Which one should you get? The debate between buying a heat gun or an infrared paint stripper is a question a lot of folks have been asking these days as this new technology has begun getting more attention and, it’s one worth asking if you have a lot of paint to strip particular lead paint on old houses.
It’s no secret that paint becomes easier to remove as it is heated. In the old days, painters used to use torches to literally burn the old paint off of buildings which made scraping extremely easy. Of course, the use of a torch also caused a lot of unnecessary house fires, not to mention the fact that burning paint at that high of a temperature vaporizes the lead paint causing serious health issues for all involved.
In this post, I’ll cover some of the differences between heat guns and infrared paint strippers so you can better understand how both technologies work and make a decision on which one is right for your project.
Heat Gun Basics
Heat guns have been around for close to 100 years now. The first true electric heat gun was developed by C.H. Kenney in 1934 when he received a patent for a device to soften and remove paint. The design has been refined over the years, but today’s models remain largely the same as the original devices.
A heat gun works by blowing air across a heating element inside the gun which is surrounded by an insulator to keep the tool safe to handle. The original guns featured asbestos as the insulator, but modern tools use a variety of insulators.
Heat guns heat up the layers of paint starting with the top layer and gradually over time working down to the base layer. The warm air softens the paint making it easier to remove from the substrate. Heat guns are effective on almost any substrate like wood, metal, masonry, and plaster. Don’t try using a heat gun directly on glass or plastic as you’ll likely end up with broken glass or melted plastic.
Heat Gun Costs
One of the big advantages of heat guns is their low price and market saturation. They are everywhere! Almost any hardware store or big box store will have a multitude of models to choose from. You can expect to find pricing like below.
- $15 to $25 for basic models
- $25 to $50 for models with temperature controls
- $50 to $100 for premium models with different fittings
- Up to $200 for battery powered deluxe models
Heat Gun Pros & Cons
Low prices and easy access are the big advantages we talked about. For basic projects with just a few layers of paint a heat gun is usually the best choice especially if the building was built after 1978 which alleviates any lead paint concerns.
Small detail work is also a good fit for a heat gun since you can adjust the nozzle to very specific angles and get into crevices more easily than larger paint strippers.
Where heat guns struggle is with larger projects where you need to strip a lot of paint from larger areas like doors, molding, and siding. They just don’t heat a large enough area to make the work feasible.
Heat guns are also not good to use on surfaces where there are many layers of old paint. Since they heat from the top down it can take multiple passes to get down to the wood on an old window that has 12-14 coats of paint.
Also, since most heat guns operate at temperatures above 900°F they are likely to vaporize lead paint which has serious health concerns. Because of this they are not a good option for older homes built before 1978 where lead paint is common. Unless you can get a variable temperature heat gun and keep the temp safely below that range you should avoid the risk of using a heat gun to strip lead paint.
Infrared Paint Strippers
Within the last 20 years infrared paint strippers have found their way into the paint stripping market as a safer and faster way to remove multiple layers of paint. According to BrightHub Engineering, ”Infrared heat pierces deep into the paint layers, due to which the paint layers are warmed, and can be removed easily.”
Rather than heating from the top down like heat guns an infrared paint stripper heats from the bottom up and at lower temperatures than heat guns. This result in lower temps and faster paint removal resulting in far lower chances of lead paint vaporizing which keeps users safer. This bottom up paint stripping also means that multiple layers of paint can be removed much faster than heat guns because once the bottom layer of paint is removed all the layers above come with it.
There are two types of infrared technology that effectively work the same. The first is ceramic plate and the second and is infrared glass bulbs. The ceramic plates need to be placed closer to the surface to work effectively usually 1/2” to 1” off the paint surface compared to infrared glass bulbs which work best at 3” to 5” above the surface.
The ceramic plate technology is far less fragile than the glass bulbs which can make it better for the rough and tumble jobsite or DIYer compared to the infrared glass bulb technology which currently produces high wattage, but is more prone to breakage and costs more than the ceramic.
Infrared Paint Stripper Costs
Infrared paint strippers are speciality tools not sitting on the shelves of most local paint or hardware stores which makes them hard to find outside of the online marketplace. Pricing can also be considerably more than heat guns for this premium product.
All the tools below use the infrared glass bulb technology except for the IR Paint Stripper that uses the ceramic plate technology.
Full disclosure my company is the creator of the IR Paint Stripper which we developed to bring an affordable infrared paint stripper to folks who couldn’t afford the high price tag of the other options on the market.
Infrared Paint Stripper Pros & Cons
Infrared heat technology means safer, faster, and cleaner paint removal, and that is a major benefit specifically for old house owners who have to contend with multiple layers of lead containing paint. It’s hard to put a price tag on your health and your time.
Just like any technology there are some cons to infrared paint removal. First, most of the infrared tools on the market today are larger and more bulky than heat guns which means they can be tough to use for detail work or to get into small areas. Sure they excel at stripping large areas quickly, but for the little nooks and crannies they are not as helpful. The smallest of these infrared paint strippers is the Speedheater Cobra which does a good job of trying to bridge the gap and hit those small areas.
Unlike heat guns which don’t care what’s beneath the paint, infrared technology works by far the best on wood, a little less effectively on steel and plaster, and even less effectively on masonry. Steel can be effectively sandblasted to remove paint and not damage the surface, but for paint removal from wood that is the main substrate that the infrared technology really shines on.
Now you’re an expert on the differences between heat guns and infrared paint strippers so which one is right for your project? If you’ve got an old house with lots of paint to strip then you should probably land in the infrared paint stripper camp, but if you have a newer home then a simple heat gun may be all you need and you can save your money for buying the best paint later.
In either case, my opinion is that stripping using heat is a better option than chemicals since you can paint right away without all the mess to clean up. As long as you work safely to avoid lead paint concerns you’ll be in a good position to up your paint stripping game now. Good luck!
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.