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How to Remove Wood Stain from Furniture

In Furniture Flipping Tips by Jamie P.

You finally found a furniture refinishing project that you want to get started on, but where do you start? After some simple cleaning and degreasing often your next step is removing the current finish, whether its paint, stain, or a simple topcoat the process is actually quite simple. My guide today focuses on removing stain from wood furniture, so yes you are in the right place.

There is more than one method for removing stain from your wood furniture, but there are also different scenarios where you may be needing to remove stain from wood. For example:

  • You may be removing all the finish and stain from a piece of finished furniture. This is when you are starting a project from the start, you can strip the finish by sanding it away or by using a paint/varnish stripper.
  • Or when you are adding stain to a current project, there is no clear coat yet and nothing is dry, but you don’t like it or something isn’t right you may want to remove it right away. This is when you will use a paint/varnish stripper for removal, sanding is not the option. You may use mineral spirits instead depending on the situation and products used.

I will answer all your questions about removing wood stain after it has dried and also when it is still wet after application, so stick around for all the information you need to know.

Know the Current State of the Wood Stain (Dry vs Wet)

You are reading this article because you want to remove stain from wood, some of you are looking to remove it from a finished/cured piece of furniture where the stain is dry, others are here because they just added some stain to a project and they are freaking out because they don’t like it or its going on “funny”, but the stain is still wet.

Dry Wood Stain - A Finished Piece of Wood Furniture

Dried Wood Stain – A Finished Piece of Wood Furniture

Let me explain better on what I mean by dry wood stain. Dry wood stain is when the stain is dry and likely coated by a sealer, this is all furniture when it is completed and is a finished piece. So if you just went to the thrift store and purchased a piece of furniture to refinish, it is “dry” stain and you can follow one of the 2 methods below under “How to Remove Dried Wood Stain from Furniture”.

wet stain on veneer wood end table

Wet Freshly Applied Wood Stain – During a Project

What I mean by wet wood stain is when you are in the middle of a project and you already prepped the wood for stain and you begin apply the wood stain, the stain is fresh and still wet. After or during stain application stain remains wet, often for hours and sometimes until the next day. After application you can still remove the stain if you do not like the color, see the 2 methods below under “How to Remove Fresh Wet Wood Stain from Furniture”.

No matter the reason, dry stain and wet stain can be removed following the proper steps. Let’s dig in…

How to Remove Dried Wood Stain from Finished Furniture:

Dry Method 1 – Use Paint/Varnish Stripper:

1. Clean and Degrease

Cleaning and degreasing the furniture is always a great place to start, its what I do with all my projects. I grab a cleaning product that will help degrease the wooden surface, such as Krud Kutter. I will spray it on the piece, making sure its all over, then use a rag to wipe up the cleaning product. After that I use a wet rag, free of cleaning product, and wipe up all of the the Krud Kutter residue. Removing dirt and grease initially makes the stripping process much easier.

2. Apply the Stripper

Now its time to apply paint stripper, also known as varnish stripper, paint remover, and many other names. I like to use Klean Strip Stripper, but there are many good ones out there. Apply it over all areas you want the stain removed, I will apply it with an old paint brush, foam brush, or a old rag. Apply a generous amount, too little will dry and get sticky making it difficult to remove.

3. Scrape Away Finish and Stain

stripping dresser side paint stripper

After waiting the recommended time that your specific stripper product says to wait, you can strip away the old finish and the wood stain. I like to use a metal putty knife, but you do risk damaging the wood using metal, just be careful. You can use a plastic one, if so it works best when you use a lot of paint stripper and things do not dry and get sticky.

4. Use Mineral Spirits and Scrub Clean Using Steel Wool

Now you can clean up the sticky mess. However, sometimes stripper doesn’t always succeed first try so you may need to do another coat of stripper. This is where 10 minute strippers are better. Anyway, after you remove all the old stain and finish you must clean up the stripper residue left on the wood. I use mineral spirits and steel wool to clean up the sticky residue. Pour mineral spirits directly on the stripped area and start scrubbing it with the steel wool, use a fine steel wool like Homax Super Fine Grade #0000 Steel Wool so you do not scratch the wood a lot.

5. Wipe Everything Clean and Let things Completely Dry

wiping dresser with mineral spirits after stripping it down

Finally, the stripper residue is coming off and you are almost completed. I always do a last wipe with a rag and some mineral spirits to make sure the surface is completely clean. The reason you want things clean is because you will need to sand the surface before you can apply new stain or paint, so get things clean!

Read our detailed article on How to Properly Clean Wood After Stripping Paint if you want to read more about cleaning furniture after stripper, it’s the same process whether it is stain, varnish, or paint!

Dry Method 2 – Sand Away the Old Finish and Stain:

1. Clean and Degrease

Just like the cleaning process I would do if I was using stripper I would do when sanding. Use a degreaser, wipe the furniture clean, wipe away the cleaning product with a damp rag.

2. Sand Using 100-120 Grit Sand Paper

sanding 100 grit paper

Using an electric sander you can slap on some 120 grit sand paper and begin sanding the finish and stain away. You need to be careful when sanding wood, if it is a thin layer of veneer you may quickly sand through causing irreversible damages. If you plan to stain the wood a new color you must not go through the veneer, the damages will be noticeable. However, if painting it, it isn’t as important as it will be covered up, but still the damaged area may cause the paint too appear differently so I recommend avoiding sanding through all-together. Sand away the old finish using the 120 grit sand paper, move on to the 220 grit when the finish/clear coat has been sanded off. This lowers the chances of damages.

3. Wipe Dust Away

After sanding away with the 120 grit sandpaper you can begin wiping the dust away with a dry rag. It helps the sanding process move along faster, dust on sandpaper may gum it up faster.

4. Sand Using 220 to 240 Grit Sand Paper

Now slap on the 220 grit sand paper and sand away the remaining stain on the wood. Do not push the sander to sand faster, let the sander do the work itself. Remember, be careful not to go through veneer if that’s what you are sanding.

5. Wipe Up all the Dust

There are many ways to clean sanding dust off of wood when sanding furniture. You can see 6 options in our detailed article “How to Effectively Clean Wood After Sanding”. However, a fast and simple way I often use is to use a tack cloth to wipe it dry and remove the dust on the surface. If you want to get super clean, you can use mineral spirit and a rag to clean the surface. But one thing you must do is wait until the dust settles in the air, if you clean it while the dust is still floating in the area, it will just become dusty again.

How to Remove Fresh Wet Wood Stain from Furniture:

Wet Method 1 – Use Paint/Varnish Stripper:

If the stain is getting tacky quickly after application you may need to use stripper to remove it, I think this is the best option for success because it will remove any type of stain from wood.

1. Apply Stripper Over the Stained Area

Similarly to using stripper when wood stain is dry, you can use paint stripper on wet fresh wood stain. It is the safest option for a quick successful removal. The stripper will quickly soak up the stain and you can remove it with a scraper tool. Pour a generous amount of stripper over all of the fresh wet wood stain and move on to the next step.

2. Wait Recommended Time

Although the stain was not fully dry, you should still wait the recommended time the stripper container mentions before scraping away the stain. The stripper may activate the stain fast because it is wet, if you are in dry conditions you may want to check up on the stripper to see if it is drying up. If it is you can likely start scraping away sooner. If the stripper dries up, apply more and wait less time until it all activates again.

3. Scrape Away Stain

Grab your scraping tool, plastic should work fine since the stain is wet and not super sticky. Begin scraping away the stain. If it doesn’t all come up after stripper coat one, add more stripper if the stain is drying up and do it again. However, cleaning up with mineral spirits in the final step may clean it all up for you.

4. Clean Up Using Mineral Spirits and Let Dry

Pour some mineral spirits over the stripped area and begin wiping things up. As mentioned above in method 1 step 4 in dry stain removal, you can use steel wool to clean up the stripper residue left behind. After the residue has been cleaned, a final wipe with mineral spirits and a rag makes sure the surface is completely clean.  Let things completely dry, mineral spirits dries/evaporates quickly in about 15 minutes.

Wet Method 2 – Use Mineral Spirits and Wipe Up:

If the stain is still super wet and fresh you may be able to apply mineral spirits wipe away the wood stain without needing a stripper product. However, this is only an option if the stain is oil based, you must avoid mineral spirits on water based wood stain. Also, do not use water to wash away water based wood stain, it may cause damages to the wood, I would just use stripper instead. Here is wet method 2 steps:

1. Pour Mineral Spirits on Wet Stain

Grab your mineral spirits and begin adding it on your wood stain. Apply it over the wet stain and let it sit for a minute as you wipe it on the stain. As it soaks it will mix into the stain and it will come off the surface as one solution.

clean stain off wood

2. Wipe Up Stain and Mineral Spirits

Wipe up the stain and mineral spirits mixture. This may require a few mineral spirit applications and wipe ups, but after a few times it should mix up the fresh stain and come off the wooden surface.

3. Repeat if Needed

As mentioned already, repeat the mineral spirits application and wiping to remove the stain. If the stain is so dry and deep in the wood it will not activate and wipe away you may need to try using a stripper so it can lift it from the wood pores.

How to Remove Wood Stain on Detailed Pieces of Wood?

detailed antique furniture legs

Sometimes you are working with detailed pieces of wood, often furniture legs have unique designs and shapes, making sanding an almost impossible option when you want to remove the current stain and then stain them a fresh color. This means you need to use a stripper product. When stripping detailed pieces and furniture legs the stripper often can’t be applied in thick amounts, simply because gravity pulls the stripper down.

This means the stripper will be thin, and more likely to dry up. If you have ever used a paint stripper, thin amounts of stripper may dry up and it becomes difficult to remove. So how do we deal with this?

We can apply the stripper and wrap it up with plastic, such as saran wrap or even a garbage bag. What this does is it prevents it from drying out and the stripper remains wet while activating the stain and finish you want to remove. Simply wait the recommended time and you can scrap/scrub away the stain.

You may realize a standard scraper will not work well on detailed edges, and it wont when stripping it down. You can use a wire brush or steel wool, both will work well.

After stripping and cleaning it up with mineral spirits, you may still need to clean things up with some sanding.

What About Using a Carbide Scraper to Remove Wood Stain?

carbide scraper tool scraping wood stain off

Carbide scrapers have become a more popular tool for me in the workshop. It is a simple handheld tool that scrapes away old finish and stain on wood. But just like sanding you need to be careful to not gouge the wood and go through veneer.

You can use a carbide scraper to remove dried wood stain and finishes, it will not remove freshly applied wet wood stain. Simply scrape the finish away one scrape at a time. It can be time consuming, but sometimes it is the perfect tool for stubborn varnishes and stains that just won’t come off.

The time I like to take it out is when I use paint stripper but the stripper just doesn’t get the job done and there is leftover stain on the wood. I will use it on those areas to quickly scrape it up as sand paper would just gum up quickly if used on sticky leftover stain after a paint stripper was used. The image above  shows when I did this in a dresser project, see the video on YouTube here.

What are Some Issues You May Run Into When Removing Wood Stain?

There are a few issues that may happen when removing wood stain. The most common issue I see is people over sanding and damaging the veneer. I did mention this earlier, but it is important when sanding away old finish and stain that you be careful of not going too far into the veneer. We know when this damage begins because we can start to see the underlying particle board and it typically begins on the edges as your sander applies more pressure on the edges quickly eating the veneer away.

Another common issue is not using enough stripper, not that it is a major problem, but dried up stripper can be so annoying to remove and it can take hours, especially if you run out of paint stripper and you can’t apply more. Make sure you have enough paint stripper for you project!

My worst mistake and issue that can be avoided but happens often to beginners is sanding dirty wood. This happens when you do not clean the wood initially before sanding away the finish, or after applying the stripper and you need to sand things smooth. You must degrease initially flippers! Furthermore, if you use a stripper you must clean it up after with mineral spirits and steel wool. If you try sanding dried up stripper residue it will gum up your sand paper so fast and it takes hours to sand. Dirty wood also gums it up causing a similar issue. Clean the wood correctly for better sanding results!

I am sure there are more issues, if you have any yourself feel free to reach out to me by email.

Removing Wood Stain FAQs

Can You Restain Wood Without Removing the Current Stain?

If you want to stain wood that is already stained you may be able to do so without the need of stripping it down to bare wood. However, if you want to stain a current dark piece of furniture to a lighter color stripping is your best option. If you want to stain a light coloured piece of wood to a darker color you may be able to. I have done this before without the need of fully removing the old stain. You can do this by applying a gel stain over the current stain. Here is how I would do this successfully:

First, lightly sand the old stain and finish. A glossy surface will not hold stain well at all, but a nicely sanded/scuffed surface will absorb the gel stain much better. Use a 220 grit sand paper.

Next apply a darker gel stain, dark brown or black will work best when not removing old stain, this means applying a lighter or completely different color may not work out if not stripping the old stain away. Think of it like this, it would be like painting a thin layer of lime green paint over a brown paint, you would notice the brown underneath.

Finally, wipe your gel stain away to the correct amount. Read more about gel stain here if you are curious how to apply it. After wiping it and letting it dry you can apply the clear coat to protect your new stain!

What to Do if Paint Stripper if Left on Too Long?

As I mentioned above, this is a common issue people have when stripping away wood stain, varnish, and paint. They often do not apply enough and it dries quickly. Wood stripper works best when it stays thick because it doesn’t dry up. Dry and hard paint stripper is a mess to clean up, so keep an eye on the stripper when you use it, also read the instructions on your specific product to make sure you can get the timing down correctly.

Here is what to do: Add more stripper and let it re-activate the stripper product. This loosens up the hardened residue and makes scraping an option once again. Scrape as much off and then you can go through the standard cleaning procedures after stripping wood, which is mineral spirits and steel wool.

How Much Paint Stripper is Needed for Furniture?

Honestly, the more paint stripper the better. Just make sure the paint stripper completely covers up the area you want stripped. The stripper should not be a thin layer either, apply a generous amount with a foam brush or an old paint brush. Just think in your head as it sits on the wood, will this dry in it recommended time?

I like to imagine dropping a penny in the paint stripper and the penny sinks just under the stripper. Yes, this is a lot of product but it works so well when it goes on extra thick.

Final Thoughts

After all I have discussed I think you should now know how to remove wood stain from a piece of wood furniture. Whether the stain is wet, or its a finished dry piece of furniture, you can strip away that stain following my 4 methods in this article. If you have anything questions or I have helped you, feel free to let me know by reaching out by email on our contact page.

Good luck with your next project! – Furniture Flippa