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 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: 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: 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’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.
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.
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.)
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).