Easy Ways to Strip Varnish and Stain From Wood

By Kimberly Hawthorne

Varnish and stain are two entirely different types of wood finishing products. Stain is a liquid colorant that seeps into wood fibers to provide even color. Varnish is a liquid resin that does not seep in, but adheres to the surface to form a transparent, hard, protective finish to natural or stained woods. Stripping wood that contains both products can be a bit tricky, but some valuable tips can make it go a bit easier.


Removing varnish from wood is similar to removing paint; many techniques apply in both cases. In the case of varnish-covered stain, concentrate on removing the varnish first with a chemical remover. Chemical varnish removers are available in paste and liquid forms. Liquid chemical removers are sufficient for one or two layers of varnish, while paste is a much better product for removing multiple layers.

Keys to Using Chemical Removers

Speed up the action of a chemical remover by first hand sanding the varnished surface with coarse sandpaper. Apply remover according to manufacturer directions and cover with plastic wrap to keep the remover wet. First, use a scraper to remove as much of the varnish and chemicals as possible. Follow with a stripping pad made from synthetic materials instead of steel wool. Synthetic pads won’t poke or fall apart like steel wool. Apply a small amount of remover to the scouring pad for tough spots, but be careful not to damage the wood surface. In some cases, applying remover a second or third time may be necessary.

Sanding Tips

Use an oscillating tool fitted with a hook and loop pad accessory and 60-grit sandpaper to remove varnish. Only remove varnish by sanding when the use of chemicals is not possible. For obvious reasons, sanding will not work for carved or hard-to-reach places. For difficult areas, apply chemical removers with a paintbrush in an upward motion. Carefully use a brass wire brush for removing chemicals and varnish from crevices. A toothpick is useful in some instances.

Wood Stain Removal

Chances are that the chemicals you used to remove the varnish also removed the stain. Just in case it didn’t, use bleach to remove any remaining color within wood fibers. Sanding with fine-grade sandpaper may also help. A commercial wood cleaning product that contains stain stripper not only removes staining products, it balances the pH level of the wood. Wood with a balanced pH level will accept new staining products more evenly and may increase the lifespan of the stain.

© Demand Media 2011