How to Strip Old Paint

Some of the paint on a salvaged mantel is bound to be lead-based, so you'll need to use a chemical stripper. (Sanding and heat guns release toxic lead dust and fumes.) Bob Reed, owner of the Stripping Workshop in Washington, D.C., recommends a methylene-chloride stripper such as Kwik Marine Paint & Varnish Remover—it works quickly and doesn't alter the wood's natural color or soften it, as lye-based strippers can. Because the fumes are noxious, work outdoors and use a respirator. Strippers can also burn, so wear long sleeves, pants, chemical-resistant rubber gloves, and goggles; spread a plastic drop cloth under your work table to catch the mess.

Brush stripper on small sections, moving in one direction. When the paint softens, it's ready for removal.

Gently scrape off paint, starting with details. For curved moldings, Reed uses a wood-carving tool called a Sloyd knife. A steel scratch awl and brass-bristled brush work best in crevices. Use a putty knife on flat surfaces. (For stubborn sections, apply as many coats of stripper as needed.)

Wipe wood with a sponge soaked in mineral spirits. This removes wax residue (an additive in the stripper).

Let dry; sand with 150-grit paper to give wood enough tooth to hold a new finish. Check with your local hazardous-waste office for how to safely dispose of the paint-filled drop cloth.
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