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.
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, though 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.
2018 article addendum: Here is a video from our YouTube channel showing you the most effective steps to using CitriStrip.
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.
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 your 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!
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!
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.