A Ladies’ Guide to Stripping

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.

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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:

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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:

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OK. Well, that got a little bit off. Apply again, wait another 12 hours, put on a slightly different green hoodie, then scrape:
dsc_0136And 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. dsc_0148The 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.

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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: 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3.  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.

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  4. 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.
  5. 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:

    big-scrape…but then discover four more coats of paint underneath. Repeat this step as necessary.

  6. 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.img_6609

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:
img_6603USE 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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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——ENDNOTES————!
* 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!

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16 thoughts on “A Ladies’ Guide to Stripping

  1. I lived in a house that begged for lots of stripping (of paint). I finally bought a heat gun because I couldn’t take the stripper smell. Heat guns work great as long as you don’t burn the house down. Good luck!

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    • Thanks, Lisa! My friend Erin recently loaned me her heat gun, which I used on the doorway in our kitchen. I was really excited by how quickly it worked, but I know I’m going to have to supplement with chemical stripper for the nooks and crannies. The paint just doesn’t stay soft for long enough for all the details in my Victorian-era house. But for flat surfaces, it’s perfect.

      My other concern is about lead paint. I know you’re not supposed to sand it since inhaling the dust is dangerous, but I haven’t found a straight answer about the effect of fumes from a heat gun. But as long as my kids aren’t around, what’s the harm? Since I’m done reproducing, I’m happy to abuse my body in the service of home improvement.

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  2. “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.”

    LOLOLOL. I am one of these people (thing i also enjoy: peeling skin after sunburn) and the first time I ever stripped a chair, I expressed this exact sentiment to my husband. He looked at me like I was crazy, but it’s true: I love stripping paint off of things for exactly this reason.

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  3. You KNOW I’m with you on the paint stripper, don’t you… Can I add a pro-tip of my own? If you have really, really thick blobby paint to strip, you can accelerate the whole multiple coats of gunk thing by scoring the paint surface with a craft knife. Lightly, mind you, so as not to ruin whatever’s underneath, but enough to allow the gunk to penetrate through the top coat to at least some of the layers below. It really does help. And I like heat guns for those fancy decorative bits, corners and parts where you’d otherwise have to apply the gunk upside down so it drips straight back onto your goggles…
    You’re so right about the direct sun, by the way. The Husband thought it would be good to coat the whole trailer when it was out in the sun. Hot metal and dried out paint stripper made my job a lot longer than it needed to be…

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    • Kate, this is a really useful tip. I forgot to include it in my own pro-tips because the paint on our woodwork is already so cracked and chipped that it comes with its own built-in scoring. One of these days I may actually come across a fully-intact paint job and need to remember that!

      I was really holding my breath on your trailer project (looks great, by the way). Which brings us to the next pro-tip that didn’t make the cut — don’t apply stripper over too big an area at one time. Most of the stripper I’ve bought includes this on the directions, but without an explanation for why it’s a bad idea. And it’s a bad idea because you can’t possibly scrape all that paint off before the stripper starts to evaporate. There is such a short window of opportunity to scrape — when its soft enough to pull up easily but not dried up and gummy-hard.

      It reminds me of a brief phase I went through after our honeymoon to Puerto Rico when I tried to make flan. Flan involves first making caramel, which involves melting sugar, which has the most finicky melting point of any substance on earth. Also, a hot sugar burn may quite possibly be worse than stripper.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a thought about your waffle/butter issue. How about an insulated bottle of melted butter with a spray pump attachment. Squirt, squirt, instant buttered waffle. Or is the melting and oozing part of the fun…?
        Also, for scraping off the gunk, I use a pile of sheets of auto shop heavy paper towel. Fill the sheet with gunk, fold and toss, on to the next one.

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  4. I was unsure what elderly schmear was and was not sure if i should google it or not. Turns out schmear is not as bad as i thought it was (or maybe it is?). I also had no idea about chorks and trongs which look like those things that seem like a good idea but then take up awkward but valuable space in the spare utensil draw that never gets opened.

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    • Schmear is a totally appropriate, family-friendly word! A direct loanword from Yiddish. It had a better ring to it than Cream Cheese, which is what Schmear is most likely to describe.

      You might be getting confused with SMEGMA, a legit medical condition. You can google it if you like, but please please don’t do an image search, at least not at work or in a cafe.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Finally! I’ve found someone else in this world who has figured out the butter-in-the-armpits solution. Another thing I’ve tried that works well: look at your waitperson with big sad eyes, ask if they could butter your waffle in the kitchen (where, if you’ve ever waitressed, you know that there’s a big tub of butter sitting out on the counter).

    But about *stripping*: I went the chemical route initially in the Belden farmhouse, but quickly opted for the heat gun, one of which I either gave away or sold during the pre-move sale. Heat gun is great for large flat surfaces, and for an initial heat-up of the decorative bits, but there’s nothing like deadly stripper for getting into those nooks and crannies, especially with dental tools, which I wish I’d thought of. Brilliant post.

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    • Oooh, next time I’m out for waffles I am going to try that! Because OF COURSE there’s a big, soft tub of butter in the back. It’s a diner, for Pete’s sake!

      Even with the softest, most perfectly-spreadable butter on earth, it’s still almost impossible to get an equal amount of butter into every square.

      I’ve been thinking about this problem for most of my adult life and have come up with two solutions, both of them after midnight:
      1) The Butter Gun. It’s basically a caulk gun full of butter, with a pointed tip. You aim the tip at each square, and then deposit one tiny blob of butter in each. Extremely accurate, strangely satisfying, but very time consuming.
      2) (STILL UNBRANDED) Butter Sticker Paper. I haven’t thought of a catchy name for this one. It’s a sheet of wax/parchment/plastic paper, with squares of butter in the exact shape and pattern as your waffle. Simple place the Butter Sticker paper over your waffle so that the tiny squares of butter fit into the hallow squares of the waffle. Let it warm up for a few seconds, then peel the paper off and the butter stays in the squares.

      Since I haven’t found any major investors for these products, I usually just sprinkle tons of salt on my waffle, which tastes almost exactly the same as butter.

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  6. Clare, you’re hilarious. Sometimes I think a 12-year-old boy got trapped inside your brain!

    I, too, love the heat gun. It works wonders and creates less mess as the paint you remove hardens quickly and is less goopy. My pro tip is to use cardboard boxes for the discards that you wipe off your scraper. It has lots of nice firm edges, is less slippery than a plastic bag in a bucket and you just toss the whole thing at the end.

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    • Hi Sarah, thanks for the heat gun tip! You’ve all convinced me to spend more time with my heat gun (or rather, my friend’s heat gun), especially as winter approaches.

      I did notice during my brief session with the heat gun that I had a very, very difficult time wiping. The paint gets hard so quickly after you scrape it — its not slimy goo like with chemical stripper. A couple of times I had to reheat the stuff on my scraper because the paint had hardened onto it. And heated-and-cooled paint is somehow stiffer than the paint you began with.

      I also tried a tin can for the sharper scraping edges, but the can itself was too light and would fall over if I was only using one hand. Which is the other big drawback of the heat gun — it takes one hand to hold it and one to scrape the paint. And you have to be very careful where you put it down.

      With great power comes great responsibility.

      more heat gun tips, please!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yay! I was happy to see that your are still working on and writing about your Babushka house! 🙂 Paint stripping is very smelly but sooooooo satisfying!

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