How to Remove Varnish From Wood? (3 Methods)

Varnish protects wood from scratches, pest damage, and dents. But, after a while, varnish gets old and must be removed. So, how to remove varnish from wood?

You can remove varnish from wood by sanding the finish off. Or by using a chemical-based paint stripper or alcohol-based solvent. 

You can rub the sandpaper against the wood until the varnish wears off and disappears from the wood. Or, if you use a solvent, the chemical-based solvent will dissolve the paint particles of varnish and allow you to wipe it off. 

However, this is just a snippet. We have included everything you need to know about stripping varnish from wood. Check it out. 

Alternative Ways To Remove Varnish Without Sanding

Can You Remove Varnish From Wood Without Sanding?

You can remove varnish from wood without sanding. But, you must use a solvent, paint stripper, or paint thinner. These products have active ingredients in their makeup like alcohol and methylene chloride that dissolves and removes varnish 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 leaves dust, paint particles, and wood shavings behind. This makes homeowners wonder if it’s possible to remove the varnish differently.

Aside from sanding, the best way to strip varnish from wood is to use a paint stripper. Paint strippers are chemically active compounds that dissolve the varnish by breaking the bond between paint particles and liquefying varnish. After a few minutes, you can wipe off the varnish or scrape it off.

Paint thinners and alcohol-based solvents can remove varnish too. Paint thinner, especially lacquer thinner, removes all types of vanishes from wood. So, if you don’t want to sand the varnish off, you can use a paint stripper, thinning compound, or solvent.

However, no alternative methods will leave your wood in good condition as sanding. While sanding leaves a lot of dust, the surface you have sanded becomes smooth and can be refinished immediately without any extra prep work. Strippers, thinner, and solvents won’t make your wood smooth.

Removing Varnish Without Removing Paint Underneath It

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

You can remove varnish without removing the wood stain (or paint) underneath it. To do this, apply a mixture of lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol to varnish. The mixture will soften varnish, and after a few seconds, use a #0000 steel wool to remove the mixture and the varnish from the wood. This method will remove the varnish but retain the wood stain underneath it.

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 must 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 affect the wood stain underneath the varnish.

How To Remove Varnish From Wood?

There are different methods you can use to remove varnish from wood. Here are the top 3 methods:

1. Sand The Varnish Off

Sanding The Varnish Off

Sanding varnish off wood is the most effective 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 sanding is that it removes all types of varnish. The disadvantage is that sanding 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 sand varnish off wood:

  1. Clean and wipe the varnish to remove dust nibs and grain that can make the sandpaper dull.
  2. To sand varnish off use, use 180-grit sandpaper.
  3. Attach the sandpaper to the sander.
  4. Sand the varnish off.
  5. Sand again using 300 or 320-grit sandpaper to smoothen the wooden surface.
  6. Remove the dust using a vacuum or duster.

Tip: You should use breathing protection while sanding.

2. By Using Paint Stripper

By Using Paint Stripper

Paint strippers are chemical compounds dissolved in a solvent; the solvent 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 won’t leave the wood smooth. 

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 strip varnish from wood using a paint stripper:

  1. Put on gloves and breathing protection (VERY IMPORTANT!).
  2. Apply the paint stripper to the varnish.
  3. Wait a few minutes for the paint stripper to work (The wait time is indicated on the paint stripper container).
  4. When the varnish starts to bubble up, scrape the varnish off the wood using a scraper or #0000 steel wool.
  5. Wipe off the leftover varnish with a rag.
  6. After removing the varnish, 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

Paint thinner or lacquer thinner can remove varnish. Lacquer thinners contain active ingredients that help to thin or dissolve varnishes.

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. (IMPORTANT!)
  2. Pour lacquer thinner into a plastic container.
  3. Dampen a rag with lacquer thinner. 
  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.

How Soon Can You Re-paint Wood After Removing Varnish?

You must wait 24 hours before re-painting wood after removing varnish from it. However, the wait time depends on the removal method you used. 

If you removed the varnish by sanding, the wood will be ready for new paint 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 must wait 24 hours. This is because the wood needs to dry and you need to remove paint thinner residue from the wood.

Generally, if you use solvent or chemical products on the wood while removing varnish, you must 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.

Other Products You Can Use:

Vinegar

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

However, using vinegar to strip varnish from wood completely will take time, effort, and lots of vinegar. This can be a concern because vinegar has a bad odor. So, only use vinegar to remove small varnish stains,

Acetone

Acetone can remove fresh varnish from wood, but it will struggle with cured varnish.

If you accidentally applied varnish and want to remove it, 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 acrylic varnish from wood. But, it won’t remove oil-based varnish, such as 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 won’t remove varnish 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. Therefore, mineral spirits can only be used as a preparatory tool to soften the varnish before scraping or wiping it off with steel wool. However, 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. That’s because bleach is an acidic compound that will etch, discolor, and damage the wood.

Bleach is an acidic product. It’s an effective product and will remove varnish almost instantly from wood. However, bleach will remove more than just the varnish. The bleach will damage the wood and make it impossible to repaint because bleach residue is difficult to remove completely.

White Spirits

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

Final Words

Stripping varnish from wood is easy if you use a proper method. But, if you plan on refinishing the wood as fast as possible, sanding is your best bet. 

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, provide proper ventilation and use protective gear when using chemicals and solvents.

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