8 Steps on How to Paint an Old Radiator: What Type & Spray & More

We owe our radiator plenty for keeping us warm and toasty during the winter months. 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. Believe it or not, that seemingly boring heating system can be as decorative as functional. With the right design flourishes, your radiator can spruce up your home’s interior in ways that will surprise even you.

You need to paint it the right way.

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

Yes, you can!

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

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

So, how do you give an old radiator new life 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

  1. Primer
  2. Spray Paint
  3. Paint stripper
  4. Tape or drop cloth
  5. Respirator
  6. Gloves
  7. Sandpaper (40 to 120 grit)
  8. Lead test kits or an XRF machine
  9. Soft cloth
  10. Putty knife

Steps to Painting an Old Radiator

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

How to paint an old radiator

  1. Turn off the radiator.

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

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

  2. Prepare the work area.

    Surely, you don’t want to spill anything over the surrounding floor and walls. It’s not to mention your valuables while the work is ongoing. You also want to make sure that a work area is ideal, perhaps outside.

    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. If you want to clean more thoroughly and 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 fumes to escape.

  3. Clean the surface.

    Chances are your radiator has picked up a ton of dirt and grime over the years. Painting over a dirty surface is far from ideal. To clean the 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 it is squeaky clean, wipe it gently with a dry cloth and leave it to dry for at least 5 hours.

  4. Check the radiator for lead paint.

    If the radiator was previously painted, you need to remove the old stuff to make a new layer.
    But not so fast. Before removing anything, you need to test if it contains any lead. It’s important if your radiator was painted before 1978.

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

    Using lead 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.

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

    Suppose the lead test confirms the presence of lead. In that case, the next order of business is to hire a professional refinisher who can prepare the area for you.

  5. Remove the paint.

    If your radiator has been painted previously and is in desperate need of new life, you need first to remove the old stuff.

    First, prepare a bucket of TSP cleaner. Then dip a wire brush in the solution and scrub off the old from the surface.

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

  6. Get rid of the rust.

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

    Sand the affected areas with fine-grit sandpaper between 40-120 grit to remove rust from the surface. You can use 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 cannot remove all the rust, you can use a rust remover like Krylon’s Rust Tough Primer. Ospho is a great alternative to loosen up the rust particles further. 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 surface dry overnight. By tomorrow, the surface will be ready for priming.

  7. Prime the surface.

    Do I need to prime my radiator before painting?

    You bet! Painting a radiator is different from a table or a wall. Priming is still integral to the prep work. It’s 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 rust-resistant primer.
    If you’re living in cool climates, make sure that you use a primer to handle high temperatures. For example, some Rust-Oleum products can withstand up to 750° of heat.
    Before applying a primer on the surface, make sure it’s completely cold.

    Clean the surface by wiping it with a clean, dry cloth. Once you’re pretty sure that no dust or grease is remaining, scrub it lightly with fine sandpaper. This will roughen up the surface, allowing anything applied afterward to adhere to it easily.

    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.

    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, ensuring 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 project.

  8. Paint the radiator.

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

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

    You need to work slowly while administering those smooth brush strokes to get great results. 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 brushes of different shapes and sizes with you. Your regular brush can make 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! Using it is ideal when working with radiators. It allows you to apply it at even seemingly possible angles. Are there nooks and crannies you want to get to? Spray away!
    Using a spray 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 paint if your unit is made of cast iron. Doing so will cause them to rust over. Use a rust inhibitive primer to prevent rust buildup on a cast-iron one. We recommend the Rust-Oleum Protective Enamel product instead.

    Maybe you’re worried about using latex-based over oil-based solutions 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). Then, apply the required second coat to ensure better durability and depth of color. Also, it’s always better to apply each coat in quick succession to prevent run-off from the original coat.

    Leave it dry for several hours once the paint has achieved more depth and a high gloss shine. Look at the recommended dry-off time specified in the product instructions.

  9. Clean up the work area.

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

    Next, remove the plastic sheeting from the surrounding floor and walls. To remove drop cloths and plastic sheets without spilling on the floor or other surfaces, fold their edges toward the middle. Do that before taking them away. Clean the brushes 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 project, use mineral spirits or thinner to clean up. If you used latex-based paint, water and soap would work.

    Finally, put the cans away and store them at room temperature. Ensure 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 are made of steel. Some are plastic, copper, aluminum, or brass.

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

1. Emulsion

You can do no wrong with normal emulsion paint, although gloss or satinwood would do nicely. For one thing, emulsion ones are water-based. It means it’s less toxic than most products available out there.

More importantly, emulsion ones are ideal because they can be used on any surface. It’s not to mention that they work particularly well on radiators. The emulsion is thick and durable enough not to be affected by heat 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? It is easy to apply and dries for as little as two hours to top it off.

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

2. High-gloss, interior

One big advantage high-gloss interior paint has over other types is its durability. It provides sufficient protection against excessive heat. High-gloss also gives it 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 it look even more vivid and bright.

3. Satinwood

If you want yours to have a mid-sheen finish, satinwood 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

Eggshell is another popular choice for giving radiators new life, mostly because of its added luster. If you want something that looks vivid but not too shiny, you can’t go wrong with eggshell paint. Moreover, eggshell is highly resistant to rust. It makes them perfect for steel surfaces.

Can I use normal paint?

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

Mistakes to Avoid

There’s nothing like a fresh coat to spruce up an old radiator. Considering how delicate the job is, even professionals are bound to commit a few missteps. Awareness of the best practices is key. Without further ado, here are some common mistakes you need to avoid.

1. Using the wrong brush

Ideally, you want to use water-based paint for this type of work. Unlike oil-based products, 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. It prevents the bristles from getting limp and thus making it easy for you to apply paint on the surface.

2. Forgetting to apply a primer

This has already been mentioned earlier. It bears repeating. Don’t forget to use a primer when working on a radiator. It applies to any fixture, for that matter. If you skip the primer, not only will it look bland after the work is done. 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

Sanding removes loose parts and creates the right friction needed to make it easy for the paint to adhere to its surface. If you skip this step, you will find it difficult to apply anything evenly. It will much less give the surface more color depth.

4. Dipping the brush too far

Some people have a knack for plunging the brush in when carrying out a project. In truth, submerging the brush 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. Suppose you want to carry out a paint job that will exceed your expectations. Scraping off loose parts from the surface and applying a primer is important. It’s also important to clean the surface. You’re creating the ideal conditions, thus allowing for more professional results.

Ready to give your old radiator a nice makeover?

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

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