What Paint Stripping Route Is Best?

Choosing Physical or Chemical Paint Removal

A car covered in colorful paint
Daniel Grizelj / Getty Images

When somebody talks about paint stripping, they aren't on their way to get naked in a hardware store. Paint stripping is the removal of paint from any surface using one of a large variety of methods. Which method somebody chooses is determined by a number of factors including what type of paint is being removed, what type of surface is painted (e.g. wood, metal, stone), how fast they want it done and how clean they want the surface to be when they're done. Yes, those are a bunch of factors to get straight, but if you make all your decisions along the way wisely you'll surely be pleased with the end result. Take too many shortcuts and you'll have taken two steps backward at the end of a long, messy, and smelly day.

Physical vs Chemical Paint Removal

There are two ways to remove paint from any surface: physical or chemical. These are fairly self-explanatory at first glance, but within these categories lie many variations in method that relate back to the variables previously discussed. For automotive purposes, you don't have to worry too much about what type of paint your vehicle has because most varieties of proper automotive paint behave in similar ways when stripped, regardless of your method. Occasionally you may come across a home paint job or a strange repair that was painted with some form of house paint, rust-o-leum, weird primer or who-knows-what that freaks out when you try to strip it from the car's metal (or body filler) surface. Some paint heats to a liquid when sanded, then gums up into clumps which proceed to dry and form a rock hard, pebble-grained surface that becomes impossible to sand through. It's a nightmare, but a rarity also.

Physical Paint Removal Tips

Physical paint removal methods include media blasting, sanding, and heat removal, too, because no chemicals are used (let's not have a debate about chemical reactions and heat here).

Within the media blasting category are all sorts of sub-methods. Media blasting involves spraying the painted surface with something that takes off paint, driven by compressed air. Things that take off paint can include almost anything, from harsh strippers like Black Diamond crushed stone media to crushed walnut shells to the very gentle baking soda media blast. The current rage in automotive stripping is the baking soda blast. The soda is able to strip the paint from the metal without so much as changing the sheen on the metal's surface. It's amazing to watch and even more amazing to see the results. If you look into soda blasting you can usually find somebody who will do the blasting in your own driveway, yard or parking lot. The soda simply washes away and clean up is minimal. Highly recommended!

Using a heat gun to remove paint from your car or truck's body is a tried and true method, but be aware of two things: post-heat sanding work and the risk of damage to other parts in the heating process. After you strip paint with heat you are left with a layer of paint residue of varying thickness all over the car. This will have to be sanded away. Modern cars have lots of rubber and plastic components that are often right next to steel body panels. High heat can warp, melt or burn these components!

Chemical Paint Removal Tips

Chemical paint removal involves applying some sort of paint-bubbling liquid to your paint, waiting for it to do its work, then scraping away the melty paint goo with a plastic scraper or spatula.

There are lots of chemical strippers out there, from mild to wild. Old school aircraft stripper is one of the wild ones. It's cheap, easy to get, and boy can it strip paint. The downside to this type of stripper is how harsh it is. It smells horrible (please use a respirator when working with aircraft stripper), eats away anything that isn't stone or metal (including those latex gloves you thought were going to protect your hands from this scary goop), and is terrible for the environment. These days there are more environmental and health friendly strippers that do almost as good a job. Anyone who tells you their favorite organic stripper works as well as aircraft stripper is full of, well, stripper. But they do work, just a little more slowly and with a little more post-strip work than the hardcore stuff.

Final Considerations

It's important to analyze your situation to decide what method will work best for you. It's also a good idea to test a spot if you are going to be doing a large strip job. Of course you can't always do this, but always plan as much as you can. And remember, work safely!