Tools & Tips: Stripping Old Paint, The Right Way

From on August 09, 2008 in Painting

paint removalPutting paint on has always been more fun than taking paint off. But some problems in the land of homeownership just can’t be avoided. The odds are pretty good that “someday” will eventually come and you’ll be grabbing that putty knife and throwing your denim overalls on. However, all too often, after just one good scrape you realize that there’s almost as much paint as wood under that top coat. You further realize, that there’s naught to do now but remove all that old paint. But how?

There are three conventional ways to remove paint: sanding, heat, or chemicals. I’ll describe them for you and then tell you which one I find to be the best.

Sanding (grinding). This technique is straightforward enough. Just grab that orbital sander and get to work. There are downsides. For one; the mess and the dust. For two; while sanding may be successful and quick, it may also remove some of the wood underneath.

Heat. Using heat to remove paint is another effective but possibly volatile approach. Applied heat basically obliterates the film in the old paint, making it easy to scrape off. If you’re using this method, be sure to scrape the paint off immediately after heating it.

  • Warning! Never heat the same area for too long. It wouldn’t be the first time the heating method had caused a fire!

Chemicals. This option is not as straightforward because of the wide variety of chemical strippers available. Chemical paint removers are typically in a paste or liquid form. Some are sprayable, some are brushable (especially paste-like versions). The oldest trick in the book is methylene chloride. It’s very effective but very caustic. There are now more environmentally friendly solutions available but they work significantly slower than their caustic counterparts. Some chemical strippers try to dissolve the layers of paint, others simply break the bond between paint and wood.

The latter is what I prefer. Usually such paint removers are water-based and non-toxic. Granted, you will have fun with a scraper after the stripper has done its part, but I’ll gladly sacrifice a little sweat for healthy lungs and skin, not to mention a healthy environment. And, may I add, This Old House agrees with me, at least for this segment.

  • Note: Whatever chemical stripper you might use, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely and read all safety warnings and recommendations. You don’t want to mess around with a lot of these paint strippers.

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