Paint Removal for Baseboard Radiators

Scott Gibson

How can I remove layers of paint from cast iron baseboard radiators? They are original to the house (1967) and I don't want to remove them.

Cast iron baseboard radiators are nothing like the sheet metal versions that are typically installed these days. Where modern fin-tube radiators seem light and a little on the flimsy side, cast iron radiators are pleasingly substantial. They are well worth any effort you put into restoring them.

You could strip the old paint without removing the radiators using a chemical stripper and a lot of elbow grease. But there are at least two reasons to consider hiring a heating contractor to remove them temporarily so they can be stripped and repainted elsewhere, either by you or a commerical shop.

One is the mess. Paint remover is effective, but it's not much fun to work with. After brushing it on, you let it do its work and then remove the gunk, clean the surface, and repaint. Many layers of paint can require a couple of applications. During the process, you need to protect adjacent floors and walls and keep curious pets and children from wandering into this chemical quagmire.

The other reason is lead. Until 1978, paints typically contained a lot of lead. This heavy metal gave paint some excellent properties but also posed serious health risks, particulary for children. Lead paint is still a problem in older homes and apartments where children may nibble on paint chips or pick up lead on their hands and clothing as they crawl around.

If your home was built in 1967, and there are many layers of paint on the radiators, you can bet you're dealing with lead paint. To be sure, you can buy a testing kit or contact a lead abatement company in your area.

You can safely remove lead paint, but you should be exceedingly careful not to allow lead-bearing dust to become airborne. That means no sanding. Lead also can be released with high heat, which is what would happen if you were to use a propane torch to soften old paint before scraping it off, as remodelers sometimes do.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently imposed new rules on remodelers and contractors who work around lead paint, so this is a matter of continuing concern. (For more information about lead paint, try the EPA's website at http://www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/leadinfo.htm#hazard.)

Pulling the radiators and having them professionally stripped and repainted would keep all of these problems out of your house. It is worth your consideration, and possibly getting a bid or two from a heating contractor for removal and re-installation. If the cost is not prohibitive, you may be better off going this route.

If you're determined to do the job in place, you need a chemical helper. Paint strippers containing methylene chloride have a powerful odor. Instead, consider something like Citristrip, a citrus based stripper that gets good reviews for both its effectiveness and low odor.

I've never used it, but one homeowner writing on Home Depot's website said Citristrip smelled just like a Creamsicle and still worked like a charm.

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