When the paint is peeling on a house, many homeowners opt for replacing it with fiber-cement siding or covering it with vinyl siding. But if you've got an old house with a great exterior, such as real clapboard, you may not want to hide its beauty. Then exterior paint stripping is your only option.
Stripping paint is hard, dirty, and, in the case of lead-based paint, dangerous. Fortunately, you have several methods of stripping paint at your disposal.
Before working with the paint, have it tested to make sure that it is not lead-based paint. Home testing kits are available or you can call in a local testing company.
The blowtorch has been a perennial favorite of homeowners for many years because it is cheap and relatively fast. High heat causes acrylic-latex paint to soften, making it easy to peel away with a putty knife.
But its disadvantages far outweigh its advantages. First, using an open flame is dangerous. Applying a very hot flame to old, often-brittle wood siding may cause a fire. Not only can you start a fire on the wood siding, but you can unintentionally hit pockets within the walls that may contain other dry, highly flammable items.
Applying a flame to lead-based paint may release harmful lead fumes. For some older homes, there is a good chance that the exterior has lead-based paint. Be very careful if you want to use an open flame to remove exterior paint.
Experts do not recommend the use of an open flame to remove paint, though it is an effective option. If you do use a blowtorch for this project, have a fire extinguisher and a water hose on-hand in case of any flare-ups.
Electric heat guns are safer than blowtorches because they don't operate hot enough to release harmful fumes. You also have less of a risk of burning down your house, but the risk is still there.
One advantage of using a heat gun is that its heat can be dialed up or down, as needed. Even though heat guns do not produce flames, they still can catch dry materials on fire, if the gun is hot enough.
Keep in mind, you'll be working with a cord (unlike the propane torch, which is self-contained). They aren't really a viable option for large areas, but they do work well for small, difficult areas or for ornamental surfaces.
Orbital (rotating) or belt sanders are a good option for stripping exterior paint. Sanders rip off the paint quickly. However, if you lay into the sander too hard, you risk gouging the wood.
As with the other paint removal options, there's the lead-based paint problem. Everything that the sander takes off is immediately converted into dust. Dust that goes into your hair, face, and lungs. Check with your locality if it's even legal to use these types of sanders with lead-based paint. Some communities may ban their use.
While not a do-it-yourself project, sandblasting does remove the paint. But sandblasting is also very effective at removing wood. If you choose to go with this option, be aware that sandblasting will bring up the grain in your wood so that it has a very rough, grooved appearance. Hire a company to do the sandblasting and make sure that they approach the work carefully.
With this method, chemical paint strippers are applied to the paint surface. After being left to do their work, the paint bubbles up and softens. After that, the paint is scraped up.
Despite the danger, chemical strippers do have their place in the workshop. It's satisfying to see that paint bubble right off. But applying chemicals on the large scale, across an entire house, is not realistic. Save the chemical paint strippers for small projects or for select portions of the house exterior.
Also, not all chemical strippers are harmful. Some soy- or citrus-based paint strippers do a good job of softening the paint for later manual removal.
A sharp, rigid putty knife or a blade designed for paint scraping is sometimes the best way to remove paint. Dust is still there, but it's minimized and you have better control than if you used a sander. If the structure has very loose or alligatored paint, scraping might just be the best option.
Get a sharpener or a whetstone to keep that scraper sharpened up. Though scraping is hard work, it tends to be the best choice for many general exterior paint stripping chores.
Scraping produces dust and airborne debris. So, wear a mask and eye protection before undertaking this project.
HealthLink BC. “Lead Paint and Hazards,” June 13, 2016. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/lead-paint-hazards.
“Steps to LEAD SAFE Renovation, Repair and Painting.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, March 2021. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2013-11/documents/steps_0.pdf.
“Steps to LEAD SAFE Renovation, Repair and Painting.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, March 2021. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2013-11/documents/steps_0.pdf.