How to Remove Paint and Varnish From Wood Surfaces

Lead Image
  • 1-3 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 220-260
What You'll Need
Paint remover
Paint brush
Small can with plastic lid
Chemical-resistant gloves
Plastic film
Four-inch scraper
Cardboard or newspaper
Steel wool or a scouring pad
Garden hose
Power sander
Plastic or metal pail
Narrow brass brush
Brass wire brush
Scrap of burlap
Electric paint remover or heat gun

Many home improvement projects involve a new coat of paint or varnish, but before you can add a new one, the old material must come off. Read the following suggestions carefully on how to remove old paint or varnish. This advice can help you do a better job with considerably less effort.

Note: Older homes may still have lead-based paint, so if you're unsure whether yours might be, test it first and either have it removed professionally, or proceed using the proper safety measures.

Using Chemicals to Strip Paint and Varnish

There are two ways to strip material from cabinets, trims, etc. First, you may select a chemical paint/varnish remover. Once the chemical remover has been applied, you can easily scrape the paint off. In some cases, it may wash away with water. Chemical-based paint/varnish remover is retailed as both a paste and a liquid and they are typically marketed as "paint removers" or "paint strippers." Always check the labels to see if they have toxic ingredients and use safety precautions.

You can also try to sand it off. This obviously takes more time and a considerable amount of elbow grease. Using an electric sander can save you some effort, although it must be used with care to avoid damaging the underlying wood.

Some surfaces, such as fiberglass, require specialty paint/varnish removers.

Liquid Paint/Varnish Removers

If you only have to remove a few layers of paint, a liquid remover is probably the best choice. The liquid dries too quickly for large removal jobs, but small projects should have no problems. Liquids are also preferred when working in complicated or irregular areas.

Brushable Paint/Varnish Removers

Brushable removers have a paste texture which allows you to apply thick amounts to strip many layers of paint/varnish from a surface with one application. These formulas cling to surfaces despite gravity, and they can often be washed off along with the paint/varnish. When using wash-away varnish remover on furniture, do not over apply water, as doing so risks damaging the wood. Always follow the instructions on the label.

Spray Paint/Varnish Remover

If you want something that's easy to apply, this is the choice for you. These wash-away removers are thin enough to spray, but they have a high enough viscosity that they cling to surfaces.

Aerosols Paint/Varnish Remover

Aerosol solutions are by far the cheapest and easiest chemical paint/varnish stripping agents. They spray on as a foam and multiple layers of paint/varnish can be scraped away with each application. Aerosol removers are ideal for small projects and detailed surfaces. Always wear respirator masks and safety goggles while using aerosol solutions to avoid toxic chemicals

Green Solutions

Environmentally friendly paint/varnish removers are available for people to whom it is important. They are, however, more expensive and generally considered less efficient than their traditional counterparts.

Application and Removal

For liquid or brushable types of paint stripper, pour a small amount in a metal can with a wide mouth and a resealable lid. Wearing protective gloves (and respirator mask, if necessary), apply the chemical with a paint brush. Make the strokes in one direction and do not apply remover to areas where it has already been brushed. For sprayable types, you can apply as directed by the label. Make sure the work space is well-ventilated before you start working.

paint scraper on wood
If it's a big job, you can expedite the process by scraping the surface with coarse sandpaper. Just don't scratch the underlying surface. Apply the chemical paint/varnish remover and seal it under plastic film to prevent the chemical from drying on the surface as you let it sit.

Allow the chemical to penetrate the paint/varnish for as long as the packaging instructions direct, which is usually between 20 and 30 minutes. Test your progress by scraping at a small area. If the scraper reaches the bare wood, then the remover has served its purpose.

When applying the remover, only do so in an area that is small enough to manage. You don't want to cover such a large area that the chemical dries before you can finish the job. It's also a good idea to scrape the paint with a cardboard box or newspaper underneath in order to make clean-up easier.

Once the chemical has rendered the paint/varnish soft, it's time to take a scraper to the surface. Keep your scraper level with the surface as best you can or you risk making marks in the wood. Use steel wool or another abrasive tool to remove any remnants after the bulk of the paint or varnish has been taken off.

If some spots are tricky, saturate the steel wool in chemical remover to assist in the scraping. It may be necessary to apply a second coat of paint remover for stubborn areas.

High-grade paint remover can usually be rinsed with a hose. Obviously, don't use a hose on your furniture. Once you have successfully removed the paint/varnish, clean the surface with fresh water. Allow the surface to dry and then sand it lightly.

Sanding Off Paint/Varnish

If you don't want to use a chemical remover, a power sander is another option. Belt, disk, and drum sanders are all viable tools. This method is simple and efficient; however, it will remove the top layer of the surface being sanded, so you shouldn't try this with anything delicate or intricate. You should use coarse sandpaper; otherwise, the paper will not be strong enough to remove the material.

Irregular Surfaces

Arches, curves, cut-outs, nooks, and crannies present a challenge for removing paint. One of the most difficult situations is when you must remove paint/varnish from the back of a chair since the design can feature any one of these problematic areas.brushing on paint remover with paint brush

Spray a lot of chemical remover all around the spindles and allow it to penetrate for 20 minutes. After that time, it should scrape off easily. Put remover on the chair legs with a regular paint brush and place the legs in can or buckets to avoid both waste and mess.

Rounded surfaces require that extra chemical be applied. Allow it to penetrate the surface, scrub it off, and repeat if necessary. Scrub carved materials with steel wool or a metal brush. They better reach into these detailed areas. Rinse the wood as soon as you're done scrubbing it. Brass wire brushes are good for narrow spots as well. A little goes a long way when you're using one, so don't apply too much pressure or you can easily damage the surface.

removing paint in grooves

A small piece of wood may also work for reaching small grooves. Just use a scrap splinter to see if you can reach where you need to.

Don't let the chemical get into key holes or holes where cabinet hardware has been removed. Plug the holes and cover the spots.

A little trick for removing paint/varnish from furniture legs is to let the chemical work for 20 minutes before buffing it off with burlap, just like you were shining a shoe.

Most people install new hardware, but you can always dip the hardware in paint/varnish remover as well and then scrub and reuse it. Once you've cleaned the hardware, give it a shine to make it look great.

Using Heat to Remove Paint/Varnish

Heat can be used to fry old paint/varnish and soften it for scraping. Someone at your local home improvement store can help you select the right electric paint remover or heat gun.

You must scrape the paint as soon as it is heated. If it cools, it will harden all over again. Broad scrapers work best for heat assisted paint/varnish removal. Also, don't focus the heat gun in one spot or you can burn the surface accidentally.

Information in this article has been furnished by the National Retail Hardware Association (NRHA) and associated contributors.