Below the Surface
It's not uncommon to find beautiful woodwork with coat after coat of paint obscuring its detail, especially in older homes. For a new paint job that does your woodwork justice, stripping the old paint is your best option.
How to Strip Paint
There are three ways to strip paint: mechanically by hand-scraping, burning it off with heat, or with chemicals.
The mechanical methods of scraping and sanding work only when loose or uneven paint needs to be removed before repainting. Just remember to do this work outdoors and with protection.
Using heat to remove paint usually involves a blowtorch or a heat gun. The disadvantage of using heat is that it can be dangerous because of accidental combustion and harmful vapors. Also, you may still have to sand when you're done. Neither of these first two methods, mechanical or heat, should be used if any of the paint you're removing could be 30 years old or more since it's likely to contain lead. Instead, you should use a chemical stripper.
Choosing and Using a Chemical Stripper
Look for environmentally friendly citrus-based versions, which are becoming as common as the old caustic gel strippers. Brush the gel on, leave it to do its work and then scrape it off. Sprinkle sawdust on the gel to make it easier to scrape off and throw away.
For tough jobs, try a sheeted paste that peels away after dissolving the paint. You may not have to scrape much at all.
Move Quickly and Carefully
With chemical strippers, you need to start and finish the same day. Dried gel can be very difficult to remove. The chemicals may affect the animal glues in older furniture, so avoid excess use around the joints.
And you should always wear the safety gear recommended on the product label and work outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.