Reclaimed wood is an excellent sustainable building material.
This environmentally responsible choice helps reduce deforestation and saves energy otherwise spent processing and transporting new trees.
In addition, it can withstand most environmental contaminants, bacteria, and allergens with proper treatment, making it a sound choice for building durable structures.
The chances are that old wood might have been painted during its previous life, so knowing how to remove paint from reclaimed wood is essential before you can reuse it in your own project.
Remove paint from reclaimed wood using a chemical paint remover. Apply the remover and wait until the paint bubbles. Then, use a scraper or putty knife to remove the old paint, and repeat if needed. This method is the safest and most effective, yet sanding and heating will also remove paint.
In this post, I will explain how to remove paint from reclaimed wood using a chemical paint remover.
I also cover how to test for lead paint and provide my product recommendations.
I also list alternative paint removal methods to consider if you want to avoid dealing with harsh chemicals and potentially toxic fumes.
1. Test the Paint for Lead
The paint on older pieces of reclaimed wood may contain lead. The federal government didn’t ban consumer use of lead-based paint in America until 1978, so any reclaimed wood sourced from houses, barns, sheds, or anything else built before that year is potentially contaminated.
Unless you’re sure the paint on your reclaimed wood is lead-free, you should conduct a lead test before removing it.
You can hire professionals to check it for you or purchase a DIY testing kit. Consider the SCITUS Lead Test Kit (available on Amazon.com) for a quick at-home test. Simply use regular household vinegar on the swab, follow the instructions on the package, and get the results in only 30 seconds.
If the test detects lead, you might consider hiring a professional to remove the paint, especially if you have a larger job.
At the very least, you’ll want to take extra care to follow all precautionary measures to prevent lead exposure when removing the paint. Lead dust can be toxic, especially in children, and lead poisoning can cause health issues like seizures and developmental delays.
2. Remove or Cover All Hardware and Non-Wooden Parts
Before applying any chemical paint stripper, remove all hardware and protruding items from the wood, such as nails, screws, bolts, doorknobs, or brackets. Taking the time to do this will make the wood easier to work on in the remaining steps and allow for a cleaner finish.
It also ensures that hardware doesn’t get tarnished by the chemicals in the paint remover. Use protective tape to cover any non-removable materials or parts you don’t want the paint remover to touch.
3. Choose a Chemical Paint Remover
Professionals consider chemical paint removers the easiest, safest, and most effective way to remove any paint type, including lead-based ones. They’re ideal for stripping multiple layers of paint and when reclaimed wood is odd-shaped or intricately detailed.
Depending on the size of your project or the amount of paint that needs removal, you might prefer a liquid, paste, or gel paint remover. For instance, pastes and gels are best if working on a vertical surface, and liquids are ideal for horizontal surfaces with detailing or decoration.
Moreover, considering reclaimed wood can have several different paints and finishings on it, you should test multiple paint removers in small areas to see which works best.
All three types of paint removers should be available at your local hardware store, or you can shop online.
A popular option to consider is Durmond Smart Strip PRO Paint Remover (available on Amazon.com). This professional-grade paint stripper outperforms the competition, removing up to 20 layers in a single application.
It’s best for post-1980s acrylic, latex, and oil-based paints yet also effective on many lead-based coatings. Best of all, the water-based formula is free of N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP) and Methylene Chloride, unlike other comparable products.
4. Apply Paint Remover (and Wait)
Working with chemical paint removers is messy and potentially hazardous, regardless of your chosen product. So it’s essential to observe proper safety precautions, such as wearing the appropriate safety gear. At a minimum, that includes:
- Safety glasses
- Rubber gloves
- Long sleeves and pants
- Respirator or dust mask
Working outside or in a well-ventilated area is also critical, as some ingredients in chemical paint removers may emit toxic fumes.
Note: Always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to verify all safety guidelines and follow specific directions on the label for your chosen paint remover.
Once you’re ready to go, follow these simple steps:
- Pour some paint remover into a shallow metal or glass container. Start with a small amount and add more if needed.
- Use a paintbrush to liberally apply a coating of paint remover. Begin at one end of the wood and make your way to the other until the piece or area you’re working on is completely covered.
- Leave the paint remover to sit on the wood until the paint begins to bubble and peel. Depending on the product and the amount of paint you’re removing, the wait time can range from 20 minutes to 24 hours. Read the paint remover’s instructions for its required wait time, and intermittently check that the paint is softening.
Use a paint scraper or putty knife to scrape away the now-softened paint. Be sure to use gentle pressure to avoid scratching the wood, and remove as much paint as possible. If you feel too much resistance, allow more time for the paint remover to sit.
Use steel wool or a wire brush to get into hard-to-reach sections and finer details. For larger jobs or trouble spots, reapply the remover and repeat as needed until most or all of the paint is removed.
To remove any final traces of paint, use a wet cloth to wipe down the wood, then use a finishing sander or fine-grit sandpaper over the entire piece. Wipe away sawdust and remaining debris. Even if you remove all the paint by scraping, it’s typically best to clean the piece of reclaimed wood and ready it for use. Although, in some cases, this step may not be necessary.
While experts prefer chemical paint removers for their effectiveness, they’re not always the fastest or most environmentally friendly way to remove paint.
Depending on the size of the project or how much paint you need to remove, you can use any of the following all-natural methods to remove paint from reclaimed wood.
Use Paint Removers Without Toxic Fumes
If you’d rather avoid dealing with harsh chemical fumes, here are some products containing natural ingredients to consider instead.
Trusted by consumers for over two decades, Blue Bear Soy Gel Paint & Urethane Stripper is an effective and safe paint remover from the Franmar product line.
Made with 100% American-grown soybeans, the non-caustic formula has minimal odor, no toxic fumes, and is biodegradable. It effectively removes multiple layers of single-component coatings in a single application, including lead-based paints, and is safe enough to use indoors.
While finding this particular brand and product in some hardware stores can be tricky, you can purchase it and other Blue Bear and Franmar products through online retailers.
As with other citrus-based paint removers, Citristrip Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel (available on Amazon.com) contains citrus terpenes, organic compounds extracted from fruit peels, that stay wet for up to 24 hours and can remove multiple layers of dried latex and oil-based paint.
This paint remover is non-toxic and biodegradable, yet it still contains chemicals. However, it smells like oranges instead of hazardous chemical fumes.
Due to its acidic properties, vinegar can be an effective, inexpensive, and eco-friendly paint remover in some cases. And while it may emit an unpleasant odor, it doesn’t emit harmful or toxic fumes.
To use vinegar to remove paint, follow these steps:
- Mix: Make as much remover as you need using one part vinegar and two parts water.
- Heat: Bring the solution to a near boil, around 180-212°F (82-100°C), using your preferred heating method.
- Apply: Use a paintbrush or a clean cotton rag to apply the vinegar solution to the old paint.
- Wait: To soften the paint, leave the remover on for 10-15 minutes.
- Scrape: Use a scraper to remove the softened paint.
- Wipe: Use a clean, damp cloth to wipe off any remaining paint and vinegar from the wood.
The only downside of using vinegar to remove paint is that it may leave the wood drab and dingy.
Use (Only) a Scraper
If your reclaimed wood has thin layers of paint already peeling or cracking, you can try to scrape off the paint without chemicals or heat. If possible, use a plastic scraper, as it’s less likely to damage the wood surface than a steel or brass one.
To remove paint, scrape in the same direction as the wood grain using light pressure. Clear any remaining paint chips by scraping against the grain, keeping pressure minimal.
For large jobs, you can remove paint with about 2,500 to 3,000 psi, which requires a medium or heavy-duty pressure washer.
However, such high pressure can damage wood, so make sure your reclaimed wood is sturdy enough to handle this method. Be sure to wear eye protection and wash along the grain, moving continuously.
Use a Heat Gun
A heat gun is a great tool to soften thick layers of paint naturally for easy removal. However, it can be tricky to accomplish successfully and safely without incident, and you should keep a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case.
The key to this method is finding the right temperature to soften the paint. If the temperature is too low, the task becomes very time-consuming; if the temperature is too high, you risk charring the wood, creating toxic fumes, or even starting a fire.
Set the heat gun to low, or keep the temperature between 400-600°F (204-315°C) to avoid creating fumes. Hold the heat between 2-3 in (5-8 cm) away from the paint, and continuously move the heat gun from side to side.
Focusing on too small an area for too long can cause harmful vapors or accidental combustion. Once the paint bubbles and softens, use a scraper to peel off the old paint.
For a quick visual demonstration of how to do this, check out this YouTube video:
A heat gun is ideal for the job, but if you own an infrared device or a steam stripper, these tools can also work to heat and soften the paint, with some limitations:
- Infrared device: Heat up and loosen several layers of paint from wood with a quick 30-second blast of infrared rays. This tool keeps the temperature safely below the paint and wood ignition points, minimizing the risk of fire and other accidents. However, it’s bulky and challenging to use in tight spaces.
- Steam stripper: Warm and soften paint without exceeding 212°F (100°C) using water vapor. This tool eliminates fire risks, and condensation keeps dust and fumes to a minimum. Yet, all the moisture it produces can saturate the wood.
Sanding can effectively remove paint, no matter the size of the job. Smaller jobs can be sanded by hand, while larger jobs require a power sander.
This job is best done outside, but if working indoors, attach your sander to a vacuum or have someone standing nearby with one ready to capture dust.
For multiple layers of paint, start with a coarse 80-grit sandpaper. Change to medium and fine grits as you continue, and finish with a fine 220-grit for a smooth finish.
It takes a bit of time to remove paint from reclaimed wood. Yet, these straightforward methods can help you save money on hiring professionals or purchasing pre-processed materials.
To stay safe, always follow safety precautions and other instructions for all products or tools you use.
If you’d like to find out where to buy reclaimed wood, why not read our article on the best companies to buy reclaimed wood from today?