I know, most of my blog posts are about painting furniture… but sometimes that old piece of furniture you just found at the thrift store is covered with so many layers of paints that you need to remove paint from the wood before painting again. Or let’s say you just want to go back to bare wood…
Removing paint from wood furniture is not a difficult task. It can be tedious but certainly not difficult. All you need is basic knowledge on how to do it and the right tools… and I almost forgot, patience. Removing paint from wood furniture is time consuming whatever method is chosen.
If you do a quick internet search, you will find 3 accessible ways to remove paint from wood for DIYers. And it’s pretty much true. I will only add a fourth method to effectively strip paint from furniture. Read on to discover this fourth method I really like.
Here are the three +1 most common ways to remove paint from wood:
- Using a heat gun,
- Using chemical paint strippers and
- The fourth method is paint scrapping using a very efficient manual tool.
How to choose the appropriate method:
- Consider the size of the piece and its details: Is there any carving or molding? Any glass part? Obviously, you need to be better equipped to strip a whole dining set than to strip a single nightstand.
- The number of paint coats to remove: Some furniture has been painted and repainted so many times, making it more difficult to strip them back to bare wood.
- The desired finish: You don’t necessarily have to sand back to bare wood if you want to paint the piece again.
- The tools available to you: Are you ready to buy equipment or do you want to remove paint with what you already have on hand?
I tried different techniques on the same wooden cabinet door in order to compare them and I’m going to explain if it worked or not. Then, you may use the charts below to weigh the pros and cons of each method. For each method, you will also find a supply list to make sure you got the right equipment.
Table of Contents
1. Using Heat Gun to Strip Paint
Hot air guns may be used to melt or soften paint prior to scraping with a putty knife.
Hold the tool at a constant distance, generally about 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) from the paintwork and slowly scrape off the heated paint.
I recommend practicing on a piece of scrap painted wood (or at least on a less visible part) before moving on your cherished dresser. When the paint bubbles, strip the paint.
Do not burn the paint, it will produce toxic fumes and may damage the timber.
Keep the tool moving continuously. If you do not move your heat gun all the times, the hot air may scorch the wood by being concentrated on a small area. You’re stripping paint not starting a barbecue, so keep moving.
Here is the after after a few minutes of scraping. Heat gun was a very effective way to remove paint from this cabinet door.
For safety, you can place a bucket of water next to you in case the wood starts to burn.
Heating paint can give off dangerous fumes. That’s why you should always strip paint outside or in well ventilated area and wear a respirator.
Why choose the Heat Gun method?
- Reusable & Budget friendly tool
- Good for removing paint from large flat surface
- Can be fire hazard
- Produce toxic fumes
- Not easy to use on carvings
Personal Protective Equipment
2. Using Chemical Paint Stripper
How does paint stripper work?
First, move the piece of furniture you are stripping outdoor if possible. Or at least work in well ventilated area. Apply a thick layer of stripper with an old paint brush on the surface to be stripped. Wait for the paint to dissolve and go get a coffee!
Let the paint stripper stay on the surface between 15 minutes to several hours according to the product instructions. It is sometimes recommended to cover with plastic wrap to maintain wetness.
Scrap a small test area to see if the paint is ready to strip. You’re good to scrap when the softened paint peels away. Always test the product in a small, inconspicuous area before using on complete project.
Scrape the paint off with a plastic or metal scraper. Use the lightest pressure to avoid scratching up the wood. That’s the messy part!
For carvings or molding, you can use old toothbrushes or wire brushes.
In case of multiple paint layers, you may have to apply a second coat of stripper and repeat the process again.
After the second coat of paint stripper, most of the paint was removed. A light sanding and I’m good to move to the next step.
Remove remaining paint with soft brush or damp towel. Scrub off the residue with a wet nylon brush, and rinse with water or a solvent in order to neutralize the stripper. Finally, lightly sand the entire piece to get a smooth surface.
Be careful when you’re using paint stripper. Chemicals contained in these products may harm you or cause your death if they are not used properly. Always, keep your stripper out of sight and out of reach of children and pets.
Are paint strippers toxic to your health and the environment?
Yes, most of them are. Some paint removal products contain dangerous solvent such as methylene chloride and N-Methylpyrrolidone, also known as NMP. Methylene chloride has been linked to dozens of accidental deaths and workers exposed to such product have an increased risk of cancer. NMP has been described by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) described MNP as a developmental toxicant. Exposure to MNP by pregnant women may result in increased risk of fetal death from just one day of exposure. Long term exposures include developmental toxicity / decreased fetal weight, kidney, liver, and reproductive toxicity, as well as neurotoxicity.
Do not risk your health! Stay from paint removers containing methylene chloride and NMP and look for safer alternatives.
Luckily chemical strippers using safer ingredients have been on the market for years and have proved their worth. Smart Strip and Citristrip paint strippers are readily available products that do not contain harsh chemicals. Citristrip is widely used by furniture flippers. Some love the fresh citrus scent, some don’t. Try it and let us hear your opinion!
You can also try Smart Strip – Advanced Paint Remover. This is an odor free water based paint stripper. Smart Strip has earned itself a solid reputation in the furniture restoration business and is now considered as a popular alternative to Citistrip.
Why Choose Chemical Stripper?
- Good for removing paint from large flat surface
- Fast on thin coats of paint
- Quite Expensive – Chemical stripper available for DIY use can be expensive
- Messy to use
- May contain harmful chemicals
Personal Protective Equipment
To remove paint from wood furniture, sanding is often the first method that pop into our mind. However, sanding is a compulsory step for removing paint from wood, it is not, in most cases, the best method.
As I said earlier, even if you remove paint using chemicals or heat gun, you will be ending up sanding. But it does mean you should grab your power sander first.
Manual sanding is the best way to remove paint without damaging the timber underneath but it takes a lot of time and effort. Start with a 40 or 60 grit sandpaper and move to finer one 80 to 120 grit. For edges and details (carving, molding) use fine grit sandpaper.
You will soon realize that sanding furniture to remove paint is very time consuming. Time laps videos you will see on social media and YouTube makes it look like it is super-fast. But trust me, it is not!
When I sand furniture, I usually use my orbital sander and a sanding block. I also use my mouse sander for corners and edges. If you want to know what is the best sander for furniture, check out this article.
Be very careful not to damage the wood underneath when sanding furniture. Special care should be taken when sanding veneered furniture. With aggressive sanding, you will sand through the veneer very easily, causing irreversible damage. When removing paint from veneer, always start sanding with fine-grit sandpaper (120-grit). Check out this blog post if you want to learn how to recognize and sand veneered furniture.
If you’re planning to paint again your furniture, you do not need to remove all the paint. The idea is to sand the surface enough to remove peeling paint and get a smooth surface so that the new paint will adhere to it. In this case, sanding may be the best method.
It seems this nightstand was originally painted in blue before being painted in white. For this makeover, Chrystele did not sand back to bare wood. She sanded this nightstand until she got a smooth even finish and painted it in black. Check out the after here!
If you plan to leave natural grain of wood, then you will need to remove every last drop of old paint. In this case, sanding may no be the appropriate method.
Why Choose the Sanding Method?
- Budget friendly except for sanding pad
- Good result
- Works on all surfaces
- Best if you plan to paint again
- Anyway, that’s a necessary step
- Long and tedious
- Dusty and noisy
- May damage the underlying surface
Personal Protective Equipment
4. My favorite Paint Scraper
No chemical involved, no sanding (almost no sanding to be honest), less messy and less dusty, I call the Bahco Carbide Scraper. Given to me by my father last Christmas, I must admit this one of the most useful gifts I ever had.
This is very simple and effective tool Bahco Carbide Scraper looks – almost – like any other regular paint scraper except that this one is top notch quality! Blades are made from one of the hardest materials on earth: cemented carbide. There is version with Ergonomic two-handed grip. According to the manufacturer, it can remove paint, rust, glue, epoxy, varnish, and much more. So far, I’ve tried it on paint and varnish, and I can tell you it actually works.
The tool is fairly easy to use. Apply gentle pressure to blast through layers of paint and scrap. Always pull the scraper up toward you and scrap with the wood grain, never against it (it would damage the wood fibers). There is less risk to do damage with a scraper than with a power sander.
Scraping the middle panel was a little bite more challenging since the wood panel was not completely flat. So i used my small Bahco scraper. After a few minutes of scraping, the result was satisfactory.
Scraping creates flying debris, so lay down a large area of plastic to catch the mess before you start.
This tool is great for getting the edges where sanding tools just don’t work.
It does a great job stripping off paint that would otherwise take quite a lot longer and many sanding pads. It basically makes life easier.
After stripping paint, all you need to do is a light sand and boom! You’re ready to move on to the next step.
Why Choose Scraping with Bahco Carbide Scraper?
- Works on all surfaces: flat surface and edges
- Less risk to do damage & good result
- Less dusty, no chemical involved – Fast and noiseless
- Quite expensive for a scraper but it is a long-term investment
- Requires special Bahco Scraper for carvings
Personal Protective Equipment
Most of times, you will need to try at least two or three of the above methods before choosing the appropriate one. Depending on the support, the paint, one method might work best for one piece of furniture and just won’t work for another one.
5. Let’s try alternative methods to remove paint…
* Removing paint from wood with vinegar
Many clickbait websites claim you can strip from wood with vinegar. Guess what? Vinegar wont’ magically remove paint from wooden furniture.
I followed the instructions I found on the Internet. I poured some heated vinegar on the cabinet door and leave it for 20 minutes.
It did not work. Paint was still as hard as rock! I won’t try again.
* Removing paint from wood with oven cleaner
Often referred to as a miracle product, I had to try oven cleaner to strip paint from wood. I recently tried kitchen cleaner to prep an old sideboard before painting it. Check this makeover here.
I applied some cleaning product on my door and allowed it to sit for 20 minutes.
It did work for me on the first coat of paint which was also easy to remove using other techniques. It kind of softened the paint and make it easy to remove with a painters’ knife. As for the green paint, it did not work. I applied kitchen cleaner two times but it never helped removing the paint.
Since oven cleaner are not meant to be used on wood furniture, it may damage the wood. In particular there is a risk of splits and veneer separation. I would recommend to always try the product on a hidden part of your furniture first.
* Removing paint from wood with sodium-hydroxide
I also tried removing paint from my cabinet door using sodium-hydroxide. I applied a mix of water and sodium-hydroxide on the door and waited for the product to soak over the paint for a couple of minutes.
Blue paint was easy to remove but green paint still adhered to the support. I may try again this product again to remove paint.
* Removing paint from wood with pressure washer
Pressure washer may be used to remove loose paint from wood. Because it is a powerful tool and all the water involved, this method should be reserved for exterior surfaces and is not recommended for furniture.
Safety Concerns – Removing Lead Paint
Lead used to be added to paint to accelerate drying, increase durability. Lead-based paint wasn’t banned in the U.S. until 1978. So if you plan to strip paint from a piece older than that, there is high chance you’re dealing lead- based paint.
How to know if the paint you’re stripping contain lead?
You can buy lead testing kit at your local decorating center or DIY store. Hiring a pro is the safest way to go if you’re dealing with lead paint.
Professional ways to remove paint
Sandblastind and Baking soda blasting
Sandblasting is a professional service that makes use of a powered machine that propels or sprays sand on surfaces (wood, metal) to strip paint or clean them. Sandblasting requires specific equipment and quite technical to manage. You may cause pitting and scarring on the surface of the wood.
Soda blasting is a newer form of abrasive blasting. It is more and more popular among furniture restorers. Since soda blasting is a process much like sand blasting but it is milder than sand blasting. It is therefore ideal for wood and furniture.
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