The Best Paint and Varnish Strippers We Tested for DIY Furniture Projects

When you buy through our links, Insider may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.

As an experienced DIYer, I love reviving old pieces of furniture that I find at thrift shops and flea markets. A key part of the process is stripping the original finish off of the furniture to get down to the raw wood. Once that's done, I'm left with a clean slate that I can leave as it is, paint, or stain. Water Based Anti Corrosion Paint

The Best Paint and Varnish Strippers We Tested for DIY Furniture Projects

For this review, I put four of the most popular wood strippers to the test: Max Strip, Minwax, Citristrip, and Smart Strip. I used a thrifted nightstand made of solid white oak with an existing oil-based stain. When I look for pieces to restore, I always look for real wood. Wood veneers won't accept any sort of varnish or paint stripper.

My goal was to get the dark brown-orange finish off of the bulk of the piece. I also painted the drawer fronts with latex paint so I could fully test the combination paint/varnish strippers. Each product was tested outdoors in a well-ventilated area and I wore thick rubber gloves and protective goggles. 

There are four different types of paint and varnish strippers. Solvent strippers contain toxic chemicals, caustic strippers are lye-based, biochemical removers contain non-toxic plant-based chemicals, and non-toxic strippers are often water- or alcohol-based.

Some paint strippers are toxic to humans, animals, and the environment, and others have low or no volatile organic compounds (VOC). VOCs can cause everything from eye, nose, and throat irritation to liver, kidney, and nervous system damage and, in some cases, cancer in humans. 

Max Strip's main ingredient is triethyl phosphate and is classified as non-toxic with very low VOCs. Smart Strip is a low-VOC stripper that is water-based and includes benzyl alcohol. Citistrip is alcohol-based (benzyl alcohol) and contains VOCs; it can cause burns if it makes contact with the skin. Minwax is a toxic solvent-based stripper that is also flammable.

We recommend working in a well-ventilated area while using any paint stripper and wearing protective gloves and goggles. If ventilation is inadequate, a respirator will provide additional protection.

The nightstand was finished with an oil-based stain, so I painted over the drawers with latex paint for this review. After the latex cured for a week, I went to work testing out the paint strippers. 

I used a small paintbrush to apply a thick layer of Max Strip to half of a painted drawer front. Because it's a no-drip gel-based product, it wasn't messy and stayed right where I wanted it to.

I used plastic wrap to cover the product during the recommended 30-minute soak time. This prevents the gel from drying out. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter no harsh odors while using the product; in fact, it almost had a "clean" smell to it.

The paint rolled off like butter, even in the detailed trim sections of the drawer front. It took very little effort to completely scrape off all the paint. I didn't notice any damage to the wood underneath, and I was ready to move on to sanding immediately. The entire process took about an hour.

Citristrip is a stripping gel that really does smell like oranges, which was delightful during application. The instructions recommend leaving it to soak in for at least 30 minutes. I applied the gel with a paintbrush, then let it soak in for 30 minutes.

Citrstrip came off in nice thick pieces. It contains natural wood oils that condition the wood as the finish is being taken off, making it great for antique wood furniture that has dried out over time.

I'm all about efficiency when it comes to flipping furniture and Smart Strip paled in comparison to the other strippers. It was very thick and goopy, which made the application messy. While it doesn't plastic wrap isn't needed for the soak time, it requires a minimum of three hours to penetrate the paint. I had to work much harder when removing Smart Strip with a scraper and ultimately did not see even results.

While Minwax is considered a "gentle product" for wood, it contains toxic solvents and is flammable, so I was extremely careful while using this product. I worked with it outdoors and wore thick rubber gloves and protective eyewear. Minwax had a harsh odor, but I didn't find it to be irritating.

I dipped the steel wool into a metal jar filled with Minwax and rubbed it in circles onto the top of the side table. Using moderate pressure, I saw the original finish begin to come off immediately. It was easy to get into all the corners and detailed areas and only took about 15 minutes to complete the top section. Per the product recommendation, I washed everything off with water to neutralize it after I was done. I was able to immediately move on to sanding to finish the piece.

You'll need to dispose of Minwax safely. There are toxic waste disposal sites in most cities, and I recommend utilizing one as soon as the project is completed.

Aside from Minwax, Citristrip was the best for removing finish. While the manufacturer recommends leaving it to soak in for at least 30 minutes, I noticed the finish bubbling up after only about 12 minutes. Plastic wrap isn't required for a shorter soak time, but the stripper can be left on overnight for tough surfaces. In that case, they do recommend covering it with plastic wrap to avoid drying it out.

Overall, it took about 5 minutes for application, 30 minutes of soak time, and 15 minutes for removal. It was extremely satisfying to use the plaster scraper to remove the Citristrip in thick gobs. I did notice I had to work harder to remove everything, using more elbow grease than with Minwax or Max Strip. I then neutralized the wood surface with water before moving on to sanding. 

Like with Minwax, you'll need to follow directions for the safe disposal of both Citristrip. There are toxic waste disposal sites in most cities and I recommend utilizing them as soon as the project is completed.

Max Strip is an excellent paint stripper, and we recommend it for DIY furniture projects. It's non-toxic, evenly removes paint, and makes quick work of the paint removal process.

When it comes to removing finishes, Minwax is hands down your best bet despite the extra caution required during application and disposal.

If you're looking for a good stripper to use on a piece of furniture that is finished with both paint and varnish, Citristrip is a good bet for getting the job done in one pass and you'll save a some money by purchasing only one stripper.

The Best Paint and Varnish Strippers We Tested for DIY Furniture Projects

Waterborne Rust-Inhibiting Primer Sign up for Insider Reviews' weekly newsletter for more buying advice and great deals. You can purchase logo and accolade licensing to this story here. Disclosure: Written and researched by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our partners. We may receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at