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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Repairs & How To » Tested: Safer Paint Strippers

Tested: Safer Paint Strippers

They're better for the environment, but how are they at removing paint? We put the newest breed of strippers to the test. By Andy Olenick | Photos by Andy Olenick and Andrew Bydlon

    These paint strippers will get the job done, but it may take a little longer.

    These paint strippers will get the job done, but it may take a little longer.

    At some point, every old-house owner will face the dilemma of how to best remove paint or varnish. Many products can do the job, but the best choice is one that’s both right for your project and safe to work with.

    Start by asking yourself a few questions: How many layers of paint are you trying to remove? Is the paint lead-based? Is it a vertical surface, or can you put the item on a set of saw horses? Can you move your work outside? The answers will help you find a product that has the chemical makeup, thickness, wait time, and cleanup process you’re looking for.

    Then there’s safety. When I first started stripping paint years ago, I used methylene chloride-based products. They’re fast-working and effective, but they’re also hazardous. Over the years, more environmentally friendly products have come on the market—many still use methane-derived compounds, but contain less harmful byproducts.

    Paint strippers without methylene chloride are much slower-acting—some work best if you leave them overnight, and may require two or more coats before the paint is completely stripped. The key to working with these newer strippers is patience: They may cost you some time, but they’re safer for you and the environment.

    Head to Head Test

    Ready Strip

    Ready Strip paint stripper

    Ready Strip got high marks for its thick formula and easy cleanup, but our testers were divided on its effectiveness. Our expert, Andy Olenick, praised it for removing multiple layers of lead paint (even in nooks and crannies) after an overnight wait, while DIYer Natasha Thomas wished it had been tougher on the varnish, latex, and spray paint on her antique chairs. “If left to work longer—for 8 hours or more—it works better,” Olenick noted.

    Citristrip

    Citristrip paint stripper

    Testers praised CitriStrip’s orange-sherbet smell and relatively short wait time (“I’ve used harsher strippers in the past, and I was impressed that this pulled up most of the paint in 30 minutes,” said Thomas), and the thicker formula won points for containing drips. However, most found that extra applications were needed to remove multiple layers of paint, so it’s best for one-layer jobs.

    Soy Gel

    Soy Gel paint stripper

    This soybean-based stripper removed the most paint with only one application, earning rave reviews from our testers. And because it’s not water-based, it can be used on wood that’s going to be refinished. (“It’s the only product I could use in historical restorations,” said old-house contractor Randall Marder.) It is the thinnest of the bunch, however, so if using it on a vertical surface, spread thinly and reapply as needed.

    Smart Strip

    Smart Strip paint stripper

    Smart Strip’s super-thick formula “has a viscosity that makes it good for vertical surfaces,” said longtime OHJ contributor Steve Jordan, echoing the findings of other testers. However, comparatively slower wait times (“It works best if you leave it overnight,” Olenick suggested) and the need for multiple applications (our panelists all needed at least two coats to get all the paint off) left some frustrated.

    Pro Tip

    This generation of strippers may be safer, but they still contain potentially harmful content. Before you start using a product, educate yourself on how it works and see if you may have any reactions to its ingredients. The State of California publishes a good reference guide that categorizes products into groups ranging from “Preferred” to “Most Hazardous.” Always wear gloves, eye protection, and, if you’re working inside, an organic vapor respirator.

    How To Strip Paint

    Step 1: Application
    Apply the stripper using a disposable brush or an old paintbrush. Coat the surface with about 1/8″ of paint stripper. Brush the product lightly so you don’t thin the coat too much—if necessary, recoat a second time.
    Applying paint stripper
    Step 2: Removal
    Once the paint or varnish has started to lift and the prescribed time has elapsed, use a putty knife or hard nylon scraper to remove it. (You may have to repeat the first two steps multiple times; you also can cover your work with plastic or house wrap material to prevent evaporation.)
    Scraping off the paint stripper
    Step 3: Cleanup
    If any paint remains, put a little additional stripper on a nylon scrubber or steel wool and work the surface. After the paint is removed, clean up the stripping material. Some strippers can be cleaned with water, while others recommend the use of mineral spirits or vinegar to neutralize the product (check the instructions).
    Cleaning up the paint stripper

    Watch the Video

    See how to strip paint from a chair using one of these products.

    Published in: Old-House Journal October 2013

    { 7 comments… read them below or add one }

    Deb August 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Very interesting article! It would be interesting to see how our paint stripper compares in your test. Star 10 Paint Stripper does not contain methylene chloride, caustics or acids. Visit our website, http://www.starten.com, and look at the videos. If you are interested please give us a call at 800-726-4319. We would be happy to send you a sample of our product so you can test it for yourself.

    Randall Marder August 2, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    When working on your historic homes woodwork or your antique furniture, I do not recommend, using water to rinse, clean or deactivate any remover. Water based products will discolor your patina (darken). Water damages wood. Water will not replenish woods (dried out) fibers. No one wants to see their historic woodwork or antique crack or split.

    Stephanie August 30, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Selection of the proper stripper would be easier if you would give more information. For instance, I would like to remove the polyurethane from my slate floors.
    I bought a bottle of CitriStrip, and reading through the directions, realized there were no instructions for cleanup, so called the company. Mineral spirits are required to clean not only your tools, but as a final wash – not what I would like to use on an entire floor without very good ventilation!
    I decided to use SmartStrip instead, but had a hard time getting the residue off, so called Dumond for advice. They have several strippers, and each are chemically formulated to do a specific job – actually CitriStrip is good for paint, but CitriStrip Pro is better for polyurethane, which has hardeners in it.
    Your article gives more of the impression that these strippers are equivalents, which they really aren’t. My advice to your readers is to do some research, including visiting the web sites of makers of these products – don’t rely on the scant information in this article or choose simply by looking at what is available on the shelf in the paint store (my store had to order CitriStrip Pro from their warehouse).

    Ann Marie October 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Randall Marder recommended using Soy Gel to strip wood that will be refinished. I intend to use it on an interior newel post. What do you recommend for cleaning the wood surface after the Soy Gel is removed and before the new finish is applied? Thanks.

    Randall Marder October 7, 2013 at 8:01 am

    Hi Ann Marie,
    When deactivating and rinsing off Soy Gel, I use mineral spirits and #2 steel wool. Mineral spirits is flammable, do not use near an open flame. If you use any rags, paper, etc. for cleanup or drops, please remove all materials soaked with mineral spirits from the area and dispose safely to avoid combustion.

    Anthony October 24, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    I used Soy Gel when stripping window trim in my 1920s colonial – 4 large windows in my living room. I will never use this product again.

    Although it stripped the paint to bare wood after several applications, there were areas that I could not deactivate – and I am very meticulous and thorough. I found this out after I primed the trim – the oil-based primer remained tacky in areas. I then rubbed off the primer and again cleaned the wood (the recommendation from the manufacturer was to use water and dish soap(?)) – I tried both mineral spirits and denatured alcohol. Finally, most of the affected areas became deactivated after much heartache and frustration. This product is gooey, sticky and tenacious.

    I then tried Smart Strip when I stripped the trim of 4 large dining room windows. I had no issues whatsoever and it did not stain the wood.

    ….just sharing my experience…

    Deb September 30, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    I enjoyed reading all of your comments. Sounds like a lot of work. Our product does not need to be neutralized, washed with water, etc. It also doses not hard the patina of the wood. Please visit our website, http://www.starten.com, and make life easier for yourself. You’ll be happy you did. thanks!

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