The Hidden Danger of Refinishing

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1910s cider press

1910s cider press

Like some folks out there, I love vintage.  It doesn’t matter if it is a hand-painted set of china, a wonderfully embroidered tablecloth, or a sturdy piece of wood furniture.  There is something about the history and the work that went into creating it.  The worn features tell us a bit about how well the piece was loved and used.  But not everything gives up its secrets so easily.

For example, I was fortunate to come across a 1910s wooden cider press.  The metal pieces are cast iron, designed to last a lifetime, and the wood is sturdy with an aged patina.  The overall appearance is a dusty brown with wood grain showing through.  There are some spots on the press appearing almost black while other areas have worn to a light chestnut color.  But as I rub my hand with the grain, I do not feel bare wood, something else is beneath that layer of dust.

The first step was taking apart the press.  The metal pieces needed to be stripped down as they were covered in rust.  If I had any hope of using those original pieces, I needed to get down to bare metal.  A friend stepped forward to do that task since they have a bead blasting hood.  A hood not only contains the beads, but also protects the user from breathing in dust.

Faint green stripe on cider press leg

Faint green stripe on cider press leg

Knowing that to refinish a cider press will be dirty work, I set up my work area outdoors.  My ventilation problem is solved.  But there is still the mystery finish.  Out of habit I put on a dust mask and goggles.  With a damp cloth, I rubbed down all of the wood, re-wetted and rung out the cloth as needed.  This step allowed me to get a better look at the finish prior to sanding.  (And I truly washed away over 60 years of dirt as this press had sat in my parents’ garage for that length of time.)  What I saw pleased me; very little finish.  So with a sander in hand, I got down to bare wood and the oak grain become visible.

When this press was built, it was probably coated with linseed oil or perhaps mixed in with a little bit of beeswax.  (Besides the initial feeling of dust there was a slight oiliness to the finish. )  But as more wood grain became visible, I was struck by the fact that I could see part of a very faint green pin stripe on a leg of the press.  As I leaned in for a closer look, there is no doubt that the press had a few remnants of painted details.   So much for my theory that the press just had a couple of coats of linseed oil.

Any painted piece prior to the 1970s, chances are pretty darn good that the paint used was lead-based.  For those of you who have not encountered lead-based paint, here is the main point to remember, it is toxic when injested!

red paint bleeding

red paint bleeding

For safety’s sake, I went to a home improvement store and purchased a lead paint test kit.  The directions are straight forward and the test is not complicated.  I dampened a test pad with water and held it to the faint green stripe for two minutes according to the instructions.  When I pulled the pad away it had not changed color.  Now while the test did not indicate the presence of lead, there is the possibility that there is so little paint left on the wood that the lead did not register.  (If you look at the photo above, you can see the wood grain through the faint stripe.)

The small patch of red paint was thicker as it obscured the wood grain beneath.  As I read through the kit instructions, I notice that red paint is called out specifically.  Rather than start off with a test pad, the directions stated to dampen a cotton ball or swab with white distilled vinegar and rub it across the paint.  If the red bleeds, the test pad is useless.  Any bleeding by the paint would obscure any discoloration from the detection of lead.  My cotton swab turned red, so there was no point of testing.  Just to be safe, I have to proceed as though the test was completed and was positive for lead.

At this point, dry sanding is not recommended.  The lead will be released in the dust.  Wet sanding or applying a paint stripper is the best route of action.   Now is the time to swap out the dust mask for a respirator.  You do not want to take a chance of breathing in any lead dust.  With all paint safely removed, refinishing can proceed safely.

So vintage wood enthusiasts, you too can refinish a painted piece.  Just proceed with caution, wear adequate protection, and use a recommended method for removing lead-based paint  Happy stripping!

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6 responses »

    • If the paint type is unknown, but possibly lead paint, you can use a commercial stripper which soaks through the remaining paint. After a period of time (listed on the container), one should be able to use a scraper to remove the paint. Since the paint/stripper material is wet, the paint will not become airborne. In some cases, the paint has become dry and begun to lift from the wood surface and can be flaked off easily. In all cases, removing old paint should be done carefully, just to be safe.

  1. Well, lucky for you there isn’t all that much paint! I’m glad you were sanding out in the open and wearing a dust mask at least. Do you have to dispose of the paint flakes in any special manner?

    • Yes, the paint flakes and residue left over from stripping the lead paint must be treated as a hazardous material and disposed of according to local regulations. Looks like we will have to wait for the next hazardous chemical drop-off hosted by the city.

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