small section at a time, liberally apply the paint stripper with a paintbrush.
Leave the product on the wood for about 20 minutes, or until the paint starts to bubble and peel. Bear in mind that if you are removing several layers of paint, the solvent might need to sit for up to a few hours. As time elapses, test the paint intermittently to see whether it has softened. Be sure to remove all applied stripper on the same day. Once it dries, it can be very difficult to remove.
Step 5: Use a Paint Scraper to Remove the Paint
Use a paint scraper to take off as much paint as possible from the area where you applied the stripper. Be gentle as you scrape; don’t gouge the wood.
If you’re feeling more resistance than you’d like, give the remaining area a little more time under the stripper. Once you’ve removed all you can with the scraper, you may choose to repeat the process, reapplying stripper and going through the steps once more. When satisfied with the condition of the area you’ve been stripping, move on to the next step.
Step 6: Get into Those Hard-to-Reach Places
After you have worked section by section removing all the paint from the flat portions of the wood, it’s time to address any raised or recessed areas (for example, in moldings). Spread the stripper on the wood again and wait at least 20 minutes, but this time scrape with a wire brush or steel wool to access those hard-to-reach crests and depressions.
For large and fairly flat projects, you can attach a metal brush to your cordless drill to speed up the process. Take care not to scrape too hard, which can leave scratches on the wood.
Step 7: Wash and Sand the Wood to a Clean Finish
It might feel like you’re done once you’ve stripped those thick layers of paint. But this last step really is critical. “Final sanding and washing of wood helps to ensure the wood is free of loose materials, such as dirt and debris,” says Villar. In addition, sanding gives the wood a consistent surface for accepting paint or stain. “Although labor-intensive , these steps are critical to ensuring the success of your wood project,” Villar adds.
Before sanding, wash the wood with a clean, water-soaked rag, then sand down the entire surface. If you have access to a power sander, you can use it to make quicker work of sanding the broad, flat sections, but you should still manually sand any fragile or carved parts of the piece.
Wipe the wood again to remove any particles or debris left from sanding. If you aren’t ready to paint, wipe the wood surface again with a barely damp cloth just before adding new paint. This removes any sanded particles or other debris that might have settled back onto the wood. Villar suggests DIYers pay attention to how the wood feels on that final wipedown. “The surface should feel neither too rough (such as splinters grabbing the cloth) nor too slick,” Villar says. You should see no residue while moving your hand over your nicely sanded wood, and the surface should be clean and dry before painting.
All-Natural Ways to Remove Paint from Wood
Chemical strippers can make quick work of paint removal, but you can strip wood using more natural methods. Heat, pressure washing, citrus-based removers, and even vinegar are just a few choices, depending on the surface size and how many layers of paint need to be removed.
A heat gun can help “melt” paint so it is easier to strip away. Heat guns are safer than blow torches but still can cause accidental combustion or magnify vapors that are unpleasant and even harmful. When using the heat gun, move it back and forth in a sweeping motion; don’t focus too long on a single spot.
Once the paint softens, use an angled scraper to peel the old paint away. Keep the heat about 2 inches away from the surface to avoid burning the wood, and keep a fire extinguisher handy, just in case.
With its acidic properties, vinegar is a versatile household staple and a potential paint remover. Heat a small amount of distilled vinegar and about twice as much water in a pan on the stove or in the microwave. Place a clean cotton rag into the container to soak up the warm vinegar, and then dab it on the surface.
Wait up to 15 minutes and try scraping the paint off. If it won’t budge, try applying the vinegar again and waiting 10 to 15 minutes.
For fine paint layers, especially where paint already is cracking or peeling, you might be able to scrape the paint off without chemicals or heat. Plastic scrapers are less likely to mar the surface and are inexpensive, but scrapers with brass blades can better handle tough jobs.
Always scrape in the same direction as the wood grain when applying force to remove paint. When doing lighter scraping, go against the wood grain to get any remaining paint chips, but keep pressure light.
Sanding often can grind away paint for small or big jobs. For small jobs, use a strip of sandpaper and reach easily into crevices. For big jobs, get out the power sander. Just be sure to attach or have a friend hold a vacuum to capture dust when sanding wood indoors.
Depending on the thickness of paint, start with a coarse paper (about 80 grit) and switch to medium or fine grits for later steps, using a fine (around 220) for the finishing step.
You might save time on large and outdoor surfaces with a pressure washer. It is possible to use a pressure washer to remove paint, but it has to be a really strong pressure—about 2,500 to 3,000 psi—to strip peeling paint. Be sure to wear safety glasses and wash along with the grain in a continuous motion. Pressure washers can damage wood, especially hardwood siding.
Few DIYers have heavy-duty pressure washers, but you can make quick work of final cleanup with a pressure wash at 1,200 to 2,000 psi.
Citrus-based paint strippers have organic compounds called terpenes derived from plains. Citrus strippers are nontoxic and biodegradable, but they do contain some chemicals. However, the more natural strippers smell like oranges instead of hazardous fumes.
Shake the container, pour the stripper into a container, and apply the solution with a paintbrush. Allow 30 minutes (and up to 24 hours) before scraping. You can leave the stripper on overnight if you cover the surface with plastic. Buy citrus-based strippers on Amazon or at your local home improvement center or hardware store.
FAQ About Removing Paint from Wood
What household items can remove paint from wood?
That kitchen staple—vinegar—can remove paint from wood in many instances. If you don’t have a paint scraper, try a plastic pot scraper instead, especially for small jobs. Steamers might soften paint, but their moisture can warp wood, so their use is not a good idea.
How do you remove oil-based paint from wood?
Caustic strippers work well at removing oil-based paint from masonry, and can work on wood. However, the strippers can blacken some hardwoods like maple. Special oil-based paint strippers are effective, but most contain VOCs and require plenty of safety precautions, especially when used indoors.
What can I use to strip stain off wood?
Strip stain from wood is a little tougher than removing paint. Wood absorbs stain. Removing stain starts with removing any varnish layer using a chemical stain stripper. Apply a thick layer of stripper with a brush and follow many of the same steps as for paint removal—scraping first and then wiping the surface with steel wool. Sand when dry.
How do you remove paint strippers from wood?
Be sure to remove paint stripper from wood when the paint has bubbled up. Attempting to scrape it off too soon might lead to reapplying stripper. Wait too long and the stripper hardens.
The best way to remove paint stripper is with a plastic or bladed paint scraper. You also can use a putty knife and wire brush for hard-to-reach spots. Always guide the scraper at an angle. If some chemical remains in spots, dip a steel wool pad into mineral spirits or paint thinner to scrape off the remaining stripper. Finally, wipe the surface with a soft cloth dipped in mineral spirits.