When you are considering removing paint or varnish it generally involves lots of muscle power and plenty of patience. Here are a few handy tips to help you out….

Tools Required

  • Disposable brush
  • Safety glasses
  • Scrapers
  • Heat gun
  • Face mask

Always keep tools and materials away from children. Read the instructions before beginning your project. Wear rubber gloves when using chemicals. Ensure you have adequate room ventilation when using strong chemicals. Wear an approved face mask.

Professional Wood Stripping

Professional wood stripping is done by dipping the piece to be stripped into a large vat where it is immersed in a chemical bath. In seconds the powerful chemicals remove all old finish right down to the bare wood. The piece is then removed from the vat and hosed off with water. The cost of this service is not prohibitive. However, the chemicals are so harsh that a really fine piece of furniture can be damaged. The treatment can take the “life” out of the wood and it can damage glue joints. If in doubt ask a professional before dipping.

Shellac and Lacquer

Shellac and lacquer finishes are easy to remove – usually. To remove shellac, make a pad of steel wool and dip it in denatured alcohol. Shellac is thinned with alcohol. In small areas, go over the surface of the wood, moving the steel wool pad in a circular motion. Have patience. Give the alcohol plenty of time to soften the shellac. To remove lacquer, follow the same procedures as for shellac – except use lacquer thinner instead of alcohol.

Caution: Thinners for shellac and lacquer removal are very pungent and can be harmful to your hands. Always have plenty of ventilation or work outdoors when using thinners. Also wear rubber gloves. The thinners also are flammable; be careful. If the thinners do not work adequately, then try paint and varnish remover, applying it with a steel wool pad in a circular motion. Remember to wear gloves.

Paint and Varnish – Paint Stripper

Spread remover over the surface with a throw-away paint brush. “Lay” the remover on the surface instead of brushing it out evenly like paint. Use a tin to catch paint stripper drippings when working on vertical such as chair and table legs. Make sure you have adequate ventilation when using paint stripper. Roll out steel wool to make a “rope” for removing finish from turnings and grooves. Use the rope shoeshine fashion for best removal results.

Abbrasive Removal

Any type of finish can be removed with abrasive (sandpaper, steel wool, pumice, etc.), but the price you pay in muscle power can be costly. Power sanding is the way to go, but whether by power or hand, you must be careful with abrasives, they can cut finish fast and ruin the wood below.

Some rules of thumb:

1. If the finish is clear, i.e., varnish or shellac or lacquer, use paint remover, alcohol, or lacquer thinner.

2. If the finish is paint or enamel, you can use abrasives. If by hand, use the abrasive over a flat sanding block to avoid digging into the wood below the surface. If by power, use only an orbital type or random orbital sander. Do not use disc or belt sanders; both remove finish too fast. You can quickly go through the finish into the wood below and ruin the wood.

3. For the first abrasive cut on thick finishes, use open-coat sandpaper. Once the finish is “thin”, switch to a finer, closed-coat paper.

4. Steel wool has a thin grease coating necessary in its manufacture. Be sure to wipe readied surfaces with solvent before finishing if you use steel wool.

5. Almost any surface must be sanded lightly after old finish has been removed. Use a fine-grit, closed-coat abrasive on a sanding block.

6. Emery paper is used in metal finishing. It is not a wood abrasive.

7. Remove all sanding residue before finishing. Use a vacuum, or solvent such as turpentine or alcohol.

Heat Removal

One common device used to remove paint and varnish is a heat gun. You must use extreme caution – not so much from fire, which you can quickly snuff out, but from scorching. Fire or extreme heat can scorch the wood and removing the scorched spot with abrasive or scrapers can be a big problem. Heat tends to work best on painted surfaces, rather than varnish, enamel, shellac, lacquer and so forth. You can of course use heat for these finishes but the result may not be too effective.

When working with heat, always have a bucket of water handy for small fires. Fire, strange as it sounds, is not as dangerous as you might think with heat removal equipment. Combustion usually is slow and you can quickly douse any flame with the flat blade of a scraper – or water if the fire gets going.

DO NOT remove paint from exterior timber siding with a propane or blow torch. The flame can ignite wood and construction paper behind the siding where you don’t immediately see it and can burn down the house. Heat is a good finish remover, even if slow. Team a scraper with the heat and run the scraper just as soon as the finish has softened under the heat.


Scrapers by themselves are slow paint and varnish removers. They must be teamed with a solvent, with perhaps the exception of cabinet scrapers. Cabinet scrapers are so sharp that they cut right through the paint to the bare wood. In fact, cabinet scrapers are often used as woodworking planes to remove wood. So be careful when using them to remove old finish.

Other scraper products include:

1. Putty knives: Buy flexible bladed ones for finish removal and grind the corners of the blade round so it won’t dig into the wood.

2. Flat scrapers: Flexible bladed scrapers are best. Also round the corners to prevent digging.

3. Pull scrapers: These are excellent for removing finish on siding, gutters and mouldings. Don’t use them on fine furniture pieces however, as blades can dig into wood.

4. Kitchen food scrapers: These rubber-like scrapers are great for flicking softened paint out of corners, carvings and gimcracks.

Helpful Hints

1. Use plenty of stripper on the surface of the project and apply it evenly-one way-with a brush. Use a throw-away brush. Do not “paint” on the stripper. “Lay” it on.

2. Give the stripper plenty of time to work. Read the label.

3. Cover the surface with aluminium foil after the stripper has been thickly applied. The foil will help retard evaporation of the chemicals in the stripper and give the stripper more removal power.

4. A flexible putty knife or scraper works best for removing softened finish from flat surfaces.

5. A soft wire brush, steel wool, or an old toothbrush dipped in stripper is a good way to remove old finish from carved and irregular surfaces. If the wood has been filled with wood filler, removing the filler and finish from the surface may be very difficult. If so, try using a soft wire brush in an electric drill plus the stripper.

6. Polyurethane varnish can be very difficult to remove with paint and varnish strippers. Try the stripper panel beaters to remove enamel and lacquer finishes. Most shops will sell you a small bottle of the liquid. However, don’t give up too soon on regular strippers. Give it plenty of time to work; you may need several coats.

7. Paint and varnish stripper is toxic and must be used in a well-ventilated room-outdoors if you can. Heed all warnings on the label of the container.

8. Do not use paint and varnish stripper on an asphalt, rubber tile, or linoleum floor. Any stripper spills can damage this floor material immediately.

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How To Remove Paint and Varnish, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating


  1. Margi Kay says:

    Great website, very helpful to get start on my DIY project

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