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How to Remove Paint From Wood

Use Paint Stripper
Person using a scraper to remove paint from wood.

Paint strippers are solvents that soften the old finish for easy removal. They're available as a liquid, gel or paste and are effective at removing paint from wood on large projects, curved shapes and fine details. Using paint stripper on rounded surfaces and tight areas is often easier and more effective than sanding.

It’s easy to learn how to strip paint from wood with a paint strippers and removers, but keep them away from your skin, eyes and lungs. Many brands have minimal fumes and odor. Some boast easy clean-up with water. Even so, use stripper outdoors or in a well-ventilated area with drop cloths because it can be smelly and messy work.

To use paint stripper:

  • Pour a small amount of the paint stripper into a glass or metal container and apply it as specified on the label.
  • Use a gel or paste when stripping paint from vertical surfaces such as wooden doorframes.
  • It's best to start at the top of your project and work your way down.
  • Take the time to work it into hard-to-reach places.
  • Allow the solvent to work according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Use a paint scraper, putty knife or specialty scraper to remove the softened paint, being careful to not gouge the wood.
  • Reapply the paint stripper to detailed or problem areas
  • Scrub the entire project with nylon brushes or abrasive pads to remove all traces of the old finish and the stripper sludge.
Use a Heat Gun
Person using a heat gun and putty knife to remove paint.

Heat guns are another option to consider when determining how to remove paint from wood. Heated air from the tool is directed onto the painted surface. This causes the paint to loosen, blister and bubble from the wood, making it easy to remove with a metal scraper. Heat guns are also effective at taking off varnish and other finishes.

Because they generate high temperatures, keep a fire extinguisher nearby when using a heat gun. Never leave a heat gun unattended.

To use a heat gun:

  • With the heat gun operating, point the nozzle at the work surface, keeping it about 2-inches away.
  • Move the gun back and forth across a small area of the surface until the paint begins to bubble and blister.
  • Stop immediately if the finish begins to smoke.
  • With your other hand, hold a paint scraper at about a 30-degree angle to the surface.
  • Use the scraper like a plow to push the old paint away. 
  • Return to trouble spots or detailed areas with the heat gun and use a contoured scraper to remove the paint from narrow crevices.
  • Any stubborn flecks that remain can usually be removed by using just the scraper. Be firm but avoid using too much pressure to prevent gouging the wood.
  • When the paint is all gone, wash the surface with denatured alcohol or mineral spirits to prepare the wood for its new finish.
Use Sandpaper
A person using a manual hand sander and sandpaper to remove paint from wood.

Sandpaper and power sanders provide another quick way to remove old paint from wood. It’s an efficient method for flat surfaces but must be done carefully to avoid wood damage. Always sand with the grain of the wood.

Because of the amount of dust generated when sanding to remove paint, wear safety goggles and a face mask. Avoid using electric sanders indoors.

To use sandpaper or a power sander to remove paint:

  • Thoroughly clean the painted surface with degreasing cleaner, dish soap or household cleaner and allow to dry.
  • If necessary, remove any knobs, hinges or other hardware from the wood being sanded.
  • Start with coarse 80-grit sandpaper in a manual hand sander or power sander. 
  • Using enough pressure to remove the paint but not so much that it damages the wood.
  • Move to medium 150-grit abrasive and finish with fine 220-grit, brushing away dust from the surface each time you change paper.
  • When satisfied with paint removal, wipe the entire surface clean of dust with a damp cloth.

Safety: When removing paint from wood by scraping, sanding or other means, you may release lead dust if the paint was made before 1978. Lead is toxic and exposure can cause serious illness, especially in children and pregnant women. Any removal of lead paint may also be subject to Federal and State regulations. Consult your local building authority for more information.

Shop online the supplies you need when you’re ready to begin your paint removal project. The Home Depot delivers online orders when and where you need them.