Clean that old hardware -- here's how

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Old House Musings, Historic Preservation

I have been quite busy furnishing my new home with the touches you might expect to find in a house many decades older. I’m into antique hutches, end tables that have seen better days and artwork in heavy, gilded frames. What I’m especially curious about are chests and dressers. These gems have two things in common: They are heavy enough that it takes a whole team of people to move them (old furniture was built to last!) and they are covered with layer after layer of paint.

Paint removal 101

Anyone who has dealt with old houses knows the issues with paint. I’ve struggled to get paint off the windows and floors of almost every house I have owned, and I’ve seriously considered giving in and buying replacement windows rather than go through the scraping routine one more time.

After all these years of paint wrangling, you would think that cleaning off all that paint would get easier. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. But I have come up with a few tricks along the way, thanks to my own experience and a few helpful hints from contractors:

  1. Use more space than you need. If you think all those hardware pieces will fit on the kitchen table, do yourself a favor and move it out to the balcony or garage. What looks like a lot of room isn’t much at all when you get all the supplies and tools into play. You need room to work.
  2. Save empty paint buckets. As soon as you are done painting something, clean out the buckets and put them in a dusty corner. When it’s time to clean hardware, those buckets will be handy for soaking.
  3. Don’t just ventilate — go outside! When you are using paint thinners to remove those layers, don’t be fooled into thinking open windows are enough. Even with the windows open on a breezy day, you can still get high on paint thinner fumes. (Don’t ask — just trust me.) If you absolutely must stay inside, install a fan in the window to pull the tainted air out of your house.
  4. Use heavy gloves. When you are working to scrub paint from hardware with dainty tools, it might seem silly to wear big, heavy rubber gloves. But the paint thinner and other chemicals you might use can wreck havoc on your hands before you realize what’s happening, and it can eat right through thinner gloves made of latex.
  5. Allow yourself plenty of time. In most cases, the paint thinner will work for only the first or second layer of paint. That means you will have to reapply and do the job all over again if you have a good buildup on there. In addition, hardware with tiny nooks and crannies will require fine tools, and that kind of delicate work can take a long time.
  6. Don’t be scared of it. When I first started working on stripping paint from old windows and hardwood floors, I was afraid of using too much thinner or doing something to damage the wood. That fear carried over to hardware — I was so afraid of damaging it that the job took longer than it should have. Remember that after all these years, the hardware has stood up to much worse than anything you can throw at it. So go after those layers of paint with abandon!

Old hardware that has seen better days can look like an impossible task, and you might be tempted to go with a modern replacement. Before you do that, give it a chance. A small can of paint thinner and a little elbow grease is all it might take to make the old look new again.