DIY Network

How to Remove Old Paint and Varnish

Stripping away old paint or varnish doesn't have to be an impossible task. Follow tips from the experts on how to strip away old paint or varnish.

More in Painting

tips on how to strip away old paint or varnish Watch Video
  • Time


  • Price Range

    $1 - $50

  • Difficulty



Step 1: Use Protective Wear

The chemicals you use to strip are pretty nasty and have noxious fumes. Before you open the can, be sure to put on heavy rubber gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and protective eyewear. Work outdoors if you can. If you can't, work in a well-ventilated area -- windows open, fans on. If you're sensitive to the fumes, wear a charcoal-filter respirator. Don't confuse the respirator with a particle mask, which will only filter out dust.

Note: Wear a long sleeve shirt to prevent stain from splattering on your arms.

wear charcoal filter respirator if sensitive

Step 2: Apply Methylene Chloride to the Painted Surface

Use methylene chloride to remove paint from the furniture. After taking the proper safety precautions, pour it directly on the painted surface. It's thick -- the manufacturers add wax to the methylene chloride to give it some body and delay the evaporation. Use a paintbrush to smooth the liquid over the surface. And then leave it alone, to give it a chance to work. Cover the area with waxed paper to slow down the evaporation of the chemical.

Note: One of the mistakes that people make is poking and prodding the methylene chloride. This breaks down the wax barrier, which allows the methylene chloride to evaporate.

On stained or shellacked antiques, you don't need the power of methylene chloride. Instead, use a product labeled furniture refinisher, right container), which is clear. Compared to the methylene chloride, this stuff is thin and evaporates very quickly, but you'll still need all the same safety precautions. Pour some in a metal pan and then dip a pad of steel wool in it. Use the wet steel wool to very carefully rub the liquid into the surface. It will work immediately to take the finish off the wood. Wipe it off with a dry rag and it will dry very quickly. When it does dry, sand it lightly and put on a coat of tung oil.

pour funiture refinisher in metal pan to begin

Step 3: Scrape Up the Paint

When you take the waxed paper off of the methylene chloride, use a plastic spatula to scrape up the paint and the goo -- a combination known as "sludge" -- to reveal the original surface beneath. Once the sludge is off, wipe the surface with a rag dipped in mineral spirits. Store the sludge in a closed, empty paint can until you can dispose of it. Put all the rags and steel wool you used with the stripper in the can too.

Note: Regulations vary from city to city on how you must dispose of that sludge. So contact your local waste-management folks and get their recommendation on what you should do with captured sludge.

Tip: For stripping old varnish off baseboards, steel-wool pads do tend to fall apart. I've found myself gradually making the switch to the synthetic pads that you can rinse out and reuse several times.
Tip: When specks of paint are left in the cracks of wood after stripping, attack those flecks of paint in the pores while they are still soft. Instead of waiting for them to dry, immediately grab a bras bristle brush and scrub the paint out of the pores. Don't use steel wire brushes. They are too stiff and will scratch the wood

Tip: When left with yet another layer of paint after stripping, scrape the top layer of blistered paint off, then immediately apply another heavy coat of remover on the exposed paint, and watch it bubble up. Repeat this for each layer of paint until you see bare wood.