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Paint Stripping Head-to-Head: Which is the Best Finish Remover?

by on Sep 6, 2018

Photo: Amber Dickson

 My family moved into our current home last year and knew that come summer, the deck would need some attention. The whole surface was in rough shape.  The latex deck coating had flaked off in large areas and in the places where the finish was still present, it was not well-adhered to the surface. This project was going to require more than a quick clean and re-coat, so I decided to find out which deck stripper would do the best job.

After surviving my first New England winter, I really did not want to spend the entire New England summer sanding down the deck.  Summer in New Hampshire lasts for approximately one week and I was ready to hit the beach.  An internet search revealed several deck stain and finish removers available to non-professionals.  Perhaps this would be the key to an easy deck re-finish.             

Paint in need of refinishing
Here’s where I started – yikes!

 The removers fall into two different categories depending upon the mechanism by which they work.  One category is caustic deck strippers.  These contain corrosive chemicals that break down the finish such as sodium hydroxide, (the chemical name of lye) or sodium chloride.

The second category is solvent deck strippers.  A solvent deck stripper dissolves the bond between the wood and the finish.  They contain solvents such as 1, 3 dioxolane.

weathered deck - before deck stripper
Photo: Amber Dickson

If you are researching a product and want to know more about the chemicals it contains, this website is helpful.  Or, another option is to do what I did and call Mom.  Fair warning, this will probably only work if your mother is a chemist. Luckily mine is.  

After looking up the product’s SDS (Safety Data Sheet), I chose two strippers, one from each category, and put them to the test.

deck stripper in progress - removing paint from wood
Photo: Amber Dickson

I used Behr Premium Wood Stain and Finish Stripper, a caustic stripper, on half of the deck.  The instructions call for application with a synthetic roller.  The stripper was cloudy and had the consistency of jello that was only half-way set.  The label is quite clear about using safety glasses, gloves, and other precautions against direct contact.  If reading the warnings does not convince you of its potency, the smell will.  One whiff is all it takes to realize how strong this stuff is. 

deck finish remover in progress
Photo: Amber Dickson

I applied the stripper and kept close watch for the next 45 minutes.  When areas would start to dry, per the directions, I applied a light misting of water.   I let the stripper sit for the maximum amount of time suggested then scrubbed with a stiff brush and used a garden sprayer to rinse.  Behr does not recommend using a power washer.  Much of the finish lifted.  Much did not.  I then applied the recommended Behr All-in-One Wood Cleaner to neutralize the chemical reaction and brighten the wood.

deck with finish mostly removed
Photo: Amber Dickson

Next, I used JoMax Stain and Finish Deck Stripper, a solvent stripper, on the remaining portion of the deck.  This product was clear and thinner.  It also has a strong odor and plenty of warnings about taking precautions for safety.   I followed the suggested timetables and reapplied the stripper to areas that started to dry.  Per the directions, I used the stiff brush on the surface before rinsing.  The label says that either a garden hose or a pressure washer on a low setting can be used.

This product showed much less efficacy.  As I was rinsing with the power washer, I could tell that some of the finish had dissolved but there was no noticeable change.  It was thinner in areas but still very much present.

damaged deck boards
Photo: Amber Dickson

Which Deck Stripper Was Best?

As it turns out, neither stripper proved to be a magical solution and there was a fair amount of sanding needed after all.  After sanding, I applied Ben Moore’s Arborcoat semi-solid stain in a custom color to match the house. 

refinished deck
Photo: Amber Dickson

This was not an easy test case.  I certainly challenged the chemical strippers as the existing latex deck finish was heavy-duty and very thick.  It seems that a thinner finish would lift more fully.  Of the two, the Behr product worked much better though it did not provide overwhelming results and took a fair amount of elbow-grease in both the application process and the physical removal by scrubbing.  Also, it required an additional neutralizing step. 

In the end, the deck is now protected for another year.  It was in rough shape to start with so no one is going to think it’s brand new – but it has served us well this summer and will live to fight another day come winter. 

snacks on the finishe deck
Photo: Amber Dickson

Interested in another way to spiff up your deck? Check out this post

before and after deck photo

You can use paint stripper to clean up old hardware, or just boil it (yes – we’re serious)!

How to restore painted hardware

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