How to Remove Paint from Wood—Without Damaging the Surface

You can strip old paint to reveal the natural grain underneath or to prep the wood for a new coat of paint—here’s how.

Paint can fade, chip, and peel over time, which will probably motivate you to plan a new painting project, stat. But before you can repaint the deck or stain your fence, you need to learn how to remove paint from wood: In most cases, it's not the best idea to simply paint over an old coat of paint, particularly if it's peeling or chipping.

You can probably use a paint stripper to chemically strip the paint from the wood underneath, though you will likely still need to have a paint scraper and sander available if you want a completely clean finish. Some surfaces have multiple layers of paint that need to be removed before you can work on the underlying material, so it's necessary to be patient as you proceed step by step through the paint removal process.

Scraper on painted wood deck to remove paint from wood
grbender / Getty Images

By following the steps below, you can remove paint from wood with minimal stress and effort—but keep in mind that corners, edges, and other hard to reach areas will likely require special attention to fully remove the paint.

Inspect the Wood Before Removing the Paint

Before purchasing paint stripper or preparing the area, inspect the wood that you will be working with. If the wood is rotted, cracked, or severely damaged, there isn't much point in removing the paint. For example, if you wanted to repaint a deck but realized the deck boards are barely capable of holding the weight of an adult, it would be better to completely replace the boards instead of stripping and repainting them.

Inspect the wood for dry rot by looking for spore dust, fruiting bodies of fungus, or a lingering damp or musty smell. Wet rot is prevalent in areas that are prone to high levels of humidity or moisture and can often be indicated by warping or signs of shrinkage. Large cracks in the wood should be addressed immediately, though smaller cracks can typically be sanded and repaired with wood filler—just make sure the wood filler is rated for outdoor use if you are making repairs outside.

Work Safely

While the exact formula can vary depending on the manufacturer and even between individual products, lead-based paint was used on homes built before 1978. Dust from lead can be toxic, and though it isn't as prevalent anymore, lead-based paint does still exist in some homes, so test the existing paint for lead before attempting to remove it.

Paint stripper also comes with its own set of safety concerns: These products are typically made with powerful chemicals designed to remove paint from wood and other surfaces. Before using paint stripper, ensure that the area is well ventilated to avoid fume build-up. You should also wear closed-toe shoes, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, safety glasses, and a mask while working with paint strippers.

How to Remove Paint from Wood

Using a paint stripper, paint scraper, wire brush, and sandpaper, you can to remove paint from wood in just a few hours. Make sure to put on appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including a face mask, safety glasses, and gloves, before starting this project.

What You'll Need

  • Hammer
  • Pry bar
  • Screwdriver
  • Drill
  • Painters tape
  • Drop cloth
  • Paint roller
  • Paintbrush
  • Paint stripper
  • Paint scraper
  • Wire brush
  • Sandpaper
  • Power sander
  • Rag or cloth

Step 1: Remove Nails, Screws, and Other Hardware

Remove all hardware, including nails, screws, brackets, bolts, and even doorknobs, whenever possible. This will help keep the hardware safe from the corrosive chemical paint stripper. Protect any hardware that cannot be removed with painters tape.

Hinges and doorknobs can be taken off a door before the paint stripper is applied, but if you are removing paint from a wood deck, it's impossible to remove the nails or screws without affecting the structural integrity of the deck. Instead, sand around the nails or screws, then cover them with painters tape to protect the hardware from the paint stripper.

Step 2: Prepare the Area

Set up fans and open windows to improve ventilation through the space. Apply painters tape and drop cloths to protect the area around a fixed object, like a deck or fence. If you are removing paint from an item that can be moved, like a piece of furniture or a door, move the item to a well-ventilated space and set it on top of a drop cloth to prevent the paint stripper from damaging the ground, walls, doors, grass, flowers, shrubs, or any other nearby objects.

Step 3: Apply Paint Stripper

When the area is prepared and you are wearing your PPE, apply the paint stripper. Use a paintbrush or paint roller to liberally apply the paint stripper to the target surface. Typically, you will need to leave the paint stripper on the wood for about 20 minutes, though if you are removing multiple layers of paint, this process could take up to two hours. You should see the paint begin to loosen and bubble as the paint stripper takes effect. Various paint stripper products will work differently, so always follow the directions provided by the manufacturer to ensure that you are using a paint stripper properly.

Step 4: Remove Paint with a Paint Scraper

A chemical paint stripper is only intended to lift the paint away from the wood, so you will need to wipe away loose paint with an old rag or cloth. Use a paint scraper to remove any paint that is still partially stuck to the wood, but make sure to take your time to avoid damaging the wood.

If necessary, you can reapply the paint stripper to help remove any stubborn paint that didn't come off the first time. Repeat this process until you are satisfied with the results before moving on to the next step.

Step 5: Focus on Any Tricky Spots

Some sections of wood, such as raised or recessed areas, may be more difficult to access than others. After removing the bulk of the paint, give special attention to these hard-to-reach areas. Apply paint stripper with a paint brush and allow it to sit for about 20 minutes. Use a wire brush or steel wool to work in tight spaces and remove the paint without damaging the wood.

Step 6: Wash and Sand the Wood

Paint stripper can cause lasting damage if left on a wood surface too long, so once you have managed to remove all the paint from the wood, wash the wood with a clean, water-soaked cloth to remove any leftover paint stripper. Sanding isn't required, but it is recommended. You can use sandpaper or even a manual sander on smaller objects, like furniture, to smooth the surface of the wood and prep the item for repainting or staining. If you are sanding a large surface, consider renting or buying a power sander to quickly smooth the wood. After sanding, wash away any sawdust, dirt, or debris, then wait until the wood is dry before attempting to repaint or stain.

Alternatives to Paint Strippers

If you don't like the idea of working with harsh paint strippers, there are several alternative options for removing paint from wood, including heat guns, vinegar, citrus-based paint removers, and pressure washers.

  • Heat guns apply high heat to the paint, causing it to melt and making it easier to scrape or sand off. However, heat guns can cause accidental fires if the heat is left on one area for too long. They can also increase the amount of harmful paint vapors that are in the air, so make sure the area is well-ventilated before using one of these tools.
  • Vinegar is a household product that can be used for mild paint removal, though it does not work as well as a commercial paint stripper. The benefit of using vinegar is that it is inexpensive and it isn't harmful to the environment.
  • Citrus-based paint removers use terpenes derived from certain plants to strip the paint with a nontoxic, biodegradable formula. These products still contain some chemicals to help remove the paint, but they don't have the same powerful chemical odor as traditional paint strippers.
  • Pressure washers are not the best option for removing paint because they can damage the wood. However, you can use a pressure washer on a lower water pressure setting in order to remove paint flakes or chips without resorting to a paint stripper. Just make sure you start with the pressure washer on the lowest setting and gradually increase the pressure to find the right setting for your needs.
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