Before stripping paint from a home built before 1978, have it tested for lead. (For more information, see Testing for Lead).
There are several ways to remove finishes: heat-gun stripping, chemical strippers, scraping, and sanding, to name the primary ones. Stripping paint can be a real hassle and often yields marginal results. It can be very tedious to get paint out of all the nooks and crannies, and, when the finish has been entirely stripped, the wood may not look the way you hoped it would.
Chemical strippers are normally the least damaging to the surface and work best at removing paint from fine woodwork or irregular surfaces.
If you plan to repaint (as opposed to staining or sealing), keep in mind that you can fill nicks and gouges before painting. In this case, stripping with a combination of heat gun and stripper is usually faster. It’s often most effective to use a heat gun on flat expanses and a chemical stripper on details. When using a heat gun, have a fire extinguisher (or a bucket of water) on hand in case the wood begins to burn.
When using chemical strippers, follow all label directions and wear rubber or neoprene gloves to protect your hands, eye protection, and—for some chemicals—an organic vapor respirator with new cartridges. Good ventilation is imperative.
Apply the stripper in one or more thick coats and let it work; that is, don’t scrape too soon. All layers of paint should be easy to lift with a scraper or, better yet, a plastic household spatula. On vertical surfaces, choose a stripper that has plenty of body, and be sure to protect the floor with plastic masking taped around the perimeter and newspapers on top to absorb the sludge. If you’re stripping woodwork, also protect the walls by taping newspapers to them.
What is the right paint stripper for removing paint from surfaces in your home? Some paint strippers are very effective at removing paint but do this job quickly and easily because they are highly caustic-making them poor choices to use indoors because of the health hazards. Following is a look at some of the chemicals used for removing paint to help you make a wise choice:
Methylene chloride paint strippers can lift multiple layers of paint quickly; however, they are considered hazardous and require good ventilation. They also require reapplication because they evaporate quickly. When applying these paint strippers, wear an organic vapor respirator with new cartridges.
NMP and DBE strippers (N-methyl pyrrolidone and di-basic esters) are considered safer to use than methylene chloride, but they are slower acting. They, too, require good ventilation and may require you to wear an organic vapor respirator with new cartridges. They are generally a better option than methylene chloride for do-it-yourselfers.
Better still for the DIY enthusiast are caustic paint strippers, which work on multiple layers of paint and have non-toxic fumes. These require a vinegar rinse before applying the finish. They are not recommended for hardwoods or veneers.