How to paint sans asphyxiation
August 13, 2005 5:47 AM   Subscribe

HomeImprovementFilter. Also, RiskOfBrainDamageFromPaintFumesFilter. I am purchasing two unfinished wood bookcases, and plan to paint them a glossy red. However, they are so heavy that once I get them delivered (4th floor walkup) I'll need to paint them in my apartment. I'm afraid that painting them in the apartment might be dangerous, fume-wise.

My plan was to lay down newspaper, open the window (about 10 feet away from the painting area) and turn on the ceiling and floor fans- then, once done, to leave the apartment for the day.

However, my apartment is v. small (About 150-200 sq. feet) and I'm concerened that the available air circulation won't be sufficient to circulate minimalize (And clear) the fumes.

I'd appreciate any help or advice, whether about retaining my brain cells or about painting furniture.
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
Try to find a low VOC paint. These compounds are the ones that kill brain cells.

If that's not possible, then best situation would be a room with windows on opposite walls -- set up a box fan in one window pointing inwards, and the other box fan pointing outwards, so there's a flow of air in the room to help exhaust fumes. This works for non-aerosols, though. If I were planning on spraypainting bookcases, I'd really try to find a way to do them outside (or you might construct a paint shield so as not to tag the walls, too). You can also get a variety of face masks, too. Just be sure you get one that filters out paint fumes -- ones like this are good basic protection but won't protect against some fine VOC fumes.
posted by boo_radley at 6:12 AM on August 13, 2005

Is your apartment painted? How did it get that way?
Don't worry, be happy.

More info.
posted by caddis at 8:02 AM on August 13, 2005

Home depot has a good High Gloss Enamel that is water based, it is the Behr brand. Here is a link to it

I have used it on cabinets, it is a very good paint and has no more fumes than a regular latex. Make sure that you prime the wood first.
posted by lee at 8:06 AM on August 13, 2005

Benjamin Moore also has a good latex enamel (it's satin). Goes on with minimal brushmarks, although this is because it's a bit watery, which means it can run. I used it on some bookcases I painted last summer and didn't klil mnay biran clels.
posted by kindall at 8:29 AM on August 13, 2005

Painting is smelly and might give you a headache if you don't have ventilation. You're exposure time to the bookcase project isn't that long though. You won't lose brain cells. But you appear to be anxious and might find some help if you shared this project with a buddy, to relieve some stress and make it fun and forget about the possible 'what if...'. Also, give the bookcase at least 2 days to cure before you start putting heavy books on it, or else they might stick and cause some damage to them.
posted by alteredcarbon at 10:27 AM on August 13, 2005

You can put a fan in the window, if you have or can get one that will fit. Just a plain old box fan, and it will help to suck out the fumey air.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:33 AM on August 13, 2005

You shouldn't suck paint fumes thru a normal household fan, there is a slight risk of explosion. Use the fan to direct air into the room instead.

But you'll probably find that a latex paint with the window open won't cause much in the way of fumes as the the off gassing is practically all water.
posted by Mitheral at 4:49 PM on August 13, 2005

Best answer: Some non-fume related advice (thank my uncle for this; he passed it all on to me at the start of a large (2 bookcases, a coffee table, and a nightstand) staining+polyurethaning project of my own...but caveat, his advice was staining+polyurethaning related, so some parts may not apply to painting):

Get some latex/vinyl gloves. These can be obtained at CVS and presumably other drug stores for ~$8/100; Home Depot also sells them in the painting dept. It's MUCH easier to just strip off the gloves when you have to answer the phone than it is to spend hours trying to get the paint out from under your fingernails. Get a lot of them. They're useful for other projects too (I keep some in my car in case something icky happens).

Pick up some plastic sheeting; skip the newspaper, it's not worth the hassle. You can get contractor's sheeting (in varying sizes and thicknesses) in the paint dept at the hardware store (Home Depot definitely has it). Lay down a few layers (especially since you're using a dark color) under the bookcase before you start; plastic sheeting has no breaks and won't seep through the way newspaper might.

If you're planning to reuse the paintbrushes (ie, aren't just using the little foam ones), get a few empty paint cans and/or coffee cans and some mineral spirits or paint thinner. Put the solvent in one can (and *do* be careful how you handle this stuff; it's not nice at all) and squash/soak the brushes in it, then fill the other with hot soapy water, rinse, repeat. Let dry. You might want to get two sets of brushes so you can have one soaking/drying and be using the other. Check your neighborhood public works dept. for disposal instructions for this stuff; there's usually hazardous waste collection days, and you can store it until then in a sealed metal container.

I also found a few disposable paint trays were good to have on hand so you could pour out a bit of paint without getting anything in the jar. And a pack of contractor's towels/paint rags (basically cheap cotton dishtowels) is great to have around to wipe up drips. Cheap (50c/pack) wooden shims are good to use as paint stirrers.

The best configuration I found for the fan+windows was fan, then project, then windows, with the fan blowing air across me+project and out the windows. Get a good fan and turn it all the way up. If you get a headache, leave the windows open and the fan on and LEAVE. Go get a cup of coffee; just go breathe some fresh air for an hour or so. I don't know if it's actually killing brain cells, but headaches caused by fumes can never be a good thing, so better safe than sorry imho.

(This next part may not apply to you, as it was specifically for polyurethane).

Get some 0000 steel wool and some tack cloths (bits of gauze impregnated with sticky). Once the poly has dried, lightly rub it with the steel wool, then use the tack cloths to get it off the bits of steel wool that have come off. The point is to sand out the little bubbles that inevitably form in the poly as you're painting. The extra time it took to do this made a *huge* positive difference in the end quality of my stuff (though as I said, it may not be necessary with paint).

Also, if this is a *really* big project and you plan to keep these for a while/want them to look especially nice, I highly recommend getting a sander. A Black & Decker Mouse ran me $40 at Home Depot and has saved me *hours* of hand sanding. So worth it--but some cheap sandpaper (if you go the sandpaper route, pick up a sanding block--it'll save your hands) will do just as well. (Side note: be aware that if you get a sander, it will in all likelihood use proprietary sanding sheets--so don't get the sander and a bunch of sandpaper thinking you can use them together. Chances are you can't.) I'd sand the bookcase before doing anything else (and then use the tack cloths to get off the sawdust), then paint.

Email me if you have any questions...I'll try to answer them (or forward them to my woodworking uncle) if I can. I can be reached at username at gmail dot com. Good luck, and have fun! (But not too much fun...if you're giggling, it's time to get some fresh air :) )
posted by fuzzbean at 10:16 PM on August 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, all, for your advice for home improvement novices.

Caddis: My apartment is indeed painted. It came that way when I signed the lease. Only in my old age will I own real estate and therefore be able to paint it the color of my choice. In the meantime, I settle for bookcases!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:50 AM on August 14, 2005

What I meant was that painting on a much larger scale than a bookcase had already occurred in this apartment. Some precautions are in order, but I wouldn't worry too much. As for blowing the fan across the project toward the window, that is a bad idea unless you have another fan exhausting out of the window. Fans do a great job of pulling air and a terrible job of pushing it. The exhaust fan will work best if it is somewhat sealed into the window, that is no space to the side which allows air to come in the window from the side and then get pulled out through the fan.
posted by caddis at 10:13 AM on August 14, 2005

Get a half-mask respirator rated for organic solvents. You won't smell any fumes even if you stick your face in the paint can. About $50.
posted by ryanrs at 12:16 PM on August 14, 2005

Blowing / sucking fans are not enough -- you could be doing your painting outside on an airstrip and the ventilation would still be insufficient, given that you're working up close to the paints.

Like many have mentioned, get a respirator rated for organic solvents, often with an N95 prefilter, to keep dust at bay.

You can get a fancy-schmancy half-mask with replaceable cartridges (they breathe really well, and tend not to leak bad air in, you can pretend you're in space) or you can pay about one fifth the price on a disposable one (good for maybe 10 hours of continuos work before saturation and prone to leaking bad air in through the connection to the face).

These things are amazing -- you won't smell any paint fumes at all with the mask on, and work will be much easier to deal with.
posted by Extopalopaketle at 1:50 AM on August 16, 2005

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