The generous folks at Eco-Strip sent us a brand new Speedheater™ Cobra to test in our shop, and I put it through the paces for a couple weeks on a bunch of different projects. So, this week, I wanted to share the results of my testing as well as a “How To” video on using infrared paint removal for your own projects.
We’re all looking for faster and safer ways to remove old paint (especially lead paint) and there are a ton of options I see people using like scrapers, heat guns, steam, chemicals and of course infrared. I think they all have their place depending on a few things like budget, size of the project, and time. So, today, let’s take a look at infrared and how it can help you!
What is Infrared?
Infrared technology is different than the old fashioned way of just applying heat to paint. It used to be that painters would use a torch to strip old paint. It worked great, except that it caused a ton of house fires and vaporized the lead paint, which is a serious health hazard.
Infrared works faster and at much lower temperatures than traditional heat guns. For example, the Speedheater™ I was testing runs between 400°F and 560°F, compared to a traditional heat gun which needs to be at 900°F to 1100°F to get the same effects.
That cooler temp means there is almost no chance I am going to vaporize lead paint or start fires. That, my friends, is the awesome thing about infrared paint removal.
The Speedheater™ Cobra
I’ll come right out and say it, I really liked the Cobra. Having used the Original Speedheater™ for a few years, I was used to a big bulky tool that worked great for doors and siding, but was not nimble enough for the large amount of windows we restore.
If the Original Speedheater™ is like the reliable work truck you use for the big jobs, the Cobra is the Ferrari that you want to drive every day! I was worried about the smaller size slowing down production speed, but since the Cobra heats paint so quickly (2-4 seconds!) production time wasn’t an issue.
With the small size also comes a few other benefits:
- Can reach in tight spaces (perfect for windows)
- Not more tired arms
- Easy to transport
I blew threw a 3-lite sash inside and out in about 20 mins, which is about 10 mins faster that it usually takes me and I was less tired because with the soft paint, I wasn’t working my scraper as hard.
The only thing I took issue with was that the Cobra doesn’t come in a carrying case like the Original Speedheater™. Since I’m mostly planning to use this in the shop, it’s not a big deal, but infrared bulbs are expensive and I sure would like to have a custom case to carry this from job to job, especially for the price.
How to Strip Paint Using Infrared Heat
The video below will walk you through the tools and techniques you need in just 5 minutes and give you a good demonstration of the Cobra. And please excuse the sweat, I’m using a infrared heater…in a warehouse…in the summer…in Florida. As always, subscribe to our Youtube channel so you get our helpful DIY videos as soon as they are released so you can get a head start on your next project.
You’ll see me using a variety of tools in the video above, and in case you are wondering what they are, here are the links below as well as a few other tools that may be helpful. Some are available in our store and others are pretty standard and can be found online or in a local hardware store.
You can click on any of the links below to learn a little more about each tool.
- Speedheater™ Cobra
- Speedheater™ Original
- Hyde Countour Scraper
- Stanley Razor Knife
- Triangle Scraper
- Dewalt Trigger Clamps
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57 thoughts on “Infrared Paint Removal: Speedheater™ Cobra”
Any advice for using the cobra on a house that has roughly three layers of paint and the top bubbles and when scraping it “gums” up and feels rubbery!?
I tried a steel brush and it did nothing.
Any advice is welcomed and appreciated.
How well does the Cobra work on surfaces that aren’t flat? We’ve got novelty drop siding on our house, and the Paint Shaver Pro has been great in the flat surface of the boards but were struggling to figure out what will work best in between them.
FWIW, I am a DIY’er with a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1895. I have used infra red light sources to strip wood for 15+ years, usually with makeshift devices, only recently with a Cobra. I find the Cobra better than what I constructed previously and I find it worth the cost.
The Cobra, and all IR light sources, primarily heat the wood underneath (very efficiently) and the surface paint primarily secondary. The strength of the heat rays varies with distance from the source, so an irregular surface will heat a bit irregularly as well. If you hold it too close at a “wrong” angle you will scorch some surfaces and leave others unsoftened. If you are able to be patient and hold it a bit farther away, the heat will equilibrate laterally throughout the wood and get everything softened without scorching.
You could also put aluminum foil or reflective tape on the surfaces closest to the Cobra to allow getting at the deeper surfaces first, then remove to get the more superficial.
You can get probes/picks that kind of look like dental tools to help peel paint out of crevices/valleys.
I have never used any mechanical paint removal tool, don’t intend too, I like the IR with relative less mess. I have never had wood ignite on me (unlike with a hot air gun) and have never needed to use any respirator (though I imagine a wood if I was a pro doing the work on larger volumes).
A trick I learned recently, a brass wire brush can be used to remove softened paint without the need to match the profile and without damaging the wood.
I often will use carbide (not steel) bladed scrapers to clean up any residual paint left after removal with heat. What is left comes off very easy compared with strictly mechanical removal with a scraper
Your other option with irregular surfaces is 1) strictly mechanical scraping, which can be done with carbide blades but it hard work, 2) with a hot air heat gun, which I don’t use because of risk of fire and vaporized lead, 3) chemical removers of various kinds. Some are better than others but all are a mess. i would stay away from anything with sodium hydroxide (NaOH) because it softens the wood and makes it easier to damage. There are some advertised as low odor and environmentally friendly, and they work but are more expensive, and still messy.
Some one asked before about removing varnish. The problem with varnish is while it softens and can be scraped, it is sticky and globs onto the scraper rather than flaking off like paint.
removing paint with heat varies a bit depending on the layers of paint and wood. Sometimes it comes off almost as easily as pulling off masking tape, other times not so much. Sometimes the paint will have some external layers soften and peel off prior to layers on the surface (I am guessing this is latex paint on top of oil).
On occasion it comes about as easily as one could want, usually it is more tedious, but all ways of stripping 100 years of old paint are tedious, which is why many people cover it all with aluminum…egads.
I use it on interior thick lead paint all of the time and have not had the problems others discuss. Not sure why the differences in experience.
Hope all of that is somewhat helpful.
I’ve had the same issues as Justin and Erin’s comments in April; I just can’t recommend this for interior work on thick leaded paint, for three reasons.
#1. Edges. I tried it on sills, jambs and molding, and when have a simple near-flat surface it comes off like butter! But anything near an inside edge, or where I can’t get a perfect angle, and I’m scorching one side of the wood before paint barely softens on the other.
Even with the fancy scrapers, pre-oiling and practicing, the inside edges still have irremovable layers of lead paint. My only options are to paint over with something like EcoBond lead-remediating paint, or slowly finish with chemical strippers in the corners. And there’s still too much in the edges to safely pull it off and finish outside.
#2. Fumes. Full HEPA face mask and goggles, plastic sheeting, HEPA air filter and fan, and still took several days to recover from whatever was burning. I even had the doctor do a lead test just to make sure I was alright (and I was), because my symptoms were the same as from lead exposure. So, whatever is on your trim besides the lead paint, whether latex, silicone, rubber, etc., that is burning in a way that you need to keep your mask on inside, long after you’re done cleaning up.
#3. Flames. I had a piece of newer wood trim catch on fire after just a couple seconds, perhaps because there was a small gap behind it and I created a tiny fireplace? Or something like caulk or spackle lighting up? Who knows, but it’s hard to put out a flame when you’re on a ladder with a scraper in one hand, an IR heat gun in the other, and a HEPA mask stopping you from blowing it out. Also, when the paint bubbles tiny bits can come off before you scrape! One bit floated up onto the lamp and caught on fire, and one fell down onto the metal edge and did the same. Maybe it was a quirk of the air currents and the ventilation, but three flames in one hour was not good, and when you’re inside a prepped room with lead dust on the ground it would take a long time to run away without contaminating the rest of the house.
All of that aside, I know that any outside project where I can get clear access to the lead paint, the Cobra is a magic wizard wand. But I got it for the endless amount of leaded trim stuck in my house, and I just haven’t felt safe or successful enough with it indoors.
And just to followup, I’m sure I would have the same problem with the flames and odors from a traditional heat gun, but I wouldn’t attempt that around leaded paint.
The inside edges problem is primarily from the rectangular heat shield around the bulbs, it just wouldn’t get hot enough on the outside 1/4-1/2 inch when the trim was against a perpendicular surface like a sill against a window. I put up metal tape on adjacent surfaces to the trim but the shield still kept the inside corners too far away.
I’m having a terrible problem with paint catching fire even tho I think I’m moving quickly. Anybody else experiencing this issue?
I have not used the Cobra, but I have used other devices that strip by infrared heat.
There is always a balance between holding the device close enough to act quickly, and far enough away as to not scorch the wood.
That said, I have never actually had a problem with paint catching fire. Smoking paint and scorched wood, yes, flames on paint, no.
Did you use linseed oil or something on the wood?
Without being there, I think i would simply experiment holding it a little higher off of the surface.
Heat will radiate laterally along the paint and wood underneath, so once you get started the next inch over will be easier. But if you are too close, as you say, you get scorching without the beneficial effect of the lateral heat and softening.
Yikes, Erin! Please call me tomorrow so we can figure out what’s happening. 703-476-6222. Catherine Brooks, President, Eco-Strip.
I can vouch that this thing is the real deal. I’ve used mine extensively on trim, and now I am working on windows.
My one concern – is there a good mask out there that will help block/protect you from the vapors. I’m not talking about lead vapors, I’m talking about the smoke and glue smell that comes up in you face. On some days, it really burns my throat. I have a fan going for ventilation, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.
I suggest a full face, Organic Vapor mask with replaceable filters.
Justin, here is the mask I use. Scroll down to PPE.
I want one of these things so bad I can taste the lead but, day-um …$500? That ain’t right. How could it cost that much?
I may go ahead and buy one because I am doing a whole old house but, day-um, $500!
Are you willing to sell me your used Cobra?
Would this work to remove varnish from wood paneling or door? Would sanding be a better option? Would love to see an article which touches on wood varnish/stain restoration. Thanks!
Question about removing the areas of wood that have a lot of detail, how do you use the tools without gouging the wood
What tools work best or maybe chemical paint remover?
Some chemical methods will soften the wood and make it easier to damage.
I don’t know if some are worse than others.
Using heat avoids that, though one can never be too patient and cautious when removing old paint from wood.
Can the Speedheater Cobra be used to strip paint off plaster walls? The room I want to strip is a bathroom with tile halfway up the wall, so the area that actually needs stripping is not large. My house was built in 1941. There are several layers of paint, and I assume the deeper layers are lead-based paint. For this reason, the lower temperature at which the Cobra runs is appealing. I have read all the info I can find online about the Speedheater Cobra, but see nothing about using it to remove paint from plaster walls.
Thanks very much.
Claudia, it works best on painted wood. If the lower levels of paint are your concern then I would focus on encapsulating the lead paint and painting over rather than stripping it. Much easier and still protected! Try this post: https://thecraftsmanblog.com/how-to-encapsulate-lead-paint/
I agree with Scott for several reasons:
1) You have a small area to strip. Unless you have more wood to strip in other parts of the house, an investment in a Cobra is overkill.
2) Infrared heat may soften the paint but scrapers might damage the plaster. Plaster with an irregular surface may damage your scrapers.
We just bought a neglected 1930s colonial and all of the windows are original have flaking paint on them. In the video demonstration there was no glass in the window frame. Is it necessary to remove the window from the house and the glass from the window in order to use the Cobra for removing lead paint?
Also, the last paint job on the baseboards (looks like it was done decades ago) resulted in a lot of paint splatters on the original hardwood floors. Will the Cobra remove these paint splatters from the hardwood floors?
Thanks for this post and video Scott. I have been using a heat gun for 25 years with great success to get to the bare interior wood on my 170 year old home. But it has its drawbacks of course. What’s your experience with the cobra removing many layers of paint to the bare wood? Is it easy to turn on and off while using? Thanks! Tony
To me it’s more effective at paint removal than the heat guns. It does require about a minute to reach temp and then cool down as well, but when you’re in production mode the increased speed makes up for the up/down time.
Thanks for the response Scott. My heat gun has been very effective in removing many layers, even at first attempt, just very time consuming …and of course there is the issue of heating lead paint. Sounds like the cobra cuts the time dramatically and improves safety which would definitely benefit me. Next to repointing my stone foundation, getting up the energy to strip paint can be challenging. ? thanks again and greetings from Boston…saw you once lived here.
Yeah, I miss Beantown but not in the winter!
Tony, I also live by Boston (Arlington) and just moved into a 170 year old house with plenty of old trim to strip down (and stone to repoint)… I’m gonna get a Cobra and would be glad to share it in exchange for tips on fixing up an extremely-old-house.
Thank you, guys and gals for the helpful responses. I too am concerned about the ladder issue but also like the potential ease with which I may be able to use this product. I appreciate the food for thought. If I decide to pull the trigger on the Cobra, you’ll be the first to know. I’ve got to get a move-on given the limited painting window we are now in.
Hello, All. Possible dumb question. I have a cape style home. My house is stucco on the bottom half and shingles on the sides on the upper half. Is the cobra useful for exterior shingles or too small? it seems to heat quickly. i’ll be up on a ladder. i’m trying to do this paint job on the cheap so buying one of these would be a big chunk of my already paltry budget.
Patrick, shingles are tough to strip. The Cobra would work well especially since it is about The size of a shingle exposure though. The original Speedheater would probably cover 2 shingles. The Cobra is nice and light which would be helpful on a ladder too. Just some thoughts.
I have a Queen Anne Victorian with shingles. I prefer a smaller device like the Cobra, ,though in actuality I use some jury-rigged devices that are less expensive.
Technique when you do it, try to avoid taking the lamp away from the surface when you scrape, instead move it to warm the next few inches while you scrape what was just softened.
I am still working on something home made and less expensive, but don’t hold your breath waiting for my success.
Good tips Mike!
As you know, doing any work on a ladder is a safety issue. If you do need to get the Cobra away from your surface for a bit, you can take an S hook with one end on your ladder and use the other for hanging the Cobra by its stand – facing outward towards the open air, of course. Being 22 oz and extremely concentrated infrared rays will make the paint heating much faster and easier on your arms and wrists. The safety issue I am concerned about is whether you can keep up with the need/desire to scrape the paint immediately after the quick heating by using one hand to hole the scraper and one hand to hold the Cobra. Let me know how the smaller Cobra’s paint stripping method works for you.
Received my Cobra I bought from you in the mail over the weekend and I’m raring to go!
I have the large speed heater that i have used under one hour. It is too big for me to use on my windows. Is there any market for a slightly used speedheater? I want to get the cobra instead. This one was purchased last summer.
There is definitely a market for it. Try ebay and you’ll likely have some good luck with it.
Thank you Scott!
Susan, if you haven’t sold it yet, I’m interested.
Your blog is great, and I come back to it as a constant resource all the time. Just a quick question – did the original primers typically have lead in them as well? The Cobra seems to abate concerns of lead in the scraping, but will I be facing lead concerns during final prep/sanding?
Thanks in advance!
Controlling the heat of the paint prevents lead fumes. It does not eliminate the lead in the paint waste. You must collect and dispose of that safely. If remnants of lead paint linger on the the substrate after you have stripped, I suggest you wet sand lightly, only if you need to do it at all, to prevent dust from being released. Unless the wood surface is very smooth, it likely has some “tooth” or slight roughness to which the new primer can adhere well.
Thank you both. I was referring the residual primer that’s left after the scraping that will need to be sanded down inevitably. I have the same primer on my trim in my house, and it has lead. However, sanding the primer is necessary to a smooth finish. I have the respirator and my orbital hooked up to a HEPA vac, but I’m wondering if I should be doing something more. Dust is inevitably all over the place. Is TSP the best cleaning up? I plan to do a whole house wipe down.
-You are already being very thorough, even if this was your livelihood and you stripped 10 houses/yr. unless you plan to have infant children crawling around the floor in the next 6 months, I would not bother with being obsessive/compulsive with a TSP cleaning.
-When you say respirator, do you mean a high efficiency mask to keep out the smallest particles, or a closed system that keeps out fumes as well? You do not need to worry about fumes with an IR device designed for paint removal as discussed.
-In my experience, there is very little to sand if one is careful and attentive with the “final scrape”, unless you are trying to remove everything to refinish the wood with stain/oil/varnish. If repainting, the amount of primer left in the pores of the wood grain is negligible.
-No matter. by the time the scraping is done, the amount of paint and lead in the paint is a very small fraction of what was there initially. Lead poisoning was first described in the context of toddlers eating peeling paint, not microscopic amounts in dust.
I would do a TSP wipedown IF you plan to have very young children crawling on the floor within the next 6 months or so, and then primarily to avoid a hassle if the child’s lead screening comes back a little high (which would cause a panic, but would not need treatment, let alone cause damage), which would have been perfectly acceptable when my adult children were young. I am all for safety, but the way some scream about lead levels one would think most people over 30 have serious brain damage from lead, because the levels prevalent back then are considered terribly high today.
I am a doctor. I know what the recommendations were when I was in practice, what the recs were when my children were young living in old houses with lead paint in them. Levels considered worrisome now would not have even registered on the tests we used to screen then.
Thank you so much for your help and for putting it all in perspective. I think I may go with the TSP wipe down simply because we are going to start trying to have kids in the next few months (although those potential kids won’t be crawling for 16+ months, there is possibly significant dust in the house.
My setup for the paint removal has been a hepa vac, a lead respirator mask (pink circles on the side), goggles, ear muffs, and a metabol paint scrapper. The paint scrapper really takes the paint off; however, dust and paint scraps go flying every where, which I subsequently sweep up and then mop thereafter. I would be covered in dust and paint chips. I sealed off every room that I was working in, but realistically some dust is still present. I’m not necessarily worried about me, just the mini-me’s who will eventually be in the home and a soon-to-be pregnant wife, which I think is why we’ll go with the belt and suspenders route.
The Metabol is a little too powerful for interior paint scrapping (despite the company’s videos, this thing is a widow maker if handled improperly); accordingly, I just ordered a Cobra. The metabol got me through the bedrooms, but I would sometimes gouge the wood, and I do not want that to happen on the main floor. The Cobra appears to save time on the sanding end, which is a huge part of the process with the Metabol (due to the sheer power and gouging).
I definitely didn’t want to spend this kind of money at this point in the game, but Scott said exactly what I was thinking. If you are doing a whole house worth of windows (I have downstairs trim and 60+ sashes), spend the money. I’m already saving thousands upon thousands in labor doing it myself; I might as well make it as easy as possible.
I don’t know what a “Metabol” scraper is, but it sounds like a power mechanical scraper. I have never used any kind of powered scraper or sander to take off paint for the reasons you describe.
I would never use any powered sander other than something that Scott describes from festool because of dust control issues.
You will find that when you use heat to soften the paint, it does not make any where near the kind of dust that mechanical paint removal does, and what material is scraped off is generally much larger and easier to contain.
Yes, with a pregnant wife I agree it would be prudent to do the TSP. Even if you have already done 98% of what should be done, the last 1.5% makes sense too.
You may want to check out what is on the Patreon site. I don’t know if Scott will do it, but I’ve asked him to discuss steam boxes for doing windows, something that requires an up front investment of time but in the long run is fast, and helps with lead containment as well (minimal dust, the little there is, is damp and clumps, dedicated place away from the living space.)
Justin, check into LOCKUPLEAD.com lead dust neutralizer. I just learned about it for regular cleaning of window sills and doors where intact lead paint remains. It is supposed to do good lead dust containment and then neutralization during paint stripping and when you change HEPA filters.
The other thing you could do is use the scraper Scott sells that hooks up directly to a vacuum as a “clean up residual” step.
The following is an unofficial blurb not authorized by the blog host:
Unless you have small children I need the house, and/or you do this for a living in many houses again and again, the amount of lead is not as dangerous as some would make it seem. When I grew up I had higher lead levels from breathing in the air when we used leaded gas than you will get using these techniques with a moderate degree of care.
All painters of a generation ago did not die of lead poisoning, even though they took none of these precautions.
Occasionally there was lead in the primers but less often since the lead was added to make the bright white and yellow enamel paints of the day. HEPA vac attached to sander or wet sanding will keep the dust down.
I have found that dry heat like this did not work well on 100 yo window glazing that was hard as rock. We ended up using a hand held electric steamer that worked, but was very slow.
Try painting linseed oil on dry glazing and dry paint and letting it set for a few hours. Once oil is in paint or putty, it heats and scrapes faster
Thanks for the idea, we have many more yet to do.
Have you ever thought of putting people out in the field with demonstration models? I would be happy to take a Cobra and my window sashes to my local hardware and paint stores for demonstrations.
Yes, we are looking for folks to do that.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat.
Hey, Mike. Please call me at 703-476-6222. Catherine Brooks
Thanks again for something very helpful.
I have been using infrared for maybe 15 years, having learned about it from a painter in Minneapolis.
One thing about technique, he made a point to tell people do not give into the temptation to take the heater off of the wood while you scrape and then put it back on. He does whole house strip and repaint using infrared alone, and points out that it is much more efficient if one learns to keep the heat on the wood and follow along. Of course, that means learning to keep the heater close enough to the wood to soften the paint yet not so close as to scorch the wood.
Pull scrapers are safer, but sometimes the paint bubbles up so nicely one can essentially just peal it off with a putty knife.
Fwiw, I don’t fuss too much over getting every speck off with this method, especially on flat surfaces, as it is quick and easy to go over it with a carbide scraper to get a perfect stripping, and if one uses that scraper you sell, you can vacuum the (minimal) dust at the same time.
While this is pretty quick, will you still use a steam box in the shop for most of the work you do? If so, have you ever posted how to make a steam box? If not, maybe you can do it on your Patreon site and make every body join us over there….
15 years ago was before the Speedheater came out, which meant that he (and I) used a makeshift device adapted from a quartz light space heater.
Since I had a lot of window trim to do, I long ago purchased a hand held lamp advertised for auto body work for about $100, but it was cheaply made and I had to rebuild it, which was a pain.
I already wrote to the company to tell them it was a great idea, but I can’t see myself spending that kind of money to replace what I have. I may be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” as my grandma used to say, but some in our household are allergic to big visa bills…
I have never seen one of these anywhere other than on line. They are such great products I am sure that they would sell more if they could get it out to the public. (Not everyone visits here, silly them).
I believe they do have a program where you can rent it, and if you like it then the rental fee counts toward the purchase, which is a great ideal on there part.
Pardon the long post, this is the one thing that I have some knowledge of, having learned from a pro.
Hey Scott! This post and video was so helpful! As someone new to restoring anything with an old house, I have been discouraged and tempted to replace my windows. I have 15 small squares/windows within a single window sash (x 32 windows total in the house).For someone inexperienced as me this is so many muntins and profile surfaces that I need to scrape. I’m actually excited to order and try the infrared method out. A huge thank you for providing the list of tools and a link to purchase them!
You got it Dave! Good luck with the house and come dig through the blog for all kinds of tutorials for the restoration process.