Our Paint Stripping Process

Jeff and I learned to strip paint by both watching a crew strip paint in our downstairs and then by stripping the woodwork in place in two bedrooms ourselves. We don't claim to be experts, but we have learned some techniques that might help others to successfully strip paint in their homes.

First, our big break-through to success was audio books. Paint stripping is not a mentally challenging activity and boredom quickly sets in. If you can find a way to listen to something interesting, like audiobooks or podcasts, the time passes more quickly. By listening to audio books, we were able to spend far longer days working on paint stripping projects.

When we first attempted to strip paint ourselves, we tried the silent paint remover, but we didn't have the hands-free stand and found it to be bulky and awkward to work with. It was too large and heavy to hold while you were scraping paint, but too hot to set down on most surfaces. So using the SPR ended up being a two person job; one to hold the stripper, one to scrape paint. We also were more apt to burn the wood because we couldn't see the wood while we were holding the stripper over it. I've seen many websites rave about this tool, so perhaps if we had bought the hands-free stand, we would have liked it better.

The professionals we hired to strip paint in our downstairs used inexpensive heat guns so we also bought one. The comparatively inexpensive variable-temperature heat gun was the most successful heat stripping tool we found. (We bought ours for $60 at Home Depot). 

In our house, the heat gun, used in combination with profile paint scrapers, got off most of the paint. We tended to use the lowest temperature that worked, about 800°F on the paint in our house, and it really wasn't hot enough to burn the wood as long as you didn't stay in one spot too long.

We also have a variety of scrapers designed for many different contours. (I don't actually recall where we bought them as it was quite a while back. Sorry.) I wrote a post about buying paint stripping tools at this post.

My favorite scraping tool is a teardrop shape as it does an excellent job at scraping down through the paint to the wood. While it cleans a smaller amount of wood with each stroke and takes many more strokes to clean an area, it does such a good job of cutting through the paint to the wood, I think it's worth the trade-off for energy expended.

To prep this baseboard, we removed the shoe moulding. (We're planning to refinish the floors, so we'll go ahead and replace that piece.) We also masked down paper on the floor, even though we're refinishing it. It's a messy business and it's easier to clean up with the paper in place.

One note about the photos. I took these by myself, so I had to put down one of my tools in order to take the photos. When I strip paint with the heat gun, I have the scraper in one hand and heat gun in the other. I'm usually moving the heat gun over the surface, softening the paint, and then using the scraper in the other hand at the same time. These photos only show one of the tools working at a time because I had to set one of them down to pick up a camera. 

I start by softening the paint over an area. I try to keep the gun moving around, as I don't want to burn the wood and end up with a black spot.

Once you've softened the paint a bit, use the scraper to take off as much of it as you can.

I like to keep going over the area and get off as much of the paint/primer as I can because the heat gun is far less expensive than the chemicals.


I have a different scraper I like to use for the top of the baseboard which is a better width to do the job in one stroke.



Jeff filmed a short video of me stripping paint and I've included it below.


I can usually get the bulk of the paint removed with the heat gun and scrapers. At this point, I sweep up and put the paint debris in a separate garbage can where it will be properly disposed of.

Once I've removed much of the paint with the heat gun, I apply a coat of one of those awful toxic paint strippers. I like KleanStrip from Home Depot, but I've also tried Jasco; they both work but I've found Jasco to be more "runny" and more expensive. (Here is a blog post that compares different paint stripping products.) 

We also tried the eco-friendly strippers. They didn't work for us, at least not very well. We've used SoyGel, Peel-Away, and some others I don't even remember what they are called. They take forever (24 hours or more between coats!) and often don't do a good job. Who wants to spend years stripping paint? Not me. So we switched to the toxic stuff because it works--and fast.

Anyway, you let the stripper work for about 15 minutes. I often have a hard time waiting that long so I try and apply the chemical and then go work in another area while I wait.

I've tried a number of tools to get the stripper off. After trying many things, I've found the most effective "tool" is a steel kitchen scrubby. We bought a bunch from a restaurant supply and from The Dollar Store. We usually have several of them in use at once. While you're using them, they do "fill up" with the gunk, but once it dries, it falls right out of the scrubby and you can sweep the stuff up for proper disposal and continue to use the scrubby.


Quick tip: Don't scrub paint stripper with the scrubby above your head without protective head gear. If you do, you may find little bits of paint stripper raining down on your face and eyes and they burn! I try and use a ladder tall enough that I'm at least level with the woodwork I'm working on.
As you can see, the chemical in conjunction with the scrubby takes off most of the remaining paint.
I usually reapply small amounts of the chemical stripper in the spots that didn't strip and come back for a second pass.
And here we go. This small section is just about ready for sanding. I usually don't sand the wood on the same day as I apply the stripper because I like to give it time to dry out.

Of course, these wide flat areas are a breeze compared to crown mouldings and picture rails.  In order to reach those uncooperative corners, try dental tools. They can often reach those difficult crevices. (I suggest how to buy dental tools in this post.)

First, apply the stripping chemical and allow it to work for a couple minutes, then use a dental tool to remove the last bits of paint.


To strip these difficult areas, we find we often cannot get much if any paint off with the heat gun because we don't want to risk burning the wood. So, in these areas we just start with the chemical stripper. We apply a generous amount of stripper and let it set for 15 minutes. You have to work at the different profiles with different tools. It usually takes quite a few passes with the chemical stripper and dental tools. With patience and determination, you can get there.

After you've successfully stripped the paint, if you're going to fill holes with a stainable wood filler, do it before you sand. We found the filler would sometimes get onto the wood surrounding the hole and would discolor it, necessitating more sanding. Better to fill the holes before you do the final sand.


When sanding edges or tight corners, try contour sanding grips. They were a life saver for sanding the edges of the raised panels on our bedroom doors.

For small spots of paint embedded in the wood, don't sweat it. The stain may cover it. And if not, simply cover it with a matching paint.

All this said, we are not professionals and are still figuring this all out. So experiment and figure out what works for you and we look forward to you sharing your tips.

If you're scraping lead paint, there are rules about how the paint debris should be disposed of. Check with your community waste provider. More info about lead paint can be found at the EPA's website:

Lead in Paint, Dust, and Soil - Renovation, Repair and Painting

The Lead-Safe Guide to Renovate Right Brochure (pdf)

17 comments:

  1. What a laborious process. I did some furniture refinishing a long time ago, I generally cleaned up with Acetone after the stripper, which worked, but I have the impression my memory was never as good again after I had exposure to such chemicals. I'm looking forward to seeing some photos of your finished woodwork!

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  2. I love the woodwork you have done. My home isn't a craftsman style, it isn't any style actually and I am in the process of replacing doors and trim. It's all banged up, cheap pine trim that no one likes anyway. I'm wondering if you can tell me what color stain you used on the doors and trim? Is everything in the house the same color?

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    1. I know it's too late for this to help you, but I'll answer any way for visitors yet to come with the same question: All the woodwork in the house was douglas fir. We used two coats of stain, which I've listed here: Kitchen Resources

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  3. After having stripped a living room and dining room's worth of woodwork, including the built-in china cabinet/sideboard in the DR and the built in bookcases in the nook, I'd say the best way to do it is to carefully remove as much as you can. Don't work on it in place. You then get a cleaner edge when you replace it b/c you can spackle the plaster. We took some of our pieces to a place (in the SODO area of Seattle) where they "dipped" our pieces and they came back pretty clean. We have two rooms yet to do (first-floor bedrooms) and that's the strategy.

    But I agree with pretty much everything else you've done. Heat gun, dental tools, stripper, boredom.

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    1. Be very selective about 'dipping' wood as a way to strip paint - the process and chemicals used can shrink the wood. We found out from the tradesman - after we had 'dipped' some doors - that it is very common that the wood shrinks with this process.

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  4. I actually have to disagree about removing the wood before you strip it. Nearly every time we tried to remove wood moulding, it cracked or split and was otherwise damaged. Also, when we tried to reinstall pieces, they often didn't go back in the same spots they had been removed from because things had slightly shifted. I, personally, prefer maintaining the integrity of the wood and stripping in place when necessary. We did remove all the "easy" pieces like doors and windows.

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  5. After you stripped the wood, what stain did you use? Did it obscure the inevitable paint flecks left on the wood?

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    1. Yes, the dark stain we used did a pretty good job of covering any bits of paint we missed. Where it was a problem, we bought a can of stain-colored paint and touched it up.

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  6. Can anyone tell we what kind of moron would have painted the beautiful wood in the first place?

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    1. That would be the Leonards. LOL The second family who lived here. Mrs. Leonard thought the house looked too "old fashioned."

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  7. What company did you use to strip the paint in the downstairs? I'm in Portland, too, and would love to hire them, since I am not up for this much work!

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  8. I am currently stripping our dining room, and it is a big job. I am working alone, but have managed to get most of it off in about 8 days. I used all chemicals (Kleanstrip) and of course used a respirator. I found steel brushes have been the secret weapon. I am stripping everything in place because there is no way this stuff could be put back together right. It is an old house and it has shifted, so although everything looks and feels pretty plumb, it aint.
    For the first pass, I strip with a 5-in-1 tool. I love that thing. For the second pass, I use a mix of the 5-in-1 again, and also do a first scrub with a wire brush (this is a bigger one, think the size of the ones you use to scrub under your fingernails, but with steel bristles. When I am doing what I call the 3rd pass, when I am cleaning up and going for dry wood, I use these things that look like wooden toothbrushes with steel bristles. They just suck the stripper and residual paint right off the wood. Step 4 is when I get out the dental tools, and clean up again with the steel brushes.
    I hope to be sanding everything within a week, but might just take a break for a couple of weeks, My back is killing me!!

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    1. We used to use a wire brush, but I found it raised the grain. Or specifically, it would sink the soft parts of the wood and make the grain stand out more. The steel scrubbies act more like sand paper and keep the wood pretty smooth.

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  9. Thank you Sharon and Jeff for this. I just bought a 1920 house with crap-loads of paint on the trim. I'll be getting a start on your method as soon as I can get a heat gun in my hands to give it a whorl.

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  10. I agree! Stripping paint is so laborious! And there are usually just so many layers till you get down to the good stuff.

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  11. Too bad your Silent Paint Remover ran too hot to set down while you scraped. Hope it wasn't so hot it make lead fumes! I found out it is a copy of the original Speedheater and got that one instead. Comes with a little stand that holds it on the floor when I worked on my baseboards. It looks like the ways you ended up stripping were really exhausting.

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  12. Thanks for posting this! I always love seeing the beauty of real wood revealed from behind boring paint. Luckily none of the natural wood in our home had been painted over, but I'm preparing myself for it on a future house sometime. I am doing a complete stripping on the exterior clapboard to repaint, but that's an entirely different process (one word of advice; PaintShaver Pro). I'm also stripping the paint off the split-face-style-stone foundation, which is another animal, but has been going pretty well.

    Again, props for the hard work and thanks for sharing!

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