How to Strip Paint With a Heat Gun
Learn how to strip paint with a heat gun. No chemicals are required, so this is a toxin-free way to remove paint from wood!
I've know since I started my bathroom remodel that I wanted to strip the drawers and doors of the built-ins. The house was built in 1910, and I was betting that underneath all that paint, the original wood was beautiful.
There were three drawers and two doors to strip. The surfaces were all pretty flat, so I was imagining a nice and easy project.
Oh, how wrong I was.
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My initial plan was to use my favorite chemical stripper (CitriStrip) to strip the paint. In my head, this was a nice fast process where I A) applied the stripper, B) scraped off the paint, then C) sanded until smooth.
I've done this many times. In fact, I have an entire post about how to use chemical strippers to remove paint.
Apparently I've never tried this process on 100+ year-old pieces covered in six layers of paint. The Citristrip removed one-ish layers of paint, revealing that I'd need to apply the chemical stripper multiple times in order to get down to the wood.
I didn't have that much time or Citristrip.
So I grabbed a heat gun and went to town. It wasn't that much fun.
In fact, it was quite un-fun. I burned myself four times. I received three blisters. I may have sprained my wrist.
I spent ten hours painstakingly scraping softened paint off of wood. It was tedious and unpleasant, and if you can avoid this process, I'd recommend it.
There are other paint removal methods you can use - I break down the pros and cons of each in this (free!) paint removal methods cheat sheet.
The takeaway, though? If there's another viable paint removal option, you should choose it.
Lets talk about lead paint. If you're working with something old, you should test for lead paint. If there's lead paint, you should hire a pro.
Note: If you choose not to hire a professional and suffer injury or medical consequence, you do so at your own risk and I cannot be held liable.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, you should know that I didn't test for lead, because I was 95% confident it was there.
As an adult living in a house without children, I choose to deal with it myself. Lead is dangerous for everyone, but much more so for kids. I was confident that if I took appropriate precautions, I could remove the paint with minimal danger to myself (or my cat.)
Lead paint has two main ways of entering the body: ingestion and inhalation. Since eating lead paint isn't one of my many hobbies, I was mostly concerned about the latter option.
Stripping paint with a heat gun provides two possible methods for lead to enter the lungs: lead dust and lead vapor. The goal of all my safeguards was to minimize these two possibilities.
Here's what I did:
- Wear a high quality respirator. More than a paper dust mask, friends. You want the real thing.
- Keep the heat gun on the lower setting. The internet is somewhat conflicted about the vaporization point of lead - the sources I read placed it between 752 degrees Fahrenheit and 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Either way, by keeping my heat gun on the lowest setting, it was unlikely my paint would reach that temperature.
- Place all scraped paint directly into a trash bin. When the paint is initially scraped off the wood, it is warm, soft and sticky, not inclined to turn into dust. But once the paint cools, it becomes brittle. If you step on it, it'll break into 100 small, dusty pieces. By keeping things neat, I was reducing the amount of lead paint that might ultimately get into the air.
- Immediately vacuum any dried paint pieces. Like above, the cleaner my work space, the less lead dust can get into the air. I kept my shop-vac plugged in sitting next to me the whole time.
- Immediately wash all worn clothes. The first thing I did when I finished each day was throw my clothes in the washing machine. That way, any dust that had settled on them was washed away before it could contaminate my home.
Obviously, while these precautions minimized my exposure, I'm sure I was still exposed to some lead. Since there is no known level of safe lead exposure, for a completely risk-free project you should hire a pro.
- High Quality Respirator
- Heat Gun
- Putty Knife
- Trash Bin
- Orbital Sander and Sandpaper
Removing Paint: Heat Gun Method
Step 1: Warm Paint
Hold the heat gun an inch or so away from the paint , and move it around a small area until the paint begins to bubble. This may take a couple seconds.
I never really had any issue with the wood burning, maybe because I had the heat gun on the lower setting. Either way, moving the heat gun around prevents that from happening.
Step 2: Scrape Paint
Using the paint scraper, scrape the paint off of the wood. For me, this took a little bit of force, although maybe you'll be luckier and your paint will slide right off.
I found it worked well to keep the heat gun applying heat with my left hand while I scraped with my right. That way, the paint didn't start cooling until after I'd removed it from the wood.
Obviously, as you're scraping try to avoid gouging the wood. Honestly, though, I definitely nicked it a couple times. They sanded out easily at the end though, so I didn't really consider this a big deal.
Step 3: Repeat
This method is definitely not quick, but numerous podcasts later I finished the job.
Step 4: Sand
Once I got most of the paint off the wood, I sanded it smooth. I started with 40 grit, then worked my way up to 240 grit sandpaper.
Sanding removed any stubborn bits of paint, and smoothed out my wood for painting.
Note that this did mean that some paint dust got into the air. I wore my respirator, and crossed my fingers that the small amount that was still stuck to the wood wasn't enough to be seriously harmful.
What is the best heat gun for paint removal?
I used this heat gun, but honestly, I don't think it really matters as long as it applies heat.
They do sell infrared heat guns that are specifically meant for stripping paint. They're even safe to use with lead paint, since they operate well under the vaporization point.
However, they're super expensive, so I can't recommend purchasing one unless you have a ton of paint to remove.
Do I have to sand? How do you remove paint without sanding?
I sand thoroughly after any method of removing paint, since I only bother to remove paint when I plan to stain the wood afterward. I find it much easier to sand away any remaining paint (or stripping agent, in the case of chemical paint removers,) than keep stubbornly attempting to remove it another way.
I suppose you could skip sanding at the end if you're planning to repaint the piece. But in that case, why would you strip it in the first place?
What setting on my heat gun should I use?
I used the lowest setting, which was 750 degrees Fahrenheit, since I was concerned about vaporizing any lead in my paint. However, you might be able to go higher if you're sure there's no lead in the paint.
The key is to experiment with the heat gun, and find a setting that softens the paint without burning your wood (or starting a fire!)
The heat gun is not removing the paint! Help!
This has never happened to me, but the first thing I'd try is turning up the heat on my heat gun. If you're already confident it's hot enough (on a setting over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit,) then I'd move on to another method of stripping paint.
While this was a long, tedious process, I thought the finished built-ins looked wonderful!
And while it took forever, it was a simple enough process that I could listen to podcasts while I worked. I'm certainly all caught up now!
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