How To Remove Varnish From Wood Easily – DIY Guide

Varnish and other sealers are used on wood to keep the wood protected from scratches and scrapes and stay beautified. Now, you want to change the colors of this piece of furniture or have gotten tired of a surface’s amber color, and you’ve decided to remove it entirely and apply a new sealer.

The easiest way is to apply denatured alcohol and thinners. Some finishes are alcohol-based, and to remove them, all you need is to rub them with a cloth damped with alcohol or thinner. A few minutes after you’ve done this, use a putty knife to scrape it away.

However, this works only mainly on shellac and lacquer. In other options like oil-based, you may find this not so useful. So for this, there are three ways I’ll take you through it today.

  • How to Remove Varnish with varnish strippers.
  • How to remove Varnish with DIY Varnish remover.
  • How to remove Varnish with Sandpaper.

How To Remove Varnish From Wood Easily

For any way you might intend to remove your Varnish, the first thing to keep In mind is preparing your wood and keeping your area in mind whether you’re sanding or using solvents.

Create Ventilation

For any method you want to use, you might need to open your windows and doors, and if possible, you can do this outdoor. But if you can’t move your furniture out to clean, you can create cross ventilation using two fans. You position a fan, so it is blowing to your work area, and then you position the other blowing towards your window. This will help against the fumes of a lot of solvents.

Secondly, use a nose cover. Yes, you need some kind of protection. If you’re sanding, you’d need a dust mask to prevent you from inhaling dust. You know what that can cause. You also need gloves for when you handle sandpaper, so you don’t scratch your knuckles. And for someone using solvents, you’d need a respirator mask, google, rubber gloves, long clothing with long sleeves.

Nowadays, though, some producers boast of replacing the chemical content in the solvents with something less hazardous, and they don’t very much irritate the skin as they used to be, but prevention is better.

How to remove Varnish by Sanding the Varnish

The first and most common effective way of removing a Varnish is by sanding. Though in some cases- for wood with heavy thick Varnish- standing alone may not be enough when you’d have to use a solvent, but it works a lot. 

When you want to sand your surface, there are specific measures you have to take to have the best outcome.

Consider your sandpaper

Are you going to be sanding a flat surface like a floor? For this, you will need orbital sandpaper. It works better and will make your work easy. But for other surfaces, use a sanding block. It is better and safer than holding the sandpaper in your hand. You may need to know what grit sandpaper to remove Varnish from wood? Begin your sanding with 150 grit sandpaper. Sand across the surface following the direction of the grain. This would remove the soft and top part of the Varnish.

After you’ve gone over the piece with 150-grit paper, move up to a 220-grit next. This would help you remove even the hardest of Varnish. Rub over the whole wood. And then use a damp rag to clean off the dust. You’d see the surface now would be smooth, and the protection would wear off. And you’ve successfully removed Varnish. Just as easy!

Read Also: How to Apply Polyurethane Without Bubbles

How to Remove Varnish From Wood Using solvents (Varnish Strippers)

This is arguably the easiest way to remove Varnish, but it comes with a lot of downsides. You have to consider the chemicals and fumes these solvents emit. They can be hazardous. Though many producers nowadays have claimed to reduce or eliminate the use of such chemicals in production, you will still need some protection. Some products have, even by way of removing chemicals, reduced the effectiveness of the solvent. And what matters most? Is it safe or effective? What’s the use of safety when it’s not going to work?

Moreover, Even if an effective chemical says it’s safe, it’s safer to wear gloves, eye, and respiratory protection. Getting too much of these safe chemicals absorbed through your hand and inhaled too much can be harmful to your health.

Before You Buy A stripper…

There are a few things to consider before you buy a stripper.

  1. There are two types of strippers. Solvent-based strippers and caustic based.
  2. Solvent-based strippers are best for outdoors because of their smell and the chemicals they emit.
  3. Caustic based strippers are better options. They smell less and can dig into the thick hard surface of Varnish. However, caustic based strippers can at times evoke the presence of tannins in certain woods like old oak and mahogany, which may cause staining or scorching.

Your choice now depends on what you find bearable enough. You can use solvent-based if you find the wood may already be prone to tannins. But if it has a hard vanishing, and you’re sure it isn’t

So, now you’ve chosen a preferred varnish stripper. The next step is not to apply it but to go to the bottle’s back and read the instructions. Yes, you need to read it as there is something that might mar your application. Moreover, their instructions do vary. You need to know its wait time. Some products would be soaked on the surface for only a few minutes, while some can take up to hours, while some require you use a brush while others don’t mind whatever you use.

Now, after you’re familiar with its application style and precautions, you can proceed to prepare the area. As I said earlier, you’ll need cross ventilation. It’s okay for outdoors, the fumes would diffuse and disappear, but for indoor, create adequate ventilation.

Prepare the area. Lay dust sheets underneath and around the wood you’re stripping.


With coarse sandpaper, prepare the surface of the wood. Though you are using a solvent, it is better to sand the surface down. This will help the solvent penetrate better. I would recommend 40-70 grit sandpaper for this purpose.

Apply The Stripper.

Generally speaking, what you need is an old brush to apply the solvent. But, you need to check the instructions on the label. You don’t know the manufacturer’s opinion on how to use it. Apply the stripper on the whole surface you want to remove. Rub it once. All the crook and cranny


The next step, too, is dependent on the manufacturer’s specifications. You will need to wait for the Varnish to absorb the stripper for at least a couple of minutes. With some solvents, it can be as long as 2 hours. With others, it may be as little as 20 minutes. But anyway, you’ll have to be patient.

Now, get a ball of fine steel wool to pull off any residue left. Remember, too, to go with the grain of the wood. If you can’t get good steel wood, you can scrape it off. A putty knife or a scraper should be enough to remove the Varnish.

But note, if you wait longer than the required time, the Varnish will dry, and that’s a doable task for you! But with the right time and tool, off the Varnish goes.

Making A DIY Varnish Stripper

Looking at the danger, a stripper poses to your health. We have come with a preferable formula to help you clean off your wood easily. It is straightforward to make and less hazardous.

Here are the materials you’d need for this DIY project.

  • 1 cup of corn starch
  • 1/2 cup of cold water.
  • Three cups of washing soda.
  • 1/2 cup of ammonia
  • 1 tbsp of vinegar.

Mix 1 cup cornstarch and 1/2 cup cold water in a bowl. Add 1 quart boiling water, 3/4 cup washing soda, 1/2 cup ammonia, and 1 Tablespoon vinegar. Mix all these.

Now, with a brush, apply this mixture while it’s hot. The heat will enhance the speed of the stripper. If the mixture gets cold, you can rewarm it.

 After Varnish loosens, wash off with hot water and a cloth. If you don’t already have soft water, add a softening agent to the rinse water. Then clean the surface with a dry rag. This will work better. Trust me But also, be careful with the hot water. Don’t scald yourself in the process.

Conclusion How To Remove Varnish From Wood Easily – DIY Guide

I don’t know which one you’d prefer or which one you’d take as the easiest. For me, the easiest is the fundamental way of using denatured alcohol and thinner. But we can’t apply this to all situations finishes.

As for the safest way, I prefer sanding. It has minimum precautions and will work faster based on how much energy you give to it. And after this, I’d choose the tested and trusted DIY. But try it out, and let’s have your opinion.

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