How do you Remove Exterior Paint? Safely

Summary of NPS Preservation Brief 10

Chipped, cracked, and peeling paint on a red door
Chipped, cracked, and peeling paint on a red door. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

What are the safest ways to remove paint? Does exterior paint need to be taken off down to the bare wood? Do heat guns really work? These are questions homeowners around the world face. You are not alone. Fortunately, the paint problems of one person's home are the same faced by other homeowners. Believe it or not, the U.S. Department of the Interior has come to the rescue.

About Preservation Brief 10:

It wasn't until 1966 that the Nation became serious about preserving its "historic heritage." Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act and charged the National Park Service (NPS) with supporting historic preservation programs and activities.

Their handy series of preservation briefs are geared toward historic buildings, but they have some great professional advice that anyone can use.

Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork, Preservation Brief 10, was written by Kay D. Weeks and David W. Look, AIA for the Technical Preservation Services . Here is a summary of their 1982 guidance and expertise for painting exterior wood siding.

Selecting the Safest Method to Remove Paint:

There are only three ways to remove paint from your home's exterior siding:

  • Abrasive: rubbing, scraping, sanding, and generally using friction
  • Thermal and Abrasive: heating paint to a melting point and then scraping it from the surface
  • Chemical and Abrasive: using a chemical reaction to soften the paint to make it easier to scrape away

Note that all of these methods involve work—that is, the manual labor of abrasion. How much time and effort are put into paint removal (or paint preparation) is a judgment call and may be the most difficult decision you make.

Best Abrasive Methods: Use a putty knife and/or a paint scraper to dislodge anything loose. Then use sandpaper (orbital or belt sanders are okay) to smooth each area. Do not use rotary drill attachments (rotary sanders and rotary wire strippers), do not waterblast or pressure wash, and do not sandblast. These abrasive methods may be too harsh to the siding itself.

Pressure washing above 600 psi may force moisture into places where it should not go. A gentle garden hose for cleaning up is okay.

Best Thermal Methods: For thick layers of built-up paint, use an electric heat plate, an electric heat gun, or a hot air gun that heats from 500°F to 800°F. The blow torch is not recommended.

Best Chemical Method: For many reasons, use chemicals only as a supplement to other methods of paint removal. They are too dangerous for you and the environment. Two classes of chemicals are solvent-based strippers and caustic strippers. A third category is "biochemical," which may be marketed as "bio-" or "eco-" but it's the "chemical" part that makes it work.

Purposes of Exterior Paint:

You don't need to remove paint down to the bare wood. To do so usually requires harsh methods that may damage the wood. Also, the layers of paint on a house are like the rings of a tree trunk—they provide a history that future owners may want to analyze in a laboratory during an architectural investigation.

Painting a house every 5 to 8 years protects exterior wood siding from moisture penetration—and can add some zing to your home's curb appeal.

Treating Paint Problems:

Regular maintenance of a house will include "mere cleaning, scraping, and hand sanding." Where there is a "paint failure," determine and fix the cause before you even begin a painting project.

Justification for Paint Removal:

After you determine that you need to paint your house, keep two things in mind before you repaint:

  • only remove the top layer of paint down to the next sound layer
  • use the gentlest means possible

Paint Removal Precautions:

Any house built before 1978 may have lead-based paint. Do you really want to remove it? Also, don't substitute speed for safety. Only use the recommended methods listed above. Keep yourself safe and your house in one piece.

Repainting Buildings for Cosmetic Reasons:

Ask yourself why you want to paint your house. If there is no paint failure, adding another layer of paint may actually be harmful. "When paint builds up to a thickness of approximately 1/16" (approximately 16 to 30 layers)," say the authors of Preservation Brief 10, "one or more extra coats of paint may be enough to trigger cracking and peeling in limited or even widespread areas of the building's surface."

Paint Surface Conditions and Recommended Treatments:

  • Dirt and Grime: Sometimes road dirt and salt can make siding look worse than it is. Clean it with "l/2 cup of household detergent in a gallon of water with a medium soft bristle brush" and then a gentle hosing.
  • Mildew: Clean with a medium soft brush using "one cup non-ammoniated detergent, one quart household bleach, and one gallon water." Try to open the area to the sun to avoid further mildew.
  • Paint Chalking: Clean with a medium soft brush using "l/2 cup household detergent to one gallon water."
  • Stained Paint: Determine the cause of the stain.
  • Paint Crazing: Crazing is "fine, jagged interconnected breaks in the top layer of paint." It happens when a house has many layers of paint that become hard and brittle, not allowing expansion and contraction with the wood. Sand off a layer and repaint.
  • Cracking and Alligatoring: These symptoms are "advanced stages of crazing."
  • Paint Blistering: "To distinguish between solvent blistering and blistering caused by moisture, a blister should be cut open."
  • Wrinkled Pain: This happens when the paint has been put on incorrectly. The authors call this an "error in application."
  • Paint Peeling: Before painting, remove sources of moisture inside and outside, as described by the authors: "Excess interior moisture should be removed from the building through installation of exhaust fans and vents. Exterior moisture should be eliminated by correcting the following conditions prior to repainting: faulty flashing; leaking gutters; defective roof shingles; cracks and holes in siding and trim; deteriorated caulking in joints and seams; and shrubbery growing too close to painted wood."

General Paint Type Recommendations:

Paint type is not the same as paint color. The type of paint to choose depends on the conditions, but these authors seem to like oil-based paints.

Summary, References, and Reading List:

The bottom line is this: "There is no completely safe and effective method of removing old paint from exterior woodwork."

Learn More:

  • Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties With Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring, & Reconstructing Historic Buildings by Kay Weeks and Anne E. Grimmer, 1995
    Buy on Amazon

Notes: Headings are linked to the complete section of Preservation Brief 10 on the NPS website. Quotations are from that online version. The order of sections on this page may differ from the official version. A 12-page, black and white PDF version is also available.

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Craven, Jackie. "How do you Remove Exterior Paint? Safely." ThoughtCo, Feb. 23, 2016, thoughtco.com/how-to-remove-exterior-paint-safely-3884401. Craven, Jackie. (2016, February 23). How do you Remove Exterior Paint? Safely. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-remove-exterior-paint-safely-3884401 Craven, Jackie. "How do you Remove Exterior Paint? Safely." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-remove-exterior-paint-safely-3884401 (accessed September 22, 2017).