Older or historic homes are known for being loaded with character — and that often takes the form of ornate woodwork and trim. In addition to the obvious (baseboards, window frames, crown molding), that might also include built-in bookcases, fireplace mantels, and chair rails. But if the wood trim has been covered by paint, that can sometimes detract from its natural beauty and charm, leading you to pursue a paint removal project.
Worth the trouble?
Before tackling this time-intensive task, take a closer look at the style, size, and quality of the trim. Craig Russell, founder and CEO of The English Contractor, a highly rated building company in Cincinnati, Ohio, typically paints trim when doing a historical restoration, where the wood trim is decorative and in good enough shape to be preserved.
If your trim is very unique or ornate and can’t be replicated with the new trim that’s available today, it may be worth the effort to strip and restore. On the other hand, if the trim is relatively simple and along the lines of what you could get off the shelf at your local Home Depot, it may make more sense — from both a time and cost standpoint — to rip and replace.
‘The right thing to do’
And yet….there are a few reasons why, despite the angst of removing paint, you might want it gone.
After years of wear, the paint may have started to fade or peel. Or perhaps you’re restoring an older home with unique custom millwork and want to return it to its classic state.
If you own an historic home, purists would argue that leaving the original wood is simply the right thing to do. As one history buff put it in a woodworking forum: “Once original material is removed, it is gone forever. The truly responsible thing is to remove the paint and save the wood. It will require lots of work and cost to be done safely and properly, but in my opinion, it’s the right thing to do.”
In the dining room shown below, the paint has been removed from the trim to reveal the original woodwork.
If results like these get you excited, tackling this task is possible. It might not be fast or easy, but with some perseverance, expert tips, and the right tools, you can restore your wood trim to its original glory.
Step 1: Check for lead
If your home was built before 1978, the trim’s paint may contain lead, which can pose a myriad of health problems, particularly to young children. To prevent potential lead poisoning when stripping old paint, the EPA recommends testing the paint for lead.
While there are DIY lead testing kits available at your local hardware store or online, the EPA says it’s best to have a certified lead-based paint inspector visit your home to conduct an in-person inspection.
Pro tip: To find an inspector near you, contact the National Lead Information Center.
Once you’ve verified that the paint you’d like to remove is lead-free, you can safely proceed.
Step 2: Gather the tools of the trade
Russell recommends having the following essentials on hand:
- Protective gear: gloves, goggles, and a mask
- Quality paint scraper
- Heat gun
- Chemical paint stripper
- Masking paper and masking tape
- Paint brushes to apply the stripper
- Sanding materials (either 80-grit sandpaper or an 80-grit foam block, which can be easier to grip when using for long periods of time)
Step 3: Prepare the area
- Drape chemical-resistant tarp or other type of protective cloth over the floor and furniture.
- Cover the areas surrounding the trim with thick masking paper, cardboard, or paper bags.
- Open all windows and maximize airflow by turning on any ceiling fans and making sure vents are open.
“Many modern-day paints are low-VOC, but if you’re working to remove old paint, it’s likely high-VOC, in which case you’ll need to be more careful,” says Kunz.
Step 4: Apply paint stripper
If you’re using a chemical paint stripper to remove old or stubborn paint, safety is key. Make sure the room is well-ventilated, and wear gloves, eye protection, and a mask.
You can find non-toxic paint strippers on the market that aren’t as dangerous for the user or the environment, but they tend to not be quite as effective, so it takes longer to use them and might involve some more elbow grease.
Apply the paint stripper as evenly as possible using a natural bristle brush. (Avoid plastic bristles, as they will melt when they’re dipped into the paint stripper.)
Cover the freshly applied paint stripper with a heavy-duty plastic trash bag, conforming the plastic to the trim so that the paint stripper is exposed to as little air as possible, recommends Bill Nishanian, owner of Nash Painting in Nashville. Leave the plastic in place for 15 to 20 minutes before removing it.
“Specific instructions will vary by manufacturer, so be sure to follow their guidelines,” says Kunz.
Pro tip: When you choose a paint stripper, stick to the same chemical — Kunz warns that mixing chemicals could cause issues or create a toxic hazard.
Step 5: Scrape off loose paint
The chemical stripper will cause the old paint to loosen and bubble up from the wood. When that happens, use your paint scraper to remove the loose paint. You may need to repeat this process several times, depending on how many layers of paint have been applied and intricacies of the wood trim.
Kunz recommends using a contour scraper, which works for a variety of different-sized areas, so that you won’t need to switch between different scrapers as you work.
With the scraping step, patience is key — especially if you’re trying to preserve wood trim in a historic home. The biggest mistake that Russell sees is people moving too fast and damaging the wood. “It’s easy to over-scrape or gouge the wood,” he says.
Step 6: Remove remaining paint with heat
If stubborn paint remains after several cycles of stripping and scraping, you can try using a heat gun.
As Russell explains, a heat gun is sort of like a high-powered hair dryer. Point it at the paint to heat it enough so that the paint bubbles up and loosens. Once the paint is bubbly, you can again use the scraper to remove the paint.
“With heat guns, you need to make sure that the temperature is hot enough to remove the paint, but not so hot that you end up scorching or burning it,” he says.
Step 7: Sand and wipe down the wood
Once the paint has been removed, use sandpaper to lightly sand down the surface. This will smooth out any uneven spots, which is especially important if you plan to apply stain to the newly paint-free wood. In that case, Kunz also recommends bleaching the wood in preparation for staining, as old paint can sometimes leave a stain or discoloration behind.
Next, wipe down the wood with a clean cloth— an especially important step if you plan to apply any stain to the trim.
Pro tip: In some cases, Russell says you may need to rub down the wood with a chemical neutralizer, mineral spirits, or water.
Successful paint removal starts with patience
Don’t get discouraged if the paint doesn’t come off in the first attempt. Stripping paint from wood trim isn’t a quick or easy process—it may require multiple rounds of stripping, waiting, and scraping. But if you’re working with unique, ornate, or historic trim that can’t be replaced, it may be well worth the time and effort to remove the old paint and reveal the natural beauty that lies beneath.
Header Image Source: (pics721 / Shutterstock)