It’s easy to get carried away, thinking how quickly you’ll refinish your home when you buy your first paint sprayer. Hold up! Before you get to play with your paint sprayer, you have to strip off whatever paint someone put there before. Leaving old paint on is going to compromise the integrity of your fresh coat, and it’ll mean messy results. That’s true of pretty much any project, aside from interior walls.
In this guide, we’ll introduce you to a few different ways you can remove paints and other finish coatings.
Best Paint Stripper Reviews
- Excel Blades K11 Razor Blade Scraper
- Ford FPWEF2.1-1800 1800PSI Electric Pressure Washer
- DEWALT DWE6401DS 5-Inch VS Disc Sander
- PORTER-CABLE PC1500HG 1500-Watt Heat Gun
- Citri-Strip QCG731 Paint and Varnish Stripping Gel
- Smart Strip by Peel Away® Paint Remover
- Rust-Oleum Automotive Remover
The good old hand scraper is your first and most important tool for removing paint. Even if you use a more elaborate method, you’ll need a manual paint scraper tool to finish the job. If you don’t want to invest in a special tool or use chemicals, it’s also the best approach–period.
This is the best scraper tool we’ve found:
We like it because it uses replaceable blades. With scrapers that have blades you can’t replace, you constantly have to file them to keep your usable edge. With this thing, you just go until your blade wears down, then swap it for a new one.
It’s also much less bulky than your average paint scraper. You might find it less practical than a big, long handled one for exterior walls, but it’s more versatile and maneuverable for furniture and interior projects. You can easily maneuver it into corners, small gaps, and tight spaces where tools with larger handles or heads simply won’t fit.
Using a hand scraper can involve a lot of elbow grease, so be aware of that before you commit to your project! When possible, we prefer to use them in tandem with something like a pressure washer, heat gun, or chemical stripper. That takes a lot of the manual labor out of the equation. Plus, there’s only so far you can go with a scraper alone before you start to damage wood surfaces. That’s why it’s good to loosen with another method, then use the scraper to take off the loose bits.
Remember that sanding is the best companion to scraping. You should scrape until you’re practically down to the bare surface, and then sand to remove any residual coating material that’s in the surface pores or has penetrated slightly. You can use an electric sander, sandpaper, or steel wool. Finer varieties of each are the best bet. They may take a bit longer to use, but you’ll end up with a smoother surface and you won’t risk damaging wood.
Exterior projects are much easier to deal with if you have a pressure washer! That’s the best way to loosen any kind of paint from siding, especially if you have a synthetic material to deal with. The pressure washer may not take everything off by itself, but it’ll do 90% of the grunt work for you by loosening and moistening. Follow after with a scraper, and you’ll have a much faster pace. Pressure washers are also great for fences, picnic tables, and that sort of thing.
Once you’ve loosened things with the pressure washer, you’ll just have to follow up with a scraper. Often a plastic tool will be better, so you avoid digging into the wet wood! Metal can be risky in that regard. Be gentle and re-apply water if you need to.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a decent pressure washer these days, thankfully. Aside from the fact that you’ll find lots of other uses for one around the house and garage, you’ll find that there are a fair number of excellent models available for well under $500.
Ford makes some great ones for the homeowner:
These are the cheapest you can get without ending up in the cheap-o range. They have enough power to strip paint effectively, but are still small enough and priced accordingly for the average homeowner. There are both gas and electric models listed at the link above, so check them out! We like them because they’re significantly more reliable than anything else for the price. They’re also very user-friendly. Any competent DIYer who can read a manual carefully should be able to use one of these models safely and effectively.
Sanding remains a tried-and-true method of paint removal, if messy. You can sand off absolutely every type of coating, including stains and penetrating coatings which are very difficult to remove with a scraper. And since you’re going to need to sand before you apply new coatings, you can kill two birds with one stone. Work with a rough grain and then move to finer grains the closer you get to the surface under the paint.
You’ll need an electric sander to remove paint, though. Doing this by hand is awfully painstaking. Even on small workpieces, it can take quite a while to get everything off when you work by hand. It’s also easier to be consistent when you work with a powered tool.
We suggest using this DeWalt:
It has simplified attachment options for sandpaper, so you can quickly change your sheets. The dual handles also make it easy to navigate at different angles. That’s super important for furniture pieces, but comes in handy practically everywhere.
The big flaw of working with a sander is dust. Just like sanding bare wood, sanding paint will create a lot of dust. Sawdust isn’t something you want to be breathing either, but paint dust is downright toxic. So, you’re going to need a ventilator to work this way. You should ideally do it outside or in a well-ventilated garage, too. Don’t worry about chemical exposure when you choose a respirator for sanding. Just get something that protects against particulate debris.
One reason we suggest the DeWalt sander over others is that it has an effective vacuum port, so you can easily connect it to a HEPA shop vac. Make sure you’re using something with HEPA filtration! Otherwise, you’re just going to be blowing dust particles around more.
Don’t try and do a whole exterior wall this way, though. Sanding is also not a good approach for anything with moulding. It’s as likely to damage the moulding as it is to get all the paint off. You should definitely consider it for stained pieces, though! And if you already have a good HEPA shop vac, it’s a no-brainer to do this instead of scraping by hand.
Heat guns are a fairly recent addition to the home painter’s toolbox. These tools are a lot like high-powered hairdryers. You can use them to lift of years and years of paint, several layers down! They work quickly, and don’t produce the kind of dust that you get with sanding. There aren’t any chemicals involved, either. Paint simply peels up from the surface, often without any coaxing using scraper tools.
Heat guns are an excellent way to go about stripping furniture pieces, delicate moulding, and metal surfaces. Overall, we think they’re the best method for most projects. The only downside is that they’re pricier than manual tools and they can be dangerous if you don’t use them very carefully.
We suggest this inexpensive Porter Cable gun to DIYers who want to try working with heat:
It’s the most reliable on the market, at least that we’ve come across. There are two fan speeds, plus an adjustable temperature dial that makes it relatively easy to find a workable setting that strips without scorching. Best of all, it’s cheaper than any paint sprayer!
There are certainly flaws to working with a heat gun, though. Any hand tool like this isn’t going to be nearly as practical for big exterior walls as working with a pressure washer. It’s also easy to scorch wood surfaces if you’re not careful to keep moving at a steady pace. Still, using a heat gun successfully is very doable with practice. You should wear a ventilator, though, equipped with a chemical cartridge. Heated paints off-gas fumes that aren’t healthy. Open windows or bring your workpiece outside if you can.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that steam is an astonishingly good paint stripper! After all, it’s basically a combination of a heat gun and a pressure washer. You harness the combined power of water and heat to lift coatings off surfaces. Steam intensely, and then scrape off the steamed paint with a plastic scraper.
We don’t recommend any specific steam cleaners, because you’ll need a fairly expensive canister system to get the kind of temperatures required for stripping paint. However, if you already use one of those for home cleaning projects, try using it for your next stripping job! Steam paint on as high a temperature as you can get (be careful not to warp boards!), then follow up with a hand scraper.
Chemical stripping solutions
Of course, what most people think of when they hear the term “paint stripper” is a chemical solution. These chemical compounds will dissolve paints and stains, and they go right down to whatever surface is underneath. They’re ideal for surfaces where a scraper is just too tedious to use with water alone, and for surfaces with lots of tricky contours, like moulding.
Chemical paint strippers are noxious, often toxic, and messy to work with. That’s why we prefer to work with a heat gun whenever we can. However, for some molding and detail areas that are hard to reach, they’re still the best way to go.
Citristrip is the best all-purpose chemical stripping product we’ve found:
It’s relatively harmless, since it doesn’t contain caustic chemicals like methylene chloride. It’ll work on practically anything. Be aware that it’s pretty messy, though. You’ll also need to follow up with a plastic putty knife to remove the gunk and paint remnants.
You can also use strip-type chemical solutions. These are less messy than something like Citristrip, which is painted on. With a strip solution, you just apply strips over the paint, then peel away the dissolved coating after a period of time.
Smart Strip is the best on the market, as far as we’re concerned:
This stuff works relatively quickly, compared to the competition. It’s also less toxic.
Always wear a mask and gloves, even with the less toxic options. Anything capable of dissolving paint isn’t going to be healthy to work with. Don’t be fooled by green labelling!
Metal surfaces generally require a more potent chemical stripper, in order to get right down to the surface. If you’re stripping a car or something else where you can’t use a heat gun, try this:
It’s highly toxic and requires a ventilator to use safely, but it works crazy well. Just don’t use it on anything non-metal. It’ll eat through other materials.
Always test for lead, and never work on lead paint yourself. Hire an EPA-certified professional instead.
Don’t sand indoors without using a HEPA-grade shop vac. Paint particles are toxic when ingested, and should not be dealt with casually. Wear a proper ventilator, and clean up thoroughly.
How To Use Paint Strippers Effectively
Choose The Right Approach For The Job
You can strip paint in any number of ways, as you can see from the range of products we recommend. Anything from a metal scraper and water to harsh chemical treatments can be useful. The key thing is to know which approach is suitable for the surface you want to strip.
Chemicals are best for sensitive areas where you want to minimize scraping. You can let the product work and then use a plastic scraper to gently remove the reacted paint. Water is a good choice for any sensitive surfaces where chemicals aren’t going to work well. So are heat guns.
Give Chemical Solutions Time To Work
Paint strippers aren’t magical. They work using a chemical reaction that breaks down the bonding agents in coating materials. You’ll need to allow plenty of time for the chemical reaction to occur and to penetrate from the surface of the paint to the wood or metal, whatever’s beneath. A lot of people scrape too quickly and end up either frustrated or damaging the workpiece. Follow the instructions and always allow for the time the reaction takes to work fully.
Wear Gloves, Goggles, And A Respirator
There’s no excuse for neglecting safety protocol when you use paint strippers. Here, we’re mainly referring to chemical solutions, though it’s obviously wise to use care and take precautions with heat guns and infrared tools as well!
Remember that these are incredibly aggressive chemicals. They’ll eat right through most latex or nitrile materials, so you’ll need special gloves that are certified to resist the compounds involved in the work.
Always work in a well-ventilated space, because the fumes can be just as toxic as contact. They irritate eyes as well as your lungs, so you’ll need a respirator mask and some safety goggles. While most any wraparound goggles will work well, you need to check that the respirator you use is certified to protect against chemical fumes as well as particulate debris.
Run a fan if you can, and open all the windows around you. Try and create a steady airflow. If possible, bring your workpiece outside. This is of course only something that’s practical with furniture pieces and other items that are relatively easy to carry.
Always Follow Directions
The best thing you can do to stay safe and improve the quality of your results is to follow directions carefully, no matter what kind of tool or product you use. Check labels on chemical paint strippers, and make a note of how long you should let them sit on surfaces. Read heat gun manuals and note how long to hold the gun over a given spot before moving to the next section.
Use Junk Brushes
While it’s technically possible to use the same brush for paint thinners and paint, it’s not a good idea. It’s hard to get every last bit of the thinner out of the bristles. If any is left over, it destroys the integrity of the new coat you apply. Do yourself a favor and just get some separate, low-quality brushes for applying paint thinner.
Use a layer of Saran Wrap over the chemicals to keep them from drying out and to accelerate the reaction. This is especially good if you’re working outside or with a fan running. While it may not be necessary for removing thin coats, it’s definitely something to try if you have lots of paint to remove or a larger workpiece.
Choose Your Tools Wisely
Each type of paint stripper has its own strengths and weaknesses. Do your research! Use the proper solution for the workpiece and coatings at hand.
Know When To Seek Professional Help
There are some jobs that simply aren’t practical for the average DIYer to handle. Things like mounding, wainscoting, and fine furniture pieces are probably best left to the pros. You can easily mar them if you’re not careful and don’t have some degree of finesse. Don’t let your pride get the better of you. Call for help when you get out of your depth!
Stripping paint is a messy job! Not only will wet paint scraps get all over the floors if you’re not careful, but the wet paint stripper formula that’s on them can eat away at the finish on your floors! Project them with plastic and newspaper. Use a few layers since chemicals get messy and some can eat through plastic or paper. Making a paper sandwich between two layers of plastic is your best bet.
There’s no point going to the trouble of setting up, buying supplies and starting a job if you’re not prepared to see it through to the very end.
Sometimes you need several coatings to get a workpiece completely stripped. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. Don’t settle for anything less than complete removal of coatings, either. Anything left behind will cause inconsistencies and threaten the integrity of the new coating you put on.
One trick for getting the last residual bits is to use steel wool. Apply the paint stripper, leave it to sit, then use a wad of steel wool instead of a scraper.This is like a chemical sanding approach. It’s not always necessary, but great when you’ve done all you can with a scraper and steel have some remnants to deal with. It helps to remove all the paint and finish material stuck in pores of wood. Use a thin coat of stripper and 000 steel wool for this. Anything more aggressive can damage surfaces-especially wood.
Always Clean Up Properly
Many people will simply remove the chemical solution and call the job done. Not so fast! If you don’t neutralize the surface, you’ll find that any new paint or finish you apply fails quite quickly. Any reputable manufacturer will list instructions for this on the packaging. Different solutions may require either water, spirits, or other solutions to do the trick. Just follow the directions and be thorough. The better a job you do at this stage, the better a finished product you’ll end up with.
It’s also important to dispose of paint stripping chemicals and wet scrapings properly. These are very dangerous chemicals, and they should never be flushed into the water supply. Dispose of them in a sealed container and doubled-up trash bags. If you have a hazardous waste disposal location near you, that’s the best thing you can do.
Figured out how you want to go about stripping your work surface? Great! Now, head over to our homepage to find your ideal tools for refinishing! It’s the perfect place to find reviews of the best paint sprayers on the market.