When Kathy (my lovely wife) and I were dating, one of our hobbies was to purchase and refinish antiques. The antique market was really beginning to boom in the early 1970's. We still have many of the objects we purchased. Often the pieces of furniture needed help. I don't know how many gallons of paint stripper we used, but is was significant! It used to drive my Dad crazy, as sometimes in the colder months we would strip furniture in the basement of my house. The methylene chloride fumes would permeate the entire house.
Two years after we were married, Kathy and I purchased our second home. It had a gorgeous solid oak handrail, spindles and intricately carved newel post. We spent 5 days and nights restoring it to its original beauty. I believe we caused a shortage of paper towels and toothpicks in Cincinnati during this time period! Needless to say, we both became fairly proficient at applying paint stripper and removing clear finishes and multiple layers of paint. I only wish that some of the products made today would have been available to us 25 years ago!
30 Layers of Paint at Once....?
Not on my best day could I ever have removed 30 layers of paint in one application. Today you can purchase a high powered stripper (Peel Away I) that will do just that. The stripper is a thick trowelable paste that aggressively attacks layer after layer of paint. It is especially suitable for safely removing lead paint. By softening the old paint film it creates no hazardous lead dust. Virtually every old house contains lead paint. It can cause serious health problems. Just ask my neighbors who almost lost their dog to lead poisoning. The dog chewed on some woodwork in the basement that was covered with lead based paint.
The old strippers Kathy and I used contained volatile toxic chemicals such as methylene chloride. These old strippers were very fast acting. In the interest of public safety and limiting corporate liability, stripper companies developed "safe" strippers that use non-volatile organic compounds to soften paint films. The tradeoff for safety is speed of removal. The new strippers now take hours to do their jobs. It is a worthwhile tradeoff. Old strippers could soften a paint film in 5 - 10 minutes. It is not uncommon for the newer safe strippers to take hours to perform their magic.
Consumer Reports published test results in their June 1992 issue. They tested some of the new safe strippers. The report states that they felt that the Peel Away product "..was the fastest, easiest to use, and most effective." I highly recommend that you go to your local library and check out this simple report. It may help you make a decision when deciding which stripper to purchase.
It is important to realize that performance of strippers is dependent upon making sure you match the right product to the paint. This is not always easy! I don't know about you, but I find it virtually impossible to distinguish a latex paint from an oil based paint once they have been on a surface for 10 or more years.
The older methylene chloride strippers (which you can still purchase!) can remove 4 to 5 layers of oil based paint in a single application. However they usually don't do nearly as well on latex paints. Some of the safer strippers do the exact opposite! They work great on latex paint but do poorly on oil paints.
The point is this: If your stripper performs poorly it may not be a bad product! You may have to switch products or types of stripper. In addition, the paint film may consist of different types of paint. You may have 4 layers of latex paint on top of 5 layers of oil paint. It is not uncommon. This may require you to switch stripper during the middle of the job.
Harming the Substrate
Some of the newer "safe" strippers are very caustic. They have a very high pH and as such can actually degrade, corrode or pit metals like aluminum or magnesium. Some of these same strippers can discolor beautiful hardwoods like the oak handrail Kathy and I stripped.
You must be very cautious when purchasing the strippers. Read all of the Precautionary Warnings on the label before you purchase or use the products. There are strippers that will safely and effectively remove any finish (paint, varnish, urethane, lacquer, epoxy paint, chlorinated rubber, traffic paint, paint from masonry, etc.). You just have to take your time and match the stripper to the correct finish AND substrate!
Protect yourself as well. Strippers can really burn your skin and eyes. Wear rubber gloves and eye goggles when working with these products. Do not work in confined poorly ventilated spaces. If you do, your Dad may come and get you like he did me!
Author's Note: We've received other questions about similar problems. Here's one from Leigh, in Columbus, OH.
"I have a cement pad/stoop located in front of my front door. The previous owners painted this a dark brown. The paint is chipping off. I was wondering if you could please tell me how to remove this paint? The pad is in good condition, and I would much rather prefer a 'natural' cement color! Thank you! "