How to Remove Varnish from Wood without Chemicals

How to Remove Varnish from Wood without Chemicals

Varnish is a superb product designed to preserve the natural beauty of the wood while enhancing its durability. That silky smooth layer with its polish-like gleam protects your wood from elements such as sun, water, humidity, scratches, and impact.

The only downside to varnish is that even this durable coating can eventually wear down. When this does happen, you will need to remove the varnish from your wood before adding a fresh new layer of varnish.

When to Remove Varnish

Some people choose to remove the varnish layer just because they prefer a natural wood look and feel for their items or if they want to paint the furniture piece. Most people do, however, remove the layer of varnish because it becomes old, ugly and no longer offers sufficient protection to the wood. Here is a quick look at the signs that your varnish is old and need removing:

  • The varnish layer loses its gleam and can even look milky white in certain regions.
  • The varnish layer starts to crack and bubble
  • The layer can also be damaged after years with lots of visible scratches

How to Remove Varnish from Wood without Chemicals

There are quite a few different methods that you can use to remove varnish from wood. Here is a quick look at all the methods available as well as a quick how-to guide for each of these main techniques.

Safety Tips to Keep In Mind

The following techniques we are going to explain don’t make use of any chemicals. These products and techniques can safely be used indoors and ventilation isn’t too necessary. Chemical-free products and techniques don’t cause any fumes that could make you feel light-headed or nauseated and most of these products are fairly safe when making contact with your skin.

Even though these products are not too harsh on your skin, they can still wear your skin down after prolonged use. Sanding paper, for example, is very rough. After a while of scrubbing with this paper, your fingers might become all raw.

The same goes for acidic products that might stay in contact with your skin for too long.

It is best to wear gloves when you are removing varnish from wood. If you are sanding your wood, you should also consider wearing a dust mask and protective glasses. Too much dust inhalation can cause respiratory issues and dust in your eyes can soon start to irritate these sensitive organs.


The Sanding Technique

Sanding is the traditional method for removing varnish. In this method, you use sandpaper with various grit levels to rub the varnish from your wood. There are also various sanding tools that you can use to remove varnish such as electric sanding machines. Sanding down your furniture can take a long time and it is a very dusty process but for many, this is the most effective way to properly remove varnish without damaging or discoloring the wood. Here is a quick look at the steps involved;

Materials needed

  • 150-grit sanding paper
  • 220-grit sanding paper
  • Sanding block
  • Electric sanding machine (optional)
  • Thinners
  • Soft rag


Step 1 – Grab the wood item that you want to process. Start sanding it down using the 150-grit sandpaper. Try to work along with the grain when you are sanding your wood. If the piece of wood is rather large, it is best to use a sanding block to help save your fingers. If you are sanding a piece of furniture, it will be much quicker and cleaner to use an electric sanding machine since these machines can sand a larger surface and will capture most of the dust.

Step 2 – If most of the varnish is removed, you can grab your 220-grit sandpaper. You will notice that it is much finer and will sand smoother.

This sandpaper is ideal for smoothing your surface. Remember to sand in all the nooks and crannies.

Step 3 – Grab your soft rag and dust the piece of wood. If you notice grease marks or stains on the wood, you can use the thinners to clear these marks off. You can also dust your wood using a damp cloth.

When all varnish has been removed from your wood and all dust has been cleared from your piece, it will be ready to be treated with a fresh new layer of varnish.

The Water-Based Varnish Remover Technique

There are some water-based varnish removers on the market like Paint and Varnish Remover by Home Strip. These products are solvent-free and don’t contain any fumes, toxic chemicals, or hazardous ingredients. Water-based varnish remover is not as effective for removing varnish as chemical-based varnish remover. When using these products, you might need to apply several treatments before your wood will be varnish free.

Materials Needed

  • 40 to 70-grit sandpaper
  • 150 grit sandpaper
  • Water-based varnish remover
  • Paintbrush
  • Fine steel wool
  • Metal scraper
  • Water or mineral spirits


Step 1 – Even though you are using a solvent, it is still best to sand your wood a bit. This allows the solvent to penetrate better and offers a quicker result. Grab your rough 40 to 70-grit sandpaper and sand the wood lightly. You don’t have to spend a lot of time doing this. 10 minutes of sanding should be enough to complete a whole furniture piece. Remember to go along with the grain.

Step 2 – Now grab your paintbrush and apply a thick coat of varnish remover. Remember to fill small nooks with varnish as well. Some solvents might need a bit more time than others. Read the instructions on the bottle carefully to find out how long your varnish remover should sit. If the varnish remover needs to stay on for 2 hours or longer, you can cover the wood in plastic so it will stay moist.

Step 3 – When the waiting time is up, you can grab your fine steel wool and scrub the varnished area down. Move in the same direction as the wood grain. If the steel wool isn’t doing much, you can also grab the metal scraper.

Step 4 – If there is still a lot of varnishes left, you can reapply the varnish remover and allow it to sit for a second run. Repeat these last two steps as often as needed.

Step 5 – Once your varnish is cleared, you will need to neutralize the surface. Water or mineral spirits is ideal for neutralizing the varnish remover so it won’t eat your wood.

Step 6 – Now grab your 150-grit sandpaper and remove leftover pieces of varnish while smoothing out your surfaces.

Step 7 – Once all surfaces are smooth, you can wipe the wood down using a soft cloth to remove all dust.

When these steps have been completed, your wood will be varnish free and ready for a fresh new layer of varnish or paint.

The Citrus Stripper Technique

Citrus varnish stripper gel-like Citristrip is another good chemical-free alternative. These stripping gels don’t have any harsh fumes, they contain no chemicals and they offer a rich flavor scent. As with water-based varnish remover, they are not quite as effective for removing varnish from the furniture. You will need to apply several treatments if the varnish is very thick. Here is a quick look at the steps required for this technique;

Materials Needed

  • Citrus stripper gel
  • 40 to 70-grit sandpaper
  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • Paintbrush
  • Fine steel wool
  • Metal scraper
  • Water
  • Soft cloth


Step 1 – Grab your wood and sand it down using the 40 to 70-grit sandpaper. This shouldn’t take long since you are only creating scars so the citrus gel can penetrate deeply.

Step 2 – Apply the citrus stripper gel to the wood using a paintbrush. Check the recommended wait time on the instructions of your citrus gel.

Some of these gels need to be left up to 24 hours to allow the gel to strip multiple layers in one step. If you are allowing it to sit this long, it might be wise to cover the gel in plastic so it won’t dry out.

Step 3 – Grab your fine steel wool and scrape the wood to remove the varnish. If the varnish isn’t coming off easily, you can also use your metal scraper. Remember to also scrape in the small nooks.

If there is a lot of varnish left over, you can apply a second or third treatment of citrus stripper gel and repeat the scraping steps.

Step 4 – When your wood is clean, you should neutralize the gel by washing the wood using a soft cloth and a little bit of water.

Step 5 – Once dried, you can check for leftover varnish. Grab your 150-grit sandpaper and sand down any varnish bits you see.

You should also smooth out your wood at this point.

Step 6 – To remove the leftover dust from your wood, you can grab a soft moist cloth and dust it.

Your wood will now be properly clean. If you want, you can now paint it with a fresh new layer of varnish.

The Infrared Heat Gun Technique

Infrared heat guns are expensive but they are reusable which makes them good investments for large companies. These guns produce intense heat to soften up the varnish. It is important to wear heat-resistant gloves so you won’t burn your skin and to be careful not to burn your wood. Here is a quick look at the best way to apply this technique;

Materials Needed

  • Infrared heat gun
  • Metal scraper
  • Steel wool
  • 150-grit sanding paper
  • Soft cloth
  • Water or thinners


Step 1 – Grab your wood and plug in your infrared heat gun. Hold your gun at the recommended length from the varnish and warm up the varnish.

Step 2 – Grab your metal scraper and scrape the surface clean before the varnish cools down.

Keep heating and scraping the varnish until you are satisfied with the results. Remember not to overdo it with the heat gun since it can alter the color of your wood.

Step 3 – Grab your 150-grit sanding paper and scrape the leftover varnish while smoothing your wood.

You can now take a soft cloth and some water or thinners and wipe down your wood.

Side note – It is better to use a gel stripper in addition to your heat gun than it is to expose your wood to too much heat. If the varnish is very thick, the heat gun can be used to strip the top layer and a gel the leftover varnish.

Step 4 – You should now grab a moist cloth and wipe down your wood to remove all dust.

When all of the varnish and dust has been removed, you can treat your wood to a fresh coat of varnish so it will once again be protected.

What Is The Best Way To Remove Varnish From Wood?


The best way to remove varnish from wood is by simply sanding it down. This method is also much better than using chemical strippers.

When you use strippers, heat, or citrus gels on your varnish, the varnish becomes soft and sticky.

It tends to smear into the wood and can be very hard to scrape off from your wood furniture. With most of these products, you do need to do considerable sanding anyway because strippers will never remove all traces of the varnish.

Sanding is also better for your wood because it is the only method that won’t discolor or damage your natural wood. Gels, citrus products, and even water-based strippers do have certain ingredients that can weaken your wood, and heat guns tend to burn and discolor your wood.

Sanding wood is going to be no picnic either. It takes a lot of elbow grease to remove varnish from entire furniture pieces and there will be a lot of dust to deal with as you continue to work.

On the upside, when the varnish is properly removed from your wood, you can finally give it a fresh new coat of varnish and it will once again look vibrant, smooth, and very beautiful.