“Like watching paint dry” might be an idiom to describe something tedious and boring, but in reality, removing or stripping paint might be even worse. For something close to 30 years, I’ve owned old—very old—houses. Many of the projects in these houses have, in some way, involved painting. And to do a good job of it, that often requires removing layers of decades-old paint. From adjusting doors to fit, to rejuvenating painted shut windows—I’ve dealt with it all.
There are three basic ways to remove paint; mechanically by sanding or scraping; chemically with liquids that soften it; or thermally, using heat to soften it—the last step in chemical or thermal paint stripping usually involves some scraping as well.
When it comes to removing paint from woodwork or furniture in your home, there are issues to be concerned about with each method. Mechanical stripping can produce airborne dust particles which can make a mess, but more importantly, may contain lead from before it was banned, as an ingredient in paint in 1978. Chemical stripping, involves liquids that can be messy, difficult to clean up, and produce noxious fumes. Using heat to strip paint involves a heat gun that blows super-hot air on the paint to soften it. While this method may work well, and be less messy than mechanical or chemical stripping, the intense heat involved can release toxic lead fumes from old paint.
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I’ve been aware of infrared (IR) paint strippers for a while, but when I looked into them, I balked at the price. Recently, both the scale and quantity of projects at my house prompted me to reexamine them. With my price blinders removed, I learned that there were potential advantages, in both speed and safety, to IR paint removal, so I called Eco Strip to get models to test.
The Speedheater 1100 Standard
The Speedheater 1100 uses IR heating elements designed to heat up the paint just enough to soften it, but not so much that the paint releases toxic lead. Holding the Speedheater over a surface, it takes about 20 seconds to heat the paint to the point where it starts to lift. On horizontal surfaces, you can just set the Speedheater down on its heat shields which serve two purposes. One, they ensure the IR element is the optimal distance from the surface. And two, they keep the heat focused and contained, which provides even, predictable results when compared to using heat guns to remove paint. It does such a thorough job, that you can scrape clean a roughly 4-inch by 12-inch area every 20-40 seconds—provided you’re working on a large, flat area. Note that the number of layers of paint, as well as its condition, are factors that may make it go faster, or take a little longer.
The Speedheater 1100 comes with two scrapers which are worth mentioning, because they work very well. Unlike traditional paint scrapers, these are designed to be dragged, rather than pushed, which make them less likely to dig into the wood. Each scraper blade has multiple sides, each with unique profiles to reach into curves and grooves in various types of moldings. They also make several specialized scrapers, available separately.
The Speedheater Cobra is much smaller than the 1100, which makes it better for jobs with tight corners or curves, and for smaller or narrower surfaces. The size makes it lighter and easy to handle, while the adjustable head ensures you can aim the IR heat right where you want it. We found it just as effective at softening paint as the 1100—but better at more precise work, like divided-lite window sashes.
Both Speedheaters might initially seem expensive, but the time they can save ultimately makes them worth it, especially if you’ve got a lot of paint to strip. Plus, you’ll make less of a mess using them, and create fewer fumes. In fact, instead of sending the 1100 back, I’m sending them a check so I can keep this one.
Brad Ford has spent most of his life using tools to fix, build, or make things. Growing up he worked on a farm, where he learned to weld, repair, and paint equipment. From the farm he went to work at a classic car dealer, repairing and servicing Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and Jaguars. Today, when he’s not testing tools or writing for Popular Mechanics, he’s busy keeping up with the projects at his old farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania.