FYI: this post may contain affiliate links; see my complete disclosure policy here.
So, last week I gave you my favorite tips for painting six-panel doors. Today, we’re going to do the reverse! I’m going to explain how to strip paint off wood doors.
I am going to talk about several ways to strip paint from doors because, let’s face it, I tried all but one of them! (I didn’t dip-strip the doors in a vat of acid – see explanation below, plus duh.) And I want you to learn from my experience of what works and what doesn’t work as well. I also have a larger lesson about DIYing, but I’m going to save that for the end of this post. (You’ll want to stay tuned for that. Or, heck, if you’re impatient, just scroll to the bottom of the post and read it. But then come back here and read all this good paint-removal info, m’kay?)
First, let’s talk about why you would want to strip paint from wood doors. Because you really don’t want to strip paint from anything if you don’t have to! Seriously – it’s not a fun process. And it’s kind of stinky. So, why would you want to strip paint from wood doors?
Why strip paint vs. sanding?
Well, in my case, I didn’t really have a choice. Remember my laundry room doors? Here’s what they looked like before I started working on them:
As with any repainting project, I started by sanding down the doors. I thought that, if I could sand the old paint off or at least enough to create a roughed-up surface, plus smooth out all the drips and globs (see above photo), then I could just repaint after that.
I was wrong.
When I started sanding the doors, the paint started peeling off in sheets!
And you’ll notice that it’s not the gray paint I painted over before, but the coat under that!
What happened was that the underlying coat of gray paint (you can read my post all about the gray doors and trim and how I painted them white here) wasn’t painted properly. I think that the painters (not mine; done before I bought the house) used latex paint over oil paint or didn’t prep the doors properly and, thus, the paint did not adhere.
Since I needed to get the drips and globs out of the underlying coat, and I knew that the sandpaper wouldn’t work to remove the bad areas, I had to take all the layers of paint off. Otherwise, I’d end up with an uneven surface and the paint would look wonky. And the best way to remove all the paint from the wood doors was to use a paint stripper.
Bottom line: Strip paint from wooden doors when sanding won’t work to remove the underlying coat of paint, or if you want to remove as much of the paint as possible.
You might be wondering, if this process is a bit of a challenge, why I didn’t hire someone to strip the paint off the doors? Well, the first painter I called said that this process is so involved that he doesn’t do it anymore; he only puts paint on things! The second guy I talked to said he could do it for $400 PER DOOR. When I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said no thank you and went to the store to buy stripping supplies.
FYI, on the second of the two doors, which was in somewhat better shape than the first door to start with: After the
nightmare experience I had stripping paint from the first door – I ended up sanding it very gently so that I didn’t have to strip the paint off.
Did it work? Well, it didn’t make all the drip marks disappear completely, but now they are barely noticeable (I notice them, but Dear Husband and kids said they don’t) and good enough that I could paint the doors again without stripping the paint off first.
One last note about choices for paint removal: you may have heard of a paint-removal technique called dipping or dip-stripping. That’s where the door (or whatever you’re removing paint from) is dipped in acid to remove all the paint, then the acid is neutralized to create a clean, paintable/stainable surface.
I actually looked into this when the paint-stripping at my house wasn’t going so well. I learned several things:
- It’s hard to find businesses that still do this kind of paint removal. I found one company that still did it, and they didn’t do it onsite at their warehouse. They had a separate warehouse space far away where they did it.
- It’s not cheap. The one company I talked to who said they dip-strip doors said that, even for my smaller laundry room doors, it’d likely be $150 per door to do it.
- It’s not perfect. Yes, it removes the paint. But, according to two wood restoration experts I talked to, the finish of the wood turns a bit fuzzy, and you have to sand them really well to get a smooth, “normal” wood surface after.
OK, so now that you’ve decided to strip paint off your wood doors, what do you need?
Materials Needed to Strip Paint Off Wood Doors
OK, so you may not need ALL of these materials, but these are all the materials that I used and will discuss below. You’ll want to judge, based on how much paint is on your door and how hard it seems to be to remove it, what tools you’ll need for the job. I’ve used affiliate links here so that you can find these materials easily and the small commission I receive from the merchant helps keep me in the paint-stripping business! (Thank you!)
Sandpaper – see below for which grits to use when, but I used 80-grit, 120-grit, and 220-grit paper
Electric sander – when you need some power behind your sanding. The one linked here is the one I have and love. You’ll also need sanding pads for the sander.
Citristrip paint remover – this is the stripping product that I used. It was easy to use, not expensive, and had a decent, not chemical-ish smell.
Paint brush to apply stripper (nothing fancy here)
Bucket or trash bag and can
Brass stripping brush – this is good for getting in the cracks and crevices.
5-in-1 tool – This is such a handy tool, both for stripping paint, but also for so many other DIY projects. Clean a roller cover with the rounded part, scrape out window glazing, scrape paint off just about anything. It’s good to have!
Wet-dry vac (I have this one) – again, this is one of those things that I would recommend owning for all sorts of good uses, not just paint removal. But it’s perfect for sucking up all that sanding dust when you’re sanding the doors.
Safety first! You’ll want safety goggles (these are best for protecting against chemical spills, but I confess that I used construction safety glasses that wrapped around my temples like these). You also need to wear gloves – I used rubber dishwashing-type gloves like these. And a protective mask like this one.
Also, if you don’t know whether the door (or window or trim…) has lead-based paint on it (it’s pretty common on doors and windows before the 1970s), use this lead paint test kit (<– I’ve used that one). If you find that there’s lead paint on what you are stripping, you have two choices: hire a professional to remove the paint or do it yourself, which isn’t easy but can be done. Here is a great article from The Family Handyman on how to do it: https://www.familyhandyman.com/smart-homeowner/home-safety-tips/how-to-remove-lead-paint-safely/view-all/
You also will need paper towels for clean up. And, as I talked about in this post about painting six-panel doors, you may want sawhorses – they make the painting so much easier! I have these adjustable sawhorses and love them.
Once you gather all your materials, it’s time to start removing paint.
Methods for Paint Removal
I would start with the least difficult method first and work your way to the most difficult. If you can remove the paint with sandpaper, you don’t need to go all chemical on it. Also, all of these methods are best done outside – because of the chemicals and the dust created. I worked in my carport with the doors on sawhorses.
Sanding is the easiest way to remove paint. When I started the project to repaint the laundry room doors, my hope was that I could just sand them down to remove the paint drips from the previous paint job(s) and to rough-up the surface before repainting. That didn’t work, sadly, because the paint came off in sheets, meaning I had to remove all of it before repainting or else I wouldn’t have a smooth, even surface for the new paint.
Start with sandpaper and see what you can remove with it. You can use the sheets of sandpaper or a sanding block, although I found the sheets to be better because they’re more flexible – they can get into the grooves of the panels more easily.
As a guide, the lower the grit number, the rougher the sandpaper (and thus the more paint you will remove with it). I started with 80-grit sandpaper, which is super-coarse and takes off paint well. Then I moved to 120-grit, which is less coarse, then 220-grit to finish, which gave me a nice, smooth surface on which to paint.
I put the doors up on sawhorses with a plastic drop cloth underneath to catch dust and protect our carport floor. I run my wet-dry vac as I sand to collect the resulting dust. Also, use a tack cloth or damp rag when you’ve finished sanding to remove dust particles. You don’t want dust in your paint job!
When I realized that sandpaper wasn’t going to cut it here, I switched to my corner cat sander. I love this little guy.
It’s small but mighty (kind of like me – ha!), and its angled head gets into the corners of the panels well. I bought an assortment of pads for it – from 80-grit to 220-grit. It worked well, but didn’t remove all the paint from my doors. And that left me with uneven spots, which, if left that way, would result in a terrible paint job.
Aside from this project, I have found that sandpaper and/or an electric sander will get you a clean finish for repainting. But, when that doesn’t work, it’s time to call in the stripper (the PAINT stripper, silly!).
(2) Chemical Stripper
When sanding won’t work to remove the paint, it’s time to call in the big guns: chemical stripper. I like Citristrip, which you can get on Amazon (linked here and above in materials list) or at your local hardware store. I like it because it works, but isn’t really stinky like hard-core chemical strippers. It does smell citrusy, as it claims.
Spread the stripper on the door with a paint brush. I used an old all-purpose brush that I had already – nothing fancy here since you’re just slathering it on. But don’t use a foam brush! I tried this and it disintegrated once it had the stripper on it!
Once you’ve applied the stripper, let it sit for at least an hour and up to 24 hours. Citristrip says that it will stay wet on the surface for up to 24 hours, and I found that to be true (I tested it, just to make sure!). I would let it sit for longer than one hour if you have several layers of paint to remove. Let it do its thang.
As you can see from the photo, the chemical stripper is causing the paint to bubble up and separate from the wood. You can even see the different layers of paint in the above photo!
Once the stripper has been on the wood long enough to loosen the paint, grab the 5-in-1 tool and start scraping the paint off. Note: the Citristrip label says to use a plastic scraper to remove the paint, so that you don’t scratch or gouge the wood. I tried this, but the plastic scraper just didn’t work. I used the 5-in-1 tool and was careful when scraping.
When scraping the wood, gently nudge the wide blade of the 5-in-1 tool under the loosened paint and scrape it off slowly along the surface of the wood. Do not dig in or you will gouge the wood. (Note: if you do end up gouging the wood, before you prime and paint the door, use a paintable wood filler to fill in the hole and then sand it smooth.)
For the corners of the panels, I used a brass brush to remove the stripper and paint.
You can see how, after the first coat of stripper, there was some stubborn paint in the grooves of the door panel. The brass brush has two sizes of bristles to get the paint out of those crevices.
You can also use the pointy end of the wide blade on the 5-in-1 tool for the corners of the panels, but be careful – it’s easy to gouge the wood!
When the brush or the blade of the 5-in-1 tool becomes loaded with stripper and paint, put the removed paint in a trash bag or container (I used a metal paint bucket while I was working). I later figured out that a good technique is to have a trash bag-lined garbage can under the door (if using sawhorses) to catch what you scrape off.
To remove all the paint from this door, I had to apply the stripper and scrape the paint off three times. Do not expect to get it all off on the first go. If you do, huzzah! But don’t expect that.
Once you are finished with the stripper, wipe the door down with mineral spirits to get all the remaining stripper off. I would also sand it lightly one more time with 220-grit sandpaper, just to ensure you have a smooth surface. Then, run a tack cloth, damp rag, and/or shop vac over it again to make sure all lingering dust is removed.
Once you have a clean door, it’s time to paint! If you are starting from bare wood, you want to apply a good primer first (I love and use this one, from Zinsser), then the paint. That way, you know you’re going to have a good, durable paint job!
Side note: If you wanted to stain, rather than paint, the doors, I would recommend the acid dipping of the door, to make sure you get all the paint off first. As you can see in the photographs, I got most of the paint off the doors and got the surface smooth, but not all of the paint is gone. Since the surface was smooth and I was putting a new coat of paint over the doors, it didn’t matter that there was still some paint left on them. But if you plan to stain wood doors, they need to be completely bare before staining.
The Larger Lesson Learned
I want you to take away from this post not only how to strip paint off wood doors, but something that was incredibly encouraging to me:
Even when a project seems like it’s going south, that it’s not working, that everything is wrong, you might still actually be doing it correctly.
When I was at my most frustrated about stripping the paint off my laundry room doors, I actually called my contractor’s painter, to ask if I was doing it wrong. The painter, who has been a professional painter for more than twenty years, said he thought I was doing it right, but that I could call his friend who restores antique wood to ask for sure.
I called the wood restoration expert and, as he walked me through the options for how to strip the paint off the doors, it was like a checklist of all I had done. He finally said, “Look, you’ve done it correctly. You just have to keep at it.”
Lesson learned. DIY is hard. Stripping paint is no joke. And what makes DIY more difficult is that you don’t always have a professional to call to tell you, “You’re doing this right. Just keep going.”
So, this story is not just a paint removal story, but a story to show that you should have confidence in your abilities and persevere when DIYing. Do your research first, get the right tools, then go – and don’t give up when the going gets tough.
Please let me know if you have any questions about anything here!
This might be a dumb question–but here goes. I just bought a 1940s bungalow in metro Detroit. I thought I could just paint over the lime green doors without doing any sanding, but after reading this post, it doesn’t seem like that is the case. Do you always have to sand doors before painting them? I just want them white, so I was going to do a layer of Killz and a layer of white paint. First DIY project!
Karen Cooper says
Good question! If the paint finish that you are painting over is smooth, then you can lightly sand it (just enough to give the paint something to stick to – lightly sand with 220-grit sandpaper), wipe it down so the surface is dust-free, prime it and paint it without the whole mess I went through. The problem I had was that the original paint job was awful – there were drips and bubbles and peeling paint. I had to get a smooth surface or else they’d just show through on the new paint job. And once I started sanding down the drips and problems, the paint just started peeling off. That was when I realized I’d have to just take all the paint off I could and start fresh. I do NOT recommend doing that unless you have to! It was a mess and took a long time. Good luck! I love that you are doing your first DIY project! That’s awesome!! Please report back – and then you can tell us why anyone would paint doors lime green?!?!? Ha!
Dora Mullis says
When stripping wood French door with 15 glass panels do you also strip each side, bottom and top of paint? The door will be used on patio entrance. I plan to stain and use indoor/outdoor poly. I haven’t been able to find any directions.
Karen Cooper says
If you are going to stain the doors and they currently have paint on them, then yes, you need to sand and strip them clean. Sometimes the paint gets absorbed into the wood and you can’t stain over that (that was the case with these doors, although I had planned to paint them anyway). If you can sand or strip the paint all away, completely, then you can stain them. Hope that helps! Keep me posted!