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My wife was prepping our kitchen to be painted this weekend in our 1920's era condominium. Presumably lead paint is present but we do wear masks when working.

There's an old door and door frame, and an old wooden window frame in one corner of the kitchen. Both of them had paint that was thick, bubbling and cracking in places and looked like it had many layers of paint. We were concerned that it wasn't a good enough surface for painting. My wife decided to apply chemical stripper to strip the surfaces before we move ahead with painting.

It appears at this point to have been a huge mistake. So far we've done one round on the door and two rounds on the window frame. The first layer of paint is coming up (sort of) but there appear to be at least 3-5 more layers of paint underneath that and they're all super stubborn and seem resistant to the chemical stripper. Each round has been followed by hours and hours of elbow grease with little benefit. At this point it seems as though the chemical stripping approach will never work and the surface seems further away then ever from being ready for new paint.

I'd love to just paint over this but now the surface is completely wrecked and I have no idea how we'll ever get a surface smooth enough for painting. What should we do next? Should we keep going with rounds and rounds of chemical stripping which might never work? Is there some way to cut our losses and make this surface paintable? We are also considering giving up and calling in the pros but would really prefer not to as I don't want to let a stranger into our home during the pandemic and we've taken a few pandemic-related financial blows lately as well. I'm not even sure a pro would consider this job in its current state anyway.

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Edit / Update:

Ok I'm back! I'm happy to report that this was fairly well resolved. Here are the final, painted photos: https://imgur.com/SlkIEvQ https://imgur.com/H16z2OT What we ended up doing was: 1.one more round of chemical based stripping with a ton of elbow grease, wiping down the surface with water to clean it up 2. using a primer specifically for containing lead based paint (Eco Bond) 3. filling with "MH Ready Patch" (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000BQURN8/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_G5ASEbZG89JFM ) in order to smooth out some of the imperfections, followed by hand sanding. We had to do two rounds of this. 4. primed again with Eco Bond 5. primed with a normal paint primer 6. painted with our chosen paint for the door and window.

It looks pretty good, if you look closely you can still see some of the scars but it looks better than before where there were so many layers of thick paint that were cracking and the features of the door were starting to get soft. It looks much sharper than when we started now. Thanks to this community for so many helpful thoughts!

  • There's a paint removal product out there that a painter friend of mind uses. You paint it on a surface, then cover it up with (I think) a towel or plastic to keep it from drying out. Let it sit for a day or so, then go at it (gently) with a scraper or putty knife. He used it on a big old wooden door. But we had removed the door and had it laying down horizontally on 2 saw horses. I do not know how this would work on a vertical surface like a door frame. – SteveSh Apr 25 at 18:41
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    NO way around it. Strip and scrape, strip and scrape. Repeat, repeat. Layer by layer. Try a citrus base stripper, get a good scraper and several replacement blades, careful, no gouging. Then the fun part of sanding begins. ;) Grinders on wood, lead paint aside, are a recipe for a tragically gouged surface. – Alaska Man Apr 25 at 18:41
  • Are you using a heat gun to remove old paint? – Willk Apr 25 at 19:32
  • @Willk no we are not using a heat gun because of lead based paint concerns. – OldCondo Apr 25 at 20:10
  • Ugh -- we did almost the exact same thing as well -- but with a pocket door. Chemical stripper, heat gun... gave up and just painted over the ugly thing, scars and all. Eventually (years later!) replaced the door. Welcome to the club! – rrauenza Apr 27 at 4:10
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Given the high likelihood of lead based paint, I would not under your current circumstances attack this with a grinder or a sander. You'll create lead-contaminated dust which will haunt you for a long time. Doubly so if any children come into contact with your house. EPA pamphlet here: EPA RRP

So, it would seem that you can either remove and replace the painted wood with new, or continue stripping safely.

New casing and baseboard is pretty easy. Windowsills less so. Door jambs way less so, though that would also get rid of the pesky issue of stripping the door.

Stripping-wise, you might need to let the stripper work longer, or change to a more noxious product. (I'd still go for the noxious stripper over the lead dust any day of the week.)

(edit: forgot to mention heat guns... If you can find a heat gun with a regulated output and know for a fact that it isn't over 1100 degrees F, a heat gun might help.)

Good luck! And by the way, there's no shame in starting a project and discovering surprising obstacles.

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    1920s wood > 2020s wood. – shoover Apr 27 at 2:38
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    Yeah don't replace the wood. Strip it. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Apr 27 at 3:25
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    +1 for the heat gun. It should be able to soften the paint enough for you to peel it off with a thin flexible putty knife. – mustaccio Apr 27 at 12:34
  • Door jambs are actually ridiculously easy to replace, just buy a new prehung door for under $100 and you can swap the whole thing out in less than 10 minutes (seriously). – jesse_b Apr 27 at 13:35
  • Don't use the heat gun if you have been using a flammable stripper, unless you've well ventilated the place. – Hot Licks Apr 27 at 20:43
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Is lead really there?

First and foremost, check your assumption about the presence of lead. Lead appears in 2 places: certain bold pigments like orange and red lead oxides (not that yellow chromium is particularly healthy) Second, it appears as a cheap pigment called "white lead", used in cheap paints. (better paints used what they still use, titanium dioxide).

So don't assume you have lead paint unless tests show you that; and the 3M test will read in seconds. If it takes an hour to turn orange, that's not lead.

  • By the way, the prevailing black pigment was/is Carbon Black - both that and titanium dioxide are affordable, stable mineral pigments. That is why so many cars are black, gray and white.

Stripping alkyd is hard(er)

Latex paint is much softer and easier to remove than the alkyd paints used previously. Mind you, alkyd is not the enemy. Alkyd is wonderful stuff because it's so tough... although the regional Air Quality Management Districts don't like it since the solvent is pure VOC.

Most of the paint strippers sold at the local big-box store are the "light stuff" because they are able to make them safer or more compliant with regional VOC regulations. They are designed to remove latex paint. So I think, as James says, you are "banging your head against the wall" using a stripper that is just too wimpy for alkyd.

Now there used to be a wonderful stripper called Aircraft Remover. Mind you, nobody paints aircraft with latex paint. So the stuff is by definition for alkyds. However, Rustoleum bought it out, and pushed it hard into hardware stores and big-box, and they may have wimpified the product. You might check with the aviation or marine communities and see what they like - marine also does not use latex paint - in fact they use some wickedly tough LPUs i.e. Imron (as airplanes do in the commercial jetliner level).

You must cover paint stripper with plastic after applying it. If you lay down paint stripper, get it bubbling, and then let it dry out, you have done precisely bupkus. Also if you put it on thin, it won't penetrate very far. So cover it thickly. Cover it with plastic. Let it work for hours. And then peel back the plastic as you strip. That should go much better.

Revisit heat

Heat isn't the devil. It just has to be used with care and appropriate PPE. I realize cartridge respirators and cartridges are basically unobtanium right now, but research the right PPE for the job - or just take the deal outdoors and work upwind with more modest PPE.

And don't ask the heat to do all the heavy lifting - heat and scrape together.

Or, stabilize the surface and move forward from here.

If you just want to stop now and fill the gashes and holes (and that's feasible), then you can do that. Thoroughly wash away and scrub-brush to remove any vestige of stripper (that will ruin paint obviously). Let it dry 24 hours indoors (dew is a problem). Then swiff-sand, and alternate between a high-build primer and sanding. If you have a marina chandlery nearby that isn't closed due to COVID, get ahold of some West System Microlight fairing filler, and mix it to peanut butter consistency with a very slow hardware store epoxy of your choice. That will give you a bondo-like material that is easy to sand, to then skimcoat around. You can also use Abatron or actual Bondo instead of West + epoxy).

(West System is in the epoxy business, but I'm sure you don't want to spend $150 kitting out with a gallon of base, hardeners, metering pumps etc. of the best epoxy system in the world. You won't use that often unless you're a handy person/woodworker, then you'll use it for everything lol).

Anyway you let your high build primer or "bondo" dry thoroughly (to where it sands without snotting up) then you wet-sand that guy. (dry-sanding is out because of the lead). Rinse wash repeat until you are happy with the surface.

This is a lot of work, by the way. But you'll need to do something similar once you get down to bare wood, just then you'll be able to dry-sand :)

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  • thanks for the great reply! – OldCondo Apr 26 at 16:07
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    I'm pretty sure that Aircraft Remover had dichloromethane in it - anything that works as well probably does also. It can't be overstated how careful you have to be with DCM - the fumes can literally kill you if you're not careful about ventilation and PPE. I think the EPA finally outlawed it in paint strippers last year in the US, a decade behind Europe. – J... Apr 26 at 16:36
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    @J...: Yep, and that's exactly why you want it - it's the only thing that works. Do be careful, of course, and make sure you have reliable ventilation. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Apr 27 at 3:29
  • +1 for Aircraft. Not sure if it's still the good stuff; you might have to find something new. But at least until a few years ago that was the right product. Auto parts stores were the place to get it. If it's been nerfed or isn't available, try ordering a DCM product on Amazon. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Apr 27 at 3:31
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    @OldCondo Assume lead until proven otherwise. – Strawberry Apr 28 at 14:06
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I sympathise with you your situation. I am sure that most of us have started a job that has become a lot tougher than anticipated with no easy way back. I know I have.

Try a different paint stripper. I found that some work better than others and some work better with certain types of paint. Shop around on websites specialising in painting or wood finishing to see what is available.

The brand I used to use has become much less effective in recent years. It used to bubble paint in seconds, but now barely softens it. On my last job I tried a new "solvent/alkali free" stripper. It appears to be water based and looks like wallpaper paste. I didn't have high expectations, but it worked brilliantly.

It is usually important to stop the stripper from drying out for as long as possible, otherwise it stops working. This can mean regular reapplication or covering, depending on the type.

If the door is solid and can be removed, then consider using a company that will strip it in a hot caustic tank. This can save a lot of time, but listen to their advice as some doors are not suitable for the process and can be damaged.

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Stop guessing if there's lead

I bought a mid-1970s house right on the edge of where lead paint was banned. We had some older windows, so I bought a lead test kit and made certain there was no lead. The kit wasn't terribly expensive, the results are guaranteed and it's easy to use (100% DIY). If the test comes back negative, sand that sucker down (200+ grit, lest you damage the wood, and I would avoid a power sander as well for old wood).

If it comes back positive... you can play this a couple of ways

  1. Buy an oil-based (mineral spirit cleanup) primer and just paint over it. There's no risk here. I wouldn't even bother with latex primers, since older paints are more likely to have weird chemicals in them. The bubbling you describe is a hallmark of people just slapping more paint on and it not properly adhering.
  2. Lead remediation. Expensive, but you can rest assured the lead will be gone
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    Be sure you use the lead test kits correctly. You need to "biopsy" your paint since you can be dealing with 5 to 10 coats. Try a few different places. – AdamO Apr 28 at 12:45
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Grab a sander or grinder, and wet sand it. It'll be a 2-man job, one of you sanding, one constantly wetting.

If you've got a plant sprayer or similar (the ones you pump to pressurise), that'll make applying consistent water easier. You want enough water to keep the dust down, but not too much to annoy your tools. A good quality one will be more tolerant of a bit of damp dust sludge.

You'll ideally want a shop vac which can handle water for 'dust' extraction, but you can use a bagged vacuum if you're not too fussed about it – the bag will clog fairly fast, but bags are cheap.

If you've not got a power tool you're willing to risk getting a bit damp, get your lockdown exercise in and do it by hand. It'll go slower, but it'll work. If you've made a real mess of the wood, a surform or 'shinto rasp' is very aggressive and will remove a lot fast.

Reference for wet sanding lead paint being safe: https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/cis79.pdf

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  • Wet sanding with an electric sander? Is that safe? – Hobbes Apr 28 at 8:57
  • Surprised you have not had some on here downvoting you for suggesting sanding, but +1 from me... – Solar Mike Apr 28 at 15:14
  • @Hobbes will depend on your tool a bit. The bigger risk is clogging it with slurry rather than damaging the electrical parts. I’d use a grinder with a sanding or paint stripper disk over a random orbit sander (as ROS does dust extraction through the tool). Belt sander probably fine too as they don’t usually do extraction through the tool. – Dan W Apr 29 at 8:10
  • I was thinking more of electric shock due to water getting into the motor and making a conductive pathway. – Hobbes Apr 29 at 16:34
  • @Hobbes most contractor quality tools are somewhat water resistant. And cordless tools can’t give you a significant shock anyway, the voltage is too low. But providing you’re spraying the surface, not pouring water on the tool, you should be safe. You can always use a non-conductive fluid like cutting fluid. – Dan W Apr 29 at 18:49
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DCM is particularly dangerous if there are any radiant heat surfaces in the area. It's non-flammable but more than one person has died due to using it with a radiant electric or gas heater in the area, which causes the production of lethal phosgene (carbonyl chloride) by DCM breakdown at high temperature. Using a hot air gun would also be dangerous for the same reason. It's not a nice way to die, after only a short period of exposure to phosgene, you choke to death over a period of hours or days as your lungs gradually fail. Yes, it was a great paint stripper but it was much more dangerous than we realised.

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I'm just going to throw out there that hand sanding with coarse and then fine sandpaper can do wonders. You never escape sanding in a paint job anyway, especially with stripper -- even when it works perfectly, you MUST sand afterwards if you want a smooth finish.

My usual sequence is 120, 200, 300 or 400. If there's a heavy layer to get off and the woood is not too soft (not pine, fir, etc.) then I might start with 60 or 80 and finish with 200 for painting. For stain/polyurathane, the final 300-400 sanding really makes a beautiful finish.

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    Absolutely don't do this unless you can ascertain there's no lead. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Apr 27 at 3:30
  • My word-- have you looked at the photo? They are going to have to do some sanding or give up and move away. – user8356 May 5 at 20:41

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