Expert Answers: Safer Wood Strippers

How do you remove paint or varnish from wood without harming the environment? HANDY has the answer.

Q: Do you know of a wood stripper that is environmentally safe and removes paint in one application? - Veronica Smith, Burkburnett, TX

A: In the past, paint and varnish removers were fast and effective but environmentally nasty. They contained highly flammable, malodorous and toxic solvents such as methylene chloride, toluene, benzene, naphthalene and acetone, which require users to work in well-ventilated areas; don protective gloves, eyewear and respiratory gear; collect all waste in metal containers (because they can dissolve plastic); and follow special disposal precautions.

But during the past decade manufacturers have developed more ecologically friendly strippers such as Franmar Soygel and 3M Safest Stripper Paint and Varnish Remover. Described as nontoxic with no strong fumes, these strippers are water-base, nonflammable and biodegradable. However, users should still work in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves and eye protection.

Eco-friendly strippers take longer to work than methylene chloride strippers, and some products dry out before they’ve fully done the job. You can combat this problem by applying the stripper and then covering the area with plastic to retain moisture long enough for the stripper to finish working, which can take 24 hours. Sometimes one coat is enough, but be prepared to apply another coat or two to remove all of the old finish.

Even if you use an eco-friendly stripper, keep in mind that the residue may contain lead-base paint, so don’t throw it in your household trash. This is a hazardous waste, and you must check with local health and safety officials about the approved method of disposal in your area. - HANDY