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How To Strip Paint (Part 1 Chemical Strippers)

How To Strip Paint (Part 3 Steam Heat)

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.

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, 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. 

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 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!

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!

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

  1. I used a Chem stripper on a veneered piece. It looks like it almost left a shadow or stain on the wood in places. Sanding doesn’t seem to help. Would bleaching the wood even out the chemical stripper stain?

  2. Hi Scott,

    Thank you for your blog. It’s very informative and easy to follow.

    My question is that I’m trying to strip the paint from an old bicycle frame using Methylene Chloride gel and it is proving tough going. Short of tipping the gel out into an open container, I can’t seem to get a thick enough coat happening.

    Can this paint stripper be thinned out a little to get more to stay on the brush, hence onto the job?

    Cheers,
    Errol

  3. Scott:

    My wife and I are beginners at this, but thanks to your tutelage, we did a really good job on stripping some old furniture. Thank you a ton!

    Now, however, a question: What we seem to have unconvered was walnut (at least veneer). At first we thought about varathaning it. BUt then we wondered if simply oiling it would be better. When you’re confronted with this sort of decision, Scott, what factors to you consider? Which would you do?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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)

  10. 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?

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. 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).

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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!

    1. Beth, to be safe I would wipe the surface down thoroughly with mineral spirits and then switch to using Citristrip. It’s a little slower but much safer.

  17. 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

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

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