Stripping Car Paint By Hand

Article by Mark Trotta

Although more time-consuming than other methods, stripping your old car paint by hand has several advantages, mainly cost - it's far less expensive than media blasting or acid dipping, which leaves money in your restoration budget for other needed items, such as air tools or a garage compressor. Another advantage of hand-stripping paint is you don't have to transport the car anywhere to get it done.

stripping paint off a C3 Corvette

Stripping paint by hand, also called mechanical stripping, can be done with a combination of pneumatic or electric grinders and sanders, and plain old sandpaper and steel wool. Stripping discs mounted on an electric hand drill are also effective. Combine these with a chemical paint remover, and you can strip your old paint fairly inexpensively.

Chemical Stripping

Chemical paint removers are toxic and messy, but with proper ventilation and proper protective gear, are quite effective at removing multiple layers of paint. Chemical strippers are usually offered in brush-on applications, in liquid or gel forms. Two gallons is usually enough to do a medium-sized car. Aircraft-quality paint stripper works best.

Because chemical strippers are toxic, precautions must be taken. If you're working in a small, closed workspace like your garage, keep the door open. Read all warning labels. If you're working outside, stay in the shade, as the chemicals evaporate quickly in the sun.

Preparation for Paint Stripping

Remove any parts of the car that do not need to be stripped (chrome, rubber, etc.) Use duct tape or masking tape to cover anything else. If you are removing paint from around windows, cover the glass with plastic sheeting. Any small areas missed can be sanded later on. Scuff the surface of the car with 40-grit sandpaper. This allows the stripper to be absorbed better and work quicker.

Before you start applying the paint stripper, lay plastic drop cloths around the entire work area. Now put on your respirator mask, rubber gloves, and safety glasses.

Pour a good amount of paint stripper in an open container. The stripper is applied to the car with a wide paintbrush, working in one direction only. Avoid seams, as the stripper may seep through after you've applied paint. That would certainly lift your fresh paint. Be careful around rubber and plastic as they may be damaged.

In a few minutes, you will see the chemical reaction working. The paint appears to bubble up. Do not try to remove it right away. Leave the stripper to work and soften the paint, according to the directions.

The amount that the paint softened will be uneven. Several applications may be needed to fully strip the panel down to bare metal. Remove the softened paint with a plastic scraper. You can use a metal scraper, just remember you may scratch the metal underneath and make more work for yourself!

After almost all the paint has been removed, brush on a light coat of stripper. Wait, then rub with a steel wool pad. This removes the smaller, stubborn pieces of paint. When this is done, wipe the car's surface with lacquer thinner to remove any dried stripper.

Air-powered and Electric Sanders

Now it's time to start sanding. Having a dual action (DA) sander is a big plus here, but if you don't have one, you can still get the same results using 120-grit sandpaper (80-grit sanding discs with the DA). An alternative is to use sanding discs (Scotch-Brite bristle discs) on your electric or air drill. The advantage with these is they are made of plastic, which eliminate the flying wires from steel wire discs.

Scotch-Brite bristle disc

Keep in mind that metal can be distorted and gouged if the sandpaper is too coarse, or if the air tools are running at too high of an RPM. This is why a DA sander is best.

Remove all remaining paint. This should leave a surface on which primer can adhere.

old car restoration tools

Read: Best Air Tools For Car Restoration

Stripping car paint by hand is another example of doing it yourself, taking your time, and saving money.

stripping car paint by hand

Read: Body Panel Repair and Painting