How to Paint an Old Radiator: A Comprehensive Guide

We owe our radiator plenty for keeping us warm and toasty during the winter months, and the least we could do is prevent it from looking like it belongs in the trash.

Besides, that old dusty radiator in the corner has the potential to blend in with your home decor. Yes, believe it or not, that seemingly boring heating system can be as decorative as it is functional. With the right design flourishes, your radiator can spruce up your home’s interior in ways that will surprise even you.

You just need to paint it the right way.

Wait, what? Can you paint radiators in the first place?

Why, yes you can!

Look, I know what you’re thinking. Painting around those tight spaces can be rather difficult. Also, it’s a heating system, and there’s always the possibility that the heat will eventually cause the paint to crack or blister.

All are legitimate concerns. Thankfully, with the right materials and methods, these concerns can be duly addressed.

So, how do you paint an old radiator the right way?

This blog post has got you covered.

But first…

Good preparation is always key to any successful project. So make sure that you have the following tools and materials before you proceed:

Tools and Materials

  • Primer Paint
  • Spray Paint
  • Paint stripper
  • Painter’s tape or drop cloth
  • Respirator
  • Gloves
  • Sandpaper (40 to 120 grit)
  • Lead paint test kits or an XRF machine
  • Soft cloth
  • Putty knife

Steps to Painting an Old Radiator

So, without further ado, here are the steps to give your old radiator the right paint job.

Step one: Turn off the radiator

Is your radiator is only used for display purposes, then feel free to skip this test. If it’s operational, please proceed.

First, turn the radiator off by twisting the control valve at the unit’s base clockwise. Wait for the unit to cool off. Next, cover the control valve and vents with masking tape. Doing this stops paint from entering vents and valves, thus preventing mechanical issues with your radiator unit following the paint job.

Step two: Prepare the work area

Surely, you don’t want to spill paint over the surrounding floor and walls, not to mention your valuables, during a paint job. You also want to make sure that the work area is an ideal place for doing paintwork.

First, move all appliances or furniture out of the way or into another room. Then clear the area of dust and dirt. You can use your trusty broom, but if you want to clean more thoroughly and in less time, a vacuum cleaner is your best friend.

Next, cover the work area’s surrounding floor and walls with drop cloths. If you have none, it’s perfectly fine to use painter’s tape, plastic sheeting, or even tarps. Make sure to cover more area than what you’d normally expect is needed. Paint has a way of creeping into other areas if you’re not paying attention long enough.

And this is important: open the windows! Paints contain toxic chemicals that can compromise your health once released into the air. To avoid asphyxiating yourself, open the windows to allow paint fumes to escape.

Step three: Clean the radiator’s surface

Chances are your radiator has picked up a ton of dirt and grime over the years. Obviously painting over a dirty surface is far from ideal. To clean the radiator’s surface, dip a damp cloth in a solution of warm water and detergent mix and use it to wipe down the dirt and grime. Once the detergent has done its magic, wash any remaining dirt by rinsing it with water.

Once your radiator is squeaky clean, wipe it gently with a dry cloth and leave it to dry for at least 5 hours.

Step four: Check for lead

If the radiator was previously painted, you need to remove the old paint to make way for a new one.

But not so fast. Before you remove any paint, you need to test if it contains any lead, especially if your radiator was painted before 1978.

Now here’s the thing about lead: they’re not good for you. Lead is a metal that can be harmful to your health in more ways than one, and if you scrape old paint from your radiator, the lead from the paint can be released into the air in the form of dust, endangering the health of those nearby.

Using lead paint test kits is one effective way to confirm the presence of lead. You might want to buy them in bulk if you confirm the presence of lead in other areas of your home.

Once you’ve confirmed that the old paint on your old radiator doesn’t contain any lead, grab a putty knife and then gently scrape away the cracked or chipped paint from the radiator’s surface. Once the loose paint is removed, sand the surface to clear remaining residual paint. Some of the dust that was removed may fall on the surrounding areas so it might be a good idea to remove them using a vacuum cleaner. You want to make sure the radiator is clean and dry before applying paint.

If the lead test confirms the presence of lead, the next order of business is to hire a professional refinisher who can remove the paint for you.

Step five: Remove the paint

If your radiator has been previously painted and is in desperate need of a repainting job, you need to remove the old paint first.

First, prepare a bucket of TSP cleaner. Then dip a wire brush in the solution, and use it to scrub off the old paint from the radiator’s surface.

If that doesn’t work, use a paint stripper that contains trisodium phosphate (TSP) instead. TSP is a special formula that can neutralize lead paint dust. You can also use Soy-Gel by The Real Milk Paint Company, a gel formulation paint stripper that traps lead in a gel-like substance before stripping paint, preventing lead particles from escaping into the air during paint removal.

Step six: Get rid of the rust

Radiators, at least those that are made of metal, are prone to rust, especially if it’s not being well-maintained. Allow rust to have its way and the radiator’s metal surface will rot further. You don’t want that. After all, prolonged exposure to rust can be harmful to one’s health. Besides, it’s impossible to carry out a decent paint job on any surface that contains rust.

To remove rust from the radiator’s surface, sand the affected areas with fine-grit sandpaper (preferably between 40-120 grit) or a ball of steel wool until the surface is smooth enough to receive paint. Once the rust particles have been scrubbed loose, wipe the surface off with a clean rag.

If sanding the surface is unable to remove all the rust, you can use a rust remover such as Krylon’s Rust Tough Primer or Ospho to further loosen up the rust particles. Once the rust remover has been applied, scrub the surface again with a chip brush or a fiberglass brush. You’ll know the solution is working once the rust starts to bubble and turns a darker color. After scrubbing the loose rust off, let the radiator’s surface dry overnight. By tomorrow, the surface will be ready for priming.

Step seven: Prime the radiator’s surface

Do I need to prime my radiator before painting?

You bet! While painting a radiator is different from painting a table or a wall, priming it is still integral to the entire prep work, perhaps even more so considering that the surfaces of radiators have to undergo plenty of temperature changes in their entire lifetime.

Here are some specific tips to ensure that you’re using primer on your radiator the right way:

  • Radiators are prone to rust, so make sure that you’re using a primer that is rust-resistant.
  • If you’re living in cool climates, make sure that you use a primer and paint that can handle high temperatures. Rust-Oleum Heat Resistant Paint, for example, can withstand up to 750° of heat.
  • Before applying a primer on the radiator’s surface, make sure it’s completely cold.
  • Clean the radiator’s surface by wiping it with a clean, dry cloth. Once you’re pretty sure that there’s no dust or grease remaining, scrub it lightly with fine sandpaper. This will roughen up the radiator’s surface, allowing the paint to easily adhere to it.

Now, on to applying the primer. Ideally, you must use a metal primer or a specialist radiator primer. This is because either can provide a good base that makes the surface an ideal environment for receiving subsequent coats and paint.

If you’re using a metal spray primer, spray at a distance of 12 to 18 inches from the surface. Spray away using a back and forth motion, making sure that the primer is applied evenly on the surface.

Once you’re done, let the surface dry again (refer to the instructions provided by the product). Most primers recommend a dry-off period of 24 hours before proceeding with the paint job.

Step eight: Paint the radiator

Is the primer already dry? Now the fun stuff begins.

Chances are you’re more comfortable using a paintbrush when painting, but as you can imagine, some of the usual painting methods don’t apply when the object to be painted is a radiator. Radiators, after all, have many tight gaps that can give you trouble, and your skills with the brush might not be enough to give them the professional finish they deserve.

If you want to get great results, you need to work slowly while administering those smooth brush strokes. Obviously, it can get uncomfortable, as you will need to bend over and kneel on more than one occasion. It might be a good idea to bring with you paintbrushes of different shapes and sizes in case your regular paintbrush makes it difficult for you to maneuver around the radiator’s “ribs.”

Sounds daunting, I know. Chances are the following question has crossed your mind: Can you spray paint a radiator?

Why, yes! In fact, using spray paint is ideal when working with radiators it allows you to apply paint at even seemingly possible angles. Are there nooks and crannies you want to get to? Simply spray away!

Using a spray paint sounds easy enough, but here are a few precautions you need to take before you spray at your heart’s content:

  • Read the label on the can to check if the product is safe to use indoors.
  • Don’t use latex-based spray paint if your radiator is made of cast iron. Doing so will cause them to rust over. To prevent rust buildup on a cast iron radiator, use a rust inhibitive primer like Rust-Oleum Protective Enamel paint instead.
  • If you’re worried about using latex-based paint over oil-based paint because it’s not as durable, using a primer more than makes up for the durability lost.

Again, spray at a distance of 12 to 18 inches from the surface. Spray evenly using a back-and-forth motion. Once you’re done with the first coating, let it dry for at least 10 minutes (recommended dry-off time may depend on the product), and then apply the required second coat of spray paint to ensure better durability and depth of color. Also, it’s always better to apply each coat of paint in quick succession to prevent paint run-off from the original coat.

Once the paint has achieved more depth and a high gloss shine, leave it to dry for several hours (or the recommended dry-off time specified in the product instructions)

Step nine: Clean up the work area

Take off the painter’s tape from the vents and valves before the paint dries up. This prevents the paint from being lifted along with the tape.

Next, remove the plastic sheeting (or whatever covering has been used) from the surrounding floor and walls. To remove drop cloths and plastic sheets without spilling paint on the floor or other surfaces, fold their edges toward the middle before taking them away. Clean paintbrushes before they dry up. Immerse dirty cloths in a container filled with water, then twist them until the dirty water runs out. Hang them to dry before sending them to the laundromat.

If you used oil paint in the painting project, use mineral spirits or thinner to clean up. If you used latex paint, water and soap will do.

Finally, put the paint cans away and store them at room temperature. Make sure that they’re not being subjected to very high or very low temperatures.

What is the best paint to use on old radiators?

The best paint to use on an old radiator will depend on the material it’s made of. Most radiators are made of steel, but some are made of plastic, copper, aluminum, or brass.

Stumped on which type of paint to use on your radiator? Here are our recommendations:

1. Emulsion paint

You can do no wrong with normal emulsion paint (although gloss paint or satinwood would do nicely as well). For one thing, emulsion paints are water-based, meaning it’s less toxic than most paint products available out there.

More importantly, emulsion paints are ideal because they can be used on any surface, not to mention that they work particularly well on radiators. Emulsion paint is thick and durable enough not to be affected by heat, and doing so without reducing the heat given off by your radiator. Is it any wonder why it’s often recommended for use in bathrooms and kitchens where it can often get steamy? To top it off, emulsion paint is easy to apply and dries for as little as two hours.

If you want to give your old radiator a sophisticated look, there’s no shortage of high-quality emulsion paints that provide a well-defined, glossy finish. In other words, emulsion paint products give you high value for your money!

2. High-gloss interior paint

One big advantage high-gloss interior paint has over other paint types is its durability, which provides sufficient protection against excessive heat. High-gloss paint also gives your radiator a nice sheen, making it look brand new despite its old age. This is even better if the room the radiator is located lets in light from the outside, making the radiator look even more vivid and bright.

3. Satinwood paint

If you want your radiator to have a mid-sheen finish, satinwood paint is the way to go. When it comes to retaining color depth, it’s just as good as gloss paint. It’s not faring badly in the durability department as well.

4. Eggshell paint

Eggshell paint is another popular choice when it comes to painting radiators, mostly because of its added luster. If you want something that looks vivid but not too shiny, then you can’t go wrong with eggshell paint. Moreover, eggshell paint is highly resistant to rust, which makes it perfect for steel radiators.

Can I use normal paint?

Sure, why not? But if you insist on using normal paint on a steel or cast iron radiator, don’t forget to apply a clear radiator overcoat. Using an overcoat not only makes the surface adhere easier to paint, but it also has anti-corrosive properties that make it resistant to rust buildup. Moreover, applying radiator overcoating ensures that the surface is able to withstand high temperatures, not to mention scuffs and bumps.

Mistakes to Avoid When Painting a Radiator

There’s nothing like a fresh coat of paint to spruce up an old radiator. However, considering how delicate the job is, even professional painters are bound to commit a few missteps. Awareness of the best practices of painting a radiator is key. So, without further ado, here are some common mistakes you need to avoid when painting an old radiator.

1. Using the wrong paintbrush

Ideally, you want to use water-based paint on radiators because, unlike oil-based paints, they won’t turn into a yellowish color in time. As such, you’re better off using synthetic brushes. Why? Unlike natural-bristle brushes, synthetic brushes don’t absorb water, preventing the bristles from getting limp, and thus making it easy for you to apply paint on the radiator’s surface.

2. Forgetting to apply a primer

This has already been mentioned earlier, but it bears repeating: don’t forget to use a primer when painting a radiator, or any fixture for that matter. If you skip the primer, not only will the radiator look bland after the paint job, but it’s also going to be more prone to rust.

Forgetting to use a primer can also be disastrous if your radiator is made of wood. Wood contains tannins, which can cause staining and discolorations when mixed with liquid. Priming is integral to prep work because most primers are resistant to tannin.

3. Skipping the sanding process

As already mentioned, sanding the radiator removes loose dry paint and creates just the right friction needed to make it easy for the paint to adhere to its surface. Skip this step and you will find it difficult to apply the paint evenly, much less give the surface more color depth.

4. Dipping the paintbrush too far in the paint

Some painters have a knack for plunging the brush all the way in when carrying out a painting project. In truth, submerging the paintbrush a third of the way is more than enough to do the job. Soaking the innermost bristles of the brush is a waste of paint because there’s not enough heft on the handle for them to be of any use.

5. Skipping prep work

Skipping prep time is a prelude to disaster. If you want to carry out a paint job that will exceed your expectations. By scraping off loose paint from radiator’s surface, applying a primer, and cleaning the surface, you’re creating the ideal conditions for receiving paint, thus allowing for more professional results.

Ready to give your old radiator a nice makeover?

Painting an old radiator in a way that makes it attractive enough to add more flair and style to your home’s interior is not an impossible task if you know the right way to do it. Just follow the tips and tricks mentioned in this comprehensive guide and you’re well on your way! Good luck!

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