How to Remove Varnish From Wood? (3 Methods)

Varnish is applied to protect a wooden piece from scratches, pest damage, and dents. But to refinish the wood, you need to remove the varnish first. So how do you do this?

You can remove varnish from wood by sanding the finish off with medium-grit and fine-grit sandpaper. Rubbing the sandpaper against the wood varnish will wear the varnish coating till it disappears from the wood.

You can also strip the varnish off of the wood by using a chemical-based paint stripper or alcohol-based solvent. The stripper or solvent will dissolve the varnish making it lose its bond with the wood.

You should always provide proper ventilation when removing varnish with solvents or chemicals. This helps to prevent a buildup of harmful fumes and toxins in the room.

Can You Remove Varnish From Wood Without Sanding?

Can You Remove Varnish From Wood Without Sanding?

You can remove varnish from wood without sanding. If you don’t want to sand the varnish off of the wood, you can use a solvent, paint stripper, or paint thinner. All of these products have active ingredients in their makeup like alcohol and methylene chloride that dissolves and removes varnish from wood without any sanding required.

Sanding is the most common method of removing polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, and other types of varnishes from wood. However, while sanding removes the varnish, it also leaves behind a messy scene riddled with dust, paint particles, and wood shavings. This makes homeowners wonder if it’s possible to remove the varnish from wood without sanding and dealing with the mess after.

Other methods work asides from sanding and the best is to use a paint stripper. Paint strippers are chemically active compounds that can be applied directly over the varnish. The stripping compound will dissolve the varnish and break down the bond between the varnish and the wood. After a few minutes, you can wipe off the varnish or scrape it off.

You can also use a solvent or paint thinner to remove the varnish. Alcohol-based solvents work to remove some types of varnish. But, paint thinners, especially lacquer thinner removes all types of varnish from wood. So, if you don’t want to sand the varnish off, you can use a paint stripper, thinning compound, or solvent.

However, you should know that none of these alternative methods will leave your wood in as good condition as sanding. While sanding leaves a lot of dust behind, the surface you have sanded become smooth and can be refinished immediately without any extra prep work. Strippers, thinner, and solvents on the other hand won’t make your wood smooth.

Can You Remove Varnish Without Removing The Wood Stain Underneath It?

Can You Remove Varnish Without Removing The Wood Stain Underneath It?

You can remove varnish without removing the wood stain underneath it. To do this, you’ll need to expose the varnish coating to a mixture of lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol.

This will soften the varnish and after a few seconds, you can use #0000 steel wool to remove the lacquer thinner mixture and the existing varnish from the wood. This method will remove the varnish but retain the wood stain underneath it.

Removing varnish without removing the wood stain underneath it is usually a problem. This is because varnish has superior adhesion to other paints. When varnish is applied over a wood stain, the varnish coating penetrates and sticks well to the wood stain making it difficult to remove the varnish without affecting the stain underneath it.

Though difficult, it’s not impossible. You can remove varnish without majorly affecting the stain underneath if you use homemade paint thinner. A mix of lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol will give you a thick varnish remover that is strong enough to remove any varnish but also too thick to penetrate wood quickly.

Since the mixture can’t penetrate wood pores quickly due to its thicker nature, the wood stain underneath the varnish will not be affected. However, you need to remove the mixture and the varnish in a few seconds with #0000 steel wool. If you don’t remove the mixture in time, it will eventually affect the wood stain underneath the varnish.

Next, let’s check out how to remove varnish from wood easily.

How To Remove Varnish From Wood?

Removing varnish from wood isn’t a difficult task and there are several ways to go about it. This guide will reveal the top 3 methods to remove varnish, how they work, and the tools you need for each method.

1. Sanding The Varnish Off

Sanding The Varnish Off

The first effective method to remove varnish from wood is to sand the varnish off. For this method, the abrasive side of the sandpaper will be rubbed against the varnish coating.

This will wear the varnish gradually till it disappears from the wood. The biggest advantage of this method is that it is effective at removing all types of varnish. The disadvantage is that this method is time-consuming and labor-intensive.

To use this method, you’ll need the following tools and supplies:

  • Sandpaper (of different grits)
  • A pair of gloves
  • Rags
  • A vacuum or duster
  • An orbital sander for large surfaces.

Here is how to remove varnish from wood by sanding:

  1. Clean and wipe the varnish to remove dust nibs and grain that can make the sandpaper dull
  2. Attach the sandpaper to the sander if needed. (Start with 150 or 180-grit sandpaper)
  3. Sand the varnish off
  4. Sand again using 300 or 320-grit sandpaper to smoothen the wooden surface
  5. Remove the dust using a vacuum or duster.

Tip: You should use breathing protection while sanding so you don’t inhale the dust.

2. By Using Paint Stripper

By Using Paint Stripper

Another method to remove varnish is to use a paint stripper. Paint strippers are chemical compounds that are dissolved in a solvent. The paint stripper breaks down the bond between the varnish and the wood causing the varnish to swell and separate from the wood.

The advantage of this method is that it is quick as it can remove any type of varnish in minutes. The disadvantage is that chemical-based paint strippers contain caustic agents like methylene chloride which can be bad for you. You should always wear breathing protection and a pair of gloves.

To use this method, you’ll need the following tools and supplies:

  • Paint stripper (chemical-based or water-based)
  • A paint scraper or putty knife
  • Rags
  • Steel wool (#0000 wool pad)
  • A pair of gloves
  • Breathing protection
  • Mineral spirits

Here is how to remove varnish using a paint stripper:

  1. Put on a pair of gloves and breathing protection.
  2. Apply the paint stripper to the varnish.
  3. Wait for a few minutes for the paint stripper to work (the time to wait is usually indicated on the paint stripper container).
  4. When the varnish starts to bubble up, you can scrape the varnish off of the wood using a scraper or #0000 steel wool.
  5. Leftover varnish should be wiped off using rags.
  6. After removing the varnish, you should wipe the wood with diluted mineral spirits to neutralize and remove paint stripper residue.
  7. Put the scraped varnish in a waterproof bag for proper disposal.

Tip: Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using paint strippers.

3. Using Paint or Lacquer Thinner

Using Paint or Lacquer Thinner

The third method is to use paint thinner to remove the varnish. Paint thinners especially lacquer thinners contain active ingredients that help to thin or dissolve varnishes.

The advantage of this method is that it is easy to use. The disadvantage is that paint thinners usually have an offensive odor that can become unbearable if used in large amounts.

To use this method, you’ll need the following tools and supplies:

  • Lacquer thinner (denatured alcohol also works)
  • Rags
  • Plastic putty knife
  • A plastic container
  • A pair of work gloves

Here is how to remove varnish using a lacquer thinner:

  1. Put on a pair of gloves and a face mask
  2. Pour lacquer thinner into a plastic container
  3. Dip a rag into the lacquer thinner to dampen it
  4. Use the damp rag (not soaked) to wipe the varnish repeatedly
  5. Wait for a few minutes
  6. When you start to see changes in the color or appearance of the varnish, scrape it off of the wood using a plastic putty knife
  7. Put the scraped varnish in a waterproof bag for proper disposal.

Other Products You Can Use To Remove Varnish From Wood

Vinegar

Vinegar can be used to remove varnish from wood because the solvent has an acidic makeup. Being a mild acid, vinegar can dissolve and liquefy varnish from wood so it becomes easier to wipe off the varnish.

However, you should know that using vinegar to remove varnish completely will take some time, effort, and lots of vinegar.

This can be a concern to most homeowners as the smell of vinegar isn’t exactly pleasant so using lots of it in your home will give off that pungent smell. As an expert tip, only use vinegar to remove small varnish stains.

Acetone

Acetone can be used to remove or strip fresh varnish from wood but it will struggle with removing cured varnish.

If you just applied a layer of varnish and you are looking to remove it before it cures, acetone will work fine. This is because the varnish is still in its drying stage and at this stage, varnish can be dissolved in an alcohol-based solvent like acetone.

However, if the varnish has cured or is a couple of days old, acetone can’t remove it. You can also use acetone to remove leftover varnish residue on the wood.

Turpentine

Turpentine can remove some types of varnishes from wood like acrylic varnish. But, the solvent will struggle with removing oil-based varnishes like polyurethane. This is because turpentine is not strong enough to dissolve oil-based or multiple layers of varnish.

However, you can use turpentine to soften the varnish coating before using another varnish removal method. You can also soak your painting equipment in turpentine after applying varnish to make cleaning easier and faster.

Mineral Spirits

Mineral spirits will not remove varnish from wood completely because the solvent is not strong enough to dissolve or strip the varnish coating. At best, a bottle of mineral spirits will only soften varnish so it can be scraped off or wiped off using a steel wool or paint scraper.

Mineral spirit is a petroleum-based solvent incapable of removing several layers of varnish. Mineral spirits can only be used as a preparatory tool to soften the varnish before scraping or wiping it off with steel wool. You should also know that using steel wool and mineral spirits to remove varnish from wood usually yields a messy and patchy result.

Bleach

You should never use bleach to remove varnish from wood because bleach is an acidic compound that will etch, discolor, and damage the wood.

Bleach is an acidic product. The product is very effective and will remove varnish almost instantly from wood. However, bleach will remove more than just the varnish.

The acidic content of bleach makes it dangerous to use on porous surfaces like wood. If used, the bleach will damage the wood and make it impossible to repaint the wood because bleach residue is very difficult to remove completely.

White Spirits

You can’t remove varnish completely using white spirits because white spirit is a petroleum-based solvent and as such will struggle with removing waterproof sealants like varnish. However, you can use white spirits to thin, clean, and wipe small varnish stains from wood.

How Soon After Removing Varnish From Wood Can You Repaint The Wood?

You need to wait between 30 minutes and 48 hours after removing varnish from the wood before you can repaint it. This is to give the wood enough time to dry and settle before new paint is applied. The time to wait before repainting the wood depends on the varnish removal method that you used and the condition of the wood after the varnish was removed.

If you removed the varnish by sanding, the wood will be ready for new paint almost immediately. This is because sanding makes wooden surfaces smooth and ready for paint. However, if you used a solvent or paint thinner to remove the varnish, you’ll need to wait longer. This is because the wood needs to dry and you need to remove paint thinner residue from the wood.

Generally, if you used any solvent, chemical, or harsh product on the wood while removing the varnish, it’s advised to neutralize the wood first using mineral spirits. Then leave the wood for at least 24 hours to dry and settle before repainting. However, if you removed the varnish by sanding or scraping, you can repaint the wood in about 30 minutes.

Final Words

In summary, you can remove varnish from wood easily by using any of the methods or products revealed above. But, if you plan on refinishing the wood, sanding is your best bet.

This is because sanding will leave you with a smooth and ready-to-be-finished wooden surface. To remove the varnish without affecting the stain underneath it, use a mild paint stripper and wipe it off quickly before it affects the stain.

Finally, ensure to provide proper ventilation and use protective gear when using chemicals and solvents to remove varnish.

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