How to remove paint from wood furniture

Upcycling sounds easy until you realise that your piece of furniture has already had layers of paint applied by previous owners. Stripping the item back down to its natural state is the best thing to do if you want it to look its finest when you’re finished. But removing paint is easier said than done, particularly if you’ve got multiple layers to get through.

We’ve outlined these easy ways to help you remove paint from your furniture. These methods only apply if you’re using normal paint to upcycle it. If you’re using chalk paint, you can skip to the last section!

How to remove paint from wood

Start off by dismantling your item. If it has doors or drawers, these need to be removed too, as do any hinges, handles or other small details. You should also cover any areas that you don’t want to paint, such as a glass window in a cabinet. Use newspaper and tape to protect the glass.

Next, you can begin sanding your item. Even if you’re upcycling a small piece, such as an end table, sanding by hand can take longer than you think. We’d advise using an electric orbit sander that does most of the hard work for you and then use a sandpaper sheet to access any awkward corners. If your item has intricate detailing in the wood, you can use a chemical stripper for this section, so sand everywhere else and leave this area until last. We’ve outlined how to use paint stripper further down.

Once you’re happy with the item, use a damp cloth to wipe any dust away and make sure you’ve removed all the paint.

If any paint remains, or you find that sanding isn’t doing the job, you could try using an electric hot air gun. You’ll need to be careful when using this as the air is very hot and can scorch the wood. This isn’t a problem if you’re planning to paint over the wood but isn’t ideal if you want to stain the wood or leave it natural. With one hand, apply the heat using the gun and with the other hand, strip the paint using a metal scraper.

Read the instruction manual fully before using the heat gun, especially the safety advice. You shouldn’t hold the gun in one place for too long, but instead use a circular motion to apply the heat evenly over the whole surface.

If you’d prefer to use a paint stripper, there are some citrus-based types that smell nice and don’t have as many harsh chemicals in. Or you can choose a solvent-based stripper that works by weakening the bond between the wood and the paint.

The furniture should be positioned in a well-ventilated area. The instructions may specify that you need to work outdoors so wait for a sunny day when you can work in the garden.

You’ll need gloves and a face mask to protect you from the chemicals, particularly when using a solvent paint stripper. Apply a thick layer of paint stripper all over the item using a paintbrush. You should then leave the stripper on the paint for the amount of time specified by the manufacturer. Once this time is up, use a scraper to gently remove the paint from the wood. Be careful with the scraper as you don’t want to scratch or gouge the wood. When you’re done, wash the furniture according to the instructions to neutralise any chemicals.

As previously mentioned, a paint stripper will be the easiest way to remove paint from ornately carved wooden furniture, such as ornate mirrors.

Can you paint over stained wood furniture?

Varnished wood and stained wood are two different things, but many people may not know the difference.

A varnish is a clear, protective layer that you can paint over wood furniture to seal it and protect it from getting scratched or from moisture (to a degree).

A stain is used to change the colour of the wood or enhance its natural grain. Stain is absorbed by the wood which is why it can be difficult to remove – even sanding may not bring the wood back to its natural colour. However, stained wood can also have a varnish on top.

If the wood has been stained but not varnished, any kind of paint can be applied on top without the need for removing the stain. However, unless you’re using chalk paint, varnish will need to be removed before you can apply paint. If you’re using chalk paint on top of varnish, see the section below.

Can you chalk paint over varnished wood?

If your piece of varnished furniture is in near-perfect condition, you can crack on with the chalk paint – no sanding or priming required. However, most people will be painting used or old furniture, which usually has at least a few scratches and dents on it, even when it’s varnished.

To make your piece look its absolute best when it’s finished, you may need to spend a bit of time on any problem areas. Although chalk paint is thicker than other paints, severe damage will need to be sanded first to create a nice, smooth surface. For particularly bad chips or scratches, you could use wood filler. Apply it according to the instructions and then sand the filler when it’s dried.

You should also check what kind of wood you’re painting. Some types of wood will bleed through the paint, but you’re usually only made aware of this once you’ve put the first coat on. Don’t panic! If you’ve found that your wood is bleeding through your first layer, you can apply a prime on top, and then continue to paint once it’s dry.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re sanding your furniture or painting it straight away, you should always wipe the furniture down using a damp cloth to remove any dust or dirt that’s sitting on the surface – you don’t want to trap the dirt by painting on top of it. Then go over the surface with a dry cloth.

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