Less progress, more process

Finally got the first coat of primer on the window sash trim tonight. I was sickly on Monday after we got home from work and school. DeShawn was sickly on Tuesday after we got home from work and school. Consequently, it wasn’t until last night that I was able to finish up all the repairs to the trim. Wood, like human skin, tends to dry out over time. Roughly a 1/4th of the pieces had split from the constant exposure to the heat of sun in summer and the dry, arid air of winter.

All of this sash trim was “professionally” stripped of paint by a Charlotte refinisher using chemical strippers based on Peel-A-Way stripper technology. Many people, both professional and seasoned amateurs, have very good things to say about Peel-A-Way. Indeed, there are specific projects where it’s process and application are uniquely adept. My experience, with run-of-the-mill “get the old paint off the old wood” stripping has not been so positive.

One of the holy grails of old house rejuvenation is finding the “perfect” way to remove paint. Skulking the restoration/remodeling forums on the internet reveals the passion and depth that homeowners manifest as they pursue the ultimate solution for the problem of removing layers upon layers of potentially toxic paint. Complex discussions of paint type, numbers of layers, ease of use, toxicity, and end result go on and on. Ultimately, everyone has their favorite, with no “perfect” chemical or technique applying to all situations. Yet the passionate discussions continue.

Note: the opinions about to be expressed about the art and science of stripping paint are simple observations based on my limited experience at 118 Henry Street. In no way, do I warrant any generalizations of these methods to your house, lifestyle, asthetics, knowledge, experience or morals.

My opinions on the subject are a bit wishy-washy. After 2 years of almost constant paint removal of some kind or another, on some kind of wood or another, my definitive paint removal solution can be summed as “It Depends”.

The fastest way I’ve found to remove paint from flat surfaces is a heat gun, scraper and respirator. The best technique I’ve developed for using a heat gun and scraper is to bubble the paint using the heat gun, let the paint cool back to being brittle, then scrape with a high quality carbide scraper. Using this technique, I can strip 4 layers of paint from all the flat surfaces on a normal size door in less than 2 hours. The down side is the extreme toxicity of the paint fumes. Thus, the respirator and very good ventilation. Wood that has an especially low moisture content (not uncommon in an old house), may require care to avoid scalding or burning the surface.

For curved or molded surfaces such as custom trim or window mullions, a chemical based stipper, steel wool or pad and gloves works best for me. The key here is letting the stripper does its chemical thing and sit long enough to have the proper effect. This kind of stripping is not production oriented like the use of a heat gun, but is gentler on rounded surfaces. Again, the downside is a degree of toxicity. Neutralizing the surface after stripping is also a factor.

Although Peel-A-Way is very non-toxic and easy to apply, my unhappiness results from the unpleasant changes it makes to the wood itself. The extremely low Ph (alkalinity) of the chemical darkens most wood significantly. And, while on the wood or being removed, the combination of very low Ph and moisture cause the wood to soften and the grain to raise. This causes many small gouges and splinters even when removing the chemical paste with plastic tools. My sash trim is yellow pine with a relatively large grain and has a profile with a rounded edge. Where the grain intersects the profile at a low oblique angle, the softening and moisture of Peel-A-Way caused the grain to separate and large chunks of the profile to be lost as the paint was scrapped by the refinisher.

I also tried to use Peel-A-Way on a window sash with much the same results. There was a distinct disadvantage in time of removal and wood change on the flat surfaces when compared to using a heat gun and scraper. On the milled side of the mullions, Peel-A-Way softened the wood to the point of deterioration after just a few hours, resulting in all the paint being removed but the wood being “hairy” with raised grain.

The heat gun and scraper are definitely going to remain in my bag of tricks. I’m still looking for the “perfect” chemical stipper though. The next heir apparent is RemoveAll. When I start the destruction of the upstairs bathroom, I will get a gallon, use it and publish my surprise or disappointment.

Midweek reading on the progres-o-meter is on the “+” part of the dial but no where near pegged, for sure.