Every now and then, usually during an awkward lull in conversation, a friend will ask for blogging tips. My fifth piece of advice, after “never blog about blogging”* is “Never write about why you haven’t written in a while.” Nobody pays that much attention to your life, much less your blogging schedule, to notice. Besides, do you really need to draw attention to your lack of discipline and productivity? In blogging, as in life, it’s best to keep expectations low. Then nobody is ever disappointed.
Today, I’m breaking all the rules to announce I haven’t posted any finished projects all summer** because I’ve discovered an exciting new project that I am unlikely to finish in my own lifetime. The upside is that I’ve learned enough to slather you with some pro-tips about: Stripping Paint!
You see, the Babushka House is held together with acres of Charming Original Woodwork (ChOW), or, more accurately, Original Unchanged Character-building Hardwood (OUCH). While the doors, trim, and door & window frames are almost certainly original to the house, and thus hopelessly charming, all this OUCH was more recently slathered in a coat (or six) of off-white*** paint.
During Babushka’s 50-year reign, the policy was to paint directly over shiny-slick lacquer, which is like trying to glue a squirrel to an ice cube. So now those miles of painted wood – in every single room of the house – are molting quicker than an adolescent rattlesnake with a rat in its belly.
Not only am I horrified by the so-called “shabby chic” look of chipping paint, I am also skeptical of the American Paint Manufacturers Association™ recommendation that children consume 3 tablespoons of paint chips per day. So early this spring, I decided to finally tackle the flaky elephant in the room**** and strip off all that old paint.
It wasn’t yet open-window weather in Chicago, so I tried the more “natural,” low-odor type stripper. I couldn’t be bothered to conduct actual research on brands, so I bought one that smells like orange peels, and another that smells like baby powder and waged a Stripper Battle in my living room. Here they are, side-by-side, soon after application:
If my deodorant is any guide, I know that NATURAL = WEAK. These dainty chemicals must sit for 12 HOURS before anything even remotely cool or destructive happens. The next morning, I sprang out of bed for the Inaugural Scrape:
OK. Well, that got a little bit off. Apply again, wait another 12 hours, put on a slightly different green hoodie, then scrape:
And again…. and again. It took four applications, plus a final scrub down with mineral spirits, to get to bare wood. By then I had completely lost track of which brand worked better. But probably the one on the left. The first properly warm day, I opened the windows and bought a can of Real Stripper. Real Stripper doesn’t smell nice like lemons or baby butts; it smells mean and terrible like war or a chemical plant explosion. As for paint-melting power, it’s the difference between a Crock-Pot® and a deep fryer, which is also a good metaphor for the pain it inflicts on bare skin.
Stripper Family Photo: Mom, Dad and Junior.
Despite the smell, the mess and the likely brain damage, stripping paint has become one of my favorite DIY activities. Do you enjoy picking scabs, peeling labels off sweaty beer bottles, biting your fingernails and popping zits? If you are anxious and slightly destructive, then stripping paint may be right for you.
Let’s review the basic process for stripping paint:
- Put on thick rubber gloves that make your hands sweat. If your hands aren’t sweating, the gloves aren’t thick enough. If you’re working on a thing that you can take outside, take it outside.
- Unscrew the Mother Can of Stripper, let it burp a few times, and pour several ounces of stripper into a can or jar. Be sure to eat whatever was originally in the jar first. Put the Mother Can in a place where you won’t knock her over. Don’t drink your iced coffee out of jar that looks juts like the jar of stripper, dummy.
- Grab a disposable brush that you don’t mind ruining. Brush the stripper on THICK. Imagine you’re a mom in a peanut butter commercial and the wood trim is your child’s toast. Pay special attention to the nooks and crannies.
- Wait about 10 minutes for the chemicals to work. Be sure to have another activity planned to fill those empty minutes, such as mowing the lawn or taking a pregnancy test: Something to distract you, but not for too long.
- Now for the fun part, when you get to scrape the paint off in big, satisfying strips and feel like you finally have power over some small part of your life:
…but then discover four more coats of paint underneath. Repeat this step as necessary.
- After stripping and scraping down to almost-bare wood, scrub everything with steel wool soaked in mineral spirits in order to wash off the stripper residue and loosen those last stubborn bits of paint.
Those are the basic rules of stripping. But what about the SECRET TIPS that only seasoned amateurs like me can tell you?
KEEP IT TOASTY: Stripper loves heat. Remember the last time you ordered waffles at a diner and tried to spread those frozen rectangles of butter?***** Like butter on waffles, stripper wants to be room temperature. On a chilly day, keep a space heater blazing nearby so you can open the windows.
BUT DON’T STRIP IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT: Strong sunlight will make your stripper pop and sizzle, which may sound like the stripper is working extra hard. But really, the stripper is just evaporating more quickly. And when stripper evaporates, it leaves behind a stiff, rubbery, tarlike slop, like the stuff the dinosaurs got stuck in when they went extinct. Scary, right? Here’s a meta-pro-tip for a hot, breezy day: Place cling wrap over your stripper to let it work without evaporation:
USE THE BUCKET METHOD: Speaking of sticky messes, do you have an end game for the wads of rubbery goo that you scrape? Maybe you’ll just flick it into the air or wipe it on your husband’s shirt? NOPE. Grab one of your kid’s beach buckets and line it with a plastic bag. You can wipe the stripped paint off on the side of the bucket, and then dispose of the bag in your neighbor’s trash when you finish up for the day.
WEAR CLOTHES: Have you ever been splattered with hot oil, or stung by bees plural, or forced to get a home perm when you were 12? That’s what stripper feels like. Respect it and cover up as much skin as you can. Neil Armstrong didn’t land on the moon in a tank top and hot pants, and neither should you.
PROTECT THE INNOCENT: If you must strip inside because the thing you’re stripping is part of your house, then make like you’re potty-training or carving pumpkins – newspaper everywhere. You may be tempted to lay down your Good “Forever” Tarp, but you’ll quickly regret it after you turn your dining room into a Superfund site. If plastic makes you feel better, cut a plastic trash bag in half and slide it under the paper.
KEEP KLEENEX HANDY: Paint stripper makes my nose run. Which is probably a symptom of my brain dissolving. And without a tissue handy, you will reflexively wipe your nose with the back of your hand, which is itself covered in stripper, thus smearing stripper into your nostrils, which provides a shortcut to your already dissolving brain.
VISIT THE DENTIST SUPPLY STORE: As you get into smaller crevices, you will need finer tools, which happen to be directly related to dental hygiene. Ask friends and neighbors for their used toothbrushes. Save up toothpicks. Go to the dentist and discreetly pocket the tarter scrapers and periodontal scalers at your next checkup.
EAT MORE FAST FOOD: You’re going to quickly destroy any tools you use to strip. Next time you grab a burger, stash the plastic utensils for later scraping. The knife, spoon, and fork all have wonderful serrated edges and tines that are perfect for picking at stubborn bits of paint. Don’t be afraid to try new foods in your quest for tools: Chopsticks, toothpicks, sporks, chorks and trongs all work great!
Only a fraction of what you will need to strip paint of a Victorian-era kitchen door.
Wherever your stripping journey takes you, be sure not to lose interest in it after a few weeks and leave half your dining room covered in masking tape. But if you do, just hang some decorative BEFORE and AFTER signs and your husband will totally understand.
* As a rule, I avoid matching verbs and gerunds in my creative life, and thus would never write about writing, dance about dancing, or cook about cooking. But I will often dance about cooking or sing about sleeping or run about sewing.
** The bigger blow to my creativity this summer was perhaps working a part time job with no child care. I haven’t finished a sentence in nearly three months.
*** My favorite shades of off-white paint include: Expired Sunscreen, Yesterday’s Brie, Musty Latte, Elderly Schmear, Afternoon Potato Salad, Pimple Squirts, Grandpa’s Toenails, Marlboro Molars, Jaundiced Norwegian and Forgotten Bathtub.
**** Normally, I don’t recommend tackling elephants, regardless of their skin’s moisture levels.
***** PRO-TIP: Ask for the butter as soon as you order your waffles. Then place the frozen packets in your armpits while you wait. By the time the waffles arrive, the butter will be wonderfully warm and spreadable and your armpits perfectly refreshed for dinner!