How to strip paint from wood – to refresh the surface

Find out how to strip paint from wood ready for a new coat, color, or to expose the grain

Strip paint from wood
(Image credit: Alamy)

There will inevitably come a time when you need to know how to strip paint from wood. You might have to do so because the original paint has become flaky or discolored, a whole new hue is in order, or perhaps because you want to expose the wood below.

But just as when you’re painting a room, carrying out the task the way the experts do is a must to avoid damage to the wood and complete the task in the most efficient way.

To make achieving all these goals easy, we’ve put together an essential guide.

How to strip paint from wood

When you’re looking for the answer to how to strip paint from wood, there are actually three alternatives. Sanding, a hot air gun, and chemical stripping are all options. Each of these methods has its strengths, and its downsides, which you’ll want to take into account. 

‘Bear in mind that in the end combining methods can be best,’ says Lucy Searle, global editor in chief of Homes & Gardens

1. Be lead aware

Before you start to strip paint from wood, be aware of the possibility of lead being present in old paint. ‘If your home was built before 1978, it is more likely to have lead-based paint,’ according to the EPA (opens in new tab). ‘In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-based paint, but some states banned it even earlier.’

The bottom line? ‘Lead paint is still present in millions of homes, sometimes under layers of newer paint,’ says the EPA. Toxic lead dust can be created when the painted surface is disturbed, so always check before beginning work.

DIY tests are available, such as Lead Check (opens in new tab), or you can send paint chips to a lab for testing; the EPA recommends consulting a lead-safe certified contractor before beginning work.

2. Strip paint from wood by sanding

Sanding can be the best way to strip small areas of paint from wood. Use sandpaper and a sanding block. Wipe clean when you’re done and leave to dry before making preparations for repainting.

Sanding using a power sander can also be an efficient way to remove paint from large flat surfaces. If you’re using one of these indoors it should be set up so the dust is caught. 

Wear eye protection and a dust mask when you’re sanding and never sand lead-based paint.

3. Strip paint from wood with a heat gun

A heat gun can be an effective way to strip paint from wood. It softens the paint so it can be scraped off. 

Make sure to wear eye protection and gloves when using a heat gun. Move the gun backwards and forwards over the paint being careful not to concentrate the heat in one area, which can scorch the wood. It only takes seconds for the paint to soften, and you can then use a scraper with a broad blade to lift it. For safe working, be sure to move the scaper away from you and avoid placing your hand so the paint – which will of course be hot – falls on it.

4. Use paint strippers to strip paint from wood

Chemical strippers work by dissolving paint and can come as liquids, gels, or pastes. ‘Use a gel or a paste for a vertical surface,’ recommends Lucy Searle. ‘They’re preferable as they won’t run on to the floor.’ Always read the instructions on the product before use, and wear eye and hand protection. 

Paint strippers are useful to remove paint thoroughly which is particularly important if you’re going to varnish it down the line. They’re also good for window frames as you don’t have to worry about heat cracking the glass, as well as for other awkward paint-stripping tasks.

On the downside, using strippers can be slow, and the space in which they’re used needs to be well ventilated. If you’re stripping paint from a piece of furniture or a door that can be taken off the hinges and removed, work in a garage. 

Apply liquid paint stripper using an old paintbrush, according to instructions, then remove the paint using a scraper, working away from yourself. 

Neutralize stripper as directed by the manufacturer before painting or varnishing the wood.

What is the fastest way to remove paint from wood?

The fastest way to remove paint from wood might be to use a heat gun but sometimes a combination of heat and chemicals is needed to get the results you need. 

‘For speed, and if the item is removable, you might want to send it out to a pro who can put it into a dip tank,’ says Lucy Searle, global editor in chief of Homes & Gardens. ‘Immersing the item in paint stripper gives fast and thorough results.’

Will vinegar take paint off wood?

Vinegar won’t take paint off wood but it can soften it making it easy to scrape off. We’re really talking paint splashes on a floor here, though, or spatters on furniture and it’s not a replacement for other methods.

If you’re looking for a paint stripper without strong fumes, we like Citristrip Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel (opens in new tab) – although, as the name suggests, it does have an odor.

Sarah Warwick
Contributing Editor

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator.