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How To Strip Paint (Part 3 Steam Heat)

How To Strip Paint (Part 3 Steam Heat)

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.

The Benefits of Steam Paint Removal

Window Steamer Box
Our shop made window steamer box
Image Credit: Scott Sidler

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

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).


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)

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:

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.

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

  1. A very well explained, concise and frank explanation. Answers key questions I had on heat techniques. Even 6 years after the post. Great work!

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