How to strip paint off wood easily and effectively

Heat gun and scraper on old painted wooden doorwooden
(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to strip paint off wood is a DIY skill that you definitely need in your arsenal. If you want to give your doors, windows, skirting boards, architrave and any other painted wood a new lease of life you always need to start with the preparation.

Before you start painting wood you need to strip back any old paint or varnish to give get a surface that will ensure a great finish. 

So, how do you get rid of the old paint? Heat or chemicals are two common options. Here we take a look at the pros and cons of both options to help you make the best decision for your next DIY project as well as explaining how to strip the paint or varnish back to bare wood.

Do make sure you haven't got any leaded paint before starting, you can buy a kit on Amazon to test the surface before starting. Leaded paint is toxic and dangerous, with small children especially at risk.

How to strip paint off wood: Paint stripper or heat gun? 

There are two common options when it comes to stripping off old paint off wood – a heat gun or chemical stripper. Here we take a look at the pros and cons for both options. 

The pros and cons of a heat gun

The benefits of stripping paint with a heat gun
Heat guns combined with a decent paint scraper are a quick and effective way for taking off old layers of paint. They are more environmentally friendly and typically create less mess than using paint stripper. Plus, they are a one time purchase that you can use again and again. Get a decent heat gun and it should last the average DIYer for years.

I bought mine 5 years ago and have stripped my hallway, stairs, landing and all door frames, doors and windows and it's still going strong.

The downside to a heat gun
As you might expect a heat gun generates a lot of heat and the nozzle gets extremely hot. If you're not vigilant you can burn the wood you are working on, especially if on a high setting. This isn’t such a big deal if you are painting a door frame, as the burn marks will be hidden. But if you are varnishing the wood you want a consistent look, so need to be more careful.

You also need to be careful when not pointing at the painted surface. You can easily direct the heat away from the painted surface and point elsewhere, which might cause damage without you realising until later.

The best option is to switch off and place in an out of the way area on its back, so the hot nozzle isn't touching any surfaces. 

How to use a heat gun
A heat gun like the VonHaus Heat Gun at Amazon typically comes with two settings for all out attack or a more subtle approach to stripping paint. The higher setting is ideal for the first go at removing any paint. Simply point at the painted area you want to remove and wait for the paint to bubble up. Now move to the next area, while removing the paint with a scraper.

If you are stripping paint from mouldings or architraves you will need more than a flat scraper to remove the paint. A shave hook is a great tool for this and the Stanley Professional Comb Shave hook from Amazon is good for straightforward paint removal on flat surfaces while its multi-use shape means you can get into more intricate areas as well.  

Switching to a lower setting on a heat gun is better for removing paint after the initial layer. It is less likely to burn the wood but does take longer.

The pros and cons of paint stripper

The benefits of using paint stripper
This option gives you an apply and leave it approach, which means it can be applied quickly and left to do its work. This can be a time saver in that by the time it is applied you can head back to where you started and start stripping straight away, although with thicker coats you may need to leave it for much longer.

The other real plus point is that paint stripper can be applied to all areas with a brush, typically areas that a heat gun and paint scraper will struggle to tackle. This makes it an ideal choice for architrave, moulding and other hard to reach areas. 

The downside to using a paint stripper
Paint stripper comes in liquid form, which means gravity will do its work when applied to vertical areas. This makes it much less effective in these areas, but effective in flat areas. 

In some cases paint strippers can let off unwanted fumes, so you need to use it in a well-ventilated area, and wear protective gear such as gloves and a mask. The chemicals mean it is clearly not as environmentally friendly as a heat gun.

 A lot of paint strippers are now more green but these are typically less effective, needing more coats to get the job done. Paint stripper is also more messy and takes more time and effort to clean up.  

How to use paint stripper
Get your hands on a paint brush – an old one or a cheap one will do the job as you won't want to be using it for any paint jobs in the future. Tip the paint stripper in a suitable container, dip the brush in to the stripper and apply liberally with the brush. Work gently into areas so you don’t flick up the stripper into your eyes or onto surfaces where you don’t want it. Better yet, wear goggles and gloves.

Leave as instructed and use a scraper to get rid of the paint stripper. Have a container to put it in and a cloth or kitchen roll to wipe off the scraper. When finished wash down with warm soapy water or detergent, wipe clean with a cloth and leave to dry. 

What removes residue after stripping paint? 

Stripping paint gets rid of the vast majority of paint but you will be left with remnants of paint whatever method you use. If you have used a heat gun, you should use a sander for larger flat areas and wire wool to remove paint from more intricate areas.

If you have used paint stripper, sanding and wire wool will help get rid of most of the leftover paint, but you will probably need to use a kitchen scourer and hot soapy water or sugar soap to remove any residue that will affect painting. 

Check our what is sugar soap guide for more information on how to use it. Alternatively, you can use white spirit with a scourer or cloth to get rid of residue. 

Should I use a sander to strip paint off wood? 

This depends very much on how much paint you have to remove and the type of surface the paint is on. Typically, if you have a few coats of paint on a flat surface that is going to be repainted then sanding is a good choice.

The best orbital sanders are great at quickly moving their way through paint and getting back to bare wood. But if you have layers and layers of paint, you want to strip before sanding. 

If you have more difficult to reach areas you will need to use a detail or palm sander like the Black & Decker Mouse sander. For really intricate areas you will probably need to sand by hand.  

Steve Jenkins

Steve is Homebuilding & Renovating's DIY content editor, and has been a writer and editor for two decades. He is an avid DIYer with over 20 years of experience in transforming and renovating homes. He specialises in painting and decorating, but has strong all-round building skills, having previously worked in the industry for 10 years.