If stripping paint is on your DIY list, read this first

Should I use paint stripper? Should I invest in a heat gun? We put your questions to an expert.


No two ways about it, paint stripping is a pain. A pain that Jessica Smyth of @innercity_victorian knows only too well.

She’s been stripping the front door and fanlight of her Phibsborough home on and off for five months (!) now, and has tackled architraves, windows and fireplaces with aplomb. Here she shares some things she's learned along the way.

A heat gun is great for tackling wood 

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I use an entry-level, bog-standard brand one, picked up in a local hardware store and it is still going strong 18 months later, even though I have used it a lot. The beauty of a heat gun is that you don’t need to apply anything beforehand, it’s good to go. It's my go-to method for most woodwork inside and outside the house. However, you really do need to wear a mask, and with disposable masks and respirators in short supply right now, there are other effective approaches to stripping wood you can try.

If you don't have protective equipment, try a chemical product

The chemical poultice product Peelaway, and similar brands, can dissolve multiple layers of paint very easily and without releasing toxic lead fumes. You can leave this product on for up to 48 hours, but make sure you do a test patch first as it can start to eat into the wood if left on too long. I've had best results using this indoors.

For doors, metal fire surrounds, or other removable items, professional dipping or chemical stripping is also an option. Doors can sometimes warp during this process, but if done right the time saving is significant and it's relatively cost-efficient.

Don't put a heat gun near a painted cast-iron fireplace, as it can shatter. A chemical poultice product is best for this too.

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FIREPLACE FOCUS 1/4 The new windows are not quite finished (and the new shutters are another matter entirely 🙄) so I thought I'd provide a small distraction in the form of our fabulous fireplaces. We're really lucky that most of them have survived intact. There may even be a fifth fireplace hiding behind the dry-lining (and sink) in the current bathroom (not ready for that particular piece of DIY yet!). This is the fireplace in the back bedroom - the only one with both fire surround and insert still there, though missing its grate. The other fireplaces lost their metal inserts to some lovely tiling action in the 1940s or 50s. It's one of two cast iron fireplaces in the house, and as readers of @houseandhomemagazine will know 😜, was covered in many layers of white paint obscuring all of its gorgeous detail. If you zoom in you'll see I haven't *quite* finished removing every scrap of paint and it still needs a proper buff with black grate polish, but I think it looks 😍. I'm especially fond of the super 3D columns at either side - a big OTT Victorian design statement. Definitely not one for blending into the background! • • • #victorianhome #victorianhouse #victorianterrace #castiron #castironfireplace #originalfeatures #periodfeatures #periodhome #renovation #restoration #victoriandublin #howihome #myperiodhomestyle #slowrenovation #periodhomesofinsta

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Scrapers are also essential 

I use a few differently-sized flat scrapers, like the ones you use for stripping wallpaper, and a shave hook, which is useful for getting around curves and into nooks and crannies. You can be ad hoc with your tools too; I've been using a table knife on parts on our front door surround as it is just pointy and slim enough for the awkward bits. 

Protect yourself

If you're intent on using a heat gun, and can wait till your hardware store is restocked and it's fair to purchase a mask, you should wear a proper one – at least FFP3 (the highest level of particle filtration) – or ideally one of those 'gas mask' type masks with screw in filters. It's safest to assume there will be lead in your paint, an almost certainty in old houses, and you do not want to inhale lead particles.

Ventilation is also key 

Strip pieces outside if possible, while wearing a mask, or open doors/windows for good air through-flow. Goggles or glasses can be useful if the paint is flaky, as it can sometimes ping off and into your eyes when you're scraping. Gloves can also stop accidental grazes if your scraper slips.

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THE NEVER-ENDING DOOR If it feels like this front door refurb is taking ages, you'd be right 😭 We started last November(!) replacing some rotten timber from the bottom of the door surround and patching the inner door frame that had been pretty hacked up by a series of badly fitted locks. We thought then it was just a matter of a quick sand, a fresh lick of paint, and some new knobs and knockers. However, once you start looking, all the extra jobs start popping up... There's the rendered doorcase with cracked and flaking paint; we stripped that back to reveal even bigger cracks that will need filling with lime mortar (when the shops open again). There's also the red brick that's had various layers of yellow, blue and burgundy paint slopped on it over the years. And the fanlight with crumbling putty, as well as the beautifully carved door surround hidden by even more layers of crusty paint. All before we tackle the front door itself, which at this stage is looking like a breeze! It'll all get done eventually of course, and it's nice to have some distraction from the madness out there, but this is seriously pushing the limits of 'slow renovation' 🤪 • • • #lockdown #lockdowndiaries #lockdowndiychallenge #frontdoor #refurb #door #victoriandoor #victorianhouse #victorianterrace #homedecor #townhouse #victorianrenovation #originalfeatures #periodhomes #periodproperty #victorianhouse #heatgun #paintstripping #renovationproject #renovation #restoration #dublindoors #dublin

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You can easily scorch or burn wood

You can also very easily gouge wood with scrapers, so go gently at first. Work slowly, testing a small patch at a time until you get a feel for how long you need hold the heat gun over a surface and how much pressure you can put on the scraper. Different paint types (e.g. gloss/emulsion/exterior/interior/primer) will all react differently to the heat too, so it's a bit of trial and error.

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LAMBS TONGUE This is the only original accessible sash window in the house - in the old kitchen area - and I've been fussing over it this weekend as if it were a small pet. It was absolutely smothered in thick white gloss and firmly painted shut. After lots and lots of heat gun action and the odd shove we've managed to open it again. It will need new pulleys and sash cords (which had been painted over and/or snipped) but otherwise is in really fab condition. I can't get over how crisp and new-looking the joinery is under all that paint. The moulding profiles here are 'lambs tongue', a common profile in 19th century joinery. The shape is supposedly reminiscent of a little curling lamb's tongue. Other great moulding names include 'bishop's mitre', 'ovolo' and 'ogee' 🙃 Our other surviving sash is high up in the stairwell and will be tackled by the joiners when the scaffolding arrives next week, but for now I'm very happy footling away on this one ❤️❤️ • • • #sashwindows #moulding #window #victorianhouse #victorianterrace #periodproperty #periodhome #victorianrenovation #victoriandublin #irishhomes #joinery #victorianhome #heatgun #brass

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It takes way longer than you think it will 

Don't try to be too ambitious. Break the job up into smaller sections, so you can see progress during each stripping session. Also ask yourself if you really need to strip a surface back to the bare wood or will a good sanding suffice? If the paint is thick and obscuring detail you'd like to reveal, then go for it, but be prepared for the long haul. Like most DIY jobs, it will often get worse before it gets better and there may be knock-on jobs like replacing window putty, repairing rotten wood or cracks in masonry.

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FANLIGHT Can't wait to get back out to the front this weekend to finish stripping the door surround! Here's the original fanlight frame peeping through layers of crusty gloss paint. It's got the same red-brown base stain as other woodwork inside the house - a preservative perhaps? The joinery is in great condition - so sharp and neatly finished. I think there's even a wee dowel in the bottom left corner keeping the different pieces together ❤️. The original putty is crumbling away so will take that out and replace, as well as removing all that overpainting from the fanlight glass. The lead sheeting protecting the wooden crown moulding above the door seems in decent nick, just needs a good scrape down. Fingers crossed the weather holds! 🤞🏻🤞🏻 • • • #victorianhouse #victorianhome #renovation #victorianterrace #originalfeatures #originalcharacter #periodproperty #fanlight #townhouse #joinery #victorianrenovation #door #victoriandoor #paint #paintstripping #periodhomesofinsta #innercityliving #innercity #frontdoor

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Split the job down the middle to see progress

I tried this with our front door fanlight and it's really helped morale. It's like an instant before and after. It doesn't have to be exactly half – working in zones can have the same effect. 

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ARCHITRAVES I've been poking about with the window architraves this week. Very few are in their *original* original position as they've been cut down from the shutter boxes that were attached to all of the windows once upon a time. (The only surviving shutter box is in the front sitting room.) Still, they are beautiful beasts, more than an inch thick and 7 inches wide. This sort of width is actually prohibited today under safety regs - it's just too dangerous to manufacture as it involves too many metal components moving at speed! We are reinstating the shutter boxes in the front bedroom and will be matching new architraves to the existing, but they will have to be made in two narrower widths and pieced together. It's fairly expensive to reproduce new architrave (approx €250 for the first metre) because you have to create new metal templates, but cheap after that (c. €10 a metre) as the wood is just run through the machine. We'll definitely be getting some spare lengths made just in case we need it in the future. • • • #victorianhouse #victorianterrace #victorianrenovation #periodhome #periodhomesofinsta #irishhomes #renovation #architrave #originalfeatures #periodfeatures #joinery #bespokejoinery #slowrenovation #sashwindows

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Restoring cast-iron railings is another slow job

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If you want cast-iron railings stripped back to their original glory, and money is no object, you can get them dismantled, brought to a workshop and shot-blasted, before being primed and reassembled on site. The quote for our front railings, including replacement of missing elements, ran into the thousands, so we're going to attempt stripping them ourselves.

Again, I've found the heat gun the most effective way of doing this, but a chipping hammer is great for getting all the loose and flaking paint off first. We've been stripping a railing at a time and priming with a zinc-rich primer called Galvafroid as we go.

The most common mistake is underestimating the time it will take

It is easy to get dispirited. Also, using the heat gun on too high a setting, or leaving it on the painted surface too long, which can badly damage the wooden surface beneath. Be careful using the heat gun too close to glass (e.g. window panes or fanlights) as this can crack the glass. If you want to remove paint from glass in a door or window frame, apply a gentle paint stripper like Nitromors and then scrape off with a blunt knife or wire wool.

For more renovation advice and to follow Jessica's home project, follow  @innercity_victorian on Instagram.


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