How to Use an Orbital Sander to Remove Paint

In this article, we are going to talk about how to use an orbital sander to remove paint. That’s something you might need to learn if you want to refurbish some old furniture, give a new look to some indoor room, or clean up the outer walls of your old wooden house. As you will learn, using an orbital sander for this task will not always be the best option: there might be better alternatives. Sanding will remain one of the necessary steps to take nonetheless.

In short, if there are many layers of paint, you will need to strip those away first by using paint stripper and a good scraping tool. After that, you will use an orbital sander for sanding (i.e. to remove paint residuals and to level the surface). If the paint isn’t that thick, or you don’t need to get down to bare wood, you can get away with only using an orbital sander.

Now, let’s get down to the process.

1. Test the Paint for Lead

“old painted wood texture” by mopc76 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you want to work on the outer walls of your house, you need to check if there’s any lead in the paint. Lead in paint was outlawed in 1978 in the US, so if you have a very old house, you definitely need to test. To do that, you could either buy some lead tests and do it yourself, or call a qualified professional to do the job for you. The latter option is more expensive, but the results will be 100% accurate, while those tests you can get aren’t that reliable.

If you find out that there’s lead in any of those layers of paint, then you should definitely not use an orbital sander to remove it. You don’t want to generate toxic dust. Instead, you should use a heat gun or chemical strippers (we will talk about this in the following steps). In both cases, make sure you wear the right gear and most important an appropriate respirator. You can find more instructions here:

If you are not confident about doing this job yourself, hire a qualified professional to deal with it.

2. Decide the Approach

The next step is deciding what kind of route to follow. It comes down to two things. First, the state of the paint and the number of layers you are dealing with. Second, the type of result you want to get.

First case scenario: the paint isn’t too thick and you don’t need to go all the way to the bare wood because you will paint again over it.  You simply want to remove loose paint and obtain a smooth surface so you can paint over it again. In this case, you can directly use an orbital sander to remove the amount of paint needed.

On the other hand, if you find out that there are many layers of paint and you want to expose the wood underneath to finish it with a clear coat or other finishes, then you should either use a heat gun or a paint stripper. After dealing with the paint, you will use the orbital sander to smooth the surface before finishing it.

3. Using an Orbital Sander to Remove Paint

“Bosch GEX1251AE Orbital Sander” by toolstop is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you chose this approach, you need to do a couple of things before you start using your sander. First, you will need to wear appropriate safety equipment. I am referring to safety goggles and a breathing mask to protect yourself from the dust. Second, you have to connect your sander to a dust removal unit (for example a vacuum bag). Furthermore, if you are working indoor, it’s probably a good idea to cover up your furniture to protect it from the dust and seal up any doorways to prevent the dust from getting to other rooms.

Before you start using the sander, it’s probably a good idea to hand scrape as much as you can. This will make the next step quicker. After taking these preliminary steps, you can start working with the sander. An orbital sander spins in circles as you move it over the paint. Don’t work too much on the same spot to avoid leaving any marks on the surface. Always keep the tool moving. Don’t press down too much on the tool, or it will stop spinning. Frequently clean the surface with a rag to prevent the dusting from clogging the sandpaper.

Speaking of sandpaper, what kind of grit do you need for this job? I would suggest starting with a coarse grit (something like 40-80), and then work your way to finer grits, up to 220 grit sandpaper. You can stop earlier, whenever you reach a satisfying result.

4. Using Paint Stripper or a Heat Gun to Remove Paint

“heat gun” by Epakai is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As we said before, you need to use chemical strippers or heaters to remove all the layers of old paint and expose the wood surface. Both of them have some pros and cons. If you decide to use a heat gun, there will be no dust involved in the process. On the other hand, they can generate fumes, so don’t forget to wear a breathing mask for those. Paint strippers also don’t produce dust, but they can be quite slow at doing their job and they are toxic.

Now a couple of tips to get the best out of them. With heat guns, the process is pretty simple: you will direct the hot air that they generate on the paint, wait for it to loosen up, and scrape it up with a hand scraper. The trick here is to use the right temperature that will soften the paint quickly and at the same time that won’t generate toxic fumes and harm the wood underneath.

With paint strippers, the process is even easier. You simply need to apply a layer on the wood, let it do its thing, and when the paint starts falling off you can remove it with a scraper. You will probably need to apply multiple layers before the stripper starts doing anything. Just keep applying one layer at a time, let it dry, and go at it again until the paint starts bubbling up. It will take some time to get down to the wood if you are dealing with multiple layers of paint.

With both these methods, you will need a quality hand scraper. When scraping, be careful: you don’t want to gouge the wood.

5. Sanding

Before beginning with this step, you need to go through the same steps I talked about in paragraph 3 (safety equipment, sealing your environment, etc.). These passages are very important, so don’t skip them.

Before sanding, make sure you removed up to 95% of the paint with the stripping you did earlier. If there’s too much paint remaining, it will clog up the sandpaper, making it dull and unusable. A good thing you can do to remove any stripper or paint residue is to clean up the surface using a rag and mineral spirits. Make sure to let the wood dry before you start sanding.

Then, for the sanding process, again you can refer to what we talked about in paragraph 3. Start with coarse sandpaper and move up to 150 to 220 grit for a smooth finish. Always keep the tool moving and use a light touch to avoid gouging the wood.

Finally, clean up the surface of any dust with a dry cloth, and get ready for finishing.

6. Finishing

After getting down to bare wood, you will need to give it a good finish for protection against dust and weathering.

If you don’t like the wood appearance, you can cover it up with a surface finish. For example, you could use a polyurethane wood finish, some common paint, or lacquer. These are especially good for outdoor projects. If you want to keep the wood exposed, go for a penetrating finish. Common choices here are wood varnish and wood oils.

Follow these steps for a perfect finish:

  • First, the staining process. Apply a generous layer of wood stain, let it saturate the wood, and wipe off any surplus. Let it dry completely before moving on. If you don’t want to give your wood a new color, skip this step.
  • Second, the sealing process. Apply a sealant to keep the wood protected from weathering. You could also use a stain and sealing combo product. Either way, let it dry and give it a light sanding before finishing.
  • Finally, the finishing step. You can use whatever finish you like here. Oil-based wood varnish is a good choice.

Safety Tips

We already talked about this here and there during the article. The things you need to protect yourself from when removing paint are dust, toxic vapors, and chemicals. Let’s talk a little bit more about the latter.

Chemicals are nasty. They are connected to cases of cancer and liver damage. To avoid that, you will need to protect your skin and lungs. Keep your skin and eyes fully covered when operating with paint strippers. Get some chemical-resistant gloves (PVC gloves are a good choice). The most important thing is wearing a respirator with a chemical cartridge to protect your lungs from toxic fumes.

Final Thoughts 

As explained in the article, there are several approaches you can take when removing paint. Orbital sanders are a good choice for the sanding part of the process. However, they aren’t always the best choice to remove paint in the first place. Even with coarse sandpaper, going through several layers of paint will take forever with an orbital sander. In that case, you will need to use a chemical stripper or a heat gun. Keep that in mind.

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