How To Strip Paint (Part 3 Steam Heat)

By Scott Sidler May 19, 2014

how-to-strip-paint
Image credit: kozzi / 123RF Stock Photo

This is the last post in our 3 part series on how to strip paint. In the first one I talked about working with chemical strippers and when and how to use them. Last week we delved into the world of elbow grease and talked about how to scrape like a pro. This week I want to talk about using heat to remove paint. Specifically, steam heat, but we’ll also discuss infrared strippers and good old-fashioned heat guns.

Stripping paint with heat is not a new idea. In fact, it’s one of the oldest techniques. Old carpenters and painters would use blow torches to quickly heat up paint causing it to lose its bond to the surface and be easily scraped free. This old technique may have removed paint well, but it also started a lot of house fires.

Enter technology and ingenuity. Paint removal has gone in two directions when it comes to heat, old school and new technology. Let’s talk old school first.

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The Benefits of Steam Paint Removal

Steam is a simple and extremely effective way to remove paint. No messy chemicals or fear of fire. No replacement scraper blades to buy. You’ll need a steamer and a decent scraper or even a putty knife. The big bonus to steam paint removal is that since the paint softens from the heat and is wet from the steam you have minimal (if any!) dust to worry about. In a house full of lead paint that is a big stinking deal!

  • No harsh fumes from chemicals or from dry heating paint
  • Allows virtually dust-free paint removal (Good choice for lead-paint)
  • Eliminates burnt wood and chances of fire
  • Eliminates the need fort neutralizing chemical strippers
  • Relatively inexpensive
Window Steamer Box
Our shop made window steamer box
Image Credit: Scott Sidler

There are expensive steam boxes for windows, and you can make your own, but if you don’t plan on doing a bunch of windows you’ll just need a simple garment steamer. Something like the Jiffy J-2000 (we use the larger J-4000) will work great for steaming paint off small areas. For me steaming works best for window restoration. It softens rock hard glazing putty in no time and makes the process a million times easier (<—not a scientific calculation). Watch my video on steam glazing removal

How to Remove Paint with Steam

It is a slow process that doesn’t require brute force, just patience.

  • Hold the steamer head relatively close (within 1 inch or so) to the surface for about 15 seconds
  • Once the paint starts to bubble up scrape it off using a scraper or putty knife
  • While scraping one section be heating the next
  • Once the wood has had some time to dry out sand it smooth if necessary to remove any fuzz (if the wood gets dusty when you sand it is dry enough other wise wait longer)

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How to Use Infrared Heat

Dry heating has come a long way since the blow torch idea. Today there are several infrared paint strippers on the market which make using heat safer than ever before. An infrared paint remover works at temperatures between 400°F and 500°F which is well below the 1100°F area which is where the lead in old paint can be vaporized.

In my shop we used to use the Silent Paint Remover but have now switched over to the Speedheater for infrared paint removal. The Speedheater is more effective and has much better customer support. Mostly we use this for doors since they are too large to fit in our window steamer. It works well, but has some drawbacks:

Paint stripper
Copyright: bombaert / 123RF Stock Photo

Pros of Infrared Heat

  • Easily removes multiple thick layers of paint and varnish
  • Can sand and prime immediately. No need to wait for drying
  • Relatively dust-free operation
  • Extremely effective on latex paints

Cons of Infrared Heat

  • Creates annoying fumes from heated paint, but fortunately does not create toxic lead fumes.
  • Can burn wood if left in one area too long
  • Not as effective on extremely dry, brittle oil-based paints

How to remove paint using infrared heat is pretty much the same as with steam heat. Heat an area till the paint bubbles and begins smoking and then scrape that section off while you heat a new area. Be careful that the paint surface doesn’t burn because then you have heated the paint too long.

What About Heat Guns

I’d be remiss if I left heat guns out of the post on heat paint removal so here they are. These guns have been around a long time and haven’t changed much over the decades. They are effective and usually very inexpensive (around $20-$40), but they don’t work as quickly as infrared or steam. If you plan to use a heat gun make sure it has a variable temperature control. It should let you choose what temperature you work at not just “High to Low.” Heat guns can reach temperatures of 1200°F which can vaporize lead paint and easily cause fires. If you do decide to use this method keep the temperature on the low side. It will take longer, but you won’t be breathing vaporized lead or burning down a house.

25 thoughts on “How To Strip Paint (Part 3 Steam Heat)”

  1. I found out by accident that a floor steam mop will remove paint well.
    I was trying to use it to get cooking grease stains off from around the stove.

  2. Scott-
    I thought I would share my experience so far. I have 7 1950s windows that I am working to restore. Thus far I have only been working on the storm windows ( which is a nice way to build my skills).

    For putty and paint removal I purchased the Hyde putty knife and glazier tool and a Jiffy 2000 steamer. I had no success whatsoever with the Jiffy 2000 ( although I am loving it for a clothes steamer). After some additional research, I rented a 1500 watt wallpaper steamer from my local Big Box store. That was helpful with the putty, but I was gouging more wood then I was removing paint. I then decided to order the Speedheater from EcoStrip. I used it today. Wow! I’m finally having success in both removing the putty and the paint. In my situation the Speedheater blows away the handheld steamers I tried.

    This weekend I plan to try next steps (priming and reglazing) on at least one stormwindow using your book.

    Thanks for offering such great a great resource

    1. Michelle, glad the Speedheater is working well for you! The steamers work best for me with a steam box that I can put the sashes in and let them cook for about an hour. Then the putty is softened up all over. The Speedheater works best just the way you are using it. Keep up the good work!

  3. Hi there,

    The fascia on my house has lead paint that is peeling really badly…and flaking off. You can see the bare wood. Would steam heat work on this?

    If not, what would be the best progression of grits to use? What grit sandpaper should I start and end with?

  4. Hi Scott,
    Very helpful info as always. Would it be okay to use a steamer on a very recently plastered wall? Unfortunately the roller used to paint it has left an ugly bumpy and uneven finish so I want to start from scratch.
    Thanks!

  5. Is there any risk of damaging the wooden window sashes using the steam box method? The other half and I are fiercely debating this one–he is convinced that the wood will warp if we use steam to remove paint and glazing putty.

    1. Nicole, using steam has been in practice for a couple decades by window restorationists without problems. My shop alone has done a few thousand windows with steam and had no problems. It really is the safest way to go.

  6. Scott, can you publish plans or instructions for building a small steam cabinet? After stripping a few sashes with a heat gun, i’m ready to take the rest to get dipped until i read your posting recommending not to. The steam looks promising. Thank you for writing such a great blog!

  7. Thank you for this info. What about sandblasting wood trim? I’ve got 6 rooms worth of flat trim with 4 layers of paint, and my contractor suggested this method.

    1. Susan, sandblasting usually scars the wood surface and I have seen irreparable damage to all kind of wood and brick from sandblasting. Stick with more gentle methods for sure!

  8. I unfortunately have had a sort of stucco sprayed onto my exterior wood and porch brick. I live in a historic neighborhood with many ambitious restoration minded people who make an “Aw crap” face when I tell them this. I have heard this is so hard to remove that most people leave it. The only solution I have found online is a blow torch which scares the living crap out of me. I don’t know that I trust hiring anyone who will not burn down my house. Is blow torch really the only way?

  9. Can infrared heat be used to remove paint from brick? I need a safe method to remove latex paint from 1830’s brick exterior.

    1. I spoke with the creators of The Speedheater and here is the response they gave me about infrared pant removal on brick.

      “There is no one word answer for brick stripping. Some folks want to remove only the bulk of the surface paint and repaint over it. In that case, the Speedheater infrared rays should work to soften the paint for scraping with sharp, pull-type scrapers like ours. However, any surface that is very rough does challenge the scraping part of the stripping process. The paint underneath the smooth surface is pitted and will be heated by the infrared rays but may not come up and off. Some folks have tried reheating the relatively-bare brick and using a wire brush to remove the remaining paint in the pits. Likely, the wire will get gummed up, and the process will be very time-consuming and tedious.

      We do NOT recommend sand blasting brick as the soft brick is easily damaged by the pressure. We do recommend the type of Peel Away liquid stripper which comes with the paper to place over the goo. The paper allows the goo to stay wet longer. Pulling the paper off may pull up some of the paint in the pits. Overall, stripping paint off such an uneven surface as old brick is a challenge.

      FYI, the Speedheater will work to remove paint off metal unless the metal is thick like cast iron Thick metal is a heat sink. The infrared rays dissipate into the metal instead of staying directly where you point them. Therefore, the heat will not be strong enough to release the paint. It works well on thinner metal such as sheet metal or metal rain gutters and on door and window metal hardware.

      In summary, the infrared rays work on coatings with oil and latex; they cannot do their job on shellac or milk/ blood/ protein paint because the pigment binders are not oil or latex.”

      1. Thank you so much for your reply. I appreciate getting an expert opinion. The original brick is beautiful and should never have been covered. Maybe you could do an article about how damaging it is to paint brick. Thanks again.

  10. Hi,

    I”m a homeowner of a house built before 1978. I had it tested for lead paint last month, and some of the exterior (but not all) has lead paint on it.

    I am just a homeowner…not a contractor or painter or anything. Where can the average homeowner buy the equipment for steam heat removal of lead paint? Can steam heat be applied to any part of the house or just windows?

    thanks,
    A homeowner

  11. I have several old doors, that have a severely gatored finish. Could the garment steamer work on these without a box? I don’t know what the finish is – varnish?

    1. The steam might help on severely alligatored paint but sometimes when the paint is that alligatored steam doesn’t do as much and you’re better off using a good scraper since the paint is so dried out. If you have the garment steam you can use it in sections to try stripping the paint and see what kind of progress you make.

  12. I read several reviews of the Silent Paint Remover a couple of years ago, & a common complaint seemed to be that the plastic housing didn’t hold up (broke easily because of heat). Has that design flaw been addressed? It sounds like a good idea if the housing were sturdier. Otherwise I’m not sure about spending that much on a tool that would break after only a few hours’ use.

    1. I have used mine for about 3 years now and haven’t had any problems with the plastic housing. It has discolored from the heat, but still strong and sturdy. They do make upgraded models that are all metal (some are right around the same price point).

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