How to Strip Automotive Paint- The Tools and Procedures

One of the big, time consuming jobs on any project vehicle (unless you are building one from scratch with raw sheet metal ) is stripping off years of old paint, primer and anything else on the body panels. There are as many different ways to strip paint as there are types of paint to apply. Many times, especially with older projects, there may be multiple layers of primer, urethane, lacquer and enamels between the bare metal and the outside world. Knowing how to strip car paint is essential if you want to completely remove every old layer without damaging the metal beneath.

Matt took an extra hood from a Chevrolet Monte Carlo that was a perfect example of this and used it to show the various mechanical, chemical and abrasive methods that Eastwood offers to take off old paints and primers. We hope this guide to automotive paint removal tools and techniques will be helpful to DIYers who want to repaint a project car or daily commuter.

Paint Removal Products & Safety Equipment

Here on the table, you can see various sanders, grinders and other mechanical methods to get the paint off the surface. Right by Matt’s elbow, you can see several sizes of the Eastwood Gel Chemical Paint and Powder Remover. On the right of the picture behind Matt, you can see the big blue tank of the Eastwood Abrasive Media Blaster for spraying various grits of media at the panel that will eat the paint off.

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Of course, you always want to wear proper safety gear no matter what you are doing. Besides the normal dangers when you are grinding and sanding, working on old cars can expose you to lead paint and body solder as well as rust and tetanus. You should at least have a pair of safety goggles on and a filter over your nose and mouth to keep the dust out. A pair of sturdy leather gloves gives you something else to cut or burn before you get to your actual skin. When the particles really start flying, a clear fold- down full face shield is a good idea as well.

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Hand Sanding with a Block

This is the cheapest and easiest method for stripping paint from a car – but that is only if you don’t value your time or you are just looking for an upper body workout. Mister Miyagi had great luck with tricking local teenagers into doing this by promising to teach them karate.

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The advantages of the paper and sanding block method are that there is very little to buy before you get started, it is gentle to the metal and you can get into really tight, irregularly shaped areas. The main disadvantage is that it will take what seems like a year to sand off the old paint on the whole car. After 30 seconds of work, Matt barely was able to get through the top layer of black paint and down to the white.

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Dual Action Sanding Disc

Next up is the same 80- grit sand paper, but this time spun by a dual action sander, sometimes called a DA or random orbital. This is the best sander for auto paint removal that we’ve found. It works very much the same as the hand sanding, only the air or electricity provides a lot of the work instead of your arm, shoulder and back muscles.

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As you can see, in the same 30 seconds the DA s ander was able to take off all the black paint, and in the one spot Matt focused on, three other layers to expose the base metal. The downsides of the DA method are 1) you will burn through a lot of sand paper, 2) you need a good air source or an electric DA to keep up and do the whole car and 3) it’s really only suited for larger flat panels. The advantages over doing it by hand are obvious, but it’s not the best way to remove paint from a whole car.

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4.5-in. Flap Discs
The next item often used to remove old paint is the flap disc that attaches to your common angle grinder. It’s basically a flat disc with little pieces of sand paper glued to it in an overlapping pattern. All the edges of the paper give it a much more aggressive bite than just a flat disc like the one on the DA.

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The problem is it’s usually too aggressive. Sure, this tool will make short work of all the old paint, but if you aren’t careful it will leave a ton of gouges in the metal. Use too much pressure and it will even grind grooves in it. All this means more work after stripping with filler or high build primer to undo the damage you just caused taking off the paint. The flap disc is especially dangerous around edges and body lines as they can grind right through the metal. They do work great though for grinding and smoothing welds and surface rust.

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Hook & Loop Cleaning Disc

Next up is the Eastwood Cleaning Disc, which is like a super heavy- duty version of the green scrubby you use to clean pots and pans when washing the dishes. It’s available in a similar form to the flap disc glued to a fiberglass backing for use with an angle grinder, but for big jobs, it’s much easier to use the Eastwood hook and loop version. The hook and loop kit has a dedicated disc that screws onto your angle grinder and cleaning discs that stick to it with a heavy- duty version of Velcro. The discs are available in 80- grit and 320- grit and are easy to change.

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The woven material of these discs is great because it doesn’t come apart when you are using it and fling pieces everywhere. The flexible nature of the disc and backing pad make them much less dangerous to edges and body line too, and they don’t gouge if you push too hard. As you can see, they make short work of blasting through all this old paint too. But if you use the disc in one place for too long, it is possible to get the panel too hot and warp it, so keep moving.

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Hook & Loop Stripping Disc

Next up is the less aggressive 320- grit hook and loop disc. This one does the same job – it just takes more time. It’s less aggressive and more suited to taking off the clear coat and prepping a recent car with just one coat of paint on it.

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As you can see, it leaves a smoother finish, but it takes longer to cut though the paint. Eastwood sells a kit with both discs and the hook and loop attachment for your angle grinder. It’s great to start out with the more aggressive 80-grit disc, cut through the old layers of paint, and then smooth it all out with the 320-grit disc.

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Here’s a before and after on the same patch of hood we used the cleaning disc on originally, showing how you can use the stripping disc to finish the job and get down to smooth bare metal. Here is before.

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And this is after.

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3M Plastic Bristle Disc

Next is the plastic bristle disc from 3M. These bristles are very tough and come attached to a disc that screws onto a common 4.5- inch angle grinder. It works exactly the same as a wire wheel would, only the discs don’t fall apart as easily as wire wheels do and they are gentler on the metal.

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As you can see, it’s a little more aggressive than the red stripping pad, but not as much as the hook and loop cleaning pad. And look at how smooth it leaves the metal after the paint is all gone! These bristle discs are very durable too and last a long time, so they are great for big jobs like a whole car. Be careful around edges, though, because the bristles can catch an edge and get broken off, and they will hurt if they hit bare skin, so wear long sleeves and a face shield.

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Roloc Quick Change Surface Conditioning Discs

These little discs are very similar to the hook and look stripping discs, only they mount differently and they are more flexible for sanding irregular surfaces. On the back on these discs is a little threaded stud that screws into a flexible rubber mandrel you can attach to any drill.

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The softer, flexible nature of the mandrel allows you to use these for areas that aren’t flat. Also because these are so small, they are great for getting in tight areas like window frames and such. They are available in 2- and 3- inch sizes and are commonly referred to as “cookies.”

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That’s it for the mechanical methods of stripping old paint, but there are other ways to take off paint that don’t involve spinning discs.

Eastwood Paint & Powder Stripper

Guys often wonder about stripping paint off with chemicals. How well does it work? Is it safe for the panel? It is safe, and it works great, especially in areas that have tight curves or something that would prevent you from getting a cleaning disc or bristle disc in there.

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You do need to wear rubber gloves though, because if you get this stuff on your bare skin it will burn.

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Then it’s just a matter of brushing it on . Use these acid brushes that are made of a plastic that won’t melt in the chemicals.

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Wait 30 minutes or so and start scraping it off (Matt cheated and applied the stripper before the cameras started rolling so it would be ready now).

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As you can see, the first application took off almost all the layers of paint. You could use mechanical means to strip the rest down to the metal, or apply the stripper again, and you should have a totally clean bare metal surface. To make it even more effective, especially if dealing with modern clear coat, use the DA sander to scratch through the surface first, then apply the stripper.

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Media Blasting

Finally, the last and best method for stripping car paint – and the most expensive to get set up to do – is media blasting. Media blasting sprays various small particles like ground glass, aluminum oxide, silicon carbide and walnut shells at the panel with high- pressure air. For softer surfaces like fiberglass and urethane, soda blasting does the same thing with a softer media similar to baking soda. You do have to be careful, though, because media blasting can still warp a panel if you stay in one spot for too long and it gets hot. You also need to tailor the media to what you are stripping. Use too coarse of a media on a soft metal like aluminum or pot metal and you will be left with a rough surface that will take a ton of work to correct.

Eastwood offers big, pressurized media blast tanks that are great for doing entire cars, or blasting a frame and chassis if you are doing a frame- off restoration.

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If you don’t want to spend the money and make the commitment to a big set up like this, Eastwood also offers a Small Blast Kit that is very affordable and great for doing just the problem areas of the body panels.

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The best places to use the s mall b last kit, or any media blasting really, are problem areas like these intricately shaped edges of the hood. There is no way you are getting a cleaning disc or wheel in there, which means you could be there for hours with a piece of sandpaper stripping the paint by hand. The media blaster will make short work of this.

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Eastwood Fast Etch

Once you are down to bare metal, you need to make sure you protect it so it doesn’t rust immediately. Eastwood Fast Etch not only helps eat away minor surface rust and prep the bare metal for paint, it also leaves a protective phosphoric coating. The coating will protect it for a good long time, and can easily be wiped off with PRE™ painting prep with just a rag before painting.

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If you do have surface rust on bare metal, you can spray the Fast Etch, let it work for a few minutes, then just wipe it off. Here is before.

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And this is after. Obviously it could have used a few more minutes.

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To use Fast Etch as a protective coating, just spray it on and leave it on. It will eat into the metal, then react to create that phosphoric protective coating.

So those are the most popular methods of removing paint and getting down to bare metal. Of course, if you don’t want to do it all yourself, you can always send the whole bodYout to be media blasted by a professional. There are also places with tanks of stripper so large a whole car can be submerged to eat away the paint and rust, but there is no way you are going to do something like that at home. However, it will often cost much more to send the vehicle out to a shop for paint stripping. With so many options for different part sizes and restoration budgets, we’re confident you can find the best way to remove paint from your car that makes sense for the particular project.

33 Comments

  1. As a tech for the past 10 years I never realized myself how many different ways there are to strip paint on any given area. My preferred method, dual action sanding. My least favorite method is using chemical stripper.

  2. The article doesn’t mention the best stripping methods for softer materials, like aluminum or fiberglass. For fiberglass, I’ve used a combination of chemical stripper and hand sanding. The 3M Bristle Discs are great for soft metals like aluminum. They come in three grits, brown being the most aggressive and yellow the least. Green is right between these two. In general, I’ve found the green discs to be the best. Don’t use too much pressure, however, as you can easily wear a disc down to its useless base pretty quickly. Use light pressure and let the disc to the work. I stripped the paint from an aluminum sports car that had about four previous paint jobs. Bristle discs are expensive, so I used small grinding discs with an angle grinder to remove the upper layers of paint down to the original factory color. Then I took it down to bare aluminum with a Bristle Disc. This worked quite well.

  3. I used my 4 1/2″ grinder with the hook and loop cleaning disc to remove all the exterior paint from a car that had two coats plus body filler. I think I went through 6 disc. Nice clean job with no gouging. Used a da sander for primer prep.

  4. Great information adding a variety of technologies for us DYIs and explaining the pitfalls which we need to be aware.
    Thanks for sharing Eastwood

  5. I am working on a fiberglass body and stripping is a real problem. I can get into the fiberglass real easily. I have been using marine stripper but does Eastwood have a product for fiberglass?

  6. I am doing a frame off on my 57 OLDS. Media Blasting versus Dip Tank Stripper. Any comments or advice is welcomed.

  7. having done autobody repair for the past 25 yrs when I do a complete restoration I like to media blast the door jambs, trunk and engine compartment. for the rest of the vehicle, the fastest and most cost effective is an 8″ adhesive backed disc in 50 grit, you do get some scratches in the metal but urethane primer will take care of those.

  8. How long can you leave Fast Etch on and when it comes to paint can you just wipe it with grease and wax remover and spray Epoxy on it? (Does it play nice with primer?)

  9. what kind of media are you going to use, because any media other than walnut shells or soda can heat the metal up and you will get warping of the metal, most media is ok for rockers, jambs, trunk and engine compartments.

  10. I prefer chemical stripping for my steel substrates. Paint stripper + grade 3 steel wool = nice clean surface to da sand with 80 grit. That is perfect for epoxy primer.

  11. I’d definitely go with media blasting vs. dip tank. I’ve heard stories about the chemical creeping out from seams later and destroying a paint job.

  12. Media blasting is effective however the clean up both of the car and your work area can take months! And thats just to get it out off your body! Even with the proper precautions and the right ppe we still find it tricky and we have the best equipment avaliable I have a hand held gun with rubber cones that you press against the panel that works well I agree that its superior in the jams and hard to reach spots The 3M bristle brushes work well for overall removal Strippers are also effective but I have heard of people not getting the gutters and seams clean and ruining the new paint So they all have there strong points but are all professional procedures and require correct handling

  13. stripping a 1974 corvette… is soda the only medium I need? how much do you recommend?

  14. Good question Ken. I too am looking for the answer at Eastwood on Corvette strippers for a ’77.

  15. I asked the same question a few months ago to the Eastwood Techs online. You need to remove the fast etch with acetone or a wax and grease remover before applying epoxy.

  16. Matt, great job on highlighting each step with pictures and a thorough description. My friend was thinking about painting his car and wants to strip the paint himself and paint it. I’ll have to refer him over to your guide.

  17. My painter did a fantastic job on my 67 fairlane GT. However, he must’ve forgotten my windows were out.because he got a solid coat of light green primer on my cracked but restorable dash. Isn’t that aircraft primer? Isn’t that stuff extremely adherent and only removable with hard core chemicals that will remove the vinyl and foam from my dash as well? I don’t get it. He’s been painting for 30 years and he did a gorgeous job, otherwise, on a difficult car. Am I gonna now have to spend $2500 to have my dash rebuilt?

  18. It could be a self-etching primer which is pretty difficult to get off without sanding.. You could try paint thinner carefully, but we can’t assure it won’t hurt the dash pad surface. Good luck!

  19. working on 70 el camino,have the body down to bare metal.(not painting for a while)I started using fast etch on panels.I bought the gallon and using spray bottles.used acetone to clean panels first wiped clean with box of rags.sprayed on fast etch and scuffed with red scotch brite pads.let sit 30 to 45 minutes keeping it wet by spraying now and then.i was reading the bottle and it said to clean off panels with acetone to neutralize fast etch so it stops eating my metal.now do i have to paint it now ? did i just wipe off the zinc that protects it.? and what temp is to cold for it to work it’s 60 degrees now not 80 to 100.

  20. Hi John,

    It is ok to leave the product in place until you’re ready. We just suggest to neutralize/remove it before applying any coatings. It will not eat the metal sitting on for extended periods of time. I wouldn’t apply it in temps much under 60 degrees as it will take much longer to work than in the 65-70 degrees range.

  21. You didn’t mention using single edge razor blades to strip off the old paint, any comment??

  22. Factory fiberglass is easy to strip with most gel type strippers that are safe for fiberglass. BUT any body filler or previous repairs done with sub-standard materials or repairs done improperly will be ruined by the stripper, prepare to re-do any old repairs. Also the stripper must be flushed, washed or neutralized before any repair or primer is applied or you’ll be the car on the highway trailing ribbons of paint! Soda blasting and dry ice blasting works great but has to be be done carefully. Fiberglass is great stuff if you’re careful, good luck.

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