Dear PoPville – What Do You Use to Remove Paint?

“Dear PoP,

For some reason, older folks in Petworth loved paint. My house has like 14 layers of paint on everything. I’ve set about to find a way to strip wood trim and doors myself and am testing a product called Smart Strip, which uses benzyl alcohol (used by hospitals and labs to sterilize). Pretty happy with the results so far. Cuts through multiple layers quite well after 48 to 36 hours, and it all stays wet for days reducing the lead dust problem. I know there is a paint dipper downtown that probably uses lye, and charges $100 per door. Citristrip, lye-based peel away, methylene chloride all seem to have their problems. Wonder what your readers like to use, and if they use Smart Strip, what solvent works well to clean up the mess.”

33 Comment

  • I’ve always used a heat gun, but only if I plan to paint over what I’ve just stripped. It can be pretty time consuming, so I’m interested in your experience with Smart Strip.

  • scrap it off with a flat blade.. very time consuming but will take the paint off..

    • andy

      some folks call it a flat blade. I prefer to call it a sling blade.

      Actually, it depends what your end use is.

      I agree with planer usage. Especially the small rasp/planer things on sides of sticky doors.

      • your preference notwithstanding, a sling blade in’t the same thing.

        • andy

          You may have seen a film involving a sling blade, which I am referencing jokingly.

          Seriously though a planer can work in the right situation.

      • +1 For the namesake movie reference. And I don’t mean a reference to the movie “Namesake.”

  • I want to see the detail work. I’ve used some other strippers and doing the flat parts is easy, it is the nooks of the molding that causes the heartache.

  • My old man uses a planer for the broad flat parts when he does his windows.

  • I use cheap hourly labor from the parking lot of the Home Depot.

    Ok, I wish I could afford that…..

  • For a seemingly simple question, there are a TON of answers out there. We actually covered one method in a few blog posts of ours last week. These were early on in our renovation when we were trying lots of different things. I’m going to cover a lot more in the coming weeks, but here are the basics of what we prefer over eight years of stripping almost every single painted wood surface in our home:

    Note: Be sure to have a good set of scrapers and dental tools for nooks and crannies.

    1. For small items we will use the typical caustic Bix type stripper available at any big box. We use this for hardware, or small wood items where we can make a stripping bath. Throw the items in, let them soak, take them out, scrape a bit, put them back in. It will take off hundreds of years of paint after a few applications.

    If the item is cast iron or something similar, after you get the majority of the paint off, we hit it with the bench grinder’s wire wheel. Takes the last paint and all of the residue right off. Be sure to wear eye protection.

    2. For bigger applications where you want to be able to see bare wood, maybe stained or something, we use Peel Away 7. It is a gel like good that sits on for 24 hours and is active as long as it is wet. Intricate molding or details need extra attention through multiple applications.

    3. For bigger applications where we will just repaint (like doors or baseboard molding) we use Peel Away 1. Similar to the 7, but way more active. This stuff is amazing, but discolors and alkalizes the wood. Once the paint is off, you have to neutralize the wood with Vinegar.

    4. Once stripper is done and we just need a little more to get the details areas, we use a heat gun with either a 5 in 1 tool, flat blade scraper, or detail dental pick to really get in the deep areas.

    5. Flat areas we use a flat blade scraper, then a random orbit sander with 80, 120, 180, 220 grit paper connected to a shop-vac with HEPA filter to catch the bad dust.

    6. And for the absolute big projects and you don’t want to do yourself, send it out to a pro shop for a caustic bath. I would do this as a last resort because the bath can warp your items.

    If you like info like this and other DIY home renovation stuff, check out our blog. We’re slowly renovating an Old Town Alexandria row house. Started the blog kinda late, but that just means we have a lot of material now.

  • heat gun, putty knife(s), afterwards Goof-off with iron wool. The strip-ez etc. is messy, just as stinky, and difficult in my opinion. Ive stripped a ton of wood in my house and tried many different methods…heat gun and goof-off is the best….

    • I use a heat gun as well, and follow up with Peel Away 7. B/c everything was painted white, it is difficult to get all the remanants off, so i just repaint in white. The outcome is nice, you don’t see the many many layers of paint, etc.

  • We are fans of Peel Away 7. We used Peel Away to successfully peel layers of paint:

    though little nooks and crannies – where its harder, I didn’t notice much difference from peel away to other strippers, like ready strip:

    a reader suggested Soy Gel by Franmar, which i am planning to test out next.

    In many homes around our neighborhood, the owners had either paid or did it themselves to strip wood doors, paneling, moldings and you can always tell. so i wouldn’t get too crazy about it, and as far as i am concerned everything is getting a coat of paint after its stripped.

    • Give smartstrip a try. Not caustic like peel away. Just a mild odor, doesn’t sting skin on contact.

  • In my experience, all DIY paint stripping options are pretty much crap. Even the smallest piece takes forever, and it is incredibly difficult to get paint out of the detail work and leave the wood in condition that would be suitable for refinishing (other than with new paint). The best option of the bad options is the heat gun. The best overall option is getting stuff dipped.

    I had grand ideas of reclaiming the amazing original wood in my house from layer upon layer of decades old paint. After a brief foray into stripping, however, I am now perfectly happy with white trim.

  • OP here. SmartStrip once it gets through after sitting is great. Did most of the one side of the entire door in less than 5 minutes (after it sat on for 48 hours). Bought some carving tools from Utrecht for the nooks (need to be dulled, they dig in fast).

    I too tried heat gun and it was awesome, but I don’t want to wear a respirator all day long and it is very slow going and labor intensive and a fire risk in this old wooden house.

    One problem I have is that it goes through the new latex so fast the paint flakes off quickly so loses touch with the “battleship lead paint” below. So now I’ve been doing a light coat to get through the latex, quickly removed and then hit it hard for the base paints.

    Someone in PoPville needs to invent a better set of concave scrapers for the nooks and crannies for sure.

  • I agree with the recommendations for Peel Away. I used both 1 and 7 to remove chipping paint from window trim that included at least one layer of lead paint. It worked far better than the nasty, Bix-type stuff mentioned above; we tried that on a mantel and it made me want to shoot myself. With both Peel Away formulas, I just used water and a sponge to wipe away any residue. The project stalled midway through, so I haven’t gotten around to neutralizing with vinegar but you do have to do that with the Peel Away 1 as noted above.

    If you have kids, or are planning to have them, and there’s any potential for lead paint in your house, I’d be really cautious about a heat gun or a scraper. We have a toddler, so wet removal seemed like the best option after I did some research.

    • What are you talking about being cautious with a heat gun? What do you think happens? Do you know the temperature that lead would turn to gas? Wood will burn before the lead goes airborne.

  • SmartStrip isn’t sold at Home Depot? I got it at Duron.

  • get. them. dipped.

    unless you have only 2-3 doors.

    in DIY world, time is money, and sometime your time [and money] are better spent on other things.

    just my two cents after spending all of last summer scraping down 8 doors with a total of 3,000 layers of ugly paint. my head hurts just thinking about it. I used CitruStrip, putty knives, an orbital sander, and ALOT of elbow grease.

    • Smartstrip is so much easier than all the others, literally can strip the entire door with almost no elbow grease in about 10 minutes. Just have to goop it on really thick, cover with paper, and wait 2 days for it to do its work. Then all the layers come off like butter.

      You can see in my test that the left side I only put a light coat on and it didn’t do the job. The rest got it on as thick as 1/8 inch or more of the goop.

      I have time, lack money. Hence the madness. I have 10 or so doors to do. My wife is going to have my head!

  • i feel lazy reading this thread. after trying one room we decided to just apply a fresh white coat to the wood.

  • Who’s the dipper downtown?


    • (I think…) Unit block of N St NW, right across from the old brass knob warehouse.

    • It’s the Stripping Workshop. Sounds far more interesting than it really is. They guy is super nice; we didn’t have them do any work for us (it is not cheap) but he was incredibly helpful when I called up looking for free advice on how to remove what turned out to be wood filler on my windowsills.

  • One of my cats drools when happy, and the drool – honest to god – removed the stain on my old desk that no other stripper would.

  • Soy-gel from Franmar works great. Buy it off the web. Goes straight to wood after overnight application. It also revives the wood itself so you’re not left with a dried out and bleached damaged piece of wood.

  • Like dissolves like. Try denatured alcohol to keep it wet and for clean up.

  • (Really enjoyed the post from the Alexandria renovators! Very cool project!)

    I think most of the answers have been covered at this point, but I’d say that it depends on what you’re trying to strip. One thing that’s good to know is that you can strip paint from any of the metal hardware yourself with nothing more than a crockpot and a light detergent. Put the metal hardware in the crockpot full of water with detergent, put it on medium, and take it out in the morning. While it’s still warm, you can use a very light nylon brush (or your fingers) to slide the paint right off in layers. (Don’t use metal brush or anything that will scratch the metal.)

    A heat gun does work well, though it does not always get the corners and nooks that you need to get to on something like a door. I’ve tried a little bit of everything in our house and current renovation project, and haven’t found the magic bullet yet (that doesn’t involve me paying someone else to do it.) I stripped most of our banister with a heat gun, however. Worked very well, though I waited until my wife was out of town with the fumes to do it. (Some folks say a heat gun will vaporize the lead paint, but it takes 1100 degrees to vaporize lead paint, though the chips are still a problem.)

    I’m about to try the Peel Away on our front porch. As far as neutralizing the wood after using something caustic, it just needs to be something with a high acid PH. Vinegar, whatever.

    PS, check out our Petworth slow restoration at

  • Bob the stripper down by the farmers market off New York Avenue.

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