If you have some old wood that you need to get rid of, burning it seems like a simple solution. Raw, untreated wood can be burned without a problem, as long as you have good ventilation for the smoke. But what if the wood has been painted, stained, or varnished?
It is not safe to burn wood with paint, stain, or varnish on it. These finishes often contain harmful chemicals that are released into the air when burnt. This damages your health and puts your neighbors at risk. It also causes environmental damage.
This guide will give you more information about the dangers of burning finished wood, the laws about burning old wood, and some of the best ways to dispose of it safely.
Is it Illegal to Burn Painted, Stained, or Varnished Wood?
Yes, in many places, it is illegal to burn painted, stained, or varnished wood. In Canada, there are strict laws about what you can and cannot burn. These laws are designed to reduce pollution and prevent toxic substances being burned. You can only burn wood that doesn’t contain any preservatives or have any finishes on it. Even if you are burning approved wood, you may still need a permit, depending on where you are.
Many other countries have similar laws. In the US, the rules vary depending on the local regulations but most states have laws against burning painted, stained, or varnished wood.
It’s always good practice to check the local regulations before burning anything, just to be safe.
What are the Dangers Associated with Burning Painted, Stained, or Varnished Wood?
Releasing Harmful Toxins
When you burn painted, stained, or varnished wood, you release all of the substances that are contained in the finish. Before the 1970s, lead was very common in paint and before the 1990s, many paints used mercury. Both of these are neurotoxins, which impact the neurons that send signals in the brain. If you burn the finished wood and release the toxins into the air as smoke, you can easily breathe them in and this could cause severe health problems.
Some paints may also contain polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Exposure to PCBs, even in low levels can damage the immune system and increase the risk of developing a range of cancers later in life.
Varnish and stains often contain strong solvents like ethanol, mineral spirits, or turpentine. In the short term, breathing in solvents can cause dizziness and, in high levels, can be fatal. Long-term exposure to solvents can cause cognitive impairment, altered sense of smell, and balance issues.
All of these harmful substances take a long time to break down, so not only are you damaging your own health, but you are spreading them into the atmosphere for other people to breathe in.
Damaging The Environment
The same substances that damage your health also harm plant and animal life. They can get into water sources and settle in the soil, killing plants and animals. The problem is, things like mercury, lead, and PCBs sit around for a long time, so when you burn the wood, they will float into the air before eventually settling in the surrounding area, where they do a lot of environmental damage.
Potential Fire Hazard
Depending on the type of finish, it could create a serious fire hazard. Water-based paints are not usually flammable. However, oil-based paint, stains, and varnishes are incredibly flammable because they contain strong solvents. The other pigments and additives could be flammable too. Although they are less flammable when dry because the solvents evaporate, finished wood will still burn a lot hotter than unfinished wood.
If you set up a fire pit in the yard and put some painted or stained wood in, it could burst into flames very quickly and you completely lose control of the fire. Precautions should always be taken when burning anything, but it’s much harder to have a safe, controlled fire if you are burning painted, stained, or varnished wood.
What to Do if Your Neighbor is Burning Painted, Stained, or Varnished Wood?
This is a difficult situation to find yourself in. In some cases, your neighbor may not realize that it’s dangerous and they could be unaware of the dangers. So, the first port of call is simply to speak to them and let them know that it’s harmful to them and others, and there are laws prohibiting it. Hopefully, they will stop immediately and you can give them some advice about how to safely dispose of the wood.
Unfortunately, some people don’t take the dangers seriously and decide to ignore the law and burn finished wood anyway. If they are not responsive when you talk to them, you may have to report them. Most local authorities have specific agencies that deal with environmental concerns, and they will be able to offer some advice. Once you have reported the issue, it will be dealt with and you will be kept anonymous.
Never Burn Old Pressure Treated Wood
People sometimes assume pressure treated wood is safe to burn because it hasn’t been painted, stained, or varnished. However, pressure treated wood is very unsafe to burn because it has been infused with some very dangerous chemicals. Copper, chromium, and arsenic are used to make the wood resistant to moisture and rot, but these substances are very dangerous when released into the air and breathed in.
As a general rule, you should only burn wood if you are 100% sure that it is not pressure treated and it has not been finished in any way.
Find more information in my related article on What to Do if a Neighbor is Burning Pressure-Treated Wood here.
How Should You Dispose of Old Painted, Stained, and Varnished Wood?
So, you’re stuck with some painted, stained, or varnished wood that you can’t burn. What can you do with it instead?
Recycle the Wood for Other Projects
If you have old pieces of wood that you can’t burn, why not recycle them for other projects? Planks of wood can be made into shelves or boxes very easily, for example. You can also paint them and use them for wall art or signs. Just remember that they have been treated with potentially toxic finishes, so be careful what you use them for. Making plant boxes, for example, may not be a good idea because the paint or varnish could leak into the soil and kill plants.
That said, if you want more flexibility with what you can make, you can strip the wood first. Either sand it back to remove all of the finish or use some paint stripper. Make sure you wear a protective mask when doing this so you don’t breathe in any toxic chemicals.
Give It Away or Sell It
If you can’t think of anything you want to do yourself, somebody else will find a use for it. You can sell it on online marketplaces like Craigslist and you’ll find a buyer easily. You won’t make a fortune but you dispose of the wood and earn a bit of money at the same time. Otherwise, why not just give it away. Ask around and see if anybody needs some spare scrap wood for projects.
Take It to the Local Dump
The local dump will know how to dispose of wood safely. If you search online, there should be a dump or waste management facility of some kind nearby. But not all of them allow construction materials and finished wood, so check what they will take beforehand.
Can You Burn Painted Wood in a Wood Burning Stove?
No, even if you are using a wood burning stove, the smoke still goes somewhere. While it’s not as immediately dangerous as burning it in a fire pit in the yard, it still does damage. It creates a lot of smoke, which goes out of the chimney and settles in the surrounding area, so you still cause damage to the environment and create health hazards for yourself and your neighbors.
Can You Sand Old Painted, Stained, or Varnished Wood?
Yes, but it can be dangerous so you need to take precautions. When you sand the finish off an old piece of wood, you get a lot of dust which can easily be breathed in. This is no different from breathing in smoke with harmful toxins in, and it can also cause respiratory issues because the large dust particles get stuck in your lungs.
Whenever you are sanding old painted, stained, or varnished wood, wear a good quality respirator mask and some safety goggles. This is especially important with old paint that could contain more dangerous chemicals.
Can You Paint Old Stained or Varnished Wood?
Yes, it’s quite easy to paint old stained or varnished wood. You don’t need to completely remove the existing finish, you can paint over the top of it as long as you prepare it properly. Start by giving the surface a good clean to remove any dirt or grime. You may also want to use some caulk or filler to repair any damage before you paint.
Next, sand the surface lightly to smooth out any caulk or filler and create a good surface for the primer to bond too. Wipe it clean and then apply a few coats of primer, following the manufacturer’s guidelines. If you’re using oil-based paint, make sure to use an oil-based primer.
Finally, once the primer is dry, you are ready to paint. As long as you take the time to clean and prime the surface properly, you’ll get a great finish.
Is it Dangerous to Saw Old Wood Materials?
Yes, it can be. There is no way to tell what finishes have been used or whether the wood is pressure treated or not. When you cut into it, you’ll create a lot of dust and you could be unknowingly breathing in lots of nasty substances. Even if the wood is completely raw, breathing in sawdust still damages your lungs.
You should take the same precautions that you use when sanding wood to prevent any risk to your health.
Also, you can’t always tell what is inside the wood. There can be nails, screws, and more dangerous materials that you should be aware of. Take precautions and inspect the wood you are working with prior to cutting it up.
Can You Burn Particle Board in a Fire Pit?
No, you should avoid burning anything made from particleboard or MDF. These materials are made from lots of small pieces of small wood that are glued together into sheets. The problem is, the strong adhesive used to stick it all together is very toxic and releases lots of harmful fumes into the air when burned.
Can You Burn Water-Based Painted Wood?
Water-based paint doesn’t have the same strong solvents that oil-based paint does. But that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to burn. It still has lots of different additives and pigments in it that could be dangerous when inhaled. It’s better to be safe than sorry and avoid burning any kind of paint, stain, or varnish.
You should always be cautious when burning wood. Even if it doesn’t look like it has been stained or varnished, it could have been treated with a clear finish that isn’t easy to spot. Pressure treated wood loses some of its green tint over time too, so this can be hard to tell apart from normal wood. There are many potential dangers when burning painted, stained, or varnished wood so make sure that you dispose of it safely.
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.