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Best Varnish Removers 2020 – Reviews & Top Picks

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Crown STRPA good varnish remover is an invaluable tool when it comes to refinishing or restoring almost anything. Whether you’re restoring a vehicle, furniture, or even just removing paint from an old cement porch, you will need a powerful stripper than can cut through many layers and get to the bare surface beneath. When checking out the local home improvement store, we were taken aback by just how many options there were to choose from. So, we decided to try them all.

After testing so many, we discovered that there are some noticeable differences between products, but you wouldn’t know that from the labels! Fumes, chemicals, effectiveness, and price, all vary drastically between brands. The following five reviews will compare the ones we thought performed the best overall, though we only recommend the first three.


A Quick Comparison of Our Favorites

ModelPriceSizeEditor Rating
Citristrip QCSG801Small - Citristrip QCSG801Best Overall
Check Price
32 FL OZ4.95/5
MAX Strip ESA-500Small - MAX Strip ESA-500Best Value
Check Price
32 FL OZ4.70/5
Crown STRP MaxSmall - Crown STRP MaxPremium Choice
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64 FL OZ4.55/5
Sunnyside 65732A Multi-StripSmall - Sunnyside 65732A MultiStrip
Check Price
64 FL OZ4.25/5
Sunnyside 63432
Check Price
32 FL OZ3.90/5

The 5 Best Varnish Removers – Reviews 2020

1. Citristrip Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel — Best Overall

Citristrip QCSG801

Most varnish removers have harsh chemical odors that can fill a room and make occupants nauseous. Citristrip paint and varnish stripping gel is not like those products, instead emitting a very pleasant citrus scent that makes your house smell fresh like oranges. Of course, you’re not purchasing this for the odor, so the performance is really what we’re looking for. The Citristrip stays wet and active for up to 24 hours, allowing it ample time to eat through many layers of paint and finish. Once it’s ready, you can simply wipe off the old paint with a rag and a brush.

We were amazed at how thoroughly this stripper removed all the paint from several items we tested. We had great luck with wood, metal, and masonry. This remover ate the paint off a brick in about two hours and it wiped right off.  It took much longer on a dresser, but the effect was the same. We made the mistake of leaving it on for over 24 hours on one item and it dried and became very difficult to remove. Otherwise, this was our favorite varnish remover and the one we recommend.

Pros
  • Nice citrus scent
  • Active for up to 24 hours
  • Good on wood, metal, and masonry
Cons
  • Dried out after 24 hours and was hard to remove

2. MAX Strip Paint & Varnish Stripper — Best Value

MAX Strip ESA-500

If you need an affordable stripper that’s devoid of harsh chemicals and noxious fumes, then the MAX strip ESA-500 paint and varnish stripper is an excellent option. We think its combination of affordability and effectiveness makes it the best varnish remover for the money. Unlike many varnish strippers, MAX Strip has no Methylene Chloride or NMP, and it can be safely used inside with no special ventilation. It’s also priced at the low end of the spectrum, though it performs as well as products that are considerably more expensive. It’s also safe for the skin and won’t cause any burns or damage.

Despite the lack of chemicals and foul smells, this stripper is excellent at removing paints and finishes. We had great luck on almost every kind of surface with this product, though you won’t want to use it on plastic. We tested it on brick, sidewalk, metal, and wood, and had similar results with each. It’s advertised as a no-drop gel, but that’s not how it felt. It was very runny and thin, making it difficult to work with. That was our only real complaint though, and overall, we think the MAX Strip remover is the best value.

Pros
  • No odor or harsh chemicals
  • Can be used on most materials
  • Affordably priced
Cons
  • Thin and runny – hard to work with

3. Crown STRP Max Paint Stripper Liquid — Premium Choice

Crown STRP Max

A professional-grade stripper that’s perfect for home improvement projects, the STRP Max liquid paint stripper from Crown is a premium product with superior stripping abilities. It has no harsh chemicals so it’s safe for indoor use, but it’s still pretty harsh on the skin and you should avoid directly inhaling the fumes. It does have a stronger chemical smell than some of the products we used, but it wasn’t overpowering. STRP Max works in as little as five minutes, so you can save time and get to the next step of your project.

In our testing, this remover was easy to apply and covered a large area. It worked well on vertical surfaces as well. The only problem was that it tended to evaporate very quickly, so we had to keep reapplying it, unlike other products that can be left for up to 24 hours and stay wet. After about 30 minutes, several layers of old paint and clear coat were easily wiped from an old end table we were restoring. It took a bit longer to remove paint from cement, but after two hours the result was the same.

Pros
  • No harsh chemicals
  • Works in as little as 5 minutes
  • Removes paint from many surfaces
Cons
  • Evaporates very quickly

4. Sunnyside Multi-Strip Paint & Varnish Remover

Sunnyside 65732A MultiStrip

This multi-strip paint and varnish remover from Sunnyside can remove up to 15 layers of paint and varnish in one go! Pretty impressive by any standards. While we did get good performance from this product in certain applications, this claim of removing 15 layers seems quite overrated. It’s also supposed to be able to remove two-part epoxies and urethane. These things it did seem to accomplish, though not without some headache and elbow grease. Of course, we never mind putting a little manpower behind our work!

When it arrived, the Sunnyside remover was very separated. That’s fine. We took a mixer to it to get a good consistency again, but we were quite disappointed when the solution refused to mix smooth. This may have lent to the very spotty performance we saw when using this stripper. Applied across an old tabletop, some spots were removed down to the bare wood while other splotches seemed to be almost completely unaffected. Where it worked, it was excellent. But we aren’t comfortable recommending a product that only partially works. Worse, if you leave this on too long it will dry and can ruin the item you’re stripping!

Pros
  • Can remove urethane and epoxies
  • Can remove up to 15 layers of paint
Cons
  • The product came separated and didn’t mix well
  • Hit or miss performance
  • Can dry out if left too long

5. Sunnyside Paint & Varnish Remover Gel

Sunnyside 63432 Gel

This two-minute advanced stripper is billed as the ultimate paint and varnish remover. Two-minute performance was intriguing, and we hoped for the best. The price tag is up there, making this one of the most expensive varnish removers that we tried. Unfortunately, the performance didn’t live up to the price tag. We liked the gel formula which was easy to apply and wasn’t runny or messy like some products. That was about the end of our positive experience with this remover.

We used this on a masonry wall that had some graffiti on it and we were surprised at how effective it was. Emboldened, we continued our testing on other materials. We did not see consistent results. On wood, we had patches where it worked to some degree and whole areas that seemed untouched. Applying it to metal to remove the finish from a car fender, we saw zero effect. This was the most disappointing finding for this remover and leads us to believe it’s far overpriced compared to competing products that live up to expectations.

Pros
  • Begins working in just 2 minutes
  • The gel formula is easy to work with
Cons
  • Overpriced
  • Only worked sometimes
  • Some paints were unaffected

Buyer’s Guide

Now you’ve read about how our five favorite varnish removers stacked up against each other. Before making a purchase and getting started on your project, we will go over a few things to keep in mind that will help you choose the right product and make sure you’re prepared when you start.

Harsh Chemicals and Fumes

In the old days, most varnish removers contained harsh chemicals like Methylene Chloride which aren’t good for your health and can fill a house up with dangerous vapors quickly, leaving it full of odors for days. Today, these stripping products are removing all the harsh chemicals and odors to make them safer and less hazardous. This means they can easily be used indoors, or anywhere else you may require their help. Some formulas are even skin-safe, and you can use them without the worry of risking your health.

Effectiveness

At the end of the day, the most important factor to us is how well the stripper removes paint and varnish. It doesn’t matter how good it smells if it doesn’t do what’s intended. Some of these products are touted as fast acting and can start removing paint and finish in as little as 2-5 minutes. Others can stay active for many hours, allowing you to leave them on to continue eating through layer after layer of paint and varnish so you can wipe it all off at once. If you have to go through many layers to get to the base surface, look for a product that can be left on for extended periods to eat through multiple layers. On the other hand, if you just want it to be done quickly and you only have a few layers of finish to chew through, opt for the quick-acting formula instead.

Where Can it Be Used?

Most varnish removers today are multi-surface capable, so you’re not restricted to using it on just wood or metal. That said, very few are safe for use on plastic and will melt it if left on. Some of these strippers are good for just the basic wood, metal, and masonry. This is fine for a majority of removal work, but if you have something unique such as paint on glass or fiberglass, look for a stripper that specifically names these as safe surfaces to apply on.

How Long Do You Leave it On?

We already mentioned how some products can be left on longer for improved effect. That said, you must be careful not to leave them on too long. In our experience, even products that can be left on for long periods like 24 hours will gum up and harden into a difficult to remove and poor looking finish that will increase your workload. Alternatively, some products were much thinner and had a tendency to evaporate pretty quickly. These solutions can’t be left on very long and will require constant reapplication until it takes effect.

Featured Image Credit: STRP Max Liquid Paint Stripper, Amazon

Cleanup and Prep

Before you get started on your project, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind concerning cleanup and prep. For instance, even the “skin safe” formulas have chemicals that you probably don’t want absorbed through your skin and into your bloodstream. For this reason, we suggest always wearing vinyl or latex gloves while working with varnish removers. Moreover, keep in mind that despite not having the harsh chemical fumes of yesteryear’s products, you still don’t want to inhale these fumes directly, and we suggest wearing a breathing mask while working with them. You’ll also want to keep some soap and water on hand in case things get messy and the stripper ends up on a surface you don’t want it on.

Wiping Off the Finish

After you let the stripper soak into the product and start removing those layers of finish, you will need to help it along by hand. Generally, a rag or sponge is enough to remove a majority of the paint and varnish if the remover you choose did its job properly. For those stubborn areas, you may need a brush or some steel wool. Be careful not to scratch the surface beneath. Use light strokes applying the minimum pressure needed to remove the last layers of paint. Remember, if the first application didn’t achieve the desired results, you can reapply it and repeat the process. If the first coat removes several layers, then the second application may remove several more and get you down to the bare surface beneath.

Conclusion

With so many paint and varnish removers on the market to choose from, it can be a confusing decision to make. We hope that the reviews in this article will help simplify the process for you and make the choice easy. We will quickly summarize our recommendations once more. Overall, the Citristrip paint and varnish stripping gel was our favorite. Instead of harsh chemical odors, it permeates a fresh citrus scent. More importantly, it’s very effective at removing paint and finish from many surfaces, and it can be left to work for up to 24 hours for increased effectiveness.

In a close second, the MAX Strip ESA-500 was free of odors and toxic chemicals and is priced very affordably. It can be used on almost any material, and we had great success with it across the board. Our final recommendation, the Crown STRP Max paint stripper liquid, starts working in just five minutes and easily removed the finish of every surface we used it on. Like our other recommendations, it’s free of harsh chemicals and safe for indoor use. All three are great choices, but you must choose just one!


Featured Image Credit: STRP Max Liquid Paint Stripper, Amazon

About the Author Adam Harris

Hi there! My name is Adam and I write for HealthyHandyman. I have a great passion for writing about everything related to tools, home improvement, and DIY. In my spare time, I'm either fishing, playing the guitar, or spending quality time with my beloved wife. You'll also often find me in my workshop working on some new project!