How can I paint over my lead paint?
July 6, 2007 2:01 PM   Subscribe

I want to do some re-painting in my apartment. Unfortunately I'll be painting over several coats of chipping lead paint. Is there a way to pull this off without making it look awful or killing my brain cells?

My husband and I live in a flat that's the lower level of a 100+ year old house. This summer I'd love to do some repainting and redecorating. The only thing is that the paint in our apartment is lead-based. Unfortunately the molding is getting that soft, mushy look that wood with several coats of paint gets (see here), and some of the paint is chipping (see here). I'm not too crazy about either look.

I don't have much experience with painting walls, but I have painted thrift store furniture, and normally when paint is chipping I just sand it off. That's obviously not an option here, and I don't have the experience to feel comfortable taking the paint off with a heat gun or solvents. Is there a way to paint over chipping paint without making it look horrible? Is there a certain type of paint or certain color I could use on my woodwork to hide the mushy look? And also, once it's all concealed will it be kid safe? My husband and I don't have kids, but our friends do.

Also, I do realize that this is something my landlord should be responsible for. Unfortunately there's no way he would deal with this, and I don't have the time to fight him.

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by christinetheslp to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As long as you don't eat it in large quantities, or inhale staggering volumes, you'll be fine.
...and as long as the kids don't start chewing on the walls when they come over, they'll be fine too. We're not talking about hydrofluoric acid or something truly evil; just don't create lots of paint dust, and sweep up any chips so they don't get eaten. [note: I take a casual attitude toward chemical exposure, germs, and the like. You may not, in which case there's always OSHA.]

As for painting over chipped surfaces: consider using a filler (like spackle) to smooth out the surface prior to priming/painting (I've done it, and it worked rather well). Of course, you have to be able to apply the spackle smoothly, which is something of a trick since you probably don't want to sand it down....

For the mushy look, try using contrasting lines to emphasize edges that have gone soft.
posted by aramaic at 2:20 PM on July 6, 2007

Use a dust mask while painting and you should be fine.
posted by desjardins at 3:06 PM on July 6, 2007

A friend is currently being for lead poisoning, and she's been pretty sick. It's not worth the risk; she was rehabbing an old house. Do not scrape or sand any paint. Live with crusty paint on the moldings.

The windows are a problem. Every time you open or close a window, you create a bit of fine, lead-bearing paint dust. Your landlord should replace the windows, which would also improve the heating & cooling.

If you fill the worst places, then use good quality paint, you'll encapsulate the lead-bearing paint (except on the windows, where you won't be making it worse). A fresh coat of paint does wonders.

If you live in Milwaukee, read up. There may be funding for windows, which would help convince your landlord.
posted by theora55 at 3:06 PM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

being treated for
posted by theora55 at 3:07 PM on July 6, 2007

Peel Away is super easy to use and should suit your purposes.
posted by stefnet at 3:39 PM on July 6, 2007

Ack... posted before I was finished. I know you said you weren't comfortable with sanding or solvents, but Peel Away is really easy. You just coat the surface and let it sit. Since it doesn't create a bunch of dust, it's much safer for lead-based paint. Then you can start with a clean surface and regain the non-mushy moulding.
posted by stefnet at 3:42 PM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

i second peel away. but it's a heck of a lot of work if you are talking about a whole house. I say get a good five-in-one (ask anyone at the paint store), scrape as much off as you can, wear a dust mask and sand the rest. As long as you mop well and repaint, any kidlets or pets will be fine. You could also try filling any paint chip hole with carpenters wood filler. I've used that often. it's a life saver and much harder than spackle.
posted by metasav at 4:20 PM on July 6, 2007

Ah. Lead paint. How I hate lead paint.

You can encapsulate lead paint as long as it is stable. If the surface is chipping, then encapsulation is not an option, unfortunately. You have to stablize the paint before encapsulation, and sometimes that involves some removal.

There is a handout used in the City of Chicago for landlords who are trying to work with lead paint. You might see if your local department of health has a similar handout that you can have. The handout from Chicago is a step-by-step process with a list of the required materials and how to dispose of any debris afterwards.

Although a truly scary and unhealthy substance, it can be worked with safely if you are VERY careful.

If the underlying lead paint is stable, a high quality latex paint carefully applied is adequate for encapsulating lead paint in Chicago. I don't know the guidelines in Milwaukee. (Here are some tips from New York's guidelines.) I went the extra yard in our old house and used a Fiberlock product which is really heavy duty. Putting it on was like spreading thick glue. Then we just painted over the encapsulant with regular latex paint. There is also a product called Ledisolv (which has replaced the non-eco-friendly TSP) which assists in lead dust cleaning.

Don't dry scrape or heat lead paint. Use Peel Away or Citristrip. I would use Citristrip as long as you are following the guidelines for lead paint removal specific to Milwaukee. Peel Away is great but hella expensive. I haven't tried their new Smart Strip product yet.

Unfortunately, you cannot encapuslate surfaces which experience friction, such as windows and doors. Unless you have small children or pets in the house full time, the lead paint on your windows should be a minimal problem. Make sure you keep windowsills and floors clean and follow cleaning steps like the ones in this brochure from CT's department of health.
posted by jeanmari at 4:28 PM on July 6, 2007 [7 favorites]

By the way, do NOT scrape. And do not sand under ANY circumstances. This is completely unsafe. If you scrape at all, make sure you are using something to contain the lead dust (such as a gel like solvent) or make sure you are using a water mister. And the area must be completely sealed off with 6 mil plastic and all furniture/drapes/rugs removed if you are going to try wet scraping.

I know people do it. But it is not smart. Just mopping up after dry scraping or sanding will NOT clean up the lead dust.
posted by jeanmari at 4:31 PM on July 6, 2007

Oh, you're in Milwaukee?

There was an ordinance passed in 1999 that mandated that landlords in certain areas of the city (north side, near south side) clean up lead paint in their rentals. See here. If you live in that area, and he owned the property at that time, you can leverage this ordinance to make him remove the lead paint. Based on the pictures of the architectural detailing of your house, I'm going to guess you don't live in that area, though.

Here's some more info from the City's site.
posted by desjardins at 4:32 PM on July 6, 2007

Trace amounts of lead are processed by the liver. However, young children can be affected much more easily. The National Safety Council's website states, "All it takes is the lead dust equivalent of a single grain of salt for a child to register an elevated blood lead level." (

• Protect the area with plastic that has at least 6-mil thickness.
• Seal off the doorways.
• Never sand
• Use a respirator mask (dust masks do not protect against lead)
• Never dry scrape: always mist the area first
• Wash contaminated clothing separately and shower immediately.

See also this EPA Lead Safety Handbook (PDF).

posted by reeddavid at 5:43 PM on July 6, 2007

As to the "not making it look awful" part.

You will have a difference in the layers where you scraped away the loose lead paint. You could sand the edges to bevel them and make the difference in layers gradual instead of abrupt. But... then you get into the lead dust issue, which you want to avoid.

So, get some spackle, and fill in a wide area around the edges. Keep it as thin as you can. When it's dry, use a damp sponge to feather the edges and make it look as smooth as you can. Better to use a couple thin coats and avoid sandpaper than to put it on too thick and have to sand it down.
posted by The Deej at 6:10 PM on July 6, 2007

Used to work in a paint store, I 2nd everything jeanmarie said. Lead paint is relatively safe as long as you don't inhale or ingest it, so no sanding, and be very cafeful scraping it.

Also, it doesn't take much for children to get lead poisoning, much less than adults. Plus, the affects can be life changing such as cognitive damage.

Once we had a customer have her apartment professionally deleaded and kids in the lower floor were diagnosed with lead poisoning that they think came from the deleading. Sometimes it's safer to leave as is and to try and cover it.

For the wall I'd suggest priming with a primer such as Ben Moore's Fresh Start or Muralo's Univeral Primer both of which will stick to just about anything and do not sand them. But, first clean them by washing them down with Dirtex or Spic&Span, and Spackle any holes or dents (start and the bottom and work your way up).

For the windows and trim the paint looks really losse and you'll probably need to scrape it. It looks like it would be easy to remove large portions with a scraper do not sand and wear a good quality dust mask and not one that cost 0.25c. Spackle or use wood filler to even out the imperfections, then prime (using what U used on the walls) and paint.

Also, none of this advise carries a warrenty or is to be taken as professional advise. So follow any and all of this advise with caution. People get scared by lead paint and sue quickly ...
posted by zaphod at 8:27 PM on July 6, 2007

oh yeah, wash the trim too. The biggest mistake most people make is painting over dirt.
posted by zaphod at 8:29 PM on July 6, 2007

Experienced renovator speaking.

normally when paint is chipping I just sand it off. That's obviously not an option here


I don't have the experience ... with a heat gun or solvents

Heat guns are also not recommended. The sad fact is that ANY removal method can release lead fumes, not just lead particles. But wet methods are preferred over any other. CPSC recco

Is there a way to paint over chipping paint without making it look horrible? Is there a certain type of paint or certain color I could use on my woodwork to hide the mushy look?

Yes, sort of. Basically, you need to avoid semi-gloss paint, which is generally standard for trim. But it sure makes all those chips and built-up mounds stand out. You can try darker colors with a flat finish and see how that looks.

And also, once it's all concealed will it be kid safe?

Only safer. Certainly you should not have the kids hanging out in rooms where paint is chipping, but if you stabilize it they should be OK. Just realize that any painting over is not a long-term solution, but you rent, so ...

If you start a rehab project, though, you need to keep them out of those areas and protect yourself and your stuff from retaining/spreading lead residue.

Understanding theora's concerns, this is indeed something that consumers generally shouldn't blunder into, but it's something that you can do yourself because the precautions are generally simple ones. If you can afford it, a professional job is better, but you need to make sure they have all the licenses and oversight in place and watch them like a hawk because their employees may be ignorant or careless.

But that's for stuff you own. This is so expensive and time-consuming, doing it for somebody else's property is basically crazy. So I think I'd go with the simple approach and paint over what you can.

Still have photographs of the 19th century schoolhouse we gutted for the historical society when I was 14. We wore paper masks. I still had black snot.

I try not to think about what was in it.

posted by dhartung at 9:19 PM on July 6, 2007

Lots of good perspective here. Above all, remember that this is not your home -- it belongs to the landlord. You may hate "the mushy look," but read the responses here and think about time and expense. Is there a part of you that can handle simply putting a clean coat of paint down and applying the money and time of a bigger intervention to something else -- anything from an excellent exotic vacation to a down payment on a house you sleuth out in the time you were going to spend sanding with a mask on?
posted by gum at 12:53 AM on July 7, 2007

What would be the cost/benefit if you actually replaced the molding where you can? Probably more expensive (but maybe not, given the amount of stripping gunk you'd need), but might in the long run be WAY less time consuming, and it completely obviates the lead problem on the molding at least. I ask because we've actually discussed this same problem in our 90-year old house (in Chicago). Of course, we own the place so don't mind the investment.
posted by nax at 7:33 AM on July 7, 2007

You have been appraised of the dangers of lead. I'll leave that to your good judgement.

I guess I'll just tell you how I see things and how to make it look right.

If the place has received a coat of paint in the past twenty years you aren't really dealing with lead paint.

Paint is three dimentional.

Say a coat of paint is 3 mils to 5 mils thick. If your place was painted once every 10 years since lead came off the market I imagine 3 or 4 coats possible. Easily a millimeter of surface depth to work with. So I don't see grave danger.

If you are really concerned then prime everything you intend to paint to seal it and give yourself a fresh canvas to work with, because you will need to sand.

Precautions noted, the prep work should begin.

Scuff sand walls. Requires a pole sander and 120 grit sand paper.

Scuff sanding is meant to dull the surface of existing paint so the next coat can gain proper adhesion. It also removes any little particles that dried in the previous coat of paint and cleans the surface.

This doesn't require much force. Let the sandpaper cut. If you push too hard or sand too vigoursly you generate heat and will gum up the sand paper. Also, in the beginning the paper will be extremely grippy and takes a few careful strokes initially to break it in.

If you have any untextured ceilings they would also need a light scuff before painting.

Woodwork, sand it by hand. A half sheet of sandpaper folded into thirds is the perfect size. What is really good are sanding sponges.

They are more cost prohibitive than sandpaper but man they make sanding as much of a bliss as ... can be had sanding.

This type of sanding won't even penetrate the top layer, and it is also done between coats.

Next do all plaster repairs. You can use it to plug holes in the woodwork as well. All repairs will require at least two coats of plaster, as it shrinks when it dries. Spackle does the same thing. Plaster or rather "joint compound" is just easier to work with and much cheaper.

Once dry you sand your repairs. Here again the sanding sponge is marvelous as, if you plaster properly, you really should only have some edge cleanup around each repair, and the sponge is like a little eraser.

Now that all the dusty and dirty part is done, the secret ... caulking.

You want to seal the woodwork to the wall and not have any holes.

The first picture linked was very telling.

If you zoom in and look at the top of the molding where it meets the wall, there is a gap.

Because of this gap it will never look finished. You have a void where the line should go. These need to be filled.

The corner of the frame also has a gap where the top door stop (properly cut) and the right hand piece (cut wrong) meet. This too needs filled.

Another example of needed caulk is the side of the decorative top, above what appears to be a quarter round someone stuck there to fix a gap. The edge is not open but not sealed. Needs sculpted smooth.

Also the two drips of paint on the bottom of the decorative piece, lead or no lead they must be knocked off. They are a criminal offense and nothing screams incompetence and lack of workmanship more than those two pieces of snot.

Woodwork should be viewed as a piece of furniture built in.

It is a decorative element as well as functional.

The woodwork has caracter and shouldn't be fretted over too much. Ensuring there are no gaps or cracks or holes is much more key to having it look good than an even surface.

You should use a latex caulking, don't use silicone (paint won't stick to it) and don't buy some dirt cheap crap because it will just crack.

Apply and smooth it. Don't smear it all over. You want to just fill all cracks and crevices, not build it up or have it bulging. Remove all excess caulk immediately. There is little correction that can be done, once dry, beyond the knife.

An indentation is better than excess.

You should let the caulking cure for 24 hours before painting for best results. If you paint it too soon you will end up deforming it with your brush and pulling it away.

The window sill. The surface can be filled but the crack will need to be caulked or it will return in short order.

So everything sealed, smooth and dry, you can now make the place look like a million bucks.

To make things look sharp there must be a contrast between the woodwork and walls as well as ceiling and walls.

Classic, never go out of style paint job is:

Ceilings : white, flat

Walls in living areas and bedrooms : colour as desired. Use an eg-shel or low sheen paint.

Bathrooms and kitchens : again colour of choice, pearl or semi-gloss paint. I like to do the ceilings of these rooms with a glossy paint (white) as well but this is somewhat more delicate to pull off without showing roller marks or brush strokes.

The trick is to roll a section or the entire thing (preferably) then back roll or equalize it all in the same direction.

Another note on ceilings, first coat should go against the main light source the second coat in the same direction as the main light source (usually the wall with the most windows).

Your textured ceilings can be painted any which way and are pretty much impossible to screw up.

Trims : white or small off-white, semi or full gloss

Painting woodwork flat wouldn't be my recommendation, while true you will see fewer defects, the dull appearance will always lack life.

Plus flat paints hold dust and scratch easier.

Dark coloured trims get dirty and look dirty very fast.

What really gives a room spice is an accent wall. Standing off one wall in a totally different colour. Or doing two walls one shade. And two others a slighly darker or lighter hue.

The more nice lines or clean separation you create the sharper the entire room will look.

A few golden rules about working.

Top to bottom.

Left to right (if right handed)

Inside toward outside

These rules are governed by efficiency, cleanliness and gravity.

A few thoughts on lines.

I gave you the working order for a reason. Ceilings (top) are done before the walls because you let the cutting come down onto the wall ensuring the corner is well filled allowing you to put a fresh line where you want it. (presented lines are pretty wavey and has hit the ceiling in places so I would start anew)

Lines are where a job shines or fails.

Walls are done second and you should let the paint overlap onto the trim. And if you are doing accent walls, let your cutting go on the other wall too. Again ensuring filled corner, allowing choice of line placement.

You can cheat with your lines to trick the eye.

We call this "le tap a l'oeil", I'm not sure how to transulate this. It's basically means "striking the eye" and "for appearance".

To make clean chrisp lines, never use tape, paint will always bleed under, unless you prime it first. Your best friend is a top quality angled brush. Bristle for oil paint, synthetic for latex.

I posted a bit about brush mechanics in another thread, read it if you like.

Oh and I wouldn't strip the wood (as you may have guessed) because the investment of time is too great for something that doesn't belong to you and wasn't properly constructed to begin with.

Put on some music and have fun:)
posted by phoque at 2:56 PM on July 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

Interesting front page post.
posted by theora55 at 6:26 PM on July 9, 2007

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