Sanding Vs. Stripping Paint: Which is Better?

Early in my DIY career, I wondered if it was better to sand or strip paint. Then, I learned that lesson the hard way.

It is faster, easier, and safer to strip paint than to sand it. Sanding takes longer, can be harsher on the wood, and in the case of some paints, spreads dangerous particles into the air.

See this table?

White painted table

I thought it’d be an easy project. I didn’t have any stripper, but I did have a belt sander, which I thought would make quick work of the paint. Let me show you what happened.

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Sanding Paint Off Requires More Time

I grabbed my belt sander and a 36 grit sandpaper belt, and got to work.

It was great for a minute. Look at how successful I was:

White table with chipped paint

I kept sanding, replacing the sandpaper whenever it was clogged.

After two 36-grit belt replacements, I had this:

Table with very chipped paint

Do you see all that gray? That’s the various layers of paint, melted together.

Yes. The belt was moving so quickly, instead of sanding the paint, it melted it, making a sticky mess on my table.

I could’ve kept going, but I didn’t have 10 sandpaper belts sitting around to do the job for me, and that (and 4 more hours) are probably what it would’ve taken.

Instead, I used this (certified unsafe, bad idea, do not do this) contraption:

Wire brush on angle grinder

It’s a wire brush attached to an angle grinder. Since this was early in my DIY days, my dad did not allow me to handle it because it can take a massive chunk out of your arm in about half a second.

Here he is, attempting to remove the paint:

Person sanding with wire brush

(Also, we 100% should’ve been wearing masks. One of those many paint layers was probably lead.)

After another hour of wire brush sanding, and then some more belt sanding, we had this:

Sanded tabletop

I cannot express how frustrating this project was. I sanded for hours, making little progress and clogging sandpaper belts left and right.

We had to bring in an angle grinder brush thing, and it still wasn’t fast.

It’s been 4 years since I’ve done this project, and it still makes me grimace.

I’m going to give you more reasons in a second, but trust me. Even for seemingly-easy flat surfaces, it’s better to strip paint than sand it.

Stripping Paint Is Safer

I know what you’re thinking – paint stripper is full of dangerous chemicals.

Yes it is. So is paint.

And when you sand paint, you throw a bunch of tiny paint particles into the air for you to breathe in.

This is especially dangerous if your paint is lead paint. My foolish younger self probably poisoned myself with that table, because one of those many layers of paint was almost certainly lead.

Even being outside, I shudder when I think how naive I was about safety back when I did that project.

Paint stripper, on the other hand, is full of dangerous chemicals, but you’re using it the way it was intended to be used.

Follow the directions, and it’s perfectly safe.

I’ve also found that Citri-Strip is more human-friendly than the other brands. I usually use Citri-Strip, then tried another brand on this grandfather clock just for fun. Imagine my surprise when the paint stripper lands on my hand and starts burning a few seconds later.

So I went back to Citri-Strip, which smells like oranges and doesn’t burn your skin. Win. I use it on all of my furniture projects, including these nightstands, this dresser and this chair.

Stripping Paint Is Easier

If you’ve had a bad experience with paint stripper, I hear you. I have too.

But there is one secret that makes it really easy.

Plastic wrap.

I know. Weird. But if you wrap the paint stripper in plastic wrap while it works, it won’t dry into a sticky mess.

Citristrip on painted nightstand

Given you do that, stripping is 1000 times easier than sanding.

I have a whole post on my paint stripping process, detailing the plastic wrap tip and how to deal with the paint stripper residue after over here.

Go take a look, especially if you’re now realizing that yes, you would much rather strip paint than sand it!

Stripping Paint Is Better For the Wood

Lets go back to my terrible table project. I mentioned it took forever. I mentioned it was frustrating.

Did I mention that in my desperation, I may have sanded against the grain?

Hmm, well. I did. As you can see from the final result:

Raw wood table top

See all those sander marks? Yeah, not my finest project.

If you strip paint instead of sand it, this isn’t an issue at all. You do have to be careful not to gouge the wood when you’re scraping off the paint stripper, but as long as you use a plastic putty knife and not a metal one, you’ll be fine.

When You Might Want to Sand Paint

I have largely refrained from doing a pro-con comparison of stripping paint and sanding paint, because to me, there just is no comparison.

Using paint stripper is better than sanding, because sanding paint, even with a good sander, is such a time-consuming and frustrating process.

Every single time I’ve opted to sand paint, I regret it. Most of the time, I end up going “oh, yeah, this is dumb,” and grabbing the paint stripper.

But maybe, if you’re in one of these situations, you might want to sand.

You Can’t Afford Paint Stripper

Compared to sandpaper, paint stripper is expensive. At posting, a quart of Citri-Strip costs $13 at Home Depot, and I pretty much use an entire one of those containers per furniture project.

Sandpaper is probably something you have on hand, and even if you don’t, mega-packs on Amazon are very affordable.

There Is Only a Little Bit of Paint

Okay, so maybe you’re trying to strip the paint off of something small. Less than 5 inches in diameter. You don’t even have to move the orbital sander.

Then I’d probably sand. Breaking out the paint stripper would be a lot of time and effort for something that could be sanded in 15 minutes (only because it’s small!)

That’s it.

Literally, that’s it. Those two times are the only times I would sand paint instead of using paint stripper.

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