Stripping paint from woodwork and trim has always been a chore. It means getting into odd, awkward angles, corners, and bevels, where it can be difficult to reach with a paint scraper and sandpaper. It was much simpler to do when people practiced heat removal of paint with heat guns and even blowtorches. However, in many places, this method is now illegal. Thus, the most effective way to strip paint off of wood trim is to use commercially sold chemical paint strippers, which is legal everywhere.
Chemical solvents work by blistering and lifting layers of paint from wood over the course of several minutes. The paint can then be gently scraped off with a flat-edged tool.
Step 1 - Get Your Gear On
As a safety note, most of these solvents are harsh. There's also an additional hazard present in anything that may come from the paint that could be inhaled.
Before you begin to strip paint from your door frames, window frames, and baseboards, first take the time to don the proper safety attire and gear, including chemical resistant gloves, clothes that will protect your skin, protective goggles, and a face mask or respirator. If the stripper gets on human skin, it will burn. Not to mention how harmful the vapors are when inhaled.
NOTE: Water-based solvents that attack and lift the water in paints do exist in the marketplace, but have varying levels of effectiveness and are not as fast-acting as chemical options. However, if you wish to avoid harsh chemicals and try something more ecologically gentle, that is another way to go.
Step 2 – Ventilate
Fresh air is essential when removing paint from interior surfaces. That’s why it is best to remove paint when it’s possible to open all windows and doors. Fumes from chemical solvents can be harmful. Plan to work when you can take breaks for fresh air away from the solvent. Always read the instructions on the can of solvent and follow them carefully, taking all necessary safety precautions.
WARNING: If your paint was applied prior to 1980, it may contain lead. If you've followed this guide to identifying lead in paint but are still unsure how to proceed, get a second opinion for an expert. Lead is harmful, and you should not start stripping it out of your walls without a plan.
Step 3 – Apply Stripper
When stripping paint from a door frame, use a standard paintbrush and generously apply the stripper in even strokes that do not overlap. The best method is to begin your application at the top of your doorframe or window frame and work your way down to the baseboards. For tight corners or narrow bevels in the wood that the paintbrush can’t adequately reach, use a toothbrush. This will ensure that you cover every inch of the surface with the stripper.
Step 4 – Wait
The solvent needs time to work. The chemical’s instructions should specify an amount of time.
TIP: “Don’t rush it," says Edward Kimble, expert painter and site consultant. Give the paint stripper time to work, but do not let it dry. Less time will be needed for the actual removal of the paint sludge.”
Step 5 – Scrape off the Paint
Once the stripper has gone to work and the old paint has begun to blister and bubble away from the wooden frame, scrape the peeling paint off into many layers of old newspaper. Remove all of the solvents by wiping and rubbing thoroughly, using rags for the flat surfaces. Pitted wood may require more work, as there are many crevices for small traces of paint to hold out. Use steel wool or a brush to get to those areas.
Allow the stripped area to dry overnight before you begin to refinish.
Note: You may have to repeat this process several times if there are many layers of paint on the wood.
Step 6 – Clean Up
Go outside and lay out a length of newspaper on the ground. Place any tools that have come into contact with the chemical solvents, on the newspaper, and allow the chemicals to evaporate. When you're confident that the chemicals have evaporated, bring your tools inside and clean them, containing the sludge, paint, and chemical-soaked newspapers in a coffee can.
Most areas require that any metal cans full of newspapers or other sludge-soaked materials can be disposed of at your local hazardous waste facility. Contact your local waste management facility for specifications on disposing of potentially harmful chemical agents.
Manually stripping old paint off of window frames, baseboards, doorframes, and doors can take a lot of time and elbow grease. However, the work is well worth the effort, as few things can give your room beauty, warmth, and character than natural wood surfaces.
Edward Kimble, a professional painter and author of Interior House Painting Blog, contributed to this article.