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Paint Removal Methods: Chemicals vs. Heat Guns vs. Sanding

Come find out the best paint removal method for your project! Compares chemicals, heat guns, and sanding methods so you know the best way to strip paint off your project!

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love taking paint off a piece and exposing the beautiful wood underneath! I’ve tried all sorts of methods, and while I definitely have a favorite, they all have pros and cons. 

So today I’m going to talk about the three most common paint removal methods: chemical strippers, heat guns, and sanding. Hopefully by the end of this post you’ll know exactly when to use each one!

Note: This blog contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive compensation (at no additional cost to you.)

Overview of Methods

There are three paint removal methods I’m going to talk about today: chemical strippers, heat guns, and sanding.

Chemical paint strippers are thick, gooey liquids that sit on the paint for a period of time. Ultimately, they break down the paint enough for it to be removed from the piece. For tips and tricks to get this right, grab my paint stripping cheat sheet.

Heat guns work by applying heat to the paint, and melting the paint just enough for it to be scraped off the piece. For step-by-step instructions on how to do this method, check out my post on how to to remove paint with a heat gun.

Finally, sanding a piece is the third way to remove paint. This is done with a low grit sandpaper and some sort of power sander – typically either an orbital sander or a belt sander when working on a flat surface. I’ve done this exactly once, and you can read about that over on my post on how I refinished a table.

Chemical Paint Removers

Learn the best way to remove paint from your project! Chemical paint strippers, heat guns and sanding are all discussed! #diy #homeimprovement

The Pros

Ease of Use

Chemical paint strippers are easy to use: apply, wait, scrape off paint. That’s it. There are some tips and tricks for success, which I cover in my paint stripping cheat sheet, but for the most part it’s not a difficult process.

Even curves and corners aren’t too bad as long as the stripper was thickly applied. 

The Cons

Toxicity

Chemical strippers are called “chemical” for a reason; most are full of dangerous chemicals. Really. I’m talking the kind of thing that can knock you out if you use it in a confined space.

I always use Citri-Strip, which is significantly less toxic. I get the stuff on my hands all the time, and it doesn’t even sting. That doesn’t mean you should eat it, but it’s mild enough that I’m not too concerned about it.

Cost

Chemical strippers work best if you goop them on. Thick coats work best for actually breaking down the paint. Therefore, it can get expensive to strip paint with chemical removers.

Level of Removal

Citri-Strip and most other chemical paint removers only remove one layer of paint at a time (even if they advertise differently – trust me here.) So if you have a 100 year old piece with six layers of paint, you’ll be stripping it for days.

Messy

I’ve mentioned paint stripper is goopy, right? Then, once you put it on, it turns your paint into goop too? This stuff gets everywhere.

Heat Guns

Learn the best way to remove paint from your project! Chemical paint strippers, heat guns and sanding are all discussed! #diy #homeimprovement

The Pros

Inexpensive

Given that you already have a heat gun, the only other thing you need to remove paint is a putty knife. Basically, it’s a free way to remove paint. Win.

Level of Removal

Heat guns apply heat to all of the layers of paint at once, therefore, all the layers of paint come off at once.

The Cons

Time

Removing paint with a heat gun is a slow process. This drawer front took me around 45 minutes to strip:

Learn the best way to remove paint from your project! Chemical paint strippers, heat guns and sanding are all discussed! #diy #homeimprovement

For comparison, it probably would have taken about 15 minutes of active work with Citri-Strip (given there was only one layer of paint.)

Ease of Use

Heat guns soften the paint, but it still requires a fair amount of force to remove the paint from the wood. This gets demanding after a while, and by the end of a weekend stripping the built-ins in my bathroom, my wrist ached.

Additionally, heat guns don’t work that well in corners or curvy areas, because the putty knife can’t get underneath the paint on a curve.

Safety

In addition to the general danger of burning yourself and possibly setting your piece on fire, there’s also some concerns about heat guns and lead paint. 

Basically, avoid using heat guns on lead paint. If the lead vaporizes it could get into your lungs and be very harmful. I talk about this a lot more in my post about using heat guns to remove paint.

Sanding

Learn the best way to remove paint from your project! Chemical paint strippers, heat guns and sanding are all discussed! #diy #homeimprovement

The Pros

None. There aren’t any. I’m not kidding.

This is a terrible way to strip paint. The only people who do this are the ones who A) are too lazy to go to the store, and B) don’t know any better.

I should know. I’ve been that person.

That said, it’s an excellent way to remove any stubborn bits leftover after using a chemical remover or paint gun. But for removing full layers off an entire piece? Don’t bother.

The Cons

I’m not going to break this up because there’s really just one big problem with sanding off paint.

Power sanders are okay in the beginning. But shortly after starting, the friction between the sander and the paint creates heat. This heat melts the paint. 

Then, instead of turning the paint into paint dust, the power sander turns it into a gooey mess that spreads all over the piece while simultaneously clogging the sandpaper.

You get a new piece of sandpaper. It maybe works for a minute before clogging again. Rinse. Repeat.

You will spend your entire life savings on sandpaper before your project is paint-free. Pick another method. Trust me.

FAQs

Okay, cool. But what is the best way to remove paint from wood?

90% of the time I’d go with a chemical paint remover. I know it had a longer list of “cons” than the heat gun method did, but the heat gun method takes so much active time that it’s really not worth it.

The only time I’d use a heat gun over a chemical stripper is if I was working with an old piece that had multiple layers of paint. Because the chemical stripper would need to be applied multiple times, the heat gun is probably a better option.

I’ve stripped my piece with a chemical stripper/heat gun, but there’s still a little bit of paint left. What do I do?

Now is a great time to break out the sander. Since there’s not much paint left, the paper won’t clog and you’ll actually be able to get the paint off of the piece!

After removing paint from a piece with chemicals or a heat gun, I typically sand with 40 grit sandpaper, then work my way up to 240 grit sandpaper.

Do you have a video comparing all the ways to strip paint?

Yes! Check it out on Youtube!

Takeaways

Citri-Strip is almost always going to be the easiest way to remove paint. It costs a little more than the other methods and can be messy, but is significantly faster than using a heat gun. Grab my cheat sheet for removing paint (with Citristrip!) so you know the easiest way to get the job done!

The only time I’d use anything else is if I had multiple layers of paint to remove. Then the number of Citri-Strip coats goes up, and it’s equally fast (and cheaper) to use a heat gun.

Sanders are great as a last step, but I’ll never again use them to remove full layers of paint from a piece. Don’t make my mistakes!

I hope you found this useful! If you did, please go ahead and save it to Pinterest so you can find it again later!

Learn the best way to remove paint from your project! Chemical paint strippers, heat guns and sanding are all discussed! #diy #homeimprovement

How to Strip Paint With a Heat Gun
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