3 Easy, effective ways to remove old paint and varnish from repurposed wood

Every self-respecting DIYer has an idea or two for something they’d like to do with old doors. Maybe you’ve even started clandestinely collecting them in that spot behind the garage you’re hoping no one will discover. 

Whether you want to build a corner shelf or a giant door made of doors, you might need to strip old paint or varnish off the wood first.

Materials you’ll need:

  • A mask
  • Gloves, if you’re using a chemical stripper
  • Sandpaper or a sanding block
  • Steel wool
  • Coffee can (to put scrapings in)
  • Paint scrapers of various sizes and shapes
  • Small scraping tools for tight areas and detailing
  • Cheap brushes
  • Shallow glass or metal container (for chemical strippers)

Before you sand, heat, or scrape anything …

Check to make sure the paint you’re about to remove does not contain lead. You don’t need a mass spectrometer to do that, either. You can buy tests for home use.

If there’s lead in the paint you need to strip, you should avoid sanding it. Breathing in the dust can cause serious health problems, especially for children and pregnant women. If you really can’t avoid sanding off lead paint, at least protect yourself by wearing the appropriate mask and taking sensible precautions.

Should you strip wood indoors or outdoors?

If you’re lucky enough to have a garage, workshop, or other dedicated indoor area to work on projects like this, be careful about sanding or using chemicals in an enclosed space. Make sure you have the proper ventilation to do this safely.

Cleaning up after yourself, ironically enough, can be just as messy as making a mess in the first place. Only not as much fun. So it’s worth taking a little extra time to prepare your work area for easier clean-up. Like putting a dropcloth on the floor.

Three methods of removing paint and varnish

1. Sanding

If you intend to paint the wood for whatever project you’re using it for or have concerns about using heat or chemicals, sanding might be the way to go.

Paint needs two things to adhere – a roughened surface and an absorbent ground to draw the binder and pigments closer to that surface as the water evaporates. That means you don’t need to worry about removing every speck of the old finish. You just need to rough it up.

If there’s still a layer of either on the wood, you should prime it first to give the paint an absorbent surface.

In some cases, you can use a sander. But for the areas you can’t use a sander on, use sandpaper with a coarse grit to start. Then follow up with a finer grit or steel wool. Smaller files – even nail files – can help you get into the crevices.

2. Using a heat gun

If you’ve got something with a lot of layers of paint on it, heat can soften thick paint in fast, making it easy to scrape off. This method requires a greater degree of attention because if you point a heat gun at the wrong thing or for too long, you can start a fire.

Also, be aware that heating chemicals can cause harmful vapors, and you may want to use a mask for this, too.

If you’re afraid of burning your house down or don’t want to risk exposure to vaporized chemicals, consider using a chemical paste or gel. Like this lady in the video below.

3. Using a chemical stripper

Clean-up: Wiping off the crud

If the project you’re working on has fine detailing or hard-to-reach spaces, you’ll have to work a little harder to get the schmutz out. That’s what the small tools are for. Dental scrapers, small files, even old silverware can do that job.

But the best thing I can think of for that job is a set of scratchboard tools. Many artists use them to make drawings by scraping away India ink that has been applied over a white clay ground. There are tiny scrapers of different shapes, wire brushes designed to make fine lines, brushes made from stiff fiberglass bristles, and more.

When you get down to the wood’s surface, there might be cracks, holes, or gouges. How you deal with this depends on what kind of surface qualities and textures you’re looking for. The distressed look has been in for a while now and is still going strong. But if you’d like to smooth out the surface, you can use wood filler.

Use a dry nylon brush to sweep the crud off the surface. A natural bristle brush will work, too, but a softer brush will do a better job.

Got any tips you’d like to share with the rest of your fellow DIYers? Favorite tools and materials for stripping wood? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.