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Removing Paint and Varnish

Read the following suggestions carefully on how to remove old paint or varnish. They can help you do a better job with considerably less effort.

REMOVING PAINT OR VARNISH WITH CHEMICALS

  • Many home repair jobs require you to remove a coat of old paint or varnish before applying new finish.
  • You can remove old paint or varnish using one of three different methods. The first involves using a chemical paint or varnish remover to soften the painted surface. Then, the old paint can be scraped off or washed away with water.
  • Paint can also be sanded away or removed with heat. In most cases, chemical paint removers are the easiest and fastest means for removing old paint or varnish.
  
  • Chemical paint and varnish removers are available in a variety of semi-paste and liquid forms. Almost all chemical removers are referred to as "paint removers" or "paint strippers." There are several basic types of paint removers:
  • Liquids are primarily for clean coatings and removing one or two layers of paint. This formula dries too quickly to remove multiple layers of paint. Good for detail areas or irregular surfaces. Also good for the stubborn spots after a washable has been used.
  • Brushables are a thick, paste-like formula that allows the paint remover to be applied in heavy layers so that it stays wet in order to strip multiple layers (up to 10 or more) in one application. Allows remover to cling to vertical or even overhead surfaces. Some paint removers are the "wash away" or "water wash" types. These terms simply indicate that the paint remover formula includes an emulsifier that permits the chemicals to mix with water and be rinsed away with a hose.
  
  • Use care when using this type of remover on fine furniture. Too much water can cause damage to the grain in the wood.
  • Read the labels on all paint remover cans and follow manufacturers' instructions carefully.
  • When removing paint, pour part of the paint remover into a small, wide mouth metal can. A can with a plastic resealable lid works especially well.
  • Using a good quality brush, spread the remover thickly and evenly over the surface. Brush in one direction (see image above). Try not to brush over areas that are already covered with paint remover.
  • Sprayables are for easy application. Some removers come with a spray bottle or sprayer. These removers are thin enough to spray yet thick enought to cling. Most of these removers are "water washable."
  • Aerosols are the most convenient and fastest way to apply paint remover. These removers are sprayed on and create a foamy, clinging layer thick enough to remove several layers of paint. If needed, reapplication is much easier, too! These removers are perfect for smaller jobs and detail work where brush application is difficult. Aerosol paint removers are available almost everywhere conventional removers are sold.
  • Some newer removers contain chemicals that are more "environmentally friendly." These removers generally work slower than more conventional types, but some allow use indoors with good ventilation. These are more expensive, but for people who are sensitive toward harsh chemicals, may offer an excellent choice.
  • In addition, several types of specialty removers are sold to remove certain coatings or using on a specific surface. These include stain removers for surfaces such as fiberglass.
  • After scraping, use a suitable solvent such as ethanol or mineral spirits (or water if a "water washable" paint remover was used.)
  • For difficult to remove coatings, removal can be speeded up by scratching the coating with coarse sandpaper, but be careful not to deeply scratch the underlying surface. Then apply the remover and cover with plastic film to keep the remover wet.
  • Check the label of the paint remover to see how long you should leave the remover on the surface, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Test the condition of the surface by rubbing the blade of a chemical-resistant scraper in a circular motion to see if the paint has been loosened.
  • If the scraper cuts through to the surface of the wood, the paint remover has done its job. Always wear chemical-resistant gloves and work in a well-ventilated area.
  • Apply paint remover to a manageable area. Only cover an area that allows you to scrape or wash away the paint remover before it dries.
  • Lay the paint remover on thick, and do not stir it after applying it to the surface. Give the chemicals time to act.
  • To help keep the area clean and make clean-up easier, use a cardboard box with a heavy layer of newspaper to catch the paint and remover.
  • When the paint remover has done its job and the surface is softened, you are ready to remove the loose paint. It is usually best to remove as much remover and paint as possible the first time. A scraper works well for this.
  • Follow this with a medium grade of steel wool, old rags or an abrasive scouring pad (see image above).
  • For hard-to-remove spots, you may need to apply a second coat of paint remover. Wetting the steel wool with paint remover will also work in some cases.
  • With a better grade of paint remover, you can wash away the old paint with a garden hose. Remember, on fine furniture don't use too much water. After removing the paint, rinse the surface clean with water. Treat any rough spots with steel wool or a scouring pad (see image above).
  • After cleaning and allowing to dry, most surfaces will need to be lightly sanded to prepare the surface. With a better grade of remover, no sanding or swabbing is necessary. Some types of paint can be especially hard to remove. This usually requires a second coat of paint remover after you have removed the first coat of enamel (see image). If the surface has several layers of paint, it may be necessary to apply paint remover a third time.
  

REMOVING PAINT OR VARNISH BY SANDING

  • Paint or varnish can be sanded away with any type of power or hand sander (see image). For bigger sanding jobs, you'll want to use a power sander. Belt, disk or drum sanders can be used.
  • Although sanding removes a painted surface quickly and easily, it has one basic disadvantage-it also removes some of the wood surface underneath the paint. If you are working on a fine piece of furniture, sanding is not recommended.
  • When sanding old paint or varnish from the surface, use open coat, coarse sandpaper. Fine sandpaper clogs up quickly, making it ineffective as a paint remover.
  • As a rule, sanding is recommended only on extremely rough jobs. Chemical paint removers are much more effective and easier to use.
  

REMOVING PAINT FROM IRREGULAR SURFACES

  • Unfortunately, all painted surfaces are not smooth and even. For curved surfaces, cut-out areas and other hard-to-reach places, use chemical paint removers.
  • Paint around the spindles of a chair is especially hard to remove. Run a heavy layer of paint remover into the crack around the spindles (see image). Let it set for about 20 minutes, then scrape away the old paint and apply more remover as needed.
  • Apply paint remover to the legs of chairs, tables and other such round surfaces with a regular paint brush (see image).
  • Set the legs of the chair in a small metal can or container to catch the surplus paint remover as it runs down the leg of the chair. Brush upward on the legs to reuse the surplus remover.
  • Use plenty of paint remover on rounded surfaces.
  • Apply a heavy layer, let it set and remove and reapply as necessary until all the old paint or varnish is removed.
  
  
  
  
  
  • A scouring pad is excellent for removing paint or varnish from carved areas on furniture (see image). Copper scouring pads or plastic cleaning pads can be forced into the carved areas to remove the old paint or varnish after it has been softened by paint remover. You can also use steel wool to remove old paint from such areas.
  • Always rinse the surface of carved areas after the old paint or varnish has been removed with a scouring pad.
  
  
  • When a scouring pad or steel wool cannot be forced into narrow slits or grooves, try using a brass wire brush (see image). Be careful not to press too hard when using the brush. Wood softened by paint remover can be marred if you apply too much pressure.
  • If a wire brush cannot reach into extremely small grooves, try scraping the paint out of the grooves with a small stick of wood (see first image below). A splintered piece of wood from a small board can often be used as a handy tool for removing old paint from grooves.
  • Removing paint from turned legs on tables can be difficult (see second image below). Rub a twisted piece of burlap like a shoeshine cloth over the paint remover after it has set for about 20 minutes. This will usually remove the old paint quickly and easily.
  • Some surfaces cannot tolerate paint remover. For example, key holes or holes where cabinet hardware has been removed should be plugged with paper before you apply the paint remover (see third image below).
  • You will probably replace your cabinet hardware with new hardware after the surface is repainted. However, if you want to reuse the old hardware, dip it into paint remover for complete cleaning (see fourth image below).
  • Wash the hardware thoroughly after it is dipped into the remover, then spray each piece with a clear lacquer to rebrighten the surface.
  

REMOVING PAINT WITH HEAT

  • You can also remove paint with heat, which destroys the film in the old paint. This makes it easy to scrape the old paint away (see image). Special electric paint removers or heat guns use heat for paint or varnish removal.
  • Scrape away the paint immediately after it is heated. Use a broad paint scraper for removing the heated paint right behind the electric softener.
  • Remember that you should never allow the heat gun to stay in one spot long enough to burn the wood. Keep moving often to avoid browned or darkened spots on the surface from excessive heat.
  
TOOL AND MATERIAL CHECKLIST
Paint RemoverChemical Resistant Gloves
Paint BrushScouring Pad
Garden Hose4" Scraper
SandpaperScrap of Burlap
Hand CleanerSteel Wool
Plastic or Metal PailPower Sander
Brass Wire BrushNarrow Brass Brush
Small Can with Plastic Lid 

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Check your state and local codes before starting any project. Follow all safety precautions. Information in this document has been furnished by the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA) and associated contributors. Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy and safety. Neither NRHA, any contributor nor the retailer can be held responsible for damages or injuries resulting from the use of the information in this document.

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