Stripping Paint off of bannisters.

I’m in the midst of fixing up my house. The place is structurally solid but needs a lot of cosmetic work which we are in the process of doing. One of the previous homeowner’s projects was to strip the paint off of the bannisters. Like many projects that he undertook, it was half-assed and he didn’t finish it. It looks like it will be up to me to do this.

The problem, this place is old and it looks like the bannisters have quite a few layers of paint on them, some of it probably being lead based.

What is the best way to do this? Should I use a gel stripper? I’ve been told to use the harshest chemicals possible as it will get the job done. Any recommendations? Any good websites with instructions. I am going to get thick rubber gloves and I will use a mask as well.

In my opinion, having stripped a lot of paint over the years, there’s no great way to do this – it’s an ugly job, no matter what. As you say, the paint is probably leaded, which means you want to be careful how you get it off – in other words, don’t sand it off and breathe in the dust (but you knew that anyway).

As regards chemical strippers, methylene chloride is about the most effective thing out there. It’s pretty toxic, and a typical cannister mask won’t stop you from inhaling the fumes, though you won’t smell them. There are a number of brands you can buy, and my understanding is that the price is related to the amount of methylene chloride in the product – meaning the more, the pricier. You can also tell by weight – the heaviest can has the most methylene chloride. In my experience, methylene chloride is good against modern paints, not so good against mid-19th-century paints.

Another option is to use a heat gun, and then clean up the residue with stripper. I’ve done this some, and it’s not a bad method. I don’t know how much lead might be volatilized by heating up the paint, but I would assume some. You don’t want to catch the paint on fire, but you do often get some burning. Try not to char the wood – it’s easily done, unfortunately.

The one product I haven’t used is Peel-Away, which a number of people have recommended. There are two types, one of which is basically lye in a paste – this is the type that’s said to work. The other version – the kindler, gentler version – I suspect works about as well as other kinder, gentler strippers – in other words, not very well. Of course, the lye type is caustic, so protect yourself. It’ll also darken certain woods, and damage anything else it gets on. But it does get paint off, or so they say.

Good luck with the project.

If you can remove the bannister, you might want to take it to a professional furniture stripping place. They’ll dip it in a huge tank. My neighbor has done this with a lot of antique furniture and picture frames with good results.

If there are toxic fumes to be breathed, better someone else is breathing them. :smiley:

We’ve an old house (1931) and were going to strip all its upstairs woodwork until we found out it was pine (and not the oak that’s found on the lower level). There was a ton of paint layers - made me feel something of an archeaologist!

Like the others have said, there’s no easy way to do this (no quick one either, I’m willing to bet). We liked two methods: some paint stripper made by 3M (I’ve forgotten the name, but it’s available at your big box home improvement stored) and the heat gun. The paint stripper is slower, as you’ll probably need to repeat the process several times, but it was a non-caustic, completely safe stripper - you didn’t even need to use gloves, if you didn’t want to - no fumes, biodegradeable, pretty good stuff. The heat gun is lots faster, but you have to be careful not to scorch the wood, and I notices that the heat gun tended to raise the grain of the wood in spots.

Do you plan on repainting or staining/varnishing them. This matters because paint is much more forgiving of poor prep work than varnish.

As others have said there is no easy and quick solution. One approach that hasn’t been mentioned is to scrape the paint off. Paint scrapers run about $10 at Home Depot.

I am restoring an old house in Calvert, Texas and was faced with your problem. I kept putting it off until another local restorer told me that I could disassemble the banisters. Here’s how it works. (Go here for the definitions for the parts of a stair.)

The balusters were dovetailed into the treads and the joint covered with a piece of molding. All I had to do was carefully remove the molding to expose the dovetail joint and carefully tap on the bottom of the baluster so that the dovetail slipped apart. In my case an earlier refinisher had glued the top of the balusters into the handrail so I had to squirt a little lacquer thinner up into that area to soften up the glue. Once I had the baluster out I stuck it a special cleaning tube* filled with lacquer thinner (or your preferred agent), let the stripper do its thing and replaced the baluster and eventually the molding. It’s important to either do the balusters one at a time or very, very carefully mark each baluster so you will know exactly where it goes back. Hope this makes sense.

** Special Cleaning Tube*. This was a piece of standard plumbing 2 inch PVC that was long enough to hold the entire length of the baluster. I simply used a PVC 2 inch cap at the bottom to keep the lacquer thinner from running out and sometimes would cap the top so I could give everything a good shaking.

I’d definitely do the flat parts with a heat gun. It’s a lot harder to get the nooks and crannies, but when you’ve got several layers thick old paint, you can scrape it off a flat area in one long scraper-width sheet with the heat gun once you get the knack for how fast to move, plus it’s a lot easier to clean up a bunch of cooled down flakes of paint than a bunch of toxic goo. It’s pretty easy to avoid burning the wood if you pay attention. Less easy to avoid dropping semi-molten wads of paint on your scraping hand or on the floor below (careful not to start a fire; I almost have).

One of these days I hope the folks at Dumond Chemicals send me a check for referring folks to their website. They are the people who make all 7+ flavors of Peel-Away®.

My dentist and his wife did a monster size job of stripping multiple layers of paint from their historic home using the stuff, and toxicity was important because she was pregnant when they undertook the job. The house looks great and none of the kids are mutants. :smiley:

I think I may wind up repainting them depending on the condition of the wood. Some of the exposed wood has gouges and I’m not sure that I will be able to get all of the paint off. I don’t know if painting it will look good though becuase the steps themselves are wood (probably pine).

I would, expect the previous owner removed most of the paint from the flat parts. I am going to use some stripper on that and finish it with an orbital sander. Also, I am not sure that I am the right person to have with a heat gun. Considering my general agility and coordination, that is really asking for all sorts of trouble.

I took a look at the baluster that the previous owner stripped away the paint. He left the stuff at the ends so I may have to strip away the paint on one of them to see what it looks like.

Thanks for all the replies.

What strippers have worked well for you?

Did you use steel wool?

Afterwards did you use mineral spirits? What kind?

I’ve tried PeelAway with spotty results. When you lay on just the right amount, and let it stay for just the right amount of time, it works pretty well. Unfortuantely controlling for all variables in the real world is hard to do so more often than not you end up with the same kind of mess that you would expect from the standard strippers.

There are several downsides to PeelAway. First of allI’ve tried PeelAway with spotty results. When you lay on just the right amount, and let it stay for just the right amount of time, it works pretty well. Unfortunately controlling for all variables in the real world is hard to do, so more often than not you end up with the same kind of mess that you would expect from the standard strippers.

There are several downsides to PeelAway even when it works as advertised. First of all it is very expensive - a lot goes a very little way. Secondly it raises the grain and leaves the wood very soft. This means that you have to do significant sanding and filling to get a smooth finish surface. Thirdly it throws the Ph of the wood out of balance so that you need to wipe on a solution of mild acid such as vinegar to neutralize it. (Frankly I never did that step since I was so frustrated with the whole process by then I just laid down the primer and hoped for the best. So far the paint seems to be holding on fine.) Fourthly it’s caustic as hell. I got more chemical burns from PeelAway than from any other stripper I have ever used. I ended up wrapping my arms from wrist to shoulder with Saran wrap to keep from getting chemical burns.

I know that PeelAway is advertised at being able to remove up to 30 coats of paint with one application. Maybe so, and if you have that many coats of paint then maybe it is a good choice, but for me there were too many downsides to continue with it.

**brujo ** - Since you’re working with a vertical surface and paint (as opposed to a single coat of varnish), you will want to use a thick stripper that will cling to the surface. The directions on the can will tell you whether to do a final wipe down with mineral spirits, although I think that is pretty much the SOP.

I second the recommendation that you use the strongest stuff that will get the job done. Do not use the orange, citrus-based stripper that’s supposed to be kinder to the environment. I speak from experience. You will end up using much more stripper than if you had used the evil, old-fashioned stuff.

Oh my, what happened to that post? Please ignore the second paragraph and it will make a bit more sense.

Oh, and ixnay on the steel wool. There are synthetic kinds made of plastic (3M makes them, for example) that are better for the purpose. The problem with steel wool is that it shreds, and every tiny shred that you fail to remove from the work will rust when exposed to a water-based finish, which is what most paints are. Of course, if you’re sanding before painting, you don’t need either steel or synthetic steel wool.

Thanks for the tips everybody.

I am most likely going to use a thick paint stripper preferably gel based. I’ll look to see if I can find a synthetic steel wool. I’ll see if the Home Depot sells Peel away and how much it costs. I’m going for ultra toxic. I’ve been told by friends to just get the stuff with a skull and crossbones and avoid the stuff that is environmentally friendly.

Any tips for the removal itself? I was told to do small patches since the stuff can dry out fairly quickly.

Any place that sells stripper will have the pads (synthetic steel wool) and all the other tools you will need for the job. This is all pretty common stuff.

However it’s unlikely that Home Depot will carry PeelAway. You usually have to go to a paint store like Sherwin-Williams, Kelly-Moore, etc. for that.

3M produces a line of Scotch-Brite™ scour pads in varying grits, as well as stainless steel scour pads which don’t leave metallic splinters. The Norton company produces a similar product which they market as Bear-Tex.

I’ve stripped a few things in my day. Good advice so far.

I beg of you to consider trying this:

Remove the entire bannister from the house. Strip outside. Finish. Replace into stairway. Filtered masks only do so much. The vapors are astonishingly dangerous, doing central nervous system damage. They are also a severe eye irritant, and working outside with a box fan blowing air across you from the side will save you enormous health risks. I’ve gotten sick from gel stripper, I know of whence I speak. :frowning: