How to Remove Paint From Wood, According to a Serial Furniture Flipper

The most satisfying DIY ever.

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

Here’s our case for stripping the finish off of a flea market find to reveal its original state: It’s one of the most satisfying DIY jobs you’ll ever take on. Plus upcycling furniture is good for the planet (and easy on your wallet). We leaned on At Charlotte’s House founder Charlotte Smith, who has flipped more than 30 pieces, to get the nitty-gritty on how to remove paint from wood and not ruin the item in the process. 

Even though this isn’t a huge job, things can get complicated. “If the piece of furniture is super-intricate, it will take quite a bit of patience to get into all the nooks and crannies,” Smith points out. She explains the process step-by-step—but not before sharing a few things to steer clear of first.

wooden dresser with design objects on top
Photography by Charlotte Smith 

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Removing Paint From Wood

Assuming All Paint Strippers Are Created Equal

What works for one piece might not work for another. Skim a pro contractor’s list of best paint strippers or go with Smith’s pick: Citristrip, a gel that clings to paint well. (It gets bonus points for having a sweet citrus smell.)

“Sometimes the paint used is just stubborn and won’t come off, even with paint stripper,” says Smith. The only way to predict how things will go is to test the product on a less noticeable spot and observe what happens. 

Using Just Any Brush or Scraper

Unlike your standard paintbrush, a chip brush is resistant to solvents and won’t leave behind bristles. Ask a specialist at your hardware store if you’re unsure which product will be the right fit for your project.
When it comes to scraping off the finish, “be careful when using metal tools, as they can scratch and gauge your wood,” Smith advises. Try a multipurpose option that can also remove putty and pull nails.

Going Against the Grain (Literally)

Before you start, determine the direction of the wood grain on all components of your item. “Always try to work with the grain when dealing with wood furniture, whether stripping or sanding,” says Smith—doing so minimizes scratching.

wooden dresser
wooden dresser painted in white

How to Keep Yourself Safe When Removing Paint From Wood

Cover up like a ninja (hello, safety gloves and masks) and, ideally, use the paint stripper outdoors to keep chemicals and any lead dust (from paints made before 1978) away from your lungs, eyes, and skin. As always, your best bet is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

How to Remove Paint From Wood

The Supplies

wooden dresser

Step 1: Prep Now So You Don’t Have to Clean Extra Later

“This can get messy!” says Smith. Set down a few drop cloths, pieces of kraft paper, or newspaper (secured with painter’s tape) to protect your flooring from spills and drips. Remove and set aside the furniture’s knobs, hinges, and doors or drawers, if it has them.

Step 2: Apply a Hefty Amount of Paint Stripper

Pour the liquid into a container and dip your chip brush into it. Apply the paint stripper liberally onto the furniture, moving from top to bottom. Then simply let it sit for a few hours. “​​This is usually overkill, but it makes it easier,” says Smith. You’ll know the paint stripper is working when you see the paint bubble up.

Step 3: Scrape the Surface

Remove the resulting sludge (aka softened paint) with the scraper. Be gentle here. You don’t want to nick the wood. If excess gunk builds up on the tool, remove it with old rags or paper towels. Keep a vessel of some kind, whether a paper plate or garbage bag, on hand for dumping the paint scraps.

Step 4: Wipe Down and Redo Any Missed Spots

Wipe down your surface with a cleaner formulated for wood surfaces and a clean rag. After your surface is dirt-, wax-, and dust-free, inspect the piece for missed nooks and crannies. At this stage, Smith will redo any stubborn areas, repeating steps 2 through 4.

Step 5: Smooth the Way

Use a high-grit sandpaper to remove any traces of paint left. If needed, scrub your entire piece with nylon brushes or abrasive pads.

Step 6: Nail the Polish

Smith suggests applying a wood oil, like Walrus Oil, to bring out the grain of the freshly revealed wood. Let it dry, following the instructions on the packaging. Wipe down the surface and replace your hardware for a DIY job well done.