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Preservation Brief Number 10:
Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork

by Kay D. Weeks and David W. Look, AIA

Part 7
Selecting the Appropriate/Safest Method to Remove Exterior Paint

[September 1982 Reprint]

After having presented the "hierarchy" of exterior paint surface conditions—from a mild condition such as mildewing which simply requires cleaning prior to repainting to serious conditions such as peeling and alligatoring which require total paint removal—one important thought bears repeating: if a paint problem has been identified that warrants either limited or total paint removal, the gentlest method possible for the particular wooden element of the historic building should be selected from the many available methods.

The treatments recommended—based upon field testing as well as onsite monitoring of Department of Interior grant-in-aid and certification of rehabilitation projects--are therefore those which take three overriding issues into consideration (1) the continued protection and preservation of the historic exterior woodwork; (2) the retention of the sequence of historic paint layers; and (3) the health and safety of those individuals performing the paint removal. By applying these criteria, it will be seen that no paint removal method is without its drawbacks and all recommendations are qualified in varying degrees.

Methods for Removing Paint

After a particular exterior paint surface condition has been identified, the next step in planning for repainting—if paint removal is required—is selecting an appropriate method for such removal.

The method or methods selected should be suitable for the specific paint problem as well as the particular wooden element of the building. Methods for paint removal can be divided into three categories (frequently, however, a combination of the three methods is used). Each method is defined below, then discussed further and specific recommendations made:

  • Abrasive—"Abrading" the painted surface by manual and/or mechanical means such as scraping and sanding. Generally used for surface preparation and limited paint removal.
  • Thermal—Softening and raising the paint layers by applying heat followed by scraping and sanding. Generally used for total paint removal.
  • Chemical—Softening of the paint layers with chemical strippers followed by scraping and sanding. Generally used for total paint removal.

Abrasive Methods (Manual)

If conditions have been identified that require limited paint removal such as crazing, intercoat peeling, solvent blistering, and wrinkling, scraping and hand sanding should be the first methods employed before using mechanical means. Even in the case of more serious conditions such as peeling—where the damaged paint is weak and already sufficiently loosened from the wood surface—scraping and hand sanding may be all that is needed prior to repainting.

Recommended Abrasive Methods (Manual)

Putty Knife/Paint Scraper: Scraping is usually accomplished with either a putty knife or a paint scraper, or both. Putty knives range in width from one to six inches and have a beveled edge. A putty knife is used in a pushing motion going under the paint and working from an area of loose paint toward the edge where the paint is still firmly adhered and, in effect,"beveling" the remaining layers so that as smooth a transition as possible is made between damaged and undamaged areas.

Paint scrapers are commonly available in 1-5/16, 2-1/2, and 3-1/2 inch widths and have replaceable blades. In addition, profiled scrapers can be made specifically for use on moldings. As opposed to the putty knife, the paint scraper is used in a pulling motion and works by raking the damaged areas of paint away.

The obvious goal in using the putty knife or the paint scraper is to selectively remove the affected layer or layers of paint; however, both of these tools, particularly the paint scraper with its hooked edge, must be used with care to properly prepare the surface and to avoid gouging the wood.

Sandpaper/Sanding Block/Sanding sponge: After manually removing the damaged layer or layers by scraping, the uneven surface (due to the almost inevitable removal of varying numbers of paint layers in a given area) will need to be smoothed or "feathered out" prior to repainting. As stated before, hand sanding, as opposed to harsher mechanical sanding, is recommended if the area is relatively limited. A coarse grit, open-coat flint sandpaper--the least expensive kind—is useful for this purpose because, as the sandpaper clogs with paint it must be discarded and this process repeated until all layers adhere uniformly.

Blocks made of wood or hard rubber and covered with sandpaper are useful for hand-sanding flat surfaces. Sanding sponges—rectangular sponges with an abrasive aggregate on their surfaces—are also available for detail work that requires reaching into grooves because the sponge easily conforms to curves and irregular surfaces. All sanding should be done with the grain.

Summary of Abrasive Methods (Manual)

  • Recommended: Putty knife, paint scraper, sandpaper, sanding block, sanding sponge.
  • Applicable areas of building: All areas. For use on: Class I, Class II, and Class III conditions.
  • Health/Safety factors: Take precautions against lead dust, eye damage; dispose of lead paint residue properly.

Abrasive Methods (Mechanical)

If hand sanding for purposes of surface preparation has not been productive or if the affected area is too large to consider hand sanding by itself, mechanical abrasive methods, i.e., power-operated tools may need to be employed; however, it should be noted that the majority of tools available for paint removal can cause damage to fragile wood and must be used with great care.

Recommended Abrasive Methods (Mechanical)

Orbital sander: Designed as a finishing or smoothing tool—not for the removal of multiple layers of paint—the orbital sander is thus recommended when limited paint removal is required prior to repainting. Because it sands in a small diameter circular motion (some models can also be switched to a back-and-forth vibrating action), this tool is particularly effective for "feathering" areas where paint has first been scraped. The abrasive surface varies from about 3x7 inches to 4x9 inches and sandpaper is attached either by clamps or sliding clips. A medium grit, open-coat aluminum oxide sandpaper should be used; fine sandpaper clogs up so quickly that it is ineffective for smoothing paint.

Belt sander: A second type of power tool—the belt sander—can also be used for removing limited layers of paint but, in this case, the abrasive surface is a continuous belt of sandpaper that travels at high speeds and consequently offers much less control than the orbital sander. Because of the potential for more damage to the paint or the wood, use of the belt sander (also with a medium grit sandpaper) should be limited to flat surfaces and only skilled operators should be permitted to operate it within a historic preservation project.

Not Recommended

Rotary Drill Attachments: Rotary drill attachments such as the rotary sanding disc and the rotary wire stripper should be avoided. The disc sander—usually a disc of sandpaper about 5 inches in diameter secured to a rubber based attachment which is in turn connected to an electric drill or other motorized housing—can easily leave visible circular depressions in the wood which are difficult to hide, even with repainting. The rotary wire stripper—clusters of metals wires similarly attached to an electric drill-type unit—can actually shred a wooden surface and is thus to be used exclusively for removing corrosion and paint from metals.

Waterblasting: Waterblasting above 600 p.s.i. to remove paint is not recommended because it can force water into the woodwork rather than cleaning loose paint and grime from the surface; at worst, high pressure waterblasting causes the water to penetrate exterior sheathing and damages interior finishes. A detergent solution, a medium soft bristle brush, and a garden hose for purposes of rinsing, is the gentlest method involving water and is recommended when cleaning exterior surfaces prior to repainting.

Sandblasting: Finally—and undoubtedly most vehemently "not recommended"—sandblasting painted exterior woodwork will indeed remove paint, but at the same time can scar wooden elements beyond recognition. As with rotary wire strippers, sandblasting erodes the soft porous fibers (spring wood) faster than the hard, dense fibers (summer wood), leaving a pitted surface with ridges and valleys. Sandblasting will also erode projecting areas of carvings and moldings before it removes paint from concave areas. Hence, this abrasive method is potentially the most damaging of all possibilities, even if a contractor promises that blast pressure can be controlled so that the paint is removed without harming the historic exterior woodwork. (For Additional Information, See Preservation Briefs 6, "Dangers of Abrasive Cleaning to Historic Buildings".)

Summary of Abrasive Methods (Mechanical)

  • Recommended: Orbital sander, belt sander (skilled operator only).
  • Applicable areas of building: Flat surfaces, i.e., siding, eaves, doors, window sills.
  • For use on: Class II and Class III conditions.
  • Health/Safety factors: Take precautions against lead dust and eye damage; dispose of lead paint residue properly.
  • Not Recommended: Rotary drill attachments, high pressure waterblasting, sandblasting.

Thermal Methods

Where exterior surface conditions have been identified that warrant total paint removal such as peeling, cracking, or alligatoring, two thermal devices—the electric heat plate and the electric heat gun—have proven to be quite successful for use on different wooden elements of the historic building. One thermal method—the blow torch—is not recommended because it can scorch the wood or even burn the building down!

Recommended Thermal Methods

Electric heat plate: The electric heat plate operates between 500 and 800 degrees Fahrenheit (not hot enough to vaporize lead paint), using about 15 amps of power. The plate is held close to the painted exterior surface until the layers of paint begin to soften and blister, then moved to an adjacent location on the wood while the softened paint is scraped off with a putty knife (it should be noted that the heat plate is most successful when the paint is very thick!). With practice, the operator can successfully move the heat plate evenly across a flat surface such as wooden siding or a window sill or door in a continuous motion, thus lessening the risk of scorching the wood in an attempt to reheat the edge of the paint sufficiently for effective removal. Since the electric heat plate's coil is "red hot," extreme caution should be taken to avoid igniting clothing or burning the skin. If an extension cord is used, it should be a heavy-duty cord (with 3-prong grounded plugs). A heat plate could overload a circuit or, even worse, cause an electrical fire; therefore, it is recommended that this implement be used with a single circuit and that a fire extinguisher always be kept close at hand.

Electric heat gun: The electric heat gun (electric hot-air gun) looks like a hand-held hairdryer with a heavy-duty metal case. It has an electrical resistance coil that typically heats between 500 and 750 degrees Fahrenheit and, again, uses about 15 amps of power which requires a heavy-duty extension cord. There are some heat guns that operate at higher temperatures but they should not be purchased for removing old paint because of the danger of lead paint vapors.

The temperature is controlled by a vent on the side of the heat gun. When the vent is closed, the heat increases. A fan forces a stream of hot air against the painted woodwork, causing a blister to form. At that point, the softened paint can be peeled back with a putty knife. It can be used to best advantage when a paneled door was originally varnished, then painted a number of times. In this case, the paint will come off quite easily, often leaving an almost pristine varnished surface behind. Like the heat plate, the heat gun works best on a heavy paint buildup. (It is, however, not very successful on only one or two layers of paint or on surfaces that have only been varnished. The varnish simply becomes sticky and the wood scorches.)

Although the heat gun is heavier and more tiring to use than the heat plate, it is particularly effective for removing paint from detail work because the nozzle can be directed at curved and intricate surfaces. Its use is thus more limited than the heat plate, and most successfully used in conjunction with the heat plate. For example, it takes about two to three hours to strip a paneled door with a heat gun, but if used in combination with a heat plate for the large, flat area, the time can usually be cut in half. Although a heat gun seldom scorches wood, it can cause fires (like the blow torch) if aimed at the dusty cavity between the exterior sheathing and siding and interior lath and plaster. A fire may smolder for hours before flames break through to the surface. Therefore, this thermal device is best suited for use on solid decorative elements, such as molding, balusters, fretwork, or "gingerbread."

Not Recommended

Blow Torch: Blow torches, such as hand-held propane or butane torches, were widely used in the past for paint removal because other thermal devices were not available. With this technique, the flame is directed toward the paint until it begins to bubble and loosen from the surface. Then the paint is scraped off with a putty knife. Although this is a relatively fast process, at temperatures between 3200 and 3800 degrees Fahrenheit the open flame is not only capable of burning a careless operator and causing severe damage to eyes or skin, it can easily scorch or ignite the wood. The other fire hazard is more insidious. Most frame buildings have an air space between the exterior sheathing and siding and interior lath and plaster. This cavity usually has an accumulation of dust which is also easily ignited by the open flame of a blow torch. Finally, leadbase paints will vaporize at high temperatures, releasing toxic fumes that can be unknowingly inhaled. Therefore, because both the heat plate and the heat gun are generally safer to use—that is, the risks are much more controllable--the blow torch should definitely be avoided!

Summary of Thermal Methods

  • Recommended: Electric heat plate, electric heat gun.
  • Applicable areas of building: Electric heat plate—flat surfaces such as siding, eaves, sash, sills, doors. Electric heat gun—solid decorative molding, balusters, fretwork, or "gingerbread."
  • For use on: Class III conditions.
  • Health/Safety factors: Take precautions against eye damage and fire. Dispose of lead paint residue properly.
  • Not Recommended: Blow torch.

Chemical Methods

With the availability of effective thermal methods for total paint removal, the need for chemical methods—in the context of preparing historic exterior woodwork for repainting—becomes quite limited. Solvent-base or caustic strippers may, however, play a supplemental role in a number of situations, including:

  • Removing paint residue from intricate decorative features, or in cracks or hard to reach areas if a heat gun has not been completely effective;
  • Removing paint on window muntins because heat devices can easily break the glass;
  • Removing varnish on exterior doors after all layers of paint have been removed by a heat plate/heat gun if the original varnish finish is being restored;
  • Removing paint from detachable wooden elements such as exterior shutters, balusters, columns, and doors by dip stripping when other methods are too laborious.

Recommended Chemical Methods (Use With Extreme Caution)

Because all chemical paint removers can involve potential health and safety hazards, no wholehearted recommendations can be made from that standpoint. Commonly known as "paint removers" or "strippers," both solvent-base or caustic products are commercially available that, when poured, brushed, or sprayed on painted exterior woodwork are capable of softening several layers of paint at a time so that the resulting "sludge"—which should be remembered is nothing less than the sequence of historic paint layers—can be removed with a putty knife. Detachable wood elements such as exterior shutters can also be "dip-stripped."

Solvent-base Strippers: The formulas tend to vary, but generally consist of combinations of organic solvents such as methylene chloride, isopropanol, toluol, xylol, and methanol; thickeners such as methyl cellulose; and various additives such as paraffin wax used to prevent the volatile solvents from evaporating before they have time to soak through multiple layers of paint. Thus, while some solvent-base strippers are quite thin and therefore unsuitable for use on vertical surfaces, others, called "semi-paste" strippers, are formulated for use on vertical surfaces or the underside of horizontal surfaces.

However, whether liquid or semi-paste, there are two important points to stress when using any solvent-base stripper: First, the vapors from the organic chemicals can be highly toxic if inhaled; skin contact is equally dangerous because the solvents can be absorbed; second, many solvent-base strippers are flammable. Even though application out-of-doors may somewhat mitigate health and safety hazards, a respirator with special filters for organic solvents is recommended and, of course, solvent-base strippers should never be used around open flames, lighted cigarettes, or with steel wool around electrical outlets.

Although appearing to be the simplest for exterior use, a particular type of solvent-base stripper needs to be mentioned here because it can actually cause the most problems. Known as "water-rinsable," such products have a high proportion of methylene chloride together with emulsifiers. Although the dissolved paint can be rinsed off with water with a minimum of scraping, this ultimately creates more of a problem in cleaning up and properly disposing of the sludge. In addition, these strippers can leave a gummy residue on the wood that requires removal with solvents. Finally, water-rinsable strippers tend to raise the grain of the wood more than regular strippers.

On balance, then, the regular strippers would seem to work just as well for exterior purposes and are perhaps even better from the standpoint of proper lead sludge disposal because they must be hand-scraped as opposed to rinsed off (a coffee-can with a wire stretched across the top is one effective way to collect the sludge; when the putty knife is run across the wire, the sludge simply falls into the can. Then, when the can is filled, the wire is removed, the can capped, and the lead paint sludge disposed of according to local health regulations).

Caustic strippers: Until the advent of solvent-base strippers, caustic strippers were used exclusively when a chemical method was deemed appropriate for total paint removal prior to repainting or refinishing. Now, it is more difficult to find commercially prepared caustic solutions in hardware and paint stores for homeowner use with the exception of lye (caustic soda) because solvent-base strippers packaged in small quantities tend to dominate the market.

Most commercial dip stripping companies, however, continue to use variations of the caustic bath process because it is still the cheapest method available for removing paint. Generally, dip stripping should be left to professional companies because caustic solutions can dissolve skin and permanently damage eyes as well as present serious disposal problems in large quantities.

If exterior shutters or other detachable elements are being sent out*see below for stripping in a caustic solution, it is wise to see samples of the company's finished work. While some companies do a first-rate job, others can leave a residue of paint in carvings and grooves. Wooden elements may also be soaked too long so that the wood grain is raised and roughened, requiring extensive hand sanding later. In addition, assurances should be given by these companies that caustic paint removers will be neutralized with a mild acid solution or at least thoroughly rinsed with water after dipping (a caustic residue makes the wood feel slippery). If this is not done, the lye residue will cause new paint to fail.

*Marking the original location of the shutter by number {either by stamping numbers into the end grain with metal numeral dies or cutting numbers into the end with a pen knife} will minimize difficulties when rehanging them.

Summary of Chemical Methods

  • Recommended, with extreme caution: Solvent-base strippers, caustic strippers.
  • Applicable areas of buildings: decorative features, window muntins, doors, exterior shutters, columns, balusters, and railings.
  • For use on: Class III Conditions.
  • Health/Safety factors: Take precautions against inhaling toxic vapors; fire; eye damage; and chemical poisoning from skin contact. Dispose of lead residue properly.

NEXT: Exterior Paint Type — General Recommendations >>>


This publication has been prepared pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, which directs the Secretary of the Interior to develop and make available information concerning historic properties. Technical Preservation Services (TPS), Heritage Preservation Services Division, National Park Service prepares standards, guidelines, and other educational materials on responsible historic preservation treatments for a broad public.
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