Stripping Car Paint By Hand

Article by Mark Trotta

Although more time consuming than other methods, stripping an old car's paint by hand has one big advantage, and that's cost.

stripping paint off an old car

Stripping car paint by hand is far less expensive than media blasting or acid dipping. Another advantage of hand-stripping paint is you don't have to transport the car anywhere to get it done.

There are two methods of DIY car paint removal; chemical stripping and mechanical stripping.

Chemical Stripping

Chemical paint strippers are usually offered in brush-on applications, in liquid or gel forms. They are designed to remove all kinds of paint, including acrylic, lacquer, and epoxy. Two gallons is usually enough to do a medium-sized car.

With proper ventilation, proper protective gear, and patience, they're quite effective at removing your old car's paint.

Methylene Chloride Ban

The performance of chemical paint strippers depend on their ability to penetrate through multiple layers. A chemical called Methylene Chloride does this very well, unfortunately it is also very toxic to the human body.

Methylene Chloride was banned from consumer paint strippers in 2019. This is why automotive paint strippers aren't as good as they used to be. So, with modern paint strippers, it will take multiple coats to remove all your car's paint.

Non-Methylene Chloride Stripper

Several companies have offered a version of non-methylene chloride paint stripper, but availability is spotty.


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. Safety gear should include a 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 any fresh paint. Be careful around rubber and plastic as they may be damaged.

Let The Chemicals Work

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 second coat of stripper. Let it soak in, then rub with a steel wool pad. This removes the smaller, stubborn pieces of paint. When all this is done, wipe the car's surface with lacquer thinner to remove any dried stripper.

When using chemical paint remover, avoid excessive sun. Higher temperatures will evaporate the product before it can be effective.


Mechanical Paint Stripping

Tools and equipment needed for mechanical paint stripping include an air-powered or electric grinder and sander, and plain old sandpaper and steel wool. Strip-discs mounted on an electric hand drill are also effective. Combine these with a chemical paint remover, and you can strip an old car's paint fairly inexpensively.

Electric Angle Grinder

One of the best ways to mechanically strip car paint is by using a 4-1/2" electric angle grinder with either bristle discs or strip discs. The advantage with these is they are made of plastic, which eliminate the flying wires from steel wire discs.

strip disc attachment for automotive body repair

Read: Angle Grinder Attachments For Automotive Repair

Scotch-Brite bristle disc

Wire Cup Brushes

Although much more abrasive, wire wheels will quickly strip paint off an old car.

stripping car paint by hand

Twisted vs Straight Wire Wheels

Straight and thin bristles are less abrasive and not as aggressive as twisted bristle wheels. For fastest paint and rust removal, use twisted bristle wire wheels.

stripping car paint by hand

If you don't have an angle grinder, an alternative is to use bristle discs on an electric drill. This will be much more time consuming.

Now it's time to start final 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).

NOTE: Metal can be distorted and gouged if the air tools are running at too high of an RPM. This is why a DA sander is best.

stripping car paint by hand

Stripping car paint by hand is another example of doing it yourself, spending time, and saving money. It'll leave room in your restoration budget for other needed items, such as air tools or a garage compressor.


Safety Concerns

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.


Related Articles:

Best Angle Grinder For Automotive

Angle Grinder Attachments For Automotive Repair

Best Air Tools For Old Car Restoration

Automotive Body Repair and Paint