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Stripping Painted Floors

I want to remove paint from my old wide pine floors. I understand that historically most of these floors were painted, but I’d prefer to go with an unpainted butcher’s wax finish. The main considerations are maintaining the integrity of the wood, keeping costs down, and doing it myself if possible. I have learned about four methods.

  • Sanding. the floor guy wants to sand them and refinish them. I’m against this, particularly because they are bumpy and sanding would remove a substantial amount of wood to ensure paint removal. Not only that, but they would look “new” which I don’t want.
  • Chemical Stripper. Peel-away seems like it may be effective, but a little messy and expensive. I have heard conflicting results, from works great to stinks. I am a little interested in this because I have been told it does not remove the patina like sanding would.
  • Steel wool and mineral spirits. Wet and scrub, using 000 steel wool. Seems very time consuming and not necessarily going to work. The finish would be applied butcher’s wax, which intrigues me. This seems like too much time, however, especially given the size of the rooms and thickness of paint.

Steam removal. It seems like this might be the one. I just read about steam at the Historic HomeWorks Forum but I didn’t see anything about painted floors. I particularly like the idea of removing the paint but keeping the patina. I also like the idea of doing it myself and not paying to have the four 20’x 20’ floors refinished.

Which of these methods would be best?

–Sean in Salem , Massachusetts

Sean, you’re off to a good by start considering several methods.

The first thing to consider with any old-house paint removal project is the lead-health issue. Paint removal from older buildings (built before 1980) is likely to involve paint and other materials that should be assumed to contain lead. Lead-Safe work practices are needed to manage the lead health risk of any paint removal method. Any work done on older buildings is likely to produce lead-containing paint chips and airborne dust. These lead-containing materials can easily enter the body causing health problems, particularly for workers, pregnant women, infants and young children.

My own rule of thumb on all projects, large or small, is to protect people and the environment by preventing the spread of lead to the rest of the building and the environment with the following guidelines:

  • Generate the least amount of dust,
  • In the smallest space,
  • For the shortest time,
  • Exposing the fewest people.

You can learn how to do this by reading, understanding and following the Lead-Safe work practices described in the publication: “Lead Paint Safety, a field guide for painting, home maintenance and renovation work.” You can find it or other publications at your local or county health office.

Then pick out at least two paint removal methods and try them out in small areas. I have done many, many paint removal projects over the years and I still test out 2 or 3 methods at the start of every project. Why would I bother doing this? Because pant types and buildup conditions vary so much that it cannot be predicted which removal method will work best, but one removal method is bound to be more effective than another. It might even be different from one floor to the next in the same building. Testing pays off big-time by the end of every project because it assures the most effective method is used.

John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail:; or log onto his website at:

© John Leeke

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