How To Strip Paint (Part 1 Chemical Strippers)

By Scott Sidler May 5, 2014

how-to-strip-paint
Image credit: kozzi / 123RF Stock Photo

I know a lot of you have questions about stripping paint from old woodwork. I know because it’s one of the topics I get emailed about the most. So I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.

There are three primary ways you can remove paint (scraping/sanding, chemicals, heat) and we’ll talk about all three in this series.

Today let’s focus on chemical strippers, which are really your best option if you have detailed or ornate moldings to strip since these can’t be easily scraped or sanded without destroying the profiles.

There are dozens of chemical paint strippers on the market today. Some have been around for decades, but in the last 20 years there have been a lot of less caustic, more earth-friendly options.

In my experience, and in several comparison studies I have read, these less caustic options are much safer, but noticeably less effective than the old “burn your skin off” methylene chloride strippers. Let’s talk about some of my favorites.

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Chemical Strippers

CitriStrip

This is really the only chemical paint stripper I consistently use these days. CirtiStrip is a relatively non-toxic, orange scented, yogurt like consistency stripper. It does a good job of softening up paint thought it does take a few hours to work its magic. If you have any more than around 4 layers of paint you may need a second treatment. It works great on almost any surface including wood and metal.

Peel Away 1

This is one of the more expensive paint strippers out there today, but for good reason. I use this exclusively when we have to remove paint from old brick or stucco where scraping or sanding isn’t feasible. This paint stripper is a two part system where you brush on the paste and cover it with a paper. After the stripper has dried you simply peel away the paper which pulls the old paint away with it. It’s a great way to contain any mess and remove the paint.

Methylene Chloride

This is the old standby for chemical strippers. Methylene Chloride has been around for decades, is very effective and fast working, and unfortunately it’s also very caustic. The paint softens up in minutes instead of hours with most of the green alternatives. The vapors are overwhelming without an organic vapor respirator so be sure to protect yourself. You’ll need lots of ventilation to be able to use this type of stripper as well.

Other Green Chemical Strippers

There are a lot of options on the market today for chemical paint strippers that I haven’t had the chance to use enough yet to formulate a solid opinion, but I wanted to mention some of them with the disclaimer that I can’t tell you honestly how they work or if they are worth your money. But so you know, here are the ones I’m currently testing.

  • Soy-Gel – Made from soybeans this is another safe option for paint removal.
  • Star 10 – Another soy based option and the manufacturer is awesome at answering any questions
  • Lead Out – A cool product the strips paint and renders lead paint completely harmless when applied

 

How To Strip Paint

So you’ve picked out your chemical stripper and you’re ready to start removing decades of caked-on paint. Good for you brave soul! Be forewarned, chemical paint stripping is a messy process. You’re about to turn all this paint into a slimy, gloppy mess so you better have a plan for what you’re going to do with it and how you’ll clean up.

Step 1 Prep

If I’m going to be doing some serious paint stripping I make sure to lay down a layer of 6 mil. plastic on the floor below the area I am working and then cover that with kraft paper or rosin paper. If you just use plastic the old paint residue can get slippery and possibly even eat throughout the plastic depending on what type of chemical you’re using. Protect the area thoroughly.

Next thing is to make sure you have chemical resistant gloves on. Most strippers (even the green ones) will eat through regular latex or nitrile gloves so don’t even bother trying. Use the big, thick, mad-scientist looking gloves at the store.

Lastly, open a window or four. (If you’re windows are painted shut I’ll show you how to get them open here). Whatever chemical stripper you use you’ll need ventilation if you want to avoid seeing double for the rest of the day. Sadly, I’m speaking from experience here. Make sure your workspace has good ventilation!

citristrip
Bubbled paint ready for removal Image Credit: Airstreamfever.com
Step 2 Application and Removal

Get an old paint brush or some disposable chip brushes and start brushing on the stripper. Most chemical strippers work best with a thick application that thoroughly coats the surface. Too thin a layer and the stripper dries out and stops working. If you’re working on a vertical surface make sure you choose a paste like stripper instead of a thin liquid to avoid it running off the surface. I like to cover the area with a coat about 1/8″ thick of stripper.

Once you have a workable area coated it’s time to wait. Depending on the strength of the product and the layers of paint this can take minutes or hours. If you see the stripper thinning out and starting to dry, apply a little more in those areas to keep it coated.

Once the paint is thoroughly bubbled and starting to look like the picture here it is ready to be scraped off. You don’t need a sharp scraper for this. A painter’s 5-in-1 or putty knife will work just fine. You can use tooth picks or any other creative tool to get into hard to reach spots or little details (get creative). Scrape off everything you can and if there is still solid paint underneath you’ll need another application of stripper.

Keep applying coats of stripper and scraping off the loosened paint until you get down to bare wood.

Step 3 The Secret to Getting to Clean, Bare Wood

Once you’re done removing dozens of layers of old paint there will inevitably be a little remaining paint in the nooks & crannies. If your woodwork was originally painted the old oil-based primer has likely sunk down into the pores of the wood and can’t be scraped off

Here’s a little secret I use to get things completely clean. Put one final thin coat of stripper on the wood and let it work in for a few minutes. Then grab some 000 steel wool and polish the wood with the stripper and steel wool. work in circles or go with the grain of the wood whichever seems to be most effective in your situation. This is like chemical sanding the wood and it gets the old primer out of the pores and gives the surface a nice smooth finish.

If you plan to stain and finish your project this step is a must!

Step 4 Clean Up

Here’s where most people go wrong with chemical strippers. Sure, you need to clean up the old paint residue and dispose of it according to your state’s regulations (my apologies to those of you in California) but you also need to neutralize the chemical stripper. If you don’t neutralize then when you repaint that paint will fail prematurely because of the old residue still left on the wood.

Each chemical has different requirements for neutralizing the surface you just stripped Some require water, others mineral spirits, still others require something different. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions or you will have problems in the future!

Once you’ve cleaned up and neutralized let the wood dry for a day or two so there isn’t any remaining moisture that need to get out and you should be ready to prime and paint. Good luck and, as always, let me know how it goes!

Some of the links above are affiliate links to our Amazon Old House Store.

 

83 thoughts on “How To Strip Paint (Part 1 Chemical Strippers)”

  1. Why Sorry California? I am trying to Google how to dispose of lead based paint in California and can’t get a straight simple explaination online.

  2. I am refurbishing an old oak ice box that was really abused. It was left to rot and has some rot on the feet due to being on/in dirt. Whatever finish remained was removed so it is bare wood. I wonder if you can suggest a good product to use to clean the wood prior to applying a finish.

  3. Hello,

    My husband and I just purchased a home and the previous owner painted over oil based paint w/ latex. There was no prep work prior to the application of latex paint. We have begun to scrape the paint off (every door, every piece of trim). My husband worked for a painting co in college and does not believe the oil based paint contains lead (house built in 1951). There are some areas that the paint did adhere — should I leave those areas alone? My husband thinks we should prime w/ Zinsser 123 and apply latex paint once our prep work is completed. This is A LOT of work and I want to make sure we get it right. What do you think?

    1. If the house was built in 1951 I would test for lead because there is a good chance it does have lead. Also, the prep will depend on how well the latex adhered. If it is peeling off then primer over top of it won’t do anything to help you’ll have to strip it off and prep the base layer of paint properly.

  4. Hey Scott, i just bought a 150 year old house and I am stripping the paint off the stairs which includes lead. I bought a gallon of the peel away 1 stuff and tried it on one stair. It worked great. My question is would it be better to wet sand argots sand with hepa vac attachment or continue using the peel away 1?

    Thanks
    KURT

  5. HELP! Using Citristrip on 1890 woodworking, specifically around the door frame. The layering coming off is lavender latex. Under that, primer. Under primer, varnish. Under varnish, a faux finish using God only knows what that created a wood grain. (OLD faux technique) Under faux and original to house I’m believing is white, oil based, enamel probably lead based. I can’t get past this last coat of white! Everything else is sliding right off, but this white is acting like it is hanging around until the house falls down! Clues????

    1. I’m having the same problem on a coat of that inprenatable white paint on an antique china cabinet. I’m thinking I may have to sand it off.

      1. Hi! I’m also having a problem removing the original coat of institutional green paint on a 1890’s kitchen hutch. Using….. CitriStrip. The top three layers dissolved fairly easily. Not the original green coat.

  6. I used goof off stripper then goof off after wash. Do i still need to use mineral spirits?
    If so is a light sanding then tack cloth the next step? And then can i stain amd paint?

    (My first piece of furnitre, never done before)

  7. I used Citristrip to take layers of old paint off a window frame. Before putting on the primer coat, I forgot to do the neutralizing step with mineral spirits. There is a yellowish tone under the primer. Trying to cover that up, I went ahead and put on two coats of exterior latex, but I still see the yellow tone. Is there anything I can do other than start over? What’s the risk of just leaving it the way it is?

  8. I used Citistrip to take layers of old paint off a window frame. Before putting on the primer coat, I forgot to do the neutralizing step with mineral spirits. There is a yellowish tone under the primer. Trying to cover that up, I went ahead and put on two coats of exterior latex, but I still see the yellow tone. Is there anything I can do other than start over? What’s the risk of just leaving it the way it is?

  9. Hi, I’m trying out Citristrip on our ceiling fan which has fan blades that seem to be coated in some kind of glossy coat. I’m not sure if it’s a shellac or some kind of clear coat, but it doesn’t seem to be letting anything strip it.

    I applied the citristrip about 16 hours ago and while it doesn’t appear to be dried out, I see no bubbling whatsoever. Since it’s relatively non toxic I’m doing it in the basement, which is probably about 60 degrees or so. Could the temperature be the issue? Help I’m not really sure how to strip these fan blades.

  10. How do you get peeling Latex paint off of a vinyl front door? It was originally brown, but they painted it, probably without primer and it is peeling off. I want to get the yellowish paint off of it and repaint it in a light cream. I was afraid that all strippers would ruin the vinyl.

    1. Donna, peel off what you can by hand and then for the tougher stuff steam might do the trick. Chemical strippers will likely melt the door itself (especially the strong ones).

  11. I am a little confused. Is using a product like LeadOut on baseboards that tested positive for lead a good alternative to “wet sanding”? Our home is a 200 yr old farm home.

    1. Honestly priming and painting is a good way to keep the lead paint encapsulated. If it is chipping and peeling, wet sanding or sanding with a HEPA vac attachment would be my recommendation.

  12. I just used Citritsrip on an old set of stairs…for the second time. The first time, I didn’t neutralize properly, and the orange color from the stripper came through my white oil-based primer and white latex paint. I re-stripped them and applied the Citristrip After Wash (which I’ve just read is discontinued, but it was at my local home-improvement store). After drying overnight, I then applied one coat of primer to the top two steps only as a test, and the orange is coming through again!

    I’m truly at a loss here. Was it the after wash that didn’t work? Should I re-strip the two I just primed and wash with mineral spririts of another brand?

  13. Hi, I started using the methylene chloride stripper on an old dresser. I got lots of burns from it so don’t want to continue using that type of stripper. There is still residue of this stripper on the dresser. Is it safe or okay to use CitriStrip on the same piece of furniture to finish the job? I do not want to cause a dangerous chemical reaction and so if I do need to finish it with the other kind of stripper I can but would rather not. Or would I need to rinse with mineral spirits before using CitriStrip? Please let me know. Thank you!

  14. Help, I used Zinser Fast Power Stripper around a window.The paint turned into a gummy goo and I can’t get it off What can I do

  15. Hi,

    When you are working with LEAD paint, it seems to be safer to “work wet”…wet sanding is safer than dry hand sanding.

    Let’s say I’m stripping paint from wood…after I neutralize it, what’s the best way to wet sand it?

    What grit should I use to sand the wood after removing the lead paint? 60/80/100?

    Power sanding is a no no with lead paint.

    Can you give us a step by step tutorial on how to do wet sanding properly? I want to make sure I do it right.

    Thanks,

    1. I meant to say what’s the best way to do wet sanding (what grit size, etc) after removing LEAD paint with something like Soy Gel..this would be after i neutralize it.

  16. I’m a bit confused so I need some clarification. After you’ve used a chemical stripper like Citristrip or Soy Gel, and after you’ve followed instructions for neutralizing, do you need to sand the wood? If so, what kind of sanding is best?

    I believe you said somewhere else that sanding is good “insurance” against peeling paint. Prep work is essential…against unnecessary paint failure, as we both know. But maybe the chemical stripper makes sanding unnecessary? Or maybe not?

    1. Sanding after chemical stripping isn’t always necessary although often the stripper raises the grain of the wood and you want that smoothed out. I usually give everything at least a slight sanding prior to priming to make sure my paint comes out smooth and lasts a long time. It doesn’t take long and it always helps.

      1. Thanks. i appreciate the reply. What do you mean by slight sanding? Elsewhere you said something about a progression of grits…like 60/80/100. Does slight mean using only ONE grit size instead of 2 or 3…and if so, which size?

  17. Hi,

    I wanted to let you know that the paint strippers you listed all have NMP which is a known reproductive toxin (Soy Gel and Citristrip). None of the ones you listed are safer.

    Best,
    Alicia

    1. Alicia, I didn’t know about the NMP and thanks for sharing. I have no doubt that any chemical that liquifies solid paint or varnish into goo has some undesirable chemicals in it. Though none of them are nearly as bad as Methylene Chloride. Caution is always wise though!

    2. Alicia!

      Thank you for posting your warning about NMP. I saw a MSDS this morning that said the same thing you did about NMP. I did not know about NMP either until this morning.

      Also, this Material Safety Data Sheet said that Methylene Chloride can cause death when used in enclosed spaces! This deadly stripper can also penetrate the cartridges of respirators, according to this MSDS…which surprised me! I’m wondering if they mean even respirators designed for use with methylene chloride? I will try to contact the people who drew up this list. I will post the URL here..it’s a comprehensive, well-thought out and well-written summary of chemical strippers.

      //www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/hesis/Documents/Paint-Removal-Methods.pdf

  18. We own a 1927 Sears home, we are the second owners and have discovered the kitchen cabinets were painted with oil based paint. I have painted them twice with regular wall paint that peels off with every nick. I would like to strip down to the original wood and stain. We have also considered getting them dipped. I am also open to using the Citristrip, as we are approaching winter here, would it be ok to do this project in my basement?

    1. Kim, if the canines were originally painted then getting all the paint off to prepare for stain will be extremely difficult because the paint or primer will have seeped into the pores of the wood. You can certainly try, but you may be better off stripping the built up paint off and starting fresh with high quality oil-based enamel paint.

  19. HiI’m stripping my 1904 stairs .it’s very hard to get rid of the resideu from peelaway 1.
    I’ve rinsed and rinsed and wiped over and over with sponges etc.can you help? The resideu is still greyish no matter how many times I rinse with the water. Cheers ,fionnuala

    1. Hi, my contractor stripped the wI down and base trim as well as a door with commercial stripper. I don’t know the brand. One door was dipped in a tank, and another door was stripped by someone else using a different stripper. I do not know what stripping products were used. What is the best way to neutralize since I don’t know what was used to strip the wood? Thank you.

      1. There is no way to tell what will neutralize if we don’t know what the stripper was. Water is always a good guess for neutralizer but checking the ph of the wood will help determine what needs to be done. Some strippers are very alkaline and need something more acidic like oxalic acid to counteract the strong base.

  20. I have new wood cabinets that I just primed to paint, then changed my mind. I started stripping today with a chemical stripper, but at this rate will take months! What is the best kind of paint scraping tool to use? There are some pretty small areas to get into!…also the remover seems to leave quite a film on the wood and the gel stain I want to use looks horrible over it!…finally, the matching cabinet has veneer doors that were sanded initially when removing finish in preparation for painting. Can I sand again?

    1. Teresa, you’re in a real pickle. Removing primer from freshly sanded wood is extremely difficult. Sadly chemicals are your best bet. The haze is likely un-neutralized stripper. Once you have everything stripped you will still need to do some hand sanding to clean up the details, but it may not look as good as you’d like because primer goes deep into the grain of the wood unlike paint.

  21. I have to agree with the person above: citristrip is amazing, put it on thick though (1/8″ thick), and just watch it bubble up in about 30 minutes! Doesnt stink, use indoors vertically, great stuff. My first coat was too thin, had some scraping to do, then a second coat. I got 18 small doors done with less than 64oz of citristrip! Also want to say, Scott, youve got the best diy blog ive read. Im a mid century window resto guy and learn so much from you!

  22. Been lurking for some time now, started reglazing my windows, and this site is now my go-to place for all restoration projects. Great info and explanations!

    My current dilemma is getting the bottom mystery layer off some doors from the 2nd floor of our 1895 house. Does anybody have any idea what this last layer is and why it’s so difficult?

    The layer is white, doesn’t seem very thick, but is really smooth – not like any sort of water or oil or lead-based paint I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the same stuff Jacqueline mentioned above? I’m guessing part of the problem is that it appears to have been applied directly to the wood instead of say, on top of what appears to be shellac that the rest of our woodwork was originally coated in.

    We took the doors to the local dip-stripper because it was actually relatively inexpensive in our area and there were so many layers of poorly-applied paint it obscured the paneling detail. I don’t know exactly what chemicals he used, but our doors were the first things dipped in that batch. Three of the doors came out almost completely clean, like you’d expect. The rest came clean except the last layer which is basically perfectly intact, even when he left it in over twice as long as usual.

    The guy who stripped them had never seen anything like it. My husband went through an entire 60-grit pad with an electric sander in an area about twice the size of the pad itself.

    Would heat stripping be worth a shot? It seems like the only alternative is scraping, which would be fine… except we’re worried about the contours/edges/angles of the paneling. Surely someone has solved this problem before…

    Thoughts?

    1. Sarah, hmmmmm, I want to know what the mystery paint is too. I would thinks it’s the primer, but dipping should have removed it. Maybe try infrared heat (Speedheater) or mechanical scraping.

      1. I wonder if its White lead based primer. I have that on my 1965 custom Georgian colonial. Does not come off except with sanding, multiple coats of stripper. Vaporizes when heated, so that’s a no go. What a nightmare. I’m ready to give up and replace all my fluted trim around my front door instead of stripping it.

      2. That’s what I am dealing with in my post! It’s very strange but under it, IF, you get under it, is perfectly preserved wood!

  23. My 110-year old house has twenty square feet of copper-clad exterior trim (columns, and other vertical elements). I intend to test CitriStrip on the trim. Do you have any suggestions regarding the stripping process in light of the copper? Thanks.

      1. Thanks for the reply. What if some of the lead paint that’s peeling so badly you don’t even need a chemical stripper is stuck on the wood?

        What’s the best way to remove it, especially from fascia?

  24. Hi Scott! We just got a new home that had hardwood underneath carpet. All it needs is a little pick me up and remove the cracked varnish (?) that is awfully shinny. I used an orbital sander for 2 days and it left spots of sanded and no sanded still. So in the places where the sander didn’t touch, I tried to remove the shine, which I can only assume is varnish, with Citristrio today. I left on floor thick for 2 hours and tested the entire master bedroom. Nothing happened and all is cleaned up and neutralized. Let’s just say, all windows are open and I hope this horrible smell goes away- how do I know what finish it is and how to remove? And how long with the smell last from the Citristrip? Does the product evaporate or just stay in the floor and loose the smell?

  25. Is it okay to use mineral spirits after using Citristrip. I did and wonder now if I made a mistake. If I did so in error, is there s way to correct my mistake?

  26. I just used citristripe and it work like a charm on some pine.. Can I use vinegar and water as the chemical wash(step 4) instead of buying and using the chemical wash?

    By the way

    I’m not painting in going to stain the pine to a dark ebony color 🙂

      1. Why are you using vinegar? Just curious. I just hose my pieces down in the yard, actually, with a garden hose. i.e. water.

        I’ve never understood why someone would go to all the trouble of buying Citristrip, or something else so enviro-friendly, then add back in a flesh-eating chemical at the end.

        Hope you’ve read the info about laying plastic bags on your pieces and leaving them for several hours. (Don’t peek!) It holds the Citristrip against the wood so it can continue to work. It should pull the paint off in layers. On some antique cabinets, I actually forgot about it and it dried. Guess what scraped off anyway? Yup. Layers and layers of paint. I love clean, raw wood with no need to sand! I’d love to see the pine you’re stripping. I have some antique trim….

  27. I am in the process of trying to take the paint off my basement stairs. I am using Klean-Strip. In most cases, it is turning the paint into a liquid mess (essentially wet paint). Is there a better way to get this to work, or is it worth switching products? Also, what do you do about the paint that is in cracks? I need to stain this over when I am finished and I want it to look professional…

    1. Mike, chemical strippers are messy and there is really very little you can do about that. Latex paint will bubble and become a gooey mess and oil paint will turn back to liquid. To get into the cracks you’ll have to be creative (toothpicks, stiff bristle brushes, whatever implement you can come up with to get into those hard to reach areas) Good luck!

  28. I’m new here, but I think I have something to offer with Citristrip.

    Put it on thick and press plastic bags into it and LEAVE it ALONE. Really. “A couple hours” is fine, if you don’t fuss with it. I go to work or bed and leave it 6-8 hours. I’ve lifted the bags to find it pulling off as many as 7 layers of paint. SEVEN. (That’s my record.)

    A 2nd coat turns stain into BBQ sauce and you can squeegee it off into a garbage bag.

    Neutralize with water and a plastic dish scrubby. Don’t use mineral spirits, which liquifies the stain back into the wood. Purple. I’m here to tell ‘ya. This will take the piece back to unpainted, raw wood.

    Let it dry thoroughly and lightly 220 it. No steel wool, no metal scrapers, no flesh eating chemicals, no space suit.

    I’ve done 15 antique doors, one a weekend. 1 day for paint layers, 1 day for stain. I’ve done my kitchen cabinets in place. Other pieces in my pajamas in front of the TV. Get it on yourself, wipe it on your jeans. I swear by this stuff because it makes stripping old pieces actually fun. “Easy” takes on new meaning.

    BTW. Press plastic into it on horizontal, stucco walls and it’ll wash everything off.

    As you can tell, I rave about this stuff and don’t think twice about last century’s evil chemicals. I’m looking at 15 1920s windows to strip next week. Believe it or not, I can’t wait.

  29. I am stripping the baseboards and trim on an 1880’s house the first three-four layers come off pretty easily with stripper but the last two layers won’t budge…at all. I have left the stripper on longer tried sanding then using stripper but it just won’t come off. It will sand off but with course 60 sandpaper it took over two hours to get most of it off of one small board. I don’t know what to do to get this stuff moving. its like trying to smash concrete with a cotton ball. Please Help.

    1. Jacqueline, Try some different strippers or try scraping with carbide scrapers. Its hard work but I haven’t found a paint that can stand up to a sharper pull scraper.

  30. Have you ever had to remove paint from a stucco wall? Would love to hear if you have any experience or advice. Ultimately, we’re trying to remove 70% of the paint so that the thinset we’re using to lay subway tile over the stucco wall will create a strong bond to the stucco.

    1. Joseph, to remove paint from stucco I like PeelAway1 paint stripper. You can’t really scrape stucco and this stuff is applied and then a paper coating is placed over it overnight. The next morning you peel it off and the paint comes with it.

  31. Thank you so much! I am stripping a piece of furniture today and sure enough the primer was down in the pores of the wood. I would not have had a clue how to fix it without this info. The tooth pick trick worked too.

  32. We have purchased a 110 year old house and are stripping at least 3 layers of paint and 2 layers of wallpaper (the bottom wallpaper looks to be a green fern/forest design.

    We’ve tried 3 methods – stripper, vinegar and steam. All three work pretty good but the steam goes all the way down to the plaster. We haven’t tried a heat gun yet. In your opinion should we stay with the steamer? Thanks.

  33. What do you use to mask off areas from the paint stripper? We are trying to take the paint of molding but not destroy the stucco that abuts the molding. I assume the paint stripper would eat through standard masking?

    Thanks.

      1. Hi
        Would you recommend the plastic to mask off upvc windows too? I have a wooden window sill but plastic window frames. I want to strip the wood sill

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