NYC Renovation Chronicles

Strip decades of gloopy paint off your walls: our writer tests a few methods to find out what works

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When we first saw our apartment two years ago, we knew one day we'd liberate the gorgeous prewar millwork from nearly 100 years' worth of accumulated gloop.  Our goal was to strip the paint off all the door frames, window frames, window sills and baseboards in all the rooms of our 900-square-foot apartment. That's seven huge windows, 11 doorways including closets, and 15-inch high baseboards throughout the living room, dining room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and hallway.

Before: layers of gloopy paint obscure the period details

Easier said than done. But we've lived to tell the tale, and here's how you can actually remove those archeological layers to get to the historic details and bare wood below.

First of all, since our building dates to 1916, we could safely assume that some of those layers would contain lead paint (the EPA advises that homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, have traces of it). 

We knew we wanted to strip the paint in as environmentally friendly a way as possible--not just to save the earth, a worthy goal in its own right, but also to keep the toxic fumes to a minimum. For one thing, that meant we couldn't sand the paint off with a hand sander, since it would create hazardous dust. 

Citristrip, an environmentally friendly paint remover, in action

We decided to try Citristrip, a paint and varnish stripping gel. While its lurid neon orange color hardly screamed “eco friendly,” the packaging assured me that it was both strong enough to strip multiple layers of paint and safer than other chemical paint strippers. It's biodegradable and doesn't give off harsh fumes. In fact, it smells just like any orange scented household cleaner. We purchased a half gallon of the stuff at Home Depot and painted it on our door frames.

After about an hour, we could see the upper paint layer soften and “bubble” up, but we waited for the requisite 24 hours and scraped the softened paint off with putty knives. The gunk came off easily enough, but we were only able to remove one layer, even though the packaging promised that we could get rid of several layers at a time. We had literally only scratched the surface.

So, back to the drawing board. This time around, we tried the Silent Paint Remover, a supposedly "revolutionary," lamp-like machine that uses infrared heat to bake the paint for a few seconds until it can be ripped off with a single swipe of a scraper. (You can rent it for $34 a day for a three-day minimum; if you decide to buy it, the company keeps your $395 security deposit.)

The Silent Paint Remover uses heat to get rid of layers of paint

First, we sealed off the kitchen as best we could by taping plastic sheeting over the floor and one side of the two doorways. We applied the heat, and sure enough, the paint bubbled up and we could scrape it off to bare wood. But it was painstaking work: since our door frames are intricate, we had to use finer tools like smaller scrapers, knives and even a nail to scrape the paint out of all the nooks and crannies. It took an entire weekend to finish a single side of one door frame. 

So why didn't we call it quits? Well, the next morning, the sun shone on our newly liberated door frame, and the wood was gorgeous (even if it was still spotty from the paint and some scorching from the Silent Paint Remover!). We decided to buy the machine. It caused less dust than sanding, and created no fumes other than the faint scent of paint from the heat.

And then summer finally came to New York City, so we took a break from the hot, dusty work.

That's Peel Away, which promises to get rid of paint in 24 hours, on the door frames

In the meantime, we found another solution: Peel Away, a gunky substance that comes in gallon tubs and appears in TV shows about restoring plaster in 500-year-old English mansions. The idea is that you slather the stuff on the paint, much like icing a cake, cover it with special paper that prevents it from drying out (though we discovered you can also use run-of-the-mill wax paper), and let the chemicals do their magic for 24 hours. After that, you peel away the paper and supposedly the paint comes along with it. 

Beneath a thick skin of old paint was bare wood, which we discovered after heating the area with the Silent Paint Remover and using a scraper.

But again, the marketing was better than the product. We did a one-square-foot trial, and after a full day, it had barely penetrated any of the paint layers. At $36 a gallon, which covers one door frame, the stuff ain't cheap. 

A customer service rep for Dumond, which manufactures Peel Away, explained that it doesn't work well with water-based paints like ours, which are common in homes today. She suggested sanding or scraping off the top layer of water-based paint and then using Peel Away on the remaining layers. 

So that was it: the solution was to use all three products. First, a layer of Citristrip. Then a layer of Peel Away, set for 48 hours, or twice the recommended time. And then to get the final spots of remaining paint, hit your door frame with the Silent Paint Remover. 

An entryway with the paint stripped off

It took us three rooms to come up with that formula, but now we're ready to use it on the most challenging room yet: the bedroom, which has three eight-foot-tall doorways, including an entry with a transom window and two closets, plus a large window frame.

Still, we think it'll be worth it in the end. The trim looks crisp and fresh, and we plan to live in the apartment for a long time. 

The almost final product: the wood still needs to be sealed

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