Almost every upcycling project for furniture starts the same way: reaching for a can of paint stripper. However, the best paint stripper won’t sap all your DIY energy. Giving a fresh start to furniture or cabinets is worth all the effort.
There’s something that the shabby chic aesthetic knows, and everyone else will soon find out. You can transform old, beaten up furniture into attention-grabbing accent pieces with just a few products and an afternoon of DIY. One-of-a-kind style looks good in every room and is only achievable through the loving rehabilitation of unique furniture finds.
There may be gorgeous wood lurking beneath several coats of avocado green and mustard brown paint. The only way to reveal the wood quality and craftsmanship of thrift store furniture finds is by scraping off the old and ugly paint or stain. The best paint strippers out there make the process easy by gently pulling off paint or varnish and leaving behind the undamaged wood beneath. Instead of antiquing on the weekends, try thrifting instead. Gorgeous furniture may only be a few bucks because of chipped, flaking, or just plain ugly paint.
Paint stripper can also help with another home remodeling project. You can transform a lackluster or dated room just by repainting the kitchen cabinets. Not only that, it’s also a cheap way to increase your home’s value. Painting cabinets can brighten a poorly lit space, or add vibrant and bold accents to a boring kitchen.
This article will discuss more than just the best paint strippers available for these DIY projects. It will also provide information about the dangers of working with paint strippers, how to stay safe, and good alternatives to using chemical paint strippers.
Paint Stripper Comparison Table
This table compares top rated paint strippers. They are all free of methylene chloride and NHP. Still use proper protection and ventilation. Active times range from two minutes to three hours. Some work for up to 24 hours, so DIY-ers can apply them and wait until the next day to remove paint.
CitriStrip Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel
This paint stripper removes up to five layers of both latex and oil paints on all kinds of materials. It’s safe to use on wood, metal, or even masonry. It’s great for furniture and cabinets because it removes varnish & stain from wood in a single step. There’s no hassle of removing cabinet doors when using this stripper. It has a pleasant orange scent and is rated safe to use indoors. It stays wet and active for up to 24 hours, so once it’s applied you just leave it. The stripper works through multiple layers of paint. It’s a great product if you have an antique or vintage piece with many coats of paint to get through.
Sunnyside Ready Strip Advanced
This paint stripper has a thick no-drip formula, so it’s great for furniture and cabinets with lots of small details and vertical surfaces. It begins working in one hour, but leave it all night to work on up to 7 layers of paint. It also works on a lot more than just paint, like lacquer, stain, and varnish. The Sunnyside company makes safer paint removers and has been in operation since 1893. One of the coolest features of this paint stripper is there’s no “Is it done yet?” guesswork. Just watch the stripper for a color change. When the paint is stripped and the Ready Strip is ready to be removed, it will change color. Then, just scrape it off with a plastic tool.
Dumond Smart Strip
Completely biodegradable and water-based, this formula is safe for the user, the substrate it’s applied to, and the environment. It’s pH neutral so there’s no need to use special stripper wash to neutralize the surface of the furniture or cabinets. This paint stripper works on all kinds of materials (wood, metal, masonry) to remove multiple layers of latex and oil paints. It even works on marine paint. Probably unnecessary for your upcycling project, but it’s good to know it works on the toughest stuff! It’s slow to work: they recommend waiting 3 hours, but it’ll also work on up to 10 layers of paint.
MAX Strip Paint & Varnish Stripper
This product works in just a few minutes on varnish and light coats of paint. It stays wet and active for up to 12 hours on up to 7 layers of paint. But for smaller projects and lighter coats, check it after just 15 minutes to see if it’s ready. It’s also water-soluble and biodegradable so it’s safer for the environment than a lot of other paint strippers out there. The cling gel is great for jobs that need no-drip, like the fronts of cabinets or delicately carved antique furniture. One more cool feature, it carries a slight almond smell, but no dangerous fumes so it’s safe to use indoors.
Super Remover New Generation Stripper
This super-fast paint stripper works almost immediately on single layers of paint. For up to five layers, you may need to leave it on longer to get the full effect. What’s more, it doesn’t just work on paint, oil, and varnish: you can also use it to remove industrial glues. There is a warning with this stripper, it isn’t suitable for vinyl, acrylic, rubber, or plastic. They advertise that it’s still safe for antiques, and will leave a natural looking finish on wood once it’s cleaned off.
Crown STRP Max Aerosol
For ornate carved and decorated furniture, this aerosol paint stripper is a great option. Users just have to spray on and wait 30 minutes to scrape off paint, varnish, and stain. It’s not recommended for plastics or rubber because it can damage the material. Like most paint stripper these days, its methylene chloride-free. Because of the aerosol feature, only use this product in a well-ventilated area by people wearing face masks or respirators. Despite the additional safety measures required, it’s still a good choice for delicate or hard to reach jobs.
Sunnyside 2-Minute Remover Advanced
Those who can’t spend a whole day & night on a project just might fall in love. Sunnyside 2-Minute Remover works in just a few minutes & strips multiple coats of paint or varnish in ten minutes. It’s a thick paste that clings to vertical surfaces, making it a good pick for cabinets. This stripper isn’t just fast, it’s also strong. The label advertises the effectiveness against marine and automotive finishes. When you’re done with the cabinets, you can take the paint on your car down to a factory-reset.
Crown STRP Max Paint Stripper Liquid
This liquid paint stripper from Crown begins to work on paint fast. Reviews recommend it for highly detailed furniture pieces because the liquid is fluid enough to get into tight areas but still clings to verticals. Users will also get a lot of mileage from it; one quart covers 25 sq feet. For a full kitchen’s worth of cabinetry, the product is also available in a gallon size which covers 100 sq. feet. It’s from the manufacturer’s “Safer” line, meaning it’s free from methylene chloride.
How do Paint Strippers Work
There are two categories all chemical paint strippers fall into, either caustic or solvent. Caustic paint strippers (like lye), break down the chemical bonds within the paint. These strippers must be neutralized. They will affect the substrate and even new finish or paint when it’s applied.
Solvents are the most common paint stripper on the commercial market. They “swell” the paint to break the bond between the paint and the substrate. When paint stripper is applied to the paint surface, it breaks the “swelling capacity” of the paint. That term references how much liquid material the paint can absorb.
There are some inherent risks when you combine two chemicals to create a reaction. The active ingredients in paint strippers are dangerous if they come into contact with skin or eyes. While they are made with “safer” chemicals these days, you still want to avoid breathing in fumes. The next section will discuss the dangers of using paint strippers.
Dangers of Paint Strippers
One important thing to know before stripping paint from old furniture and cabinets is the likelihood that the bottom layers of paint will contain lead. Before 1978, all paint had lead in it. If you’re using an industrial paint stripper that contains methylene chloride, you could be in danger. When that chemical comes in contact with lead, it forms a highly toxic lead gas.
All the paint strippers in this article are methylene chloride free, but still check the label of any paint stripper you buy to make sure it’s safe.
Without methylene chloride, there are still dangerous chemicals in even the best paint stripper, and unprotected usage of them can be harmful. A few side effects from paint strippers:
- Skin and Eye Irritation
- Loss of coordination
Skin contact with paint strippers can cause dermal absorption, in addition to burns to the skin. Once the body absorbs chemicals in the stripper, real damage can result. Repeated exposure may cause kidney, liver, and sometimes even heart damage.
Many of the chemicals, even in “safe” paint strippers, are considered carcinogens. User should exercise caution and take basic safety measures whenever using dangerous chemicals. Check out these respirators to keep yourself safe.
Compounds to Look Out For
As mentioned above, methylene chloride is a dangerous chemical compound found in many industrial paint strippers. In recent years many manufacturers developed formulas free of both that compound and NMP. This is because of regulations by major retailers in recent years prohibiting the sale of products with methylene chloride in them. Citizens proposed a ban on the chemical in 2017, but the EPA didn’t take action.
Paint strippers with the compound are responsible for four deaths. In some cases people were trapped in poorly ventilated rooms with the chemical and asphyxiated. In other cases the fumes triggered heart attacks.
Another compound frequently found in paint stripper is NMP. Those initials stand for N-methylpyrrolidone. This compound can enter the body either through the skin or breathing in fumes. It damages the reproductive systems in both men and women.
People who are exposed to NPH experience irritation of the eyes, nose, skin, and throat. The chemical also affects the central nervous system and causes drunkenness similar to alcohol. Now, safer brands of paint stripper are available without both these compounds. Shoppers should always check labels prior to purchase.
How to Properly Use Paint Strippers
Set yourself up for success. Afterall, you don’t want to repeat the process because it didn’t work the first time. Gather all the materials and equipment that you’ll need, so you don’t end up in the middle of the project and searching for something. Make sure you have:
- Furniture piece or cabinet doors: the project you’re working on.
- Paintbrush: for applying paint stripper.
- Drop cloth or plastic sheeting: to protect the floor.
- Glass or metal bowl: to pour stripper in, and place paint chips.
- Plastic scraper: cheap ones will do fine.
- Steel wool: to get into hard to reach places.
- Water: to clean off remaining paint chips & stripper.
- Rags: for cleaning off the piece.
Most paint strippers come in liquid or gel form, and the importance of a high quality paintbrush can’t be overstated. The paint strippers discussed later are water soluble for cleanup, but have one dedicated brush to stripping to avoid reuse on paint projects.
After you’ve selected a piece for upcycling, set up a dedicated work spot in a well ventilated area. Even when using a low or no fume paint stripper. Pick a work area that will be out of the way. That way, you can leave the stripper on your project overnight to remove multiple layers of paint.
Start off with a test patch on a hidden area. If there’s an unforeseen reaction between the stripper and the furniture, you wouldn’t want to find out after coating the whole piece. Invest the time in performing a test. It will give you practice in application, scraping, and clean up.
Don’t be stingy…
The best paint stripper will pull of many coats of paint, as long as enough is applied. And be patient! But putting on a thick initial coat and waiting long enough, cleanup just gets easier. For quick projects, there are several fast-acting paint strippers listed below. Your test patch will also tell you if you applied way too much, or not nearly enough. When you’ve done a test patch, follow these easy steps:
- Pour paint stipper into a glass or metal bowl. Some paint strippers have adverse reactions with plastic.
- Use a paintbrush to apply at thick coat of the paint stripper.
- Leave for anywhere from 10 minutes to overnight.
- Paint will bubble up when it’s ready to be removed.
- Use a plastic scraper to scrape off the paint, revealing the wood underneath.
- Dip steel wool into water and use it to get into hard to reach and detailed areas.
- Use a damp rag to clean of remaining paint chips and paint thinner from the piece.
Once the old paint is removed from the furniture or cabinets, you’re ready to give it fresh life with stain, varnish, or a new coat of paint.
Don’t Forget Safety
First, read all labels and warnings on the paint stripper. It will tell you in detail what safety precautions are necessary for safe usage. Regardless of labelling, invest in a high quality respirator and use it anytime you’re working with chemicals. Even if the product promises that it’s fume-free and safe to breathe, there are still solvent chemicals at work.
Many “safer” paint strippers advertise they’re safe to use indoors. While no one wants to go through the trouble of removing all the doors from their cabinets before they get started working on their upcycling project, there are real benefits. Experienced painters advise the removal of doors before painting cabinets anyway, so you might as well get the hassle done all at once.
Always cover exposed skin with long sleeves and pants and use plastic gloves. You don’t want this stuff accidentally getting on your skin. Also protect eyes from spills and splashes with safety goggles. In brief, a list of precautions:
Manufacturers may advertise that these paint strippers are safe, but they are still strong chemicals that are harmful without proper precautions in place.
Consider These Safe Alternatives
People with a sensitivity to odors and chemicals may not want to risk messing around with any kind of chemical paint stripper. There are safer alternatives, with less risk of creating lead fumes or presence of carcinogens. The alternative methods discussed here are:
- Heat guns
- Infrared devices
- Skip the stripping
The alternative to a chemical paint stripper is the use of a heat gun, which breaks the bond between the substrate and paint with heat. A heat gun is directed at the paint and moved back and forth. When the paint bubbles and melts, it’s scraped off with a metal scraper. High-heat guns (1,100º or more) can cause lead paint to release dangerous fumes. They should only be used on projects where there’s no chance of lead paint being present.
Similar to a heat gun, but at a much lower temperature are infrared devices. They’re bulky and won’t work in tight spaces. For larger jobs and flat areas they’re fast (30 seconds) and keep temperatures well below the point of creating lead fumes. Since they’re also drawing moisture out of the wood, any new coats of paint or varnish will have a strong bond with the surface. They can be expensive, and may not be worth purchasing for just a few DIY projects.
Another mechanical methods of paint removal include sanding. Special sanding wheels are sold specifically for taking paint off metal. Sanding on wood furniture or cabinets requires caution, patience, and a light touch. Excessive sanding may damage the substrate beneath the paint. Sanding lead paint will create dangerous lead dust which should be avoided.
Consider if it’s even necessary for you to strip a piece. For example, you want a painted finish and there’s only a stain on the furniture or cabinet door. Stripping the stain and varnish from the wood is more work than necessary. Instead, simply roll or brush on a few coats of primer, and then paint as normal. Stripping paint is only essential when there are already several coats on the wood. Granted, there is greater adhesion between primer or paint, and bare wood. However, in many circumstances, the added durability is probably not worth the hassle of using a paint stripper.