Removing Paint From Wood
image by DRW & Associates, Inc
Visit any estate sale, architectural salvage house or antique barn and you're sure to find a wonderful set of kitchen chairs, porch corbels or a telephone table just right for that corner next to the fireplace. If the only problem with your found treasure is that it's coated with several layers of paint, take it home, invest in a few supplies and get to work. With the old paint gone and a coat or two of varnish, it may look just like new.
Study your wood. Scrape some paint off to find out how many layers your piece has. Pieces older than the 1960's may have at least one layer of lead paint, so have the proper tools and solvents to avoid lead dust. Scrape some paint off in a place where a top piece of wood meets a brace or leg to see if more than one type of wood was used. This will not only give you an idea of what sort of removal job you have ahead of you but whether your piece should be finished as plain wood or repainted.
Choose your method. Most household paint removal is done with a chemical stripper, available at most hardware and home centers. Newer strippers are caustic, alkali-based chemicals that are low "VOC" (volatile organic compounds) but still require good ventilation for use. Some can be scrubbed off with soap and water and some need to be scraped off with a wooden or plastic scraper and then rinsed with clean stripper or solvent. The heat gun, a wonderful development for contractors, has been largely replaced by a tool that uses infrared to heat paint from the bottom layer up, causing the whole thing to rise up in a soft bubble that can be easily---and safely---scraped away with no risk of lead dust or fumes. Use sandpaper just to correct splinters and imperfections; it will remove the base varnish coat on most old pieces and you'll have to sand the whole piece evenly and start over on the finish.
Set up your work area in a well-ventilated location. Cover the floor with newspaper or drop cloths and put your work on sawhorses or an old table so you don't have to lean over to work on it. Bringing your work up to your level also allows you to be able to see in those nooks and crannies to get that last bit of paint. Set out your supplies and don your safety equipment. Remove all hardware and disassemble your wood piece as much as possible.
Apply the solvent according to directions and wait patiently as long as directed. Apply a layer of plastic wrap to help the solvent "cook" more evenly. Scrape the softened paint off with a sharpened wood or plastic spatula. Save the metal tools for the crevices that can't be reached with spatula, steel wool or plastic scrubber. Use a second application for thick paint layers, stubborn corners or damaged wood. Apply with a "sawed-off" paint brush to get into details or corners. If you've rented an infrared heat stripper, work slowly enough that you don't overheat and dry the wood.
Finish your job by using woodworking tools, cotton swabs; anything that gets those last little bits of paint out of the crevices. Re-coat your piece of wood with another coat of clean stripper, mineral spirits or other solvent as directed and wipe clean with the grain of the wood. Let dry overnight before staining or painting.