The (Mostly Free) Way to Get Dried Paint Off Wood

updated Sep 8, 2022
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We love a fresh paint job for transforming a room (or even a smaller project, like DIY-painted abstract art). But no matter how careful you are with your drop cloths and plastic, paint splatter happens. Don’t worry—you’re not stuck with paint-flecked wood flooring, furniture, or trim forever! There are plenty of clever hacks that’ll get even the messiest of paint jobs cleaned up in no time.

Of course, it’s best to wipe up any messes while they’re still wet, but sometimes that doesn’t happen—by the time you notice a drip, it’s already dry. And sometimes the drip’s not even your fault, like if the house you’ve moved into comes with dried evidence of imperfect paint jobs past. 

Here’s how to get those dried paint drips off, no matter whose goofs they are.

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Start by gently scraping up the dried paint

“Use a plastic-edged putty knife or even the edge of a credit card to try to scrape up the drip,” says Pam Estabrooke, owner of Brooke Home Painting in Braselton, GA. Katharine McMillan, author of “Home Decorating for Dummies” prefers the dull blade of a 5-in-1 tool, but says you can choose your own go-to.

“Even a butter knife would work—you just want a dull edge that won’t damage the surface of the wood beneath the drip,” McMillan says. Whichever tool you try, work slowly and carefully.

Next, use a damp rag over the dried paint

If the scraping doesn’t remove the drip, try rubbing the surface of the paint with a damp—not wet!—rag. “The moisture might soften the paint enough so that you can then scrape it off,” says Estabrooke.

If plain water on the rag doesn’t do the trick, progress to a gentle cleanser. Estabrooke and McMillan suggest options like Simple Green, Mrs. Meyers, or Murphy Oil Soap. “Basically, any non-solvent-based cleanser should help,” says Estabrooke. But note: The water or soap-and-water mix will not do anything to soften up oil-based paint splatters. If you painted with oil, see step three below.

Tip: To figure out whether an old drip is from latex or oil paint, rub a cotton ball moistened with denatured alcohol over the drip. If the color comes off on the cotton ball, it’s latex.

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Hit the dried paint with a little heat

A hairdryer on high (or a heat gun, if you have one) can soften hardened paint enough that you can scrape it off. “But don’t use a heat gun if you have a really big drip or spill,” says Estabrooke. “You’ll end up with a huge mess.”

Try a solvent for any remaining dried paint

If scraping, ragging, and heating don’t do diddly, you’ll need to resort to a solvent to break down the paint. For latex drips, try denatured alcohol or a product like Goof-Off, both available in paint and hardware stores.

“Soak a rag—not a towel, but a microfiber rag or similar—with the solvent and rub carefully, so you don’t harm the wood finish by mistake,” says MacMillan. (If you cause an imperfection in the wood stain, try filling it in with tinted wood wax or a marker made for hiding scratches in furniture, she suggests.) For oil-based drips, ask your local paint store for the best solvent and removal method, or try step five, below.

Tip: If there’s dried paint in-between floorboards or other small cracks, use soap-and-water or solvent on a pointy-ended cotton swab—”the kind they sell for makeup,” says MacMillan—or an old toothbrush.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Finish with super-fine grit sandpaper

If you have a wide area of tiny spatter or your rubbing and scraping don’t get the job done, go carefully with super-fine grit sandpaper (360- to 600-grit) or a sanding block, says Estabrooke. “But don’t sand hard: You don’t want to wear through to the wood. You’re just trying to break up the dried paint enough so that scraping and damp-ragging will finish the job.” Sandpaper might be the best approach if the drip is stubborn oil paint.