On this sparkling June morning, D'Amato goes to the north side of his house, pulls off one of the abundant paint flakes and examines it. From its approximately 1/16-inch thickness, he guesses the house bears at least 10 coats. Because lead paint was not banned until 1978, all 10 layers may contain the toxic metal. To confine the aged paint he will remove, he unrolls a 20-foot-wide section of 6-mil-thick plastic and staples one edge of it to the bottom of the first course of clapboards. Then he and his crew prop up the tarp's edges with 1x8 boards, creating an 18-by-20-foot basin to catch debris. Hand-scraping a huge house is only slightly more fun than a messy divorce, so power-tool manufacturers have tried to mechanize the chore. Of the half-dozen tools available?all variations on the theme of a spinning cutter or grinder?D'Amato's choice for this job is called the Paint Shaver. A head with three triangular carbide scrapers buzzes off a full 1/8 inch from the clapboards, while a vacuum attachment keeps dust to a minimum. (Nonetheless, employee Tom Thevenin wears a respirator.) The shaver is far from perfect—it's heavy, noisy, awkward, and "chews up the clapboard's surface pretty bad," D'Amato says. But the tool does strip paint right down to bare wood. D'Amato concedes that he virtually never goes this far on other jobs—normally, he vigorously hand-scrapes and sands the remaining paint to round over sharp edges and promote adhesion. Strip-mining to bare wood is slow, expensive and unnecessary unless a house is experiencing massive paint failure, as his house is. The mechanical stripper's bulk prevents it from removing paint within a couple of inches of trim such as corner boards. In these areas, D'Amato employs a heat gun, which softens the paint with hot air, so a handheld scraper can peel off layers like orange skin. His stripper can be adjusted to temperatures ranging from 250 to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, the maximum recommended by federal authorities to minimize the risk of vaporizing lead. To protect the wood and prevent fires, he sets the thermostat at the lowest level that does the job. Still, he says, "You want to wear a good-quality respirator with vapor cartridges." With the wood bare, D'Amato patches missing post corners and other gaping wounds with a two-part wood-epoxy putty. "This stuff is fabulous," he says. "You just mold it and press it in place. You can fix almost anything with it." Because the mechanical scraper roughed up the clapboards and the epoxy must be smoothed, the crew commences a double round of sanding using a disk sander with 36-grit paper followed by a random-orbit sander and 60-grit paper. "Strenuous and monotonous," D'Amato says, "but necessary." Even the most assiduous scraping and sanding can't vanquish mold and mildew that have nestled in wood fibers. So D'Amato mixes a cleaning solution: a cup each of bleach and trisodium phosphate to 2 gallons of water. He sprays dirty and/or moldy surfaces and, after scrubbing with a stiff-bristled brush, allows everything to sit for half an hour while the bleach seeps in and destroys. His final prep step is a gentle rinse with the hose to wash off paint dust, bleach and dead mold. "You have to rinse it—you don't want to mix all of that dust back in," D'Amato says. "Some people use a power washer, but it's just too strong. You can write your name in a clapboard with a power washer. They're great for masonry, but I would never use one on wood." On D'Amato's 3,000-square-foot, two-story house, all of this preparation takes the four-man crew two weeks. But finally, after the rinse water dries, comes the moment: The brushes are brought out triumphantly, and the first coat goes on.
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