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How to Remove Old Varnish From Wood

Removing old varnish from wood can be a difficult task. It is important to take your time and use the proper techniques in order to avoid damaging the wood. In this article, we will discuss how to remove old varnish from wood furniture, wood veneer and other types of wood, as well as provide tips for avoiding damage to the wood during the removal process.

What is Wood Varnish?

How to Remove Old Varnish From Wood


Wood varnish is a clear coat applied to wood to protect it from scratches, scuff marks and stains, and it can be applied over wood furniture, wood floors and other types of wood. Wood varnish comes in various finishes, including gloss, semi-gloss, matte and satin. 

The term varnish” is sometimes used as a catch-all for any kind of wood finish, including polyurethane, lacquer and shellac. Varnish technically implies a particular combination of resins, oils and solvents, and it has been around for hundreds of years. In fact, wood sap and alcohol were the original materials used in the formula. Polyurethane is a relatively recent invention made from synthetic materials.

Each type of varnish has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Lacquer is a quick-drying varnish that provides a high level of protection. Shellac is a slower-drying varnish that gives wood a softer, more natural look. Polyurethane is a durable varnish that is available in both water-based and oil-based formulas.

Methods for Removing Varnish

Old varnish and stain can be removed from wood. Sanding is one of the most frequent techniques because it cuts through varnish and stain to reveal a new layer of wood. 

Although sanding is quick, it also generates a lot of fine-particle dust that is easy to breathe in, and it may remove more wood than you wanted it to. If sanding isn’t an option, then you will need to strip the wood instead. Stripping can be accomplished with a heat gun or solvents.


Sanding is a labor-intensive method of removing wood finishes, and it may be used to refinish hardwood floors or remove varnish from much smaller surfaces, such as a tabletop. Use a power tool like the random orbit sander on flat surfaces, and use handheld paper or a sanding block on irregular regions. Start with 150-grit paper and work your way up to 220-grit, removing any dust particles with a tack cloth or a lightly dampened rag as you go.

Heat Gun

Heat guns operate quickly, but they cover less area than chemicals. Before the softened varnish and stain have a chance to cool, scrape off as much of it as possible using a paint scraper or putty knife. Traditional heat guns generate significant heat, so be careful not to scorch the wood or burn your skin when using them.

Infrared heat guns function like conventional heat guns but don’t create as much heat as a traditional heat gun. However, they can still burn your skin if used incorrectly. A heat gun may leave some stain, so liquid remover may be needed to remove the final traces.

Varnish Remover

Chemical removal is the ideal technique for removing old paint and varnish from carved woods with hard-to-reach, intricate regions. However, you’ll almost certainly use a combination of mechanical and chemical methods for your project, especially if you have multiple layers of old paint to remove. 

Chemical paint removers provide superior results to sanding and are generally able to remove varnishes and paints faster. Care must be taken when utilizing chemical strippers because they carry their own care and safety concerns.

Steps to Remove Varnish with a Varnish Remover

1. Prepare the Area You’re Working In

Removing varnish with a solvent can be a messy job, so it is important to protect any areas that could be damaged. This includes covering any surfaces that you do not want to get varnish on, such as floors, countertops and furniture. You can use a tarp or painter’s tape to cover items. You will also need to ventilate the area well. Open any windows and doors in the room and use a fan to help circulate the air.

2. Apply the Varnish Remover

Use a brush or roller to spread ZAR® Paint and Varnish Remover over the entire surface to be stripped. It will begin dissolving the paint/​finish. The use of an old toothbrush makes the cleaning process on curvy or uneven surfaces easier.

Paint and Varnish Remover


3. Wait and Allow the Remover to Do Its Magic

When removing latex or oil-based paints, ZAR® Paint and Varnish Remover should be left on the surface for 15 minutes. Allow a minimum of 15 minutes, but up to two hours, for polyurethane coatings of various types.

4. Gently Scrape Away the Old Varnish

Allow the finish to soften until the bare surface can be exposed by scraping gently. When the remover has worked its way through the top layer of paint, use a scraper or non-abrasive pad to remove it.

Paint Scraper


5. If Necessary, Repeat Steps 1 – 4 for Any Varnish That Remains

If you’re re-coating the surface, use a wet cloth to wipe away any remaining solvent. Keep in mind that it may take several applications with two-component epoxy coatings for complete removal. 

Trust in ZAR® for a Dependable Varnish Remover and a New Stain

Wood Finish


ZAR®‘s oil and water-based stains and removers have been used by DIYers and professionals for decades, and they continue to provide superior results time and time again. Whether you’re looking to strip away a few layers of varnish, remove a longstanding stain or apply a fresh coat of stain, ZAR® has the perfect solution for you.

Contact us today to find a retailer near you.