Alcohol is my Best Friend

Remember back when Robert and I stripped our fireplace mantle and I was in love with the Citristrip we used? Well, that relationship has run its course and after this last furniture stripping project, it’s time for a breakup. Sorry Citristrip. It’s you, not me. And just like every difficult break-up, I turned to alcohol to get me through it. Denatured alcohol that is. (Har har. Come on now, this is a family-friendly blog.)
I was trying to strip the wood stain from this chair but it turned into a gunky mess! Little did I know that denatured alcohol to strip wood was the secret I was missing!
Yesterday I posted about my mid-strip progress, or lack thereof, and I finally had to call it a day after 24 hours of scraping the stubborn gummy residue that made a complete mess and still didn’t want to budge. Citristrip did great on latex paint before, but it was no match for 40 year old varnish. The Citristrip label said to clean up the residue with mineral spirits, but after hours of applying, scrubbing, and a few dollars shorter later, it still wasn’t much better.
Here’s a shot of the chair legs right after applying the Citristrip. I was blissfully unaware at this point. I was so mad about the gummy gunk later that I didn’t even take a picture of it. Trust me on this one; it was bad.
Ever have this kind of mess when trying to strip wood stain? No one likes a sticky, gunky mess!
I searched high and low through resource after resource to figure out a solution for the disaster I created and came up with a few solutions but nothing that really worked. Several sources I found said to try another coat or two of stripper. And my thoughts were “No freaking way! I can’t do it again. I need a shortcut.” (Shortcuts usually lead to more disaster when it comes to home improvement, but I proved that lesson wrong in this scenario…thankfully.)
I reached the point where I didn’t even care that the furniture still had some leftover stain and varnish. I just wanted the residue gone so that I could prime and be done with it. So if you find yourself in a gummy, gunky stripping mess like I did, here is the solution that I figured out through trial and error.
The answer to my Citristrip disaster:
This Klean Strip denatured alcohol saved my project! It makes the stripping process SO much easier!
Denatured Alcohol! Check out that beautiful gunk-free wood! Mineral spirits didn’t work. Goof off didn’t work. Goo Gone didn’t work. Sanding didn’t work. Warm soapy water made it stickier. Additional stripper just caused a bigger mess (these chairs had a LOT of varnish). But when I swiped on the denatured alcohol, I could almost hear angels singing. Saying a little prayer for patience probably helped too. So after a good wipe down of denatured alcohol and using a small brass wire brush to work it in the little crevices, I finally saw light at the end of the tunnel. To be safe since there are a few varnish spots still left, I’m giving the wood a coat of oil based primer, Kilz Original.
I’ve never been so happy to take an after shot in my life.
Before using denatured alcohol to strip wood stain on this chair.
After using denatured alcohol to strip wood stain on this chair -- look at how clean that is!
I’m so glad to finally be done with that first step, but whenever I have a DIY fiasco happen, I have to look on the bright side that at least I learned a skill to always keep in mind for any other projects from here on out.
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  1. Bless you Lauren! I have been fighting all afternoon with a sewing cabinet (probably much like the one described above). We had gotten it from my mother in law many years ago, and I just wanted to give it a quick face lift, but after redoing the top and one of the panels in front, it looked so wonderful that I decided to go all out and take it down to the wood and really do it right. When I started the project, I just went over the two surfaces I was most interested in with a “mouse” sander and took it down to the wood, but while at the store getting additional stains, I got sucked in to doing it “right” and stripping the finish off. Having plenty of outdoor space to work in, I bought the hard core, big nasty chemical variety. Trust me, CritiStrip is not the only culprit in the goo game! It bubbled and boiled like I thought it was supposed to, but turned into the stickiest, stubbornest, boil your skin in a split-second mess that can be imagined! No amount of brushes, steel wool, elbow grease, tears, etc. will separate it from it’s host. I’m far too exhausted tonight, but first thing in the morning, I’m heading back to the store, walking with blinders past all the distracting “great ideas” and buying a large container of denatured alcohol, thanks to you! (Well, I might get a few packages of sandpaper for my mouse, cause that’s the only way I’m taking any finishes off in the future!) Thank you so much!

  2. Thank you! You are an angel! I haven’t tried the denatured alcohol but I’ve tried every one of the other things you had tried before the denatured alcohol. Just your sharing is a blessing in itself because I had no idea what to try. So off to the store I go.

  3. I’m glad I found this post. I have a CitriStrip mess on my front porch in way of a chest of drawers I’m redoing. I’m totally exhausted from the mess. My niece used the CS on her kitchen cabinets and she loved it that it did a phenomenal job. So tomorrow I’m going to pick up the denatured alcohol and pray I can get this thing finished. It’s a beautiful solid oak piece. So I’m praying it works so I can get it done & get on with life inside the house on projects I need to finish. Thanks for everyone who has posted. I’m just praying this other will work. Otherwise, I have a gummy mess all over the boxes & rags that need to be thrown out. 🙂 Possibly the chest, but I hope not.

  4. We have a stair case banister that has about a million coats of paint, and it’s now just a big CitriStrip mess of goo. We are trying the denatured alcohol, but so far it’s not much help. Does letting it sit before scraping/scrubbing help?

    1. Oh no! You can maybe try a different brand of paint stripper. I’ve been discovering that CitriStrip seems to be the biggest culprit.

  5. I literally came across this by accident. What a blessing. I have been fighting with a bathroom window all week. The only way I can describe it is melted chewing gum. I am leaving to get some alcohol right now. Thank you! Carolyn

  6. I am going to run to the store and get denatured alcohol as soon as possible. Citristrip is terrible! I tried using it on all of the trim in our entire house… worst idea ever! Now our whole house is full of this gummy mess.

      1. This is where I’m at right now.

        Gotta run to the store now to try this.

        Since my trim and case moldings are all gooey from the citristrip and I’ve added that mineral spirits to try and remove it like the instructions say. (Two days of pulling my hair out) Since this is all done inside. Any feedback on to how to now apply it (i.e. With what) and remove it using the alcohol? How long does it need to sit before removing?


    1. I would try to get rid as much of the gooey mess as you can, but rubbing it down with the alcohol should help get rid of the rest.

  7. Hi Lauren,
    I was wondering what your opinion would be. I used Citristrip on my mother’s staircase. I only did the bottom post and that has the most detail with grooves and an ornate molding. It had layers of paint and then I discovered the stain and varnish at three bottom of it all. It seemed like the citristrip worked well on the newer paints but the older(lead based) paints I am sure, turned to liquid goo. I applied three oats so far and I just can’t do another. I was always going to repaint. It just had sooooo much paint and it was messy looking. Anyway, I am left with tacky goo all over it. I used the citristrip because my mom has asthma. It hasn’t bothered her at all. My question is in your opinion, is the denatured alcohol very fumey like mineral spirits? I may not have a choice but to use it. I just don’t know how to proceed in stripping the rest of the staircase now after the citristrip mess! Possibly a heat gun. Ugh! Thanks! Your post was a blessing. At least I know it wasn’t only me.

    1. I am SO sorry I’m just now seeing this post, Susan! The denatured alcohol does have fumes, so you do need to be careful about that. I wish there was some other way, but everything else I tried that didn’t have fumes was a big giant fail. A heat gun would probably be your best bet.

    2. Do not use a heat gun! Especially indoors on old lead paint. It will make lead vapor in the air and is very dangerous. My coworker several years ago wanted to strip the giant Victorian baseboards in her tiny bedroom. I even told her to be careful…well, she was in the hospital for two weeks with lead poisoning and was seriously ill. On top of that, once she furnished her tiny bedroom, there was barely any of the baseboards showing.

      1. Woah! That is so scary! Thank you for sharing that, Elizabeth! Yes, definitely test for lead paint before stripping anything.

  8. You literally just saved my life. After hours of tears and a full meltdown I’m headed out to get some denatured alcohol.

  9. Lauren, I love you. Six Queen Anne dining chairs with five layers of paint (my own doing) and although I do like Citistrip I didn’t think I could handle the mess. Thank you!!

    1. Whew! Nope nope nope. I wouldn’t be able to handle it either. So glad this little trick could help. Such a nightmare! Over a year later, and I’m still scarred. Haha!

  10. OH MAN!!!!!!!! THANK YOU!! I loved using it on my table top but ran out of steam on the base and 4 chairs…and I tried FEVERISHLY to get what I left, off. I will buy some of this too!! I am so excited now!
    Thank you

    1. It’s the biggest paint in the butt ever, right?! I think I’m scarred for life. Haha! Glad my little tip could help. I was pulling my hair out!

  11. I had the same problem! I have a beautiful old dresser COVERED with gummy gunk that won’t wash or sand off. I hate Citri-Strip! I dried the mineral spirits and they did nothing. I just tried your trick with the denatured alcohol, and it softened it somewhat, but I am still left hacking at the residue with a metal painter’s five-in-one tool. What did you use to remove the residue, please? Scrubbing just doesn’t seem to be doing it. I wonder if it depends on the nature of the original finish interacting with the Citri-Strip.
    Also, what will you try instead for a stripper? I was trying to avoid toxic chemicals, and now I have had to buy and use many more chemicals than if I had just used an effective stripper in the first place!
    Thank you for posting & happy stripping, lol.

    1. Oh no! The denatured alcohol really did the trick for me so I’m sorry to hear you’re still dealing with it. I did a little research and found that this stripper is the highest rated: http://amzn.to/1MTYTK4 It’s supposed to be an alternative to harsh chemical strippers too.

      I haven’t tried it yet myself though, since I finally just broke down and primed and painted my chairs instead. I hope that helps!

  12. I just used CitriStrip today to remove flaking stain/shellac/varnish from my sewing cabinet (all hardwood, huge and heavy with tons of storage–a STEAL for $20 from a thrift store). The top was in bad shape, to the point where I couldn’t use it uncovered for actual sewing because it would snag the fabric. Anyhow, finally got around to stripping it, and yes, I got “goo.” Lots and lots of it! I scraped with a flexible metal scraper and wiped it on paper towels and cardboard over THREE separate coats of stripper! What a mess! But, I’m sitting here right now next to an awesome sewing cabinet with a beautifully clear top. I will use alcohol wipes to remove any extra residue, then sand the top. I will probably restain this piece because the wood grain is pretty. My advice, stick with it until you get all the goo gone! Still way easier than sanding, IMO.

    1. Good to know, Tina! Maybe I just need more patience. I’m thinking I’ll try a different stripper next time. Maybe the Citristrip and I just don’t get along.

      1. you can’t let it sit too long. My first experience was on a rocker, think I left it on 24 hrs and that was my problem.

  13. I also have a waxy goo after using citristrip. If I use denatured alcohol, can the piece still be stained or have a clear coat over the wood? I didn’t really want to paint these chairs, but might have to.

    1. I ended up painting mine but that’s really only because I still had a good bit of stubborn varnish left on them. If the varnish is splotchy on yours, I would paint. If you can manage to get all of the varnish off, you can certainly try staining them. And the good thing is, if the stain doesn’t go well, you can always try painting over it then.

  14. Hi Lauren, I have been refinishing furniture for the past 40 years…and after reading your note with the stripper, I must commend you by saying…it is never too late to teach “an older refinisher” a new trick! I am stripping my kitchen cabinets..using the hard core stripper on the doors outside which is not an issue with good airflow. I too started stripping the indoors areas with EZ strip, Citristrip and and Back to Nature Redi-strip methods and luckily my hair is still intact!!!I was to the point of closing off the rooms and venting the fumes and using the hard core stripper inside. If I use the denatured alcohol I will need to vent as well. My question to you….do you think the denatured alcohol could be used as a first step and forget all the other products? Now after completing the chair project, have you used the alcohol in place of everything else? Thank you, SueP

    1. I’m so glad I could teach “an old refinisher” a new trick! Haha! I think this one for me was sheer dumb luck out of total desperation. I was so sick of that icky goo after several days. It’ll try your patience for sure. If I’d known the drama it was going to cause, I would have just primed the chairs with Kilz in the very beginning and avoided stripping altogether. I haven’t used the alcohol on anything else because actually…I feel like I’m scarred for life when it comes to stripping furniture now. Maybe one day I’ll attempt it again. But I’ll definitely TEST a spot first before applying it to the entire piece. Ahh! Lesson learned. Hope your project ends up well, Sue! 🙂

    1. Yay! So glad it helped! I know the feeling very well. I was ready to throw those chairs in the TRASH! Thank goodness I didn’t. Stay strong, Kim. 😉

  15. Update: Out of desperation, I went and bought some denatured alcohol. So far, it is helping! Thanks for posting this article and sharing your experience! Hopefully my table won’t burst into flames. LOL Seriously though, I have found several other videos and articles recommending the denatured alcohol.

    Have a great day!

      1. I use denatured alcohol to clean furniture before I paint and prime all the time. I guess I should have read those instructions! To make you feel better, the paint company I follow – General Finishes – recommends cleaning all products with a 50/50 mix of denatured alcohol and water before painting. It works like a dream for me. I just do it outside or with lots of ventilation and a mask on. And of course gloves. The alcohol dries pretty quickly – so I think the thread of bursting into flames is pretty low.

  16. HI! I’ve been reading your post and I went to the store to buy the Denatured Alcohol, but I’m concerned about it being flammable. The can specifically says not to use it on wood floors or furniture due to the fact that Denatured Alcohol is a fuel. What are your thoughts on this? Why did you think to use this product in the first place? I admit that it’s almost misleading considering that it’s sold by Klean Strip and found in the paint aisle. Are you worried about the flammable nature of this product?


    1. Ya know…I can see how it could be a concern but at this point, I was so desperate to just have the gunk gone after trying every solution I could find that it was either use the denatured alcohol or throw out the chairs all together. We’ve had the chairs done now for nearly a year though, so we’re very happy with how they turned out. But we also stained and sealed them, so I’m hoping we’re in the clear.

  17. I know this kind of an old post, but I am using Citristrip for the first time and I have gunk in some places but not in others, and I wanted your advice… I was trying to strip paint, which went wonderfully, but I didn’t know there was some kind of stain / varnish underneath, and now that has come up in some places but not others. Could it be the stain underneath making it gunky, and I should get some more stripper to get rid of that, or is it pretty definitely the Citristrip and I should wash it off asap?

    1. If you are just wanting to paint the piece, I would suggest cleaning up as much as you can with the denatured alcohol. Trying to wash it off with soap and water only made it worse for me. After the denatured alcohol, let it dry for 24 hours, sand with a medium/coarse grit, wipe off any dust with a tack cloth, and prime with Kilz Original and dry for 24 hours, then paint with whatever finish you choose. It’s a long, aggravating process but it works. Good luck with it! Let me know if you have any more questions!

    2. I will never use CitriStrip again! What a mess! The denatured alcohol worked great! It’s also useful for a lot of woodworking based projects.

      For removing finish from cabinets and flat surfaces I’d suggest a “card scraper”. It’s an old school hand tool that scrapes the finish coat off and creates less of a mess.

  18. Lauren! Thank you so much for this post! I used Citri-strip to strip contractor overspray off of my steps after I ripped the carpet off and was left with that same gooey mess. I was at my wits’ end until I found this! You’re a lifesaver.

    1. Hi using this will it take off the the old stain on it I’m doing a dinning room table.and it has so much layers of gloss on it it’s taking lots of stripping gel.help plz

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