Best Varnish Removers for Wood: Reviews & Buyer’s Guide

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 06/19/23 • 

Removing a finish like a varnish from wood can be messy and take time. However, with chemical strippers, you can remove varnish and other finishes from wood easily. In this post, we review three of the best finish stripper you can use to remove varnish from wood.

Our Best Varnish Removers for Wood

Our Best Varnish Remover Pick

1. Citristrip Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel

Citristrip Stripping Gel
$21.48 ($0.67 / Fl Oz)

The Citristrip is a stripping gel that can easily strip different finishes from wood from polyurethane, varnish, lacquer, shellac, latex, and oil-based paints. Apply the stripper and let it sit for a few hours for the best results. It is easy to use and works well when stripping different finishes.

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The tri-tip paint and varnish stripping gel is one of our favorite strippers for different wood finishes, including varnish, polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, and paint. It is formulated from citric acid and terpene, which makes it friendlier than other chemical strippers.

While it may be friendlier than other chemical strippers, citristrip will take up to 24 hours for it to work. However, it is effective and will effectively remove several coats of a finish. It’s also easy to apply and smells good, unlike other chemical strippers.

Fast Acting Varnish Stripper

2. MAX Strip Paint & Varnish Stripper

MAX Strip Paint and Varnish Stripper

The Max strip paint and varnish stripper works on different finishes from paints, polyurethane, varnish, shellac, and more. It's easy to apply, unlike other gel-based strippers, and it's still powerful when stripping different finishes.

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If you’re all about efficiency and saving time when stripping a finish, the Max strip paint and varnish stripper is your best bet. It has a watery consistency that can be rolled, sprayed, or brushed onto a varnished surface. Because it does not drip like gel-based strippers, it is not messy and stays right where you apply it.

The stripper is also non-toxic but removes paint and varnish finishes effectively. It’s also odorless and easier to apply when stripping a finish. The wait time will depend on the thickness of the varnish, so once you apply, keep checking to see how it’s progressing.

Best for Antique Wood Furniture

3. Minwax Antique Furniture Refinisher

Minwax Antique Furniture Refinisher
$22.98 ($0.72 / Fl Oz)

The Minwax Antique furniture refinisher combines different solvents and can easily strip varnish, shellac, and lacquer finishes from wood. The product works well and easily removes old finishes, and you can then use steel wool or a scraper to remove the melted finish. Also, remember to use it in a well-ventilated area.

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For a product that will cut through years of finishes built up upon each other, the Minwax antique refinisher will eat anything off of wood. It is very fast acting and starts working as soon as it is applied to the surface. The refinisher is quite powerful but is also more toxic and flammable.

You should use proper protection when working with this product. It’s easier to apply, and you can use steel wool to strip varnish or other finishes in no time. If you’re looking to refinish and restore antique furniture, this works as described.

Varnish Stripper for Wood Buying Guide

Types of Varnish Strippers

There are different types of varnish strippers you can use to strip the varnish off wood or any other surfaces.

The strongest chemical strippers for removing varnish are methylene chloride agents. These are very effective in stripping down even heavy coats of varnish with ease. Methylene chloride strippers also contain caustic chemicals to neutralize their strong effects. However, although they are more powerful, methylene chloride will irritate your skin and eyes if used without proper protection.

Citristrip Paint and Varnish Remover with a Brush

Citristrip Paint and Varnish Remover with a Brush

Another type of varnish stripper is N-Methyl-2-Pyrolidone (NMP). NMP stripper is used as a substitute for methylene chloride strippers because it is much safer and less toxic to use. However, it’s not as strong as methylene chloride, but it is still effective in removing varnish from wood.

Biochemical strippers use NMP and other plant-based solvents such as terpenes, which are extracted from pine, and citric acid from lemon or oranges. This type of stripper is the safest to use, and some, like our best option, Citristrip Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel, have a good odor when using it. However, they will take longer to strip down varnish or other finishes.

Stripping vs. Sanding a Finish

Sanding down a finish involves using sandpaper to sand to remove it from the wood. Usually, when sanding a finish, you’ll begin with rough grit sandpaper like, say, #60 grit and climb your way through finer sandpaper until you’re left with bare wood.

Scrubbing Varnish After Applying Citristrip Stripper

Scrubbing Varnish After Applying Citristrip Stripper

However, compared to stripping a finish using chemicals, sanding takes more time and effort. Sanding will also cut through the wood’s stain, so it might not be a great idea if you’re looking to preserve the stain.

Scrubbing Varnish with Steel Wool After Applying Citristrip Stripper

Scrubbing Varnish with Steel Wool After Applying Citristrip Stripper

Stripping is also messy, and this is one of the reasons most people opt to sand down a finish to remove it. However, it is faster, especially when you use stronger chemical strippers that work faster. Check out our in-depth guide on stripping vs. sanding a wood finish for more information.

Removing Varnish With Minwax Antique Furniture Refinisher

Removing Varnish With Minwax Antique Furniture Refinisher

How to Strip Varnish Using a Chemical Stripper


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