The Easiest Way to Remove Paint from your Old Wood Furniture

Look at what was underneath 3 layers of chipping old paint! Let’s dig into the whole process of how to remove paint from wood furniture so you can show off the beautiful natural wood again.

This dresser makeover started with stripping / removing the paint from the wood. When we stripped off the paint, we found some stunning raw wood underneath, and just had to keep it natural! Get more refinishing furniture tips here!

Antique dresser with chipping damaged paint

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 its way to me.

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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.

scroll down to see the after photos

Supplies Used To Remove Paint From Old Wood Furniture

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How to Test for Lead Paint

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.

Check out this post for step-by-step info on how to use this lead paint test kit.

testing paint with lead test kit

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, 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.

If the old paint is chalk paint, here’s how to remove chalk paint easily and quickly. Or, check out my post on how to paint over chalk paint here.

How to Use Citristrip Stripper

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.

Check out the best wood stain removers to learn more about the benefits of each product.

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.

Check out the low VOC and less toxic stripper I used in refinishing a dresser here! Here is my list of the best tools for removing paint.

Applying citristrip to furniture with a cheap paint brush

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 paintbrush 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*: I 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 its formula. I now 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 its 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.

Removing Stripper and Paint

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. 

Get more juicy details on how to remove stain from detailed wood or another post and video on how to remove wood stain from furniture legs here.

Scraping stripper and paint off of wood drawer

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.

How to Remove Citristrip Residue

I typically use mineral spirits (poured into a plastic bowl) and some fine steel wool to scrub off anything that is left.

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. It doesn’t work as well as the fine steel wool though.

cleaning gunk off of wood dresser after stripping
The front of the dresser has been scrubbed with mineral spirits, but the side of the dresser hasn’t been scrubbed yet.

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.

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.

What To Do After Stripping Paint From Wood

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.

Learn more from our tutorial on how to strip paint from wood furniture.

wood dresser after removing paint and drying

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. Learn more about the best sandpaper for furniture here.

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.

Check out my guide on how to sand down wood here.

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How to Seal Raw Wood Without Changing the Color

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. 

Check out how to tone down orange wood furniture here.

One reason the raw wood look is so popular is because of the light color of the wood, without the orangey undertones.

Sanding After Stripping Paint

We really wanted to make the wood grain look as good as possible so we fixed those issues with a couple of simple tricks.

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.

Lightly sanding furniture after stripping paint off

On the flat areas, we used our power sander to really get the wood grain to shine. Check out the best sanders for furniture here.

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.

Then I removed all of the dust with my shop vac and tack cloths. 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!

Wiping off dust with a tack cloth

They are really tacky (kind of sticky), so they do a really good job of picking up any leftover 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 cloths are my new favorite tool for refinishing furniture.

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! 

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Sealing Raw 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 with a paint sprayer. Make sure to apply 3 coats of poly on the wood.

Learn ALL of my tips and tricks on how to spray polyurethane here! Here’s my list of the best HVLP paint sprayers for beginner and intermediate furniture painters. 

before and after sealing raw 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.

How to Use 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 clear wax with 1 part of your paint of choice.

Denise at Salvaged Inspirations has a great little post all about tinting furniture wax with paint.

Mixing clear wax and white paint for tinted 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.

Before, during and and after applying white wax to natural wood

You can also whitewash instead of using liming wax. Learn about how to whitewash furniture in this post.

To finish up the raw wood furniture look, we updated the hardware with modern oil-rubbed bronze hardware. Here’s more on how to change hardware on furniture.

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.

Sideview of Raw Wood Dresser
Wood Serpentine Dresser with Cup Pulls

More Before And After Makeovers

Click any of these “before” photos below to view the “after” of that makeover.

Closeup of raw wood dresser top
scroll up if you missed the after photos

The Easiest Way to Remove Paint from your Old Wood Furniture

bare wood dresser after stripping off paint

Give your furniture a fresh look by stripping off paint to bare wood. This is how to remove paint from wood furniture.

Instructions

  1. Test the paint for lead using lead paint testing kit. Squeeze the two ends of the lead tester, shakie it to mix the liquids, and then rub 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.
  2. If you’re working with lead-based paint, remove it with a chemical stripper. Apply a thick layer of stripper with a cheap brush then cover it with plastic wrap. Let it sit for 4-12 hours.
  3. Scrape off the stripper and paint with a plastic scraper. Clean off the sticky residue left behind with mineral spirits and 0000 steel wool. Let your wood furniture dry completely for a day or two before doing anything else.
  4. To get raw wood furniture look, start by sanding the wood down super smooth with sandpaper then remove all the dust with shop vac and a tack cloth.
  5. Seal the raw wood with 3 coats of water-based polyurethane. And to make sure the last coat of poly leaves a super smooth finish, lightly sand it with 400 grit sandpaper.
  6. Once the poly is completely dry, apply a light coat of liming wax. Just mix 3 parts clear wax with 1 part of your paint of choice. Use part of an old t-shirt to rub the wax onto the sealed wood.
  7. Attach hardware to your raw wood furniture.

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Antique dresser with chipping damaged paint

41 Comments

  1. That dresser is absolutely stunning! I’m in love. I’m looking to do something similar to my boys bedroom furniture. Hopefully it turns out as lovely as yours.

  2. Lourdes Ambrosio says:

    This is the best how to post on getting this look! I have read several post by other bloggers to get this look and nothing compares to all the details and the reasoning behind your choices as well as your post. THANK YOU!! I just learned so much! I love this look and plan to do it on a small night table that is currently layered in some type of latex paint. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  3. I am just finishing up redoing a dresser with a similar shape to this. How did you get your cup pulls to work with the curved front?

    1. Hey Kayla,
      Sometimes there are tiny little gaps between the hardware and the drawer, and other times with the right size cup pull, it fits just right with no gaps.

  4. Nope, I haven’t heard that or had any experience with mineral spirits being an issue with waterbased paints.

  5. I have really learned a lot from your Ray of Sunlight site..I have recently inherited a two piece early cabinet with still having immaculate old glass doors..and original hardware..I was looking at the chippy cream paint, and green paint also..but was so surprised to see on the cabinet where there is no paint some faux finishing that looks like a comb graining tool was used..Perfect period piece for my 1850 brick farmhouse I would like to be able to remove the layers of paint and preserve the early finish..are there any products you could recommend that will not destroy this original finish..I have the patience of a Saint and I am willing to put the time into it,especially since it may have been my great great grandmothers. Any suggestions would be helpful

    1. I wish I knew of a product. I’m sorry. Best of luck with your project!

  6. I am trying to do this to a dresser where the drawer faces are painted and the inner drawer is natural wood (I would imagine it has some kind of finish on it though?). If I am only trying to strip the paint off do you think i should tape off the part that is natural wood already?

    1. Yep I would tape off the part that is natural wood already so you don’t get stripper on it and have to clean it up.

  7. Grazia Uribe says:

    Thank you for all the things you share. You both do wonders in restoring furniture. Love the things you do.

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