Painting techniques: Safer paint removers

A big, messy, tedious job gave me insight into what works best.

Safer paint strippers

The worst job Ive ever had was stripping all the woodwork in an old mansion. Rotten work, but it made me a connoisseur of paint removers. I tried every product I could find and found that they all fell into two categories: fast and nasty, or slow and safer.

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Fast strippers work great; they cut through finishes in minutes. But the fumes can make you dizzy and even do permanent damage to your brain or lungs. So my rule is to use them outdoors only. To recognize these strippers, check the fine print. Most contain methylene chloride and possibly toluene, acetone or methanol.

Most of the slow strippers contain NMP, a much safer chemical. NMP isnt harmless; some studies suggest that long-term exposure can cause health problems. But for the occasional user, the main risks are irritation to your skin or respiratory system.

Pros and DIYers alike have told me NMP paint strippers just dont work. Thats not true. NMP just requires more patience. Heres my approach: Brush on a heavy coat of stripper and cover it with thin painters plastic or plastic kitchen wrap. Then I check back in a couple of hours. If the finish is easy to scrape off, I get to work. If not, I give it a couple more hours. Ive waited up to eight hours and NMP has never failed to soften the finish.

Most home centers carry strippers that contain NMP (about $20 for a half gallon). You wont find NMP on the label, so check the fine print for terms like n-methyl pyrrolidone or 1-methyl-2-pyrrolidone. Citristrip and Zinsser Magic Strip are two common brands.

Gary Wentz, Senior Editor

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And see our Painting section for all sorts of DIY advice on interior painting, speed painting, painting techniques, tools and tips.