icon How to Get Paint Off Wood Trim: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Get Paint Off Wood Trim: A Step-by-Step Guide

With spring in the air, you feel inspired to liven your home’s interior.

You plan to apply a fresh layer of paint to the walls and revitalize the natural wood color of your old trim. The challenge you face is there are decades of paint layered on your trim and a few doors.

Woman removing trim paint from a window.

Before you can start repainting or staining, you’ll need to learn how to get paint off wood trim. This is a delicate process that if done wrong, you could end up damaging the wood.

Fortunately, learning how to remove layers of paint can be an easy and straightforward process. You can learn how to carefully remove old paint or unwanted paint spots from your trim. By following this helpful guide, you can safely remove old paint from your classic trim.

Collect Your Tools and Materials

The very step is to collect the proper tools. You don’t want to be in the middle of a paint-removing project and have to run to your local hardware store.

Scraping and stripping paint can be a hazardous process. Depending on the age of your house, some layers of paint may contain lead. Dust and fumes from paint remover will get into the air and can irritate your lungs.

Having the right tools and protective gear will make the job easier and safer. Before you begin, you’ll need:

  • Protective goggles or glasses
  • Work gloves
  • Face Mask
  • Drop Cloth
  • Rags
  • Damp cloth
  • Natural bristled paintbrush
  • Mineral spirits or another paint thinner
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Scraper
  • 80 and 120 grit sandpaper
  • Heat gun or hairdryer
  • Painters tape
  • Wood bleach
  • Fresh paint or stain

If you’re removing fresh paint spots from your interior trim, you may not need all of these items. The sooner you catch the accident, the easier it will be to remove it. You can remove wet unwanted paint drips by wiping them with a damp cloth.

How To Get Paint Off Wood Trim

The type of paint on your trim may affect the method you use to remove it. The most common types of paints include water-based, acrylic, and oil-based paints. The type of paint you're removing may influence the process. 

1. Prep the Room

Begin by putting on your protective gloves, goggles, and mask. If you haven’t already, lay a chemical-resistant drop cloth near or under the trim you’re planning to strip. The cloth will help catch residue and protect your floor from any spills.

For added protection, consider adding a line of painter’s tape on the wall along the edge of the trim. This will protect your walls from scratches, dents, or any thinning agents.

Close up of hand opening a window

Open a window to allow for ventilation. Paint thinners and mineral spirits contain volatile organic compounds or VOCs. Today’s options may contain lower amounts but they still release toxic fumes.

A benefit of learning how to get paint off wood trim is you can do it here and there as time permits. You don’t need to commit to an entire day’s project.

2. Applying the Paint Stripper

If you’re removing a fresher layer of paint, you’ll need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding what paint stripper works best to soften paint. Acrylic and most water-based paints will thin with denatured alcohol.

Find a hidden spot such as the trim inside a closet to start. This allows you to test your paint stripper and check to see if the bare wood is worth exposing.

Clean brush and metal scraper laying on floor

Use a natural bristled paintbrush to apply a thin layer of denatured alcohol onto the trim. Denatured alcohol is often very thin and will run everywhere if you’re not careful. When the water-based paint softens, you can start scraping it.

What if the paint you’re removing is much older and you don’t know what type it is? Oil-based paints typically won’t react to denatured alcohol. If this is the case, you likely have oil-based paint and will need to use mineral spirits later to soften it.

Scrape the paint while the paint remover is still wet. You’ll need to reapply it if it dries before you begin scraping.

If the oil-based paint is soft enough without the paint thinner, you can carefully start scraping it. Stripping paint with mineral spirits can be hazardous if in contact with your skin. Make sure you’re wearing chemical-resistant gloves.

3. Carefully Scrape the Softened Paint

Once the paint softens, you can use a metal or plastic putty knife to remove the paint. The edge should be dull so as not to damage the underlying wood.

A plastic putty knife is gentler on the wood and the better option for moving fresh paint spots. You may need a metal putty knife or paint scraper to remove older paint.

Close up of a hand with a scraper removing paint from wood

Applying light pressure, carefully start scraping the old paint from the wood. Start light and apply more pressure until you can peel the desired amount to reveal the bare wood. Angle the scraper to prevent it from scraping your walls.

When removing old paint from vertical trim around your doors and windows, scrape downwards. This gives you greater control and prevents you from damming the wood or hurting yourself.

Those working with decorative trim may benefit from a contour scraper. These consist of blades designed to fit the contours of any curve and angle on your trim.

Older homes tend to have multiple layers of old paint on the trim. Keep scraping the old paint until your reach the bare wood.

Dam a rag with paint remover and carefully use it to rub away any remaining paint spots. Try alternating between paint thinner and scraping to remove the tough paint.

4. Use a Heat Gun

Do you prefer to steer clear of paint thinners and toxic chemicals? A tried and true method of removing paint is with heat. A heat gun will soften the paint and make it just as easy to remove as the paint thinner.

Don’t have a heat gun? A common hair dryer will work.

Close up of hands, one is holding a heat gun and another a scraper.  Both are removing paint off door trim.

Set the hairdryer to high heat and blow the hot air onto the paint until softens. Once it’s soft, you can start using the scraper to remove the paint. You may need to continuously add heat as you scrape the paint to keep it soft.

If you find any tough spots, keep applying heat and keep gently scraping them.

5. Lightly Sand the Trim

With the bulk of the old paint layers removed, use sandpaper to remove any other paint spots and clean the surface of the wood trim.  Start with the 80 grit sandpaper or an 80-grit sand block, whichever is easiest for you.

Move the sandpaper or block in the direction of the wood. This offers the best finish and will prevent you from leaving cross-sanding marks. Keep sanding until you remove the last of the residual paint and the wood is no longer rough.

Gloved hand sanding down door trim

Next, switch to the 120-grit sandpaper or sand block. This finer sandpaper will make the wood trim smoother.

For intricately detailed wood trim and rosettes, consider using a handheld rotary tool with a fine-tipped sanding bit. The bit will allow you to sand intricate details you can’t reach with sandpaper or a sand block.

If you choose this route, be cautious and use very light pressure. This tool can damage the wood trim if you’re not careful.

6. Bleach the Wood

Some old paint can stain the wood by leaving behind a slight discoloration. Those who are planning to stain the wood trim will need to bleach the wood to remove any unwanted stains.

Those who plan to paint the trim again won’t need to worry about this discoloration. It shouldn’t affect the final coat of the new paint.

Wood bleaching removes color stains and lightens the wood’s color. The stain you use can darken the wood back to its original color for those with dark wood trim.

Use a wood bleach specifically designed for wood. Regular house bleach will only remove dye-based color and may not remove the residual paint stains.

Apply a small amount of wood bleach to a rag and gently rub it into the wood trim. The bleach may cause the wood grain to rise. If this happens, use the finer sandpaper to smooth it down.

Allow the wood trim to completely dry before starting new stain or paint jobs. When using wood bleach, use the same precautions as you would with paint thinner.

7. Apply Paint or Fresh Stain

Now that your trim’s bare wood is clean and smooth, you can top it with a fresh coat of stain. Follow the manufacturer’s directions to properly apply the stain.

Close up of a man's hand painting trim white.

Have you decided your wood trim isn’t worth saving? You can apply a fresh coat of paint to the trim.

You can now enjoy fresh trim colors in your home.

Bring Your Wood Trim Back To Life

Redesigning the interior of your home is an exciting project you’ll enjoy and love when completed. Learning how to get paint off wood trim safely is a valuable skill you can apply to any future home or furniture restorations.

Not everyone has the time or skills to redesign their home’s interior.

Would you like the help of a professional? Let me know! I would love to help your house become the home of your dreams.

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