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Refinishing Cast Iron Radiators

  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, if you have an older home, you know that cast-iron radiators that provided hot water or steam heat were the gold standard 100 years ago.

    TOM: That’s true. They do provide a level of comfort that you just don’t get with forced, hot air. But the radiators themselves can be really hard to incorporate in your décor. This Old House host, Kevin O’Connor, is here though and he’s got some great tips on how to refinish cast-iron radiators and he joins us right now.

    Hey, Kevin.

    KEVIN: Hi, guys. Great to be here.

    TOM: Welcome back to the program. Now, this is definitely one of the elements that adds sort of old-world charm to any older home. And I’m always shocked when we get the calls on the show from listeners who want to replace them, because baseboard radiators just can’t compare.

    KEVIN: Well, when it comes to looks, I agree with you 100 percent. Some of these things are beautifully ornate, cast-iron pieces of art and they really were showpieces back in the day. And if you make them look good and you bring them back, they can be pieces of grandeur in your home.

    LESLIE: Mm-hmm. Especially when you consider a baseboard heater is going to run pretty much the entire perimeter of the room and you have to be careful with furniture placement then, as well.

    KEVIN: Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with a radiator; you can really make the thing sing.

    LESLIE: So if they’re really just looking a little worse for the wear and maybe have a lot of paint buildup on them, what’s the best way to sort of tackle a cleanup on them?

    KEVIN: Go find yourself a wire brush.

    LESLIE: And a lot of elbow grease?

    TOM: It’s a lot of labor, yeah.

    KEVIN: Yeah. These things are cast-iron, right? So they’re really durable. You’re not going to hurt them. What you want to do is you want to get all those layers of paint off and you can do a pretty good job with a wire brush in place. Once you get all that loose paint off and take it down so you can see some of the details, spray paint them back up and they can look really nice.

    LESLIE: And when it comes to spray paint, is temperature a concern? Do I need to work with a high-heat spray because they’re a radiator?

    KEVIN: Well, I don’t think you actually do; the radiators don’t get quite that hot. Remember, they’re in our homes and you can actually touch these things. A high-heat spray paint is usually reserved for something with an open flame, like a gas grill.


    KEVIN: You do want to think about, though, a spray paint that is good for metals.

    TOM: And you can create almost a little spray booth right around the radiator by sort of dropping some newspaper behind it or cardboard around it, so you can really contain that spray.

    KEVIN: Contain the spray and you’re going to want to use that spray paint to get into all those little nooks and crannies, because they are fairly ornate and they’re not always easy to get to.

    LESLIE: And they certainly weigh a ton. I mean you’re not taking this thing outside.

    TOM: Well, that’s a good point. But if you can take it outside, there are some other options. I took one out once and actually pressure-washed the paint off.

    But the pros do it a little different, don’t they, Kevin?

    KEVIN: We’ve had good luck with professionals who have actually taken these things offsite and sandblasted them. And it’s actually very effective, because when you get …

    LESLIE: And fast.

    KEVIN: Well, very fast, yep and a really thorough job, because now you can sort of get to all six sides of this beast. But a lot of these things had great detail on them that’s been lost over 100 years and 20 layers of paint. They will bring that detail back for you.

    TOM: And it’s gorgeous. Now, if you decide that you really don’t have it in you to get rid of all that paint, how about covers? They’re an option.

    KEVIN: Yeah, covers are an option. One thing that I’ve done in the past is I’ve put a nice piece of stone over the top of a radiator, so you still see a lot of it but you create yourself a little place to set a glass and you actually visually cut down on a lot of it.

    But a cover is a great way. You don’t have to make these things yourself; there are a lot of companies out there that will make them for you. You can send them the sizes; they’ll send you the right radiator cover back. Just keep in mind, it’s mostly about having that hot air circulate through the house, so you don’t want to cover them such that you diminish the performance of the radiator.

    LESLIE: Mm-hmm. That’s why, even with the wood covers – we have the cast-iron radiators at our home and they have that beautiful, radiator grill on the three sides that are exposed, to allow for that airflow through it. And I just happen to love the look of those radiator grills. There’s such wonderful options out here.

    KEVIN: There really are a lot of really ornate options.

    TOM: Great advice. Kevin O’Connor, host of TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    KEVIN: Pleasure to be here, guys. Thank you.

    TOM: And you can get more tips just like that by visiting ThisOldHouse.com.

    LESLIE: And of course, you can watch Kevin and the entire This Old House team on This Old House and Ask This Old House on your local PBS station.

    TOM: And This Old House, as well as Ask This Old House, are brought to you by GMC. GMC, we are professional grade.

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