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How to Remove Paint from Metal

Oct 29th 2020

How to Remove Paint from Metal Surfaces

Removing paint from metal surfaces can be a difficult task, even with the right tools - just ask the new guy at any auto body shop. Whether you’re getting ready for a DIY job or professionally prepping a metal surface, it’s a good idea to strip away paint the right way from the start. Below are some of the different techniques you can use to get rid of layers of paint from metal surfaces, from small pieces of hardware to larger jobs like stripping paint from a classic car.

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Paint Removal Safety

Prepping & Cleaning Loose Paint

Removing Paint Without Abrasives

Baking Soda Method

Using Chemical Strippers

Chemical Paint Removal Safety

Removing Paint from Metal with Heat

Removing Paint from Metal with Abrasives

Wire Wheels and Brushes

Flap Disc Paint Removal

Abrasive Drums

Sanding Belts and Sanding Discs

Easy Strip and Clean Products

Hand Sanding Metal

Paint Removal Safety

Before trying any of the paint removal techniques we’ve outlined below, we always recommend using the appropriate safety gear. Basic safety gear will consist of a mask, eye goggles, and gloves. However, you may also want to add some type of protective apron and/or tarp.

Whether you are cleaning off spray paint, enamel paint, latex paint, or old paint that could potentially have lead in it -- always remember, safety first. You do not want to risk breathing in paint chips or getting them in your eyes. 

If you are opting to use chemicals to remove paint, you want to make sure you are protected from the likely possibility of fumes caused by this method. Working in a well ventilated area and using an N95 mask is recommended for all paint and rust removal.

Prepping and Cleaning Loose Paint from Metal

If your paint is chipping, you should start the process by removing a lot of these visible paint chips with wire brushes. Depending on the type of metal under the paint, you can opt for brass, stainless steel, or carbon steel brushes. These brushes will come in handy again later when you need to get into tight corners or around any intricate designs.

Metal wire brush for paint removal prep on metal surfaces

After you cleaned off the loose paint chips you can move onto any one of the techniques below, or even a combination of them depending upon the metal you are working with and your preferred method.

Removing Paint Without Abrasives

While we recommend using abrasive tools for most paint removal jobs, there are a few options available that you can choose instead.  Abrasives will get larger jobs done faster and more uniform, but the next few techniques are best when you have smaller objects or don't have access to power tools like an angle grinder or linear grinder.

Removing Paint from Metal with Baking Soda

If you do not want to use a lot of chemicals then you can first try removing the paint with baking soda. This is one of those DIY hacks you can do at home with materials you likely have laying around. It takes some time to complete, and is only useful for smaller metal objects, but it does work well.

Baking soda is generally a safe household product to work with, but we still highly recommend wearing gloves, goggles, and a mask. 

For the baking soda paint removal method you will need

  • A large enough pot to cover the item you are trying to remove paint from*
  • Enough baking soda to cover the bottom of the pot fully (you want to be generous!)
  • Enough water to fill the pot about halfway up

*Please note: any pot used for this cannot be used again for food. 

Cover the bottom of the pot with baking soda and then fill about halfway with water, setting it on the stove over a medium-high heat. This should be enough to get it to a low boil, but it does not need to be a rolling boil. Allow the metal piece to simmer in the pot for 30 to 45 minutes. Safely remove the pot from the heat. We would recommend using tongs of some sort to remove the metal object from the pot.

The paint should come off relatively easily at this point with a paint scraper, but you can use the  wire brush for paint removal you used earlier or a wire wheel to remove any stubborn paint. This whole process can often take multiple sessions. 

Removing Paint from Metal with Chemical Strippers

There are many paint removing chemicals available to choose from, so the exact directions will vary somewhat depending on which product you ultimately choose. Below is a general overview of how chemical paint removal should be done, but you should always check the manufacturer’s instructions before attempting this method.

First, you are going to remove all the loose flakes with the wire brush as mentioned before. Next, apply a thin layer of the chemical paint stripper with your brush, letting it sit for a period of time to break down the paint. The amount of time required for it to sit will depend on the manufacturer’s instructions.

You will see that it is beginning to work when the paint starts to bubble or ripple away from the metal. Once the chemicals have fully set in, you will still need to scrape the paint away. You can do this with a variety of items depending on the metal. The best options would be the wire brushes from the earlier steps and/or a paint scraper.

Repeat these steps until the metal is completely cleaned of paint and/or rust. You may also want to use mineral spirits towards the end to help remove any remaining paint and chemical stripper residue from the metal.

Chemical Paint Removal Safety

Chemical use can be a bit more dangerous depending upon the one you are using. Some paint removal chemicals are advertised as safe, usually made with a citrus base, and considered safe. Other chemicals can be highly toxic and/or contain dangerous acid, requiring you to wear PPE and to use them outdoors or in a well ventilated area.

Make sure you familiarize yourself with the solution you are choosing and if it is appropriate for the paint type you are removing. Before starting any chemical paint removal, you should review the chemical compatibility with your safety gear and metal, and make sure you have all of the recommended safety gear such as tarps, brushes, different masks, a fan, etc.

Removing Paint from Metal with Heat

Removing paint with heat is common and can be done on both wood and metal. This can be achieved with a blow torch (on metal) or a heating gun (both wood and metal). However, these can generate toxic fumes, so it is extremely important you wear a mask.

Metal will retain heat and, depending on the type of metal, can soften/weaken it. So, it is important when working with heat that you proceed with caution and start with a small test area if you’ve never worked with heat to remove paint off metal.

As always, we recommend starting with a wire brush to remove all the loose paint from the metal piece. From there, you will need to put the heat source close to the surface, heating both the paint and metal. The paint will start to bubble and ripple and can be scraped off. This requires quite a bit of manual labor and often is best performed with 2 people...one to heat and one to scrape.

While the heat will get quite a bit of the paint off, you may get stuck with some residue or stubborn paint that won’t come off with just the heat. Usually you can sand off any remaining paint fairly easily. If you are concerned about removing too much material, you try starting with a finer grit of 200+. The finer you go the longer it can take to remove the paint. But, if it is a piece with intricate detail you may want to go as fine as 320 and work slowly.

Removing Paint from Metal with Abrasives 

There are quite a number of ways you can sand paint off metal. It is usually the fastest way to remove paint, rust, and other surface contaminants or imperfections that leaves less of a mess behind. You can use different tools like a portable belt sander, angle grinder, straight grinder, orbital sander, or even a drill. Each of these power tools has a specific  paint stripping wheel or belt available.

Remove Paint with Wire Wheels and Brushes

A wire brush is going to be one of the best tools you can have for removing paint. However, when you have larger areas, you can switch over to wire wheel brushes to finish the job way faster with less effort. Depending on the tool you’re using and the surface you are working on, you can choose between wire cup brushes, end brushes, wire drums, or wire wheels to remove paint off of metal.

Crimped wires, like this 5” wire cup brush for angle grinders, are generally the recommended abrasive wire types for paint removal. They are more flexible and not as aggressive as the knot or stringer wire wheels. Crimped wires are meant for a lighter removal. If you use the stringer or knot wire wheels, they are much stiffer and will provide a faster, heavier removal, but you risk damaging the metal surface in the process.

We do recommend handheld metal wire brushes for light or soft paint coatings. You can also use it on a coating that is not firmly bonded to the metal i.e. scaly rust, weld splatter.

Flap Disc Paint Removal Method

Flap discs are designed for angle grinders and can do a great job removing paint faster than most other tools. However, most  angle grinder flap discs are designed to work for heavy stock removal. You should try not to force too much pressure when using a flap disc to remove paint. Doing so can cause the tool to gouge the surface or remove too much metal. 

The same warning can be used for resin fiber and other sanding discs that do not go into finer grits and are meant for aggressive sanding. We recommend starting with 80 grit and moving up to 200+ grit to help limit the amount of metal you are removing. 

Fast Paint Removal with Abrasive Drums

Surface conditioning/contour tools have been around for a while, but have gone somewhat viral on Youtube lately thanks to the popular Eastwood SCT tool. This type of power tool has a 4” drum that spins in-line with the abrasive attachment for fast grinding and paint stripping. These are quickly becoming some of the most popular abrasive tools for professionals like auto body workers that consistently need to remove paint from large areas and prefer an easier and faster option.

The three types of attachments for this tool that work best for removing paint are the steel wire brush drumpaint stripping drum, and interleaf flap wheel drum

  • The wire brush drum can be used for heavy duty paint and scale removal, but with the risk of scratching the metal.
  • Paint stripping drums are one of the best options, as they are made specifically for taking paint off of a surface without damaging the surface material.
  • The interleaf flap wheel drum is a 2-in-1 tool that can strip away paint with the sanding flaps while simultaneously conditioning the metal surface.

Removing Paint with Sanding Belts and Sanding Discs

One of the most common methods for removing paint is using either  sanding belts for metal or an angle grinder sanding disc. While you can use the resin fiber discs or flap discs as we mentioned earlier, we have found sanding belts, hook and loop sanding discs, or the PSA sanding discs work better. The reason for this is that flap discs and resin fiber discs are very aggressive and can remove far too much metal once you’ve gotten through your coatings. 

For most paint removal you can start with an 80 grit abrasive. You can use any of the aluminum oxide, zirconia, or ceramic for this. Once a little more than half of the paint appears to be removed, we recommend switching to 180-220 grits. That finer grit will allow you to remove the rest of the paint without removing too much material from the object you are sanding.

For the finer grit, our customers usually switch over to the aluminum oxide sanding belts or our gold sanding discs available in both hook and loop and PSA. Once almost all the paint has been removed, you can switch to the quick change discs, attached to a hand drill, to get into small corners. They come in both 2” and 3” discs.

Pro tip - When using sanding belts or sanding discs you might also want to get a belt sander cleaner stick. Paint can quickly gum up (load) the abrasives making them fairly useless, but you can quickly restore the disc or belt by removing the accumulated paint and other materials with the help of these cleaning sticks. It's a fairly inexpensive accessory that can save you a lot of money by extending the life of your abrasive belts and wheels.

Easy Strip and Clean Products for Paint Removal

In most cases, this type of abrasive is one we often recommend as the best paint remover for metal. There are many options available, but these easy strip and clean discs are the products made specifically for removing paint and rust from metals and hard woods. They are also great for removing rust, coatings, and many other surface contaminants without removing the base material.

Easy strip and clean discs are made up of non-woven fibers, coated in extra coarse abrasive grains. The non-woven fibers feature an open web structure that prevents clogging, making them optimal for fast paint removal. They are safer than wire wheels and brushes, as you do not have to worry about loose wires flying about. It also runs significantly cooler.

The easy strip discs are available in different sizes and styles for different tools and the size/type of the job at hand.

  • 5” paint stripping discs and 4 ½” easy strip discs work great for grinding paint off of a large are quickly with a right angle grinder.
  • 3” paint stripping pads, and 2” roloc strip discs can remove paint from small areas, in corners, or where you need to do touch-up work with the help of a die grinder.
  • As mentioned earlier, the Easy Strip and Clean Abrasive Drum can remove paint from a large area incredibly fast with a linear grinder or surface contouring tool.

For most paint removal jobs, we recommend starting with the easy strip and clean disc in the size that will fit on your angle grinder, or using the easy strip drum for larger areas. From there you can remove all the paint and switch to the 2” or 3” quick change easy strip and clean discs to get the paint off in the tight corners and smaller areas you may have missed or couldn’t reach before.

Hand Sanding Paint off of Metal

This is usually the cheapest option, but one we don’t recommend in case you are looking for a serious workout. This method is best if you are just trying to get rid of paint from a small metal object or doing some touchup work after any of the techniques above.

Start by cleaning off any loose paint and dirt from the surface. Just like sanding and removing paint from wood, you should start with coarser sandpaper sheets to remove the most paint and move up to finer grits as you get closer to the metal surface. Scuff hand pads (Scotch Brite pads) make a great final step to hand sanding when you want to prep the surface for a fresh coat of paint.

You'll save yourself a lot of effort and finger cramps by using manual hand sander tool or wrapping the sandpaper around a sanding sponge or even around a block of wood.

We’re Here to Help

Hopefully this article was able to help you best decide how to remove paint from metal, but if you still have any questions, Empire Abrasives knowledgeable agents here to help. You can contact us at 1-800-816-3824 or chat with an agent on empireabrasives.com.