How to Remove Paint

How to Remove Varnish

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Article Summary: There are basically three methods to remove paint and varnish - with a chemical remover, with heat or with abrasives. This article takes a look at these three methods to help you choose the best one for your situation.

If you have the option of using a professional paint removal service, I would strongly recommend you use it. Of course sometimes this may be impossible, either because the item cannot be removed or because of the size of the item in question. Items like doors, chairs and small tables are suited to this service because the amount of time you save in scraping and sanding, not to mention the mess, makes the cost well worth it.

The professional stripping service involves the item being completely immersed in a chemical stripper that gets into all the smallest nooks and crannies. A side effect of this may be that glued joints are affected. If you have a particularly valuable item I would probably not use any stripper as the wood could be affected by the chemicals used. Always ask the company for their recommendations and guarantees if necessary.

If you have articles that are too small to warrant using a professional service, try the techniques outlined below.

Removing Lacquer and Shellac Finishes

Shellac and lacquer are mixed with alcohol (shellac) and thinners (lacquer). In order to remove these finishes first obtain some denatured alcohol or lacquer thinners and using steel wool, carefully rub the soaked steel wool on the item. You can also dip the item into a container of the liquid depending on its size. This will eventually soften the shellac or lacquer and gradually lift it off the wood surface. Use scrapers to get into any difficult to reach places.

Always do this type of surface removal outside if possible. The vapors given off can be toxic and you should always use gloves and a face mask when using them.

Remove Paint & Varnish Finishes

To remove paint and similar finishes you will need to get hold of standard paint stripper. Paint stripper is best applied using a brush, but don't apply it like paint, instead 'dollop' it on, working it in to the paint. Pay special attention to corners where it is difficult to get to. If necessary use a smaller brush. Be aware that once used, brushes should be disposed of, so don't use a quality brush.

Be careful with paint stripper as it is composed of a caustic substance that will burn skin and anything else it comes into contact with. Always set out paper underneath the item so that stray drops are caught before they hit the floor.

Once the stripper has had time to dissolve the paint finish, use scrapers to first remove the majority of paint, then use steel wool to get the smaller remnants off. If you find that there is still a lot of paint left, reapply more stripper and give it as much time as it needs to work effectively - this is one job you cannot rush!

A few tips for maximum effectiveness of paint stripper to remove paint are:

Using Abrasives to Remove Paint

This method is probably the hardest and is not really recommended unless absolutely necessary. Using sandpaper, steel wool, wire brushes, and sanding machines is not too bad on flat surfaces, but for more intricate items the job can take a very long time. If you are removing paint from flat surfaces like stair treads, don't be tempted to use belt sanders. They are quite brutal and chances are that you will end up with gouges in your once flat treads. Instead use a random orbital sander. The random action of the sander ensures that you don't end up with lots of little circles in the wood.

If you use sandpaper, start off with a coarse grit paper (24 grit) and work towards a finer grade (100 grit) to obtain a smooth finish. When you have finished sanding you should also use a vacuum and paint thinners to remove any final particles from the wood. You may be interested in reading my other article that deals specifically with sanding wood floors.

Using Heat to Remove Paint

A heat gun is a slow but sure way to remove paint finishes. A word of caution however, they can actually scorch the wood surface as temperatures are hot enough to cause burning. So when using a heat gun always keep the nozzle moving, try not too let it stay in one position for too long otherwise you can damage the wood material. I recommend that the old type of naked flame heat guns are not used, they are simply too dangerous.

Fire is rarely a problem with electric heat guns, but just in case always have a small bucket of water, or better still a water spray gun so that any mishaps can be quickly extinguished.

Other Methods

You can by all manner of scrapers that in theory can be used without any toxic liquids to remove any type of finish. The only caveat is that they all require a significant amount of work. Used with solvents, alcohols and thinners they can be used with great success on smaller items of furniture that might otherwise be damaged by quicker, less labor intensive methods. Scrapers and knives such as Putty Knives, Flat Scrapers, Pull Scrapers and even kitchen scrapers can all be use to great effect.

Removing Paint & Varnish From Wood
Tools Required
Materials Required
Disposable BrushesWire Wool
Heat Gun Alcohol/Thinners
Scrapers Paint Stripper
Sanding machines Cover Sheets
Sanding Blocks safety Items
Safety Precautions
  • Always read the instructions for any toxic liquids used
  • Always wear approved gloves and mask
  • Always ensure adequate ventilation
  • Keep the kids away!