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How to strip woodwork

The chances are that if you’re buying a house that’s in need of TLC, there’ll be a fair amount of grubby woodwork to revitalise. We’ve spent countless hours stripping back architraves, skirting, windowsills and bannisters so have learnt a thing or two about how best to go about it.

The first thing to be aware of is that there are a number of ways to strip woodwork and the most effective method will depend on the condition of the wood. It’s often impossible to tell which technique will work best until you pull your sleeves up and crack on.

In some cases, it may be quicker to rip it all out and replace, but if you want to save some cash and preserve original woodwork, here are your different stripping options.


Heat gun

The heat gun is our go-to tool for stripping and we’ve used it on all our skirting and windowsills. You can get one for under £30 and they’re very effective at stripping multiple layers of paint off most wood. There’s definitely a knack to slowly running a stripping knife behind the heat gun which, once nailed, is actually quite rewarding.

You’ve got to be bloody careful with it, as I found out after burning my hand quite badly. It’s a pretty brutal tool and will melt anything in its path, including PVC windowframes (not that we’ve done that…)

Wearing a proper face mask is really important when using this method as you may unknowingly be stripping & inhaling old lead paint which can make you very ill.

Chemical stripper

When a heat gun just won’t do it, we turn to chemical stripper. We try to avoid this stuff as it’s pretty grim and you certainly don’t want to be spilling it anywhere.

Generally speaking we just use this for stripping metal, but it can be really useful for stripping paint from hard-to-reach areas of wood like spindles or under a radiator. It’s simply a case of slapping it on with an old brush then waiting until it’s had time to bubble away (typically 30mins – 2hrs) and scrape away with stripping knife.

When we sanded our floorboards there were loads of awkward-to-reach areas that even our corner sander couldn’t get to and hand sanding would have taken years. For small areas like in the below photo, we found that chemical stripper worked really well.

Door dipping

Some wood will be so caked with paint & varnish that neither heat gunning or chemical stripper will work. We tried both techniques with our interior doors to get them back to their original glory and were fighting a losing battle.

We try to save cash wherever poss by doing these sorts of jobs ourselves but we were defeated by our doors. After a Googling sesh, we found a local firm that dips doors in tanks of caustic soda which strips EVERYTHING from the wood. It only cost £220 for 12 doors which included collection and delivery – absolute bargain. So if you’ve got something removable like doors that you need stripping, this could be your best option.

We’re well-chuffed with how our doors came out but bear in mind that you’ll need to sand the doors when they come back as the caustic solution they’re dipped in makes them ‘furry’.

Sanding

If for whatever reason the above options aren’t options and you have a really thin layer of paint or varnish to get rid of, you could sand it down. Sandpaper gets gunked up with paint/varnish pretty quick so this will be a pain to do if you’re trying to get rid of a thick layer. Don’t bother doing this by hand, unless you enjoy spending all your free time sanding – a cheap power sander will be far quicker.

Start with a coarse grit sandpaper, around 40, to begin with and then move up to 60/80 and 120 to finish. This is exactly the technique that’s used to sand floorboards except with floorboards, you really need to use industrial sanders to get the job done in decent time.

Regardless of which method you use to strip wood, you’ll always need to sand afterwards to get a smooth, even finish.

Stripping tools

If you do decide to heat gun or use chemical stripper, you’ll need some scraping devices. Three’s the magic number – you’re going to want a wide blade stripping knife (6cm or so for large areas), a narrow blade stripping knife (around 3cm) and a combination shave hook. If you’ve got no idea what a combination shave hook is, have a read about our favourite DIY products. These lads will set you right for pretty much any stripping job.


There are more interesting things to read about than stripping wood. BUT, if you do have a load of wood to strip then this post will hopefully make your experience a lot quicker and potentially even very mildly enjoyable.