A fresh coat of paint or stain is a great way to improve the look of wood — from the walls in your home to an old piece of furniture. But before you start applying anything new, it’s important to remove old paint from wood, so you have a surface that’s fresh and clean to work with. Learning how to remove paint from wood you plan to refurbish can also be helpful if you have a few stray paint splatters or drips from a poorly done paint job in your home.
There are a number of ways to get the job done, from chemical and heat applications to more natural approaches — like sanding or non-toxic paint strippers. But before you start stripping paint, read this step-by-step guide to make sure you’re doing it the right way.
Removing paint from wood, step by step
Step 1: Make sure the wood underneath is worth exposing
If you’re planning to strip old paint off furniture, cabinets, flooring, and other things, make sure the wood underneath is something you can work with after the paint is gone. This is especially important if you’re to finish the wood with a stain or clear coat. Find a small spot out of view where you can scrape to the bottom layer and determine whether the wood was varnished originally and will look good when exposed.
Step 2: Test the paint for lead
If the area or object was painted before the 1970s, it could have lead paint. 3M offers an instant chemical lead swab test kit for under $30. If there’s lead, check the Environmental Protection Agency’s website for tips on lead safety and help on how to remove it.
Step 3: Determine if you need the help of a professional
DIY projects can be fun, but some paint removal will require the help of a professional who has specialized tools that can speed up the process and do it safely. You might have to call in the pros if you’re dealing with a house full of lead paint.
Step 4: Purchase all necessary tools and protective equipment
Having the right tools to complete the job is essential. First, decide on what brand of chemical paint stripper you prefer. Next, get accessories like paintbrushes to apply the paint stripper, cloths for cleanup, and sandpaper or scrapers to remove the paint. Finally, purchase protective equipment, including masks, gloves, and safety glasses.
Step 5: Apply chemical paint stripper according to directions
Most of these strippers only need to be on for a few minutes. If you’re removing paint from a vertical surface (such as a door), use a chemical paint stripper that comes in a gel or a paste consistency, so it doesn’t drip down the surface onto the floor and cause damage.
Step 6: Use a putty knife or paint scraper to remove paint
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly, using only light pressure, so you don’t damage the wood. You might need to re-treat some areas with chemical paint stripper if it didn’t remove it all the first time, especially in hard-to-reach areas.
Step 7: Scrape away any excess
Finish by scrubbing all the excess paint and paint stripper with an abrasive brush or pad and wiping the surface clean with a cloth.
For this project, you’ll need:
Don’t want to use chemicals? Here’s how to remove paint from wood naturally
If you prefer not to use chemical paint strippers, which can be harmful to your health and potentially dangerous if not applied correctly, there are natural ways to remove paint from wood. The most common are:
Heat guns make paint bubble so you can scrape it off, but they can also damage wood or—at worst—cause it to catch fire. These work well for large surfaces and are easy to learn how to use, but they do come with risks and require a little practice before you start. Use heat-resistant gloves, wear long sleeves, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby for safety.
This method requires minimal tools and is easy to learn. You can sand paint with heavy-grit sandpaper or a sanding tool. Wear a mask that filters dust particles and do the sanding outdoors, so you don’t get dust all over your house. Never use sanding to remove lead-based paint because it could disperse fine particles of lead into the air that could damage your lungs and lead to other serious health issues.
This won’t remove paint entirely, but it can soften paint and make it easier to scrape off. Boil the vinegar on the stove or in the microwave, apply it to the surface with a brush, and scrape paint off after several minutes. Repeat if needed to remove the paint you missed the first time.
This is best for extensive projects, such as a deck or fence. If you’re removing paint from your home’s exterior, be sure to prep the area to protect against water leaking in the house. You’ll need a pressure washer with at least 2500 psi.
Scrapers or strippers
Handheld scrapers or paint strippers work well if it’s a small job or has hard-to-reach areas that a larger tool won’t fit.
Soy gel or citrus-based paint removers
Similar to chemical paint strippers, but without the chemicals, both of these paint removers are environmentally-friendly and non-toxic. Be sure to read the label and follow instructions.
The bottom line
Anyone can remove paint from wood with the right tools and knowledge of how to use them properly. The most common ways to remove paint are with chemical paint strippers, heat guns, sanding, or natural products that don’t have chemicals. To determine which method is right for you, consider the cost of materials and ease of use for each option.
Frequently asked questions
How do you remove paint from wood without damaging it?
You can remove paint from wood using chemical paint strippers, all-natural paint strippers, heat guns, sanding, or vinegar. After applying these products to the surface, use a scraper, wire brush, or stripper to remove the paint. Be careful when scraping, and always do it with your hand at a 30-degree angle to avoid gouging or damaging the wood.
Does vinegar remove paint from wood?
Vinegar does not remove paint from wood, but it can soften paint and make it easier to remove. It is a non-toxic, natural alternative to chemical paint strippers, but may take a little more time and effort to get all the paint off.
Do heat guns work for removing paint from wood?
Heat guns are a fairly inexpensive tool to remove paint from wood, but they can be dangerous if not used properly. Be sure to get the right protective equipment and practice with the heat gun before you use it on your final project to avoid damaging the wood.
Are there non-toxic or environmentally friendly ways to remove paint from wood?
There are soy gel and citrus-based paint strippers that do not contain harmful chemicals, and, according to reviews on Amazon, they can work very well for removing paint.