Look at what was underneath 3 layers of chipping old paint! This dresser makeover started with stripping / removing the paint from the wood. When we stripped off the paint, we found this stunning raw wood underneath, and just had to keep it natural! Let’s dig into the whole process of how to strip years of old paint from off of your wood furniture so you can show off the beautiful natural wood again.
What a transformation!!
Our client brought us her Grandma’s old dresser that has been in her family for over 100 years! And there were at least 3 layers of paint on it when it made it’s way to me.
The original plan was to give the dresser a fresh new layer of dark grey paint. But the old finish was in really bad shape. So we planned to strip off the old paint to give the new paint a good solid base.
That was the plan.
Until we saw what the wood looked like underneath.
Let’s go through the steps to remove old paint or stain from any type of wood furniture. That includes wood veneered furniture just like this one too.
Then we’ll finish up the process by keeping the wood natural with a few tips.
How to Remove Paint from Wood Furniture
- Test the paint for lead
- Apply the paint stripper (use the stuff that’s not harsh!)
- Scrape off the paint with a plastic scraper
- Clean off the sticky residue left behind
- Let dry completely before doing anything else
1. Test the Paint for Lead
It’s a super simple process, but it’s super important to know if you’re working with lead based paint.
Lead is toxic and can make you sick if it’s not removed properly. So if you’re working with lead based paint, it’s best to remove it with a chemical stripper (like we did) instead of sanding it off.
You can find these little lead paint testing kits at your local hardware store. (I pick mine up from Home Depot a lot).
The test is easy as squeezing the two ends of the lead tester, shaking it to mix the liquids, and then rubbing that liquid onto all of the layers of paint.
If it turns red or pink, then you have lead in your paint.
If the liquid stays a yellow orange color, then you most likely don’t have lead in your paint.
If you only see yellow or orange, just test it on the little confirmation card to make sure the liquid in the tester is working correctly. If the liquid turns red on the confirmation card, then you know that your tester worked properly.
We tried this lead test out on this dresser and found a mix of results. The white paint didn’t have lead in it, but the layers underneath did. (Paint used before 1978 most likely has lead in it.)
So since we knew we were working with lead paint, we knew better than to start sanding the paint to remove it.
How to Use Citristrip Stripper – The best paint (and stain) stripper out there!
Our favorite way to remove paint or stain is to use this chemical stripper called Citristrip. It isn’t harsh like a lot of strippers are.
In fact, it actually smells good! And most importantly, it works time and time again.
But I have a little extra trick when it comes to using Citristrip to remove paint or stain from wood. (See step 2)
Safety first! Put on some nice thick chemical resistant gloves to protect your hands… and some eye protection is nice too. Also, it’s best to use this stripper outside, but you can totally use it inside too with some windows open for ventilation.
2. Brush on the Citristrip Like it’s Going out of Style
You really want it to be thick.
I usually dump it out of the container onto the top of the furniture. Then I just move the stripper around with the paint brush until it’s everywhere.
Also, the stripper will eat up foam brushes in a second. So I like to use a cheap chip brush, or a dollar store paint brush.
And then *here’s the little trick I use to make it work even better*
Cover the Citristrip with Plastic.
No joke. I personally like to use plastic wrap or garbage bags.
But the plastic makes the stripper work for longer.
Then it’s time to walk away.
Walk away, go to bed, work on other projects, run errands. Do what you need to do. But don’t mess around with it for at least 8 hours. But it can sit for up to 24 hours too.
*Update* – Citristrip has changed it’s formula. I know find myself letting it sit for a little longer with no problems. It doesn’t dry out as fast anymore.
So, just leave it. Just let it do it’s thing.
A sign that it is ready is when it is really wrinkled up like the stripper sucked up all the paint and then started to dry.
3. Remove the Stripper
Use a plastic scraper instead of a metal one because the metal scraper can easily scratch the wood. Yikes!
For furniture with detail (surfaces that a flat scraper can’t reach), use an old toothbrush, toothpick, or (no joke) even floss to get into tight details and corners.
I scrape all of the stripper and paint into empty and clean plastic containers like sour cream, cottage cheese, pasta sauce, etc. containers. I like having something that has a wide opening and that has a lid.
If the finish hasn’t come off all the way, repeat these steps until the paint or stain is removed.
It usually takes 1-2 rounds for me.
There will always be some gunk or residue left over that needs to be washed off.
4. Use Mineral Spirits and a Scrubber to Wash Away Remaining Residue.
The mineral spirits really helps loosen some of the old finish, and the steel wool scrubs it away.
You can also use a scotch-brite scrubbing pad with the mineral spirits.
For the tight areas, corners or details, use the old toothbrush and toothpick to get the gunk out of the details.
And as you scrub off the remaining gunk, replace your scrubbing pad as it gets too much gunk on it. You want to get that wood all clean and fresh.
5. Let it dry
At this point, the freshly stripped wood will be very wet and saturated. I usually go over it a few times with paper towels to wipe up as much liquid as possible.
And then it’s time to let the wood dry completely.
I usually leave it alone for a day or two, depending on the weather and humidity.
This is what the dresser looked like once it was dry.
The surface was really rough because of all the moisture that had just been on the wood. So before I did anything else, I sanded the wood with 220 grit sandpaper to smooth it down.
Now at this point, you could totally prime and paint the wood again. That’s actually what the original plan was. But once we saw the beautiful wood underneath all of that paint, we decided to stick with a wood finish.
How to Get the Raw Wood Furniture Look
- Sand the wood down super smooth.
- Remove the dust.
- Seal the wood with water-based poly.
- Apply a light coat of “liming wax” (the part that really makes it look good).
The trick with a raw wood finish is that it needs to be sealed.
But once the raw wood is sealed, the color of the wood darkens, and sometimes it gets an orange tint to it.
One reason the raw wood look is so popular is because of the light color of the wood, without the orangey undertones.
We fixed those issues with a couple of simple tricks.
1. Sand the Wood
We really wanted to make the wood grain look as good as possible.
So we grabbed more 220 grit sandpaper and really worked on getting the wood grain to be even and to remove any “water” stains that the stripper and mineral spirits had left.
On the flat areas, we used our power sander to really get the wood grain to shine.
This piece of furniture was made with wood veneers though, so I was very careful with the power sander to not sand too hard.
When the wood was as smooth and fresh as possible, I went back over the whole dresser with 400 grit sandpaper. The 400 grit is really fine and creates a super super smooth finish.
2. Remove Sawdust from the Wood
I like to put the brush attachment onto the hose of the shop vac to brush the dust into the vacuum. The brush really helps with the corners and details… and the flat surfaces. Basically all over! haha
And if you haven’t ever used tack cloths before, you NEED to!
They are really tacky (kind of sticky), so they do a really good job at picking up any left over dust. They work great on painted furniture too and can be used a few times before needing replaced.
Seriously. I used to use lint free rags and thought that was good enough. But these tack clothes are my new favorite tool for refinishing furniture.
How to Bleach Wood
After you have sanded or stripped, if the wood is still not very light, you can bleach the wood to make it lighter! Check out this post on how to bleach wood, to see how homemade bleach can make wood lighter!
3. Seal the Wood
It’s super important to use a water based poly for this.
I love to use Varethane Polyurethane on my furniture projects! It’s super durable and is easy to use!
If you use an oil based poly, the wood will really start to amber and have orange tones to it. And over time the oil based poly will amber way more than water based poly will.
The best way to apply the poly is by a paint sprayer.
Learn ALL of my tips and tricks on How to Spray Polyurethane here!
This one is my favorite paint sprayer. (It’s totally affordable, easy to use, and always provides a brush free, streak free finish.) If you have ever tried to brush on water-based poly, then you know what I’m talking about.
Make sure to apply 3 coats of poly on the wood.
To make sure the last coat of poly left a super smooth finish, I gave the dresser a light sanding with 400 grit sandpaper. And of course I vacuumed and wiped off the dust with a tack cloth again before applying the last coat of poly.
4. Apply a Light Coat of “Liming Wax”
Once the poly was completely dry, I applied a really light coat of a white wax.
To make your own colored wax, just mix 3 parts Annie Sloan wax with 1 part of your paint of choice.
Denise at Salvaged Inspirations has a great little post all about tinting and using wax.
I actually chose to mix in a cream paint instead of a white paint. I wanted the wax to recreate the color of the raw wood before it was sealed. And I felt like the pure white would be too bright and too much of a contrast.
Then I used part of an old t-shirt to rub the wax onto the sealed wood. Once the wax was dry, I buffed out the wax with another t-shirt rag.
Update the Hardware
To finish up the raw wood furniture look, we updated the hardware with modern oil rubbed bronze hardware.
There you go! Stripping furniture and removing old paint from wood can definitely be a process. But I think it’s a process that is worth it. Especially when you find beautiful wood underneath and are able to show it off.
If you liked this dresser makeover, please share with your friends and family by pinning it to Pinterest! Sharing is caring and we so appreciate it!
Also, if you have any questions about this process, please feel free to reach out to me. I’d be happy to help!
**P.S. Some of my links may be affiliate links, meaning that the company may pay me a small amount for advertising for them. You don’t pay anything extra to use my links. Thank you for purchasing these items through my link.
You can read my full disclosure here for more info.**