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We are restoring a 1920 Craftsman that has woodwork which has been painted white. The finish is not flaking but some has a crackled appearance. Can we paint over this and get a smooth finish?
before i answer your question let me tell you that the crackled paint that you are refering to is most likely lead paint, that's usually one of the tell tale signs.
now to answer your question, yes it can be sanded and painted to give you a nice smooth finish but the proper way to deal with this is to have the lead paint, if there is any, removed by a licensed lead paint removel company. many good painters are licensed for such work. once the lead paint is removed then you can sand and paint.
you can by a DIY lead paint detection kit at any hardware store.
Crackled paint is one sign of the presence of lead paint? That is news to me. It is a sign that different stata of paint were drying at different rates or that the paint/varnish painted over was too slick or the surface contaminated with agents which allow the drying paint to pull back. That being said, there probably is some lead paint on a house of this age. A simple test kit from your home owners store will tell you if it is present.
Application of lead paint has been illegal since 1978. In all probablility, the last layer is possibly not lead paint. If this is the case, the crackling could be filled with spackling compound, lightly sanded, primed and painted. If the top coat of paint is lead paint, you DO NOT want to sand it. Lead is most hazardlous when it is airborne and breathable.
The ultimate results, lead paint or not, is to strip the woodwork. Use of strippers is not a hazardous job, lead paint or not. Messy and tedious, yes it is.
My guess is that under that later coat of paint is a varnished finish. This would have been much more prevalent in a 1920's era house. If this is so, getting the paint off will be much easier. It might even be possible to get back to a stained woodwork finish, as the paint pigment will not be into the grain of hte wood.