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How to Remove Paint from Wood

Man removing old varnish from wood using scraper and heat gun.
Margarita Khamidulina / Getty

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.

Before you start stripping paint, you’ll want to first get a good understanding of a few of the best options you have to remove paint from wood.

Check for lead before removing paint

Before attempting to remove any paint, make sure to test the painted area for lead paint, especially if it’s an older surface or building. 

Lead paint is extremely toxic and breathing in lead paint particles is dangerous to your health and safety. You can test the painted surface with a lead swab testing kit. If you find any traces of lead paint, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website for information on how to safely remove it. Or call a professional for assistance.

Best ways to remove paint from wood

Chemical paint strippers

How it works: 

Chemical paint strippers use chemicals to break down and release paint bonds, turning it into a liquid-like or (sometimes gooey) substance that can easily be wiped away, which is nice since it doesn’t create paint chips or dust. They are easy to apply, but certain paint strippers contain hazardous chemicals and fumes that can be dangerous to your health. 

Note: Always read the health labels and product data specs provided by the manufacturer on any chemical paint stripper. 

Stripping paint is messy work, so it’s recommended that you cover your floors around the painted area and wear long-sleeves and close-toed shoes before working.

How to use:

Find a chemical paint stripper that works best on wood, and closely follow the application directions on the product. Make sure you wear all personal protective equipment as the manufacturer details for the product. In general, it’s good to wear:

  • Safety goggles
  • Long sleeves
  • Gloves
  •  Respirator (for toxic fumes)

Heat guns

How it works:

Heat guns makes 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. 

How to use:

Ready the nozzle two inches above the painted surface and run the heat gun over the paint in a sweeping motion. Once the paint starts to come off the surface, use a paint scraper to scrape it off. Use heat-resistant gloves, wear long sleeves, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby for safety.

Sanding

How it works:

Sanding paint uses a rough, coated abrasive tool that catches paint and strips it away. This method will release dust particles so should always be done outdoors with a proper mask. 

Note: 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 lead poisoning.

How to use:

You can sand paint with heavy-grit sandpaper or a sanding tool. Always wear a mask that filters dust particles. And always sand with the grain of the wood.

Vinegar

How it works:

Vinegar softens up paint bonds, making them easier to scrape off. This method doesn’t remove paint entirely but is a more natural, non-toxic solution to using a paint stripper.  

How to use:

Boil the vinegar on the stove or in the microwave, apply it to the surface with a brush, and scrape the paint off after several minutes. Repeat if needed to remove the paint you missed the first time.

Pressure washer

How it works:

A pressure washer can be a quick way to effectively strip paint on the exterior of your home. To apply enough pressure to strip paint, you’ll need a pressure washer with a range of 2500 – 3000 psi. 

How to use:

Use your pressure washer’s 15-degree nozzle, stand 15 to 18 inches away from the painted surface, and spray in a continuous sweeping motion. It’s recommended to wear safety goggles and close-toed shoes for this project. 

Paint scrapers or strippers

Using handheld scrapers or paint strippers is simple, but can be harder and more time-consuming to remove paint. This method works well if it’s a small job or has hard-to-reach areas that a larger tool. 

Soy gel or citrus-based paint removers

Similar to chemical paint strippers, but without the chemicals, soy gel and citrus-based paint removers are environmentally friendly and non-toxic. Be sure to read the label and follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer. 

Step-by-step guide to removing paint from wood using a chemical paint stripper

For this project, you’ll need:

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 going 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 fine when exposed.

Step 2: Test the paint for lead

If the area or object was painted before the 1970s, it could have lead paint. Test the painted area using a lead swab test kit before stripping the paint. 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

Make sure to always follow the directions on the product. 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 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 again 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 paint stripper. Wipe the surface clean with a cloth.

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.