How to Remove Lacquer From Wood

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Do you want to remove lacquer finish from a piece of wood so you can repair, restore or refinish it? We prepared this guide just for you. We did some research and came up with several reliable methods on how to remove lacquer from wood.

How to Remove Lacquer From Wood

We will look at three ways you can effectively get rid of lacquer. They include: 

  • Using lacquer thinner
  • Using sandpaper or sanding machine
  • Using vinegar
Clear brushing lacquer applied on wood

In comparison to other finishes, lacquer is one of the most durable. For that reason, it is tougher to strip off after some time. These methods will help you remove it effectively without damaging the wood. 

Method 1: Using Lacquer Thinner

This method is the easiest because manufacturers design lacquer thinners to specifically dissolve the varnish without much work. Sometimes, the finish includes shellac. As a result, you need to mix the thinner with denatured alcohol in equal measures.

What You Need

  • Lacquer thinner
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Protective gloves
  • Respirator
  • Container 
  • Paintbrush
  • Plastic knife
  • Steel wool or hard-bristle brush or scouring pad
  • Piece of fabric

Preparation 

  1. Ensure you clean up the floor or, in the case of furniture, remove its contents and accessories like knobs.
  2. Maximize ventilation in the working space. If you are dealing with something portable, take it outside. For a floor, open all the windows and doors if possible. 
  3. Wear your gloves and respirator. Then in a container, mix the lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol in a 1.1 ratio. For example, if you are making 2 liters of the mixture, add a liter of lacquer to a liter of the denatured alcohol.
  4. Divide your wood into portions. Work on one part at a time to ensure your solvent does not dry up completely.
Paint thinner cans and wood stain products

Application 

  1. Using a paintbrush, apply the mixture onto the surface and give it 1-2 minutes. The trick is to give it just enough time to dissolve the finish while ensuring it does not dry.
  2. Take your steel wool and scrap it off. Do it carefully to avoid spreading the solvent to the areas around you. Also, protect your wood grain, do not be too rough
  3. Afterward, wipe any additional solvent with a piece of fabric and check if any areas still have lacquer or the dried mixture.
  4. Using the plastic knife, peel off the dried solvent. To avoid scratching the wood, follow the wood grain. You can easily identify the areas with solvent because they look cloudy.
  5. For the areas that still have lacquer, apply another layer of the solvent, and repeat the process until nothing is left. The only difference is that this time, do not give the solvent time to dry up. Apply and wipe immediately.

Do this for all the other portions. While it will take some time and effort to finish the whole of it, it is still the simplest way to remove the lacquer. After applying the solvent, the wood should look rough and feel coarse. That shows there is no more lacquer on the surface.

Make sure to toss all disposable items securely into a bin. Do not leave anything with the solvent at the reach of your kids or pet. 

Method 2: Using Sandpaper or Sanding Machine

This method is more mechanical than the first option. You basically scrub through the lacquer with different grit sandpapers until it completely disappears. The benefit of sanding overusing the solvent is you get rid of the old layer of the wood to expose a new, better, smooth surface.

Also, if you do the first method and you do not achieve the results you expect, we recommend you finish it up using this method. 

What You Need

  • 80-grit, 150-grit, and 220-grit sandpapers
  • Sanding machine (optional)
  • Paintbrush
  • Hard bristle brush
  • Water
  • Detergent
  • Piece of cloth
  • Protective gloves
  • Dust mask
Man removing lacquer from wood

Preparation 

  1. To a container with water, add a detergent. The water should be proportional to the area of wood you want to work on. We recommend a detergent instead of a bar soap because it dissolves in water. Soap might stick on the wood forcing you to do additional cleaning.
  2. Thoroughly clean the surface of the wood using soapy water and a hard bristle brush. The goal is to eliminate any dust particle or stain and leave no part undone.
  3. Dry the whole surface with a piece of cloth then let it stand for about 5 minutes for further drying. Now, proceed to sand. 
  4. Ensure you have a maximum air supply in your working area if you can’t go outside. Wear your gloves and mask as well.

Sanding Process 

  1. If you have a sanding machine, use the disk of 80-grit. The same goes if you are using sandpaper. Start with the one with an 80-grit surface.
  2. As you work on the wood with sandpaper, follow the grain to avoid damaging the wood. In the case of a sanding machine, go slow, be gentle and consistent to avoid the same.
  3. For irregular areas, go for sandpaper even if you have the machine. Such areas are tougher to work through, a sander might cause more damage than good.
  4. Continue sanding until you see no more lacquer on the surface. It will take you minutes if you are using a sanding machine to hours if you are using sandpaper.
  5. After that, go in with the 150-grit sanding disk or sandpaper of the same standard. Rough up the surface to ensure you completely remove the lacquer. Ensure you leave a flat surface that looks like raw wood.

Cleaning 

  1. Using the paintbrush, gently sweep slices and dust particles off the wood. Wet a piece of cloth and use it to further wipe away any remaining dust to leave a clean raw surface. Remember to follow the grain to conserve the wood surface.
  2. Get the 220-grit sandpaper or disk to finish the sanding process. This final step is necessary to give your wood a smooth finish which in turn makes refinishing easier. 

Method 3: Using Vinegar

This is a DIY you can try if you do not have a commercial thinner. Lacquer is an alcohol-based compound. Therefore, it freely dissolves in solvents, so does shellac if present. This is the basis on which vinegar becomes a viable option as a solvent.

The difference between this method and the first one is that you will have to put in more work here. On the brighter side, vinegar is much safer and gentle on your skin compared to solvent. 

What You Need

  • White vinegar
  • Warm water
  • Paintbrush 
  • Bucket 
  • Scraper

How to Do It

Man storing away tools that he used from removing lacquer from wood
  1. Prepare your wood. Clean off unwanted dirt or stains.
  2. In your bucket, add equal volumes of warm water and white vinegar.
  3. Using the brush, generously apply the mixture to a portion of the wood.
  4. Let it sit for some minutes until the lacquer appears soft and dissolves into the solvent.
  5. Using the scraper, scrape off the finish, following the wood grain to prevent damage
  6. After scrapping, if there is still some lacquer on the surface, apply another layer of the vinegar mixture, and follow the procedure.
  7. If you still have stubborn varnish stains, consider sanding to rough it out.

Apart from vinegar, you can also use other solvents such as:

  • Acetone
  • Mineral spirits
  • A solution of baking soda and ammonia.

Frequently Asked Questions

Before winding up, let’s take the time to go through some of the common questions about removing lacquer from wood. Hopefully, you will find the answers helpful and solve all your queries.

Will Lacquer Thinner Damage Wood?

No, lacquer thinners work only on the finish. The only way you can damage the wood is if you scrape the varnish off roughly or rub it off against the wood grain. On the other hand, it is not as kind to you, therefore, always wear protective gear when working with it.

Can Vinegar Remove Varnish From Wood?

Yes, white vinegar can act as a solvent and softens lacquer which in turn makes it possible to get rid of it. For the same reason, we advise you not to use vinegar as a cleaner. Due to its tough nature, using it frequently damages the varnish.

How Can I Know If My Lacquer Varnish Has Shellac?

Pour a little amount of lacquer thinner on a small portion of the wood. If the finish softens and dissolves partially, shellac is present. The thinner dissolves lacquer and softens shellac. Besides, denatured alcohol dissolves shellac while it only softens lacquer. This is why we recommend a combination of the two.

Can I Varnish Over Old Varnish Without Sanding?

While it is doable, we strongly advise you against it. Instead, sand the wood thoroughly before varnishing it all over again. It will make it look neater and cleaner.

Conclusion

There you have it folks, everything on how to remove lacquer from wood. You have 3 options you can choose from to achieve your goal. Considering the wooden item or surface you are working on, go for the method you feel suits you best.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.