Removing old varnish from wood trim. Old House Remodeling:

Stripping Old Varnish From Hardwood Trim


In This Article:

One hundred year old varnished oak trim is coated with paint stripper, scrubbed and rinsed.

Related Articles:

Skill Level: 2 (Basic)

Time Taken: A Couple Of Hours

By , Editor


There are many different chemicals available for removing old varnish. There are synthetic stripping products that contain volatile petrochemicals such as methylene chloride. But methylene chloride is a known carcinogen, and using it safely requires lots of ventilation and protective gear.

There are also varnish strippers made from natural products. Believe it or not, paint stripper can be made from oranges (orange peels, I think). Citristrip is one such product, and it is sold widely. We have been buying half-gallon jugs of Citristrip at Home Depot for about $16. Citristrip is more expensive than petrochemical-based stripper, but it's well worth the extra.

Of course Citristrip smells like oranges. At first I though mmm, that's nice, but after using this stuff for a couple of hours I started to hate the smell of oranges.

While using Citristrip indoors may be safe, we prefer to work outdoors, mainly because rinsing the boards is easier outdoors.

In a shady area in front of the garage, we set up this table top on a pair of saw horses.

This table top is upside down, so the 2x2 frame will keep the liquid from spilling over the edge.


We clamped a piece of 3 foot wide plastic to the table top. This should keep the stripper from soaking into the wood.


We set up a pair of saw horses with an old aluminum ladder laying on top.

This will serve as the rinse rack.


We poured some Citristrip into a quart plastic paint pail and began brushing the liquid on the trim.

It's important to wear chemical resistant gloves when using any paint stripper. Even though Citristrip is made from a natural product, it will give your skin a chemical burn. Do not use ordinary latex gloves... they will fall apart when exposed to paint stripper.

Brushing paint stripper on old wood trim to remove varnish.


For best results, Citristrip needs to be applied in a thick layer.


We applied Citristrip to several pieces at a time.


After a few minutes the surface starts to look bubbled.


Citristrip seems to dry out quickly, especially when we do this outdoors.

To keep the stripper wet, we use a small garden chemical sprayer to spray a light mist of rubbing alcohol on the trim. Denatured alcohol seems to work even better, but it costs MUCH more than rubbing alcohol.


The Easy Part: Break Time

We let the stripper sit for about 15 minutes.

Citristrip works slower at cooler temperatures (i.e. below about 70 degrees) so the amount of waiting needs to be increased.

But... the Citristrip will dry out faster at higher temperatures or in breezy weather, so the trim will need to be "spritzed" with alcohol to keep the surface wet.

We always do varnish stripping in the shade because Citristrip evaporates way too fast in direct sunlight.

I suppose you could cover the surfaces with plastic to prevent drying, but that will create another cleanup issue. We've had good results simply spraying alcohol to keep the stripper fresh.


Scrubbing Wood Trim To Remove The Old Finish:

This is a 3M scrubbing pad sold for the purpose of stripping paint and varnish.


Scrubbing paint stripper. After about 15 minutes, we tested the scrubber on the trim. The old varnish readily dissolved, so we knew it was time to scrub.


Sometimes a plastic scraper was needed to remove a ridge of varnish or a glob of paint.


There were some thick varnish spots (especially where a piece of small trim had been removed) so we had to apply some more Citristrip to a few areas.

And of course, this needs to be given time to work.


It's also important to scrape the sides and back of trim, even if those sides were hidden originally. Varnish often oozes behind boards, and the Citristrip will certainly get drip onto the back edge, leaving a semi-soft goop that will interfere with the stain and urethane later on.


Rinsing The Paint Stripper:

Rinsing paint stripper with a garden hose. We placed a piece of trim on the old ladder and sprayed it with hot water while scrubbing with an ordinary plastic-bristle household scrubbing brush.

This takes two hands, so sometimes it helped to clamp the board to a rung of the ladder.


It really is necessary to use hot (or at least warm) water to rinse Citristrip. We have used cold water from a garden hose, only to have the stripper turn to a thick gooey mess.


Most houses have an easy way to get a garden hose connected to hot water... it's called a washing machine connection. It's easy if you can reach the hose, that is. Make sure you turn off the water before disconnecting the washing machine hose.

It's also possible to connect a hose to the drain valve on a water heater, but I've seen many instances when sediment plugged up the drain valve.

Note that garden hoses are not meant for handling hot water, but I've never had a problem using hot water in a garden hose for just a few hours. If you use a garden hose for the hot water connection on a washing machine, you will probably have a burst hose eventually.


This device is called a Water Thief. It allows a garden hose to be connected to an unthreaded faucet.

I bought this at an RV supply store for $5.



After rinsing, we laid the trim out in the sun to dry.

We used a utility trailer, but anything will work... lawn chairs. a picnic table, the back of a truck, etc.


After the wood had dried, there were still a few small spots of varnish (those dark spots). These are easy to remove with a scraper or sandpaper.


Further Finishing:

After wood has gotten wet the grain usually becomes raised and rough-feeling. We always sand the trim after it has dried. We scrape off any globs of paint, varnish or stripper that remain on the back or sides. This sanding can be done with a progression of sandpaper grits, such as 100 grit followed by 150 and 220.


A Time Consuming Project?

Stripping old varnish can be time consuming if the work conditions are not ideal. I have stripped paint and varnish indoors, using a bath tub to rinse the wood, and found the whole process to be painfully time consuming.

By working outside where there is lots of room, and creating an assembly line process of applying stripper, scrubbing, rinsing, and drying, we were able to remove all the varnish from the trim in a dining room in about three days, mostly done by one person.


Stripping Wood On The Wall

For many people stripping the old paint or varnish while the trim remains on the wall is the only viable method. We removed the trim because we demolished the entire room and replaced the plaster with drywall. But some items, like door jambs, were left in place.

Stripping trim in place is an entirely different ball game. I doubt many people would want to use a garden hose to rinse their trim. Citristrip Paint Remover Wash is a product meant for rinsing Citristrip when it can't be hosed down. After the stripper goop is scraped off the wash is applied (the small garden sprayer could be used) and rubbed off with paper towels. But afterwards I still rinsed the wood with rubbing alcohol, just to be sure I removed all the stripper.

If a small spot of stripper remains on the wood, and later a coat of urethane is applied, that spot will NEVER harden properly, so it's important to be thorough.




Tools Used:

  • Chemical Resistant Gloves
  • Paint Brush
  • Abrasive Paint Stripping Pad
  • Scrub Brushes
  • Small Chemical Sprayer
  • Garden Hose and Sprayer
  • Saw Horses, Table Top

Materials Used:

  • Citristrip
  • Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol

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Written April 9, 2005