If you have an older home with quality cabinets and heavy wood doors, you probably inherited decades of paint. Most times, people paint over existing paint for a touch-up or to change the color, but at some point, the layers of paint become so heavy that you need to strip the paint and start fresh.

You may also be curious what type of wood is under all that paint. If your interior doors and cabinets were made 40+ years ago, you may be surprised to find quality hardwoods under the paint that you could showcase with a light stain. In either of these scenarios, you need to remove the paint from the wood.

Removing paint from wood can be messy and time-consuming. Using the wrong solvent could permanently damage the wood. Breathing the stripping chemical vapors, or getting them on your skin or in your eyes, can be a serious health hazard. Ensure you have the proper personal protective equipment before starting your project.

Stripping the paint from your cabinets or doors might be a project for a professional. If you need assistance or advice, give Select Painting a call. That said, it is possible to DIY a cabinet or door refinishing project. We’ve compiled the following tips for how to remove paint from wood.

Gather Your Materials

Protective Gear

You’ll need a trip to the hardware store to purchase these items.

Protective Gear:

  • Heavy-duty rubber or vinyl gloves that come to the mid-forearm
  • Respirator (appropriate model for any hazardous materials you select)
  • Safety goggles


  • Paint remover (gel form is especially good for vertical surfaces)
  • Paint brushes (get ones with synthetic bristles; foam will deteriorate quickly)
  • Medium sandpaper or sanding block
  • Fine sandpaper or sanding block
  • 2” or 3” scraper in stiff plastic or metal
  • Wire brush
  • Rags
  • Bucket

Don’t skimp on the quality of the protective materials; these are keeping your skin, eyes, and lungs safe during the paint stripping process. You’ll need more rags than you think, especially if there are many layers of paint.

Prep Your Workspace

Set aside several hours to prep, work, and clean up. If you’re doing a large job, such as an entire kitchen worth of cabinets, you may decide to split the work over several days. Breaking the project up into manageable chunks also minimizes your exposure to the chemical vapors.  

  1. Open a window for ventilation.
  2. Lay down tarps or drop cloths to catch any paint clumps.
  3. Remove all hardware from the cabinets or doors, such as screws and nails, doorknobs, brackets, or hinges.
  4. Cover any non-removable, non-wood parts with protective tape.
  5. Put on your gloves, glasses, and respirator.
  6. Carefully read the manufacturer’s instructions on your paint stripper.
  7. Pour an inch or two of the stripper into your bucket.

kitchen cabinets

If you’re stripping kitchen cabinets, you’ll likely want to remove the doors completely and work one at a time from a horizontal surface such as a workbench or sawhorse. Work the doors separately, then concentrate on the cabinet faces and undersides. An advantage of this method is that you can do the paint stripping outside, which minimizes hazardous vapors in your home.

Lay On the Paint Stripper

The first step is applying the paint stripper. Using your bristled paintbrush, liberally daub the stripper onto the wood. Leave for at least 20 minutes. If you’re removing many layers of paint, you may need to leave the stripper product on for several hours, or remove the paint in layers. You’re waiting for the paint to soften, bubble, and peel.

Concentrate on a small section at a time. To work most efficiently, have one section softening while you are scraping the previous.

Scrape Off the Softened Paint

Use your metal or plastic paint scraper at a 30-degree angle from the wood, keeping the scraper flat against the surface. Push away from you in long strokes to scrape up the paint. It will crumble and gloop into a paste atop your scraper.

Drop the globs of removed paint into a disposable container, or onto cardboard that you will dispose of later. Take care not to allow the removed paint (combined with the stripper) to get on your countertops, floor, or clothes.

Scrape Off the Softened Paint

Be gentle as you scrape to keep from gouging the wood. If not all of the paint comes off in a single application, repeat these two steps to soften and scrape additional layers.

Take Care of the Nooks & Crannies

Now that you’ve removed most of the paint from the flat surfaces, you need to concentrate on the raised or recessed panels and any grooves or embellishments. The process is similar: first liberally apply the paint stripper and wait until the paint softens and bubbles. Instead of using the scraper, use the wire brush to lift the paint out of the corners and crevices.

Be sure to use a controlled motion that has just enough force to remove the paint without pushing so hard that you scratch the wood. Use strokes in the same direction, usually up and down. Do not make circular or perpendicular strokes.

Clean Up the Surfaces

Once you have removed all the paint, thoroughly clean the wood with a warm, wet rag. You’ll likely need to rinse the rag in warm water throughout the wiping to remove paint flecks. You may also discover you need to change rags during the process to avoid moving paint chips from one section to another.

Sand It Smooth

Sand It Smooth

Using your medium sandpaper or sanding block, sand the surfaces smooth. Take care to sand every portion of the wood, even hard to reach areas. The way you prepare this surface has a huge impact on where you go from here: painting or staining. You definitely do not want air bubbles, rough spots, or debris in your new coat of paint.

Follow the sanding with the medium sandpaper with a light sanding with your very fine sandpaper or sanding block. Run your hand across the surface, feeling for any imperfections, rough spots, or sticky places. Sand those smooth.

Finally, wipe the surface with another clean, wet rag to remove all sawdust debris.

Let the Pros Handle It

If all this elbow grease with hazardous chemicals seems like a less-than-fun way to spend your weekend, give us a call at Select Painting. Our professionals are ready to help you with ideas, an estimate, a properly executed project, and a thorough clean-up. Refinishing kitchen cabinets is not for the faint-of-heart, but it is possible with patience and practice, or a professional. We’re happy to help.