Paint Stripper Basics

Whether it's removing paint from baseboards and trim, or removing the varnish from furniture, chemical strippers can help you do the job.
chemical strippers can remove paint and varnish

chemical strippers can remove paint and varnish

Figure A

Whether it's removing paint from baseboards and trim, or removing the varnish from a vintage piece of furniture, chances are you'll need to use some chemical strippers to do the job. There are numerous products for these types of jobs available in the paint department of your home center. Brad Staggs provides some basic information about how to select and use them.

  • Check the label carefully, and make sure that you're purchasing a stripper that's right for your job. There are strippers for paints, stains, varnishes, epoxy and other finishes, and they are not an interchangeable. Some are suitable for wood surfaces, while others are designed for metal, masonry, etc.  
  • Thicker stripping solutions are recommended for ease of use. They tend to stick better on vertical surfaces, and make detail work easier.

Tip: Whether you're stripping paint or varnish, use inexpensive paintbrushes. Since the stripper is simply applied and removed, it's not critical that it's applied evenly or smoothly. You'll probably just throw the brushes away after you use them.

Tip: Before you start your job, pour a portion of the stripper into a glass jar. Use that portion for dipping your brush. If you need more, simply add more stripper from the original container into the jar. In that way, you won't be contaminating all of the stripper by dipping your brush repeatedly into the original container.

  • If you're stripping a piece of furniture, work from the top down as you apply the stripper. That method makes it easier to cover all of the surfaces uniformly.
  • For flat surfaces such as cabinet doors, remove and lay the pieces flat if possible. This makes it easier to apply an even coat and to remove the stripper once the chemical has done its work.
  • If possible, take the pieces you're stripping outdoors for this job. This provides better ventilation, and the heat of the sun helps speed the process of some strippers.
  • For some strippers, it also helps to lay sheets of plastic wrap over the wet stripper. This prevents rapid evaporation of the solvent, and helps speed up the chemical process.

Tip: To make it easier to remove the paint or varnish once the chemical has had a chance to soften it, sprinkle sawdust on the wet stripper. This makes removal of the finish easier, and it simplifies cleanup.

  • Use a plastic putty-knife for scraping away the stripper and paint or varnish. Try to select one that won't mar the surface of wood, and use caution as you scrape.
  • Finally, be patient. Stripping finishes can be tedious and time-consuming, particularly for intricate pieces and detail work. Being patient and methodical pays off.

Recap:

  • Choose the correct type of stripper for the project.
  • Wear safety glasses and gloves.
  • Be patient
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