Don’t Strip Paint Before Reading This

When we purchased our run-down 1920’s Victorian, I certainly would not have thought that stripping paint would be the most demanding job in our house. We’ve already ripped out greenboard in our basement, scraped up old flooring in our sunroom, and taken a garage from barely standing to fully functional. That said, our ordeal with paint has been a nonstop nightmare largely due to my can-do attitude, which didn’t work out as well as it usually does with this project.

How not to strip paint in your house.

Me at the start of my paint stripping escapade. Little did I know I would still be working on the same woodwork almost a year later.

I Will Never Use Chemical Paint Strippers Again, a.k.a. Phase #1

Every window and door in our house, as well as much of the other woodwork, was covered in multiple layers of heavy, peeling paint. They all needed to be stripped and then repainted to be functional and look presentable. Couple this with the fact that, being an old house, there was surely lead paint in one of those layers and I was presented with quite a conundrum: How do I strip off the loose, scaly paint without stirring up lead dust?

How to scrape old paint.

Chipping paint on a windowsill.

 

How to scrape paint on old doors and windows.

Old, dirty paint was chipping away on our doors.

 

Chipping paint in an old house.

The end of a door with peeling paint on the edges.

 

Peeling paint in an old house.

Peeling paint in a door jamb.

 

Well, my solution was to turn to the local hardware store and order an orange-based eco-stripper that claimed to be “safe” to use with lead paint. Please note, there is no absolutely safe way to handle lead paint so please do your research before attempting anything on your own. The E.P.A. provides some great guidelines for working with lead paint. Anyway, I purchased the stripper, a fine-particulate mask, a set of goggles, gloves, some scrapers, and some wet sanding sponges. I was fully sure that the stripper would do the trick and I eagerly set to work painting on a thick layer of the stripper onto the window woodwork.

It was exciting to see the bubbles starting to form on the paint as it turned into a gooey substance. I waited the amount of time indicated on the stripper instructions and then slid my scraper across the surface of the wood. Quite a bit of the paint easily scraped off, but quite a bit did not. It wouldn’t budge and, instead, stuck to the wood in a globby mess. On top of this, the stripper was doing a number on my rubber gloves, melting holes in them left and right. The bits of paint that were stripping off would melt through trash bags and plastics and they splattered onto other surfaces. It was a mess!

I pushed on thinking that I must just need to go over the surface multiple times, but there was some paint that just wouldn’t budge. On top of this, it was the middle of Summer and I was sweating buckets inside of my incredibly uncomfortable respirator. The mask was so horrible, that it left a notch and bruise on my nose from hours of it digging into my face. This process was turning into a nightmare.

It took a while for me to admit that the eco-stripper just wasn’t going to work. I decided that maybe I had just been too naive in trying to use an eco-friendly option. I thought to myself that I should just try to go nuclear and get the super chemical stripper – the real toxic stuff. I figured that would do the trick and then we would just be done with this mess and we could move on.

Well, the toxic stuff did work better than the eco-stripper, but it also didn’t get all of the paint off. It got enough paint off though that we could do a little wet sanding and then repaint. That’s where the nightmare really began though.

Think Twice Before Repainting Stripped Wood, a.k.a. Phase #2

We had stripped off enough paint to finally repaint the windows. We had even painted on a chemical substance called strip-stop that was supposed to stop the stripping process. I painted on a primer and a couple of layers of semi-gloss thinking that we were finally done with this whole debacle. The windows looked so much cleaner and safer. We thought we finally could put them back and enjoy using our windows and doors again.

Wrong! Little by little, the cracks started to appear. The paint slowly started to flake off again as the stripper, that must have still been embedded in the wood, started to eat away the paint from the inside. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see this happening before our eyes, and to realize what this meant: we would have to strip the woodwork again. Argh!

paint peeling up because of stripper left in the wood.

The paint slowly started to chip and peel where it had been painted over.

 

At this point, we just stopped. We realized that we needed to rethink the entire way that we had been approaching this project. It just wasn’t working and liquid strippers definitely weren’t going to be the answer we needed. We started to do a little research into other methods of stripping. Luckily, we hadn’t worked on all the windows and doors in our house so we could still learn from our mistakes and then apply our new knowledge to our next round of paint stripping. First though, we needed to correct the mess that we had made with the first set of windows.

Try Heat Instead of Chemicals, a.k.a. Phase #3

We started to read up on options other than liquid strippers and found that a lot of people had found success with heat. Many people were using infrared paint strippers, but they are a bit costly so we decided to try a smaller heat gun first to see how it worked.

We purchased a hand-held heat gun by Wagner and it actually worked pretty well. The paint would easily start to loosen and bubble up and then you could scrape it away. The best part about this process is the fact that the paint would quickly solidify again so that you didn’t have the sticky goop that was left over from the liquid strippers. The only problem, however, was that the heat gun wasn’t the fastest tool. You could really only scrape a couple of inches at a time and it took a while for those inches to heat up. We also decided to keep the heat gun at a lower heat just in case there was any lead paint because lead can be vaporized if it gets too hot. At the rate we were going and the temperature we were using, we would never finish all of the woodwork we needed to strip.

 

The wagner heat gun for paint removal.

The Wagner heat gun worked, but it took a long time to remove the paint. It’s great for smaller projects or as a back-up tool.

 

Now that we knew that heat worked, we decided to finally bite the bullet and order the ultimate in paint stripping tools: the Swedish-made Speedheater system. It’s an infrared paint stripper that comes with custom paint scrapers that are heavy, sharp, and perfectly shaped to access the curves and angles of ornate woodwork. It can heat up an area of roughly 12 x 4 inches at a time, which makes it a much quicker method of scraping than the heat gun.

 

 

speedheater infrared paint stripping system

The Speedheater infrared paint stripper.

 

I also decided to treat myself with a new mask because my old one was almost unbearable to wear anymore. I went with the MSA SafetyWorks Full-Face respirator. Though it is a little pricey, I am so glad I splurged to get this. It was so much more comfortable and it made the awkward process of paint scraping much more enjoyable. It also comes with a handy storage container, which you can see below. The mask and filters can be purchased at Home Depot.

safetyworksfullfacerespirator

To really tackle the project correctly this time, we taped off everything in the room with plastic and then we made a wooden box to hold the pieces of scraped paint as they fell off of the windows. It made the process go so much easier.

The Speedheater worked extremely well, but you can do a few things to help it remove the paint cleanly and quickly. The company recommends painting on a mixture of 80% linseed oil and 20% mineral spirits about 24 hours before you strip the paint. This does two things: It conditions the paint to make it strip easier, and it keeps the dust to a minimum. We found that painting an extra layer of this onto the wood right before stripping made the process even easier.

We also found that it was helpful to do some parts of the project as a team. One person would hold the Speedheater in place and then the other person would scrape when the Speedheater was lifted up. This allowed the paint to be immediately scraped and it was less stressful than having to manage both parts of the process on your own.

Overall, this was a painful process, but at least we learned what not to do by the end. We now will never be using liquid strippers to tackle any painting projects. It’s infrared paint stripping all the way, with a little assistance from a heat gun here and there. I hope our horrible mistakes will at least make your paint scraping process a lot easier. Do you have any paint stripping stories to share? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

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