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Paint is peeling from your house like the skin from an onion. Clearly, a fresh paint job is in order. Your neighbor suggests you strip the siding to bare wood before you repaint. But before climbing a ladder with your sander in hand -- or calling in a vinyl siding contractor -- ask yourself two important questions:

Why is the paint peeling in the first place? And is it really necessary to strip all of it off?


Normally paint peels due to inadequate home ventilation -- not because of substrate problems. If you lift a peeling section of paint and see exposed wood, it's probably because trapped moisture from inside your house has built up in the siding and "pushed" the paint layer off the wood (typically after a warm, sunny day). In such cases, improve the ventilation inside your home before doing anything else.

If the loose or peeling paint is occurring only in certain spots, it's not necessary to strip the paint completely. Instead use a sharpened scraper to remove loose or blistered paint, and sand rough spots smooth by hand or with a power sander, typically with a medium grit paper. Then prime bare spots (where wood shows through), and apply a new finish coat or two.

If, however, the paint on your house is so thick that the definitions of shingles, molding profiles, and decorative carvings have been lost, or you want to reveal the wood grain hidden by the paint, then at least some stripping is in order.
The best tools for the job are a heat gun and a good set of paint scrapers. (Caution: A heat gun is generally safe to use on any painted wood or steel surface, such as a steel door. Do not use on vinyl surfaces, and test before using on aluminum surfaces for fear of warpage.)
Hold the heat gun a few inches away from the surface to be stripped, never aiming it at one spot for long. As the old paint heats up, you'll see it begin to bubble and lift. Avoid allowing the paint to scorch or burn.

Before the softened paint has a chance to cool, use a paint scraper or putty knife to remove it from the substrate. Allow the scrapings to fall on a drop cloth. They resolidify quickly, so they won't create the noxious mess that liquid paint removers do.

Scrapers are available with interchangeable steel heads, some flat and others with points or various contours for tackling curved surfaces. Keep them sharp with a file or sharpening stone to speed the work.
For big jobs, such as large areas of wood siding that's severely alligatored, consider an infrared heater. It heats a larger area faster than a heat gun and can be mounted on a track for hands-free operation. This equipment is expensive, so you may want to rent it from your local home improvement store. Follow the manufacturer's directions for safe operation.

A heat gun and scrapers can be used for stripping paint from furniture and interior trim, too. The method is the same. You can use other household implements to dig the softened paint out of narrow crevices, including old steak knives. (Remember, however, to always push sharp implements away from you body, including your hands and face.) Follow up with a light sanding to remove any additional paint residue, and proceed with refinishing.


PRECAUTIONS:

1. Heat guns are nowhere near as much of a fire hazard as propane torches. Nevertheless, always be aware of where you're directing the blast of a heat gun. Do not point it in one direction for too long or you can inadvertently scorch the wood, or ignite the paint or a flammable substance near where you're working.

2. If the surface you're stripping has paint layers that date back to before 1978, the paint may contain lead. This stuff is no joke. It can cause various adult illnesses and brain damage to children. If you're stripping paint indoors, the heat gun may vaporize the lead, allowing it to be inhaled. (On a windless day, this can happen outdoors, too.) When scraping and sanding, lead-laden bits of old paint can scatter on the floor, get on little fingers, land in food, and then be ingested. Always work with gloves, a respirator, and with good ventilation of the work area. That can mean using a large fan to exhaust air through open windows. Launder work clothing after work sessions.



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