Warning: Check This Before You Refinish & Paint a Clawfoot Tub!

There’s no denying that you probably have a lot of old treasures hidden away at home. Some of those things that may have been passed down from generation to generation, or some of those things that may have ended up in a nasty storage unit that no one has opened for years. 

Yes, there’s a reason why there is even a purpose in doing those programs where a couple of people go around to various storage units across the country and bid on their contents without even seeing what is inside of them. 

There is a lot of this stuff that could be worth an absolute fortune when it has been rescued, perhaps refinished with a nice, new coat of paint, however, there is also going to be a lot of the stuff that ends up being stored in storage units that won’t be worth salvaging because it is more of a headache than anything. 

If you have one of those old clawfoot tubs, there is good reason why you may want to take the time to actually refinish and paint it, and in this article we will be talking about the process.

After all, when you start looking online, there are other articles where people will have rescued these things and given them new life, and they end up looking absolutely stunning. If that is what you want to do, great! However, it’s not quite as simple as it seems.

One of the main challenges that this type of tub has is that it was made in an era where lead paint was very common, why you will have to test whether or not it was in fact used in this tub before you start doing any actual work on it. 

If you are currently living in an old rental unit that has a lot of the original appliances still in it, you may additionally want to get those tested out as well, and make sure that your landlord is living up to the various obligations that he or she has when it comes to informing you about your rights and making sure that the place has been adequately tested for the presence of lead paint

While we usually blog about things like how hairline cracks that can be an issue, we also have a bunch of other articles, like the one on XRF machines. This article on refinishing clawfoot tubs is just an extension of these various articles, created in order to ensure that you and the ones you love are in fact safe from the devastating effects that lead can have on the body – we would not want you to go about painting an old tub just to realize that you ended up inhaling a bunch of this dangerous dust in the process.

Let’s go ahead and get on with the topic of how you can put some new life into that old clawfoot bathtub that has just been hanging around your house rather than getting the new life that it deserves.

If you end up going the route of buying an old house, it could be that it comes with a bathtub that might have been very visually appealing back when it was originally installed, but given the fact that the house was simply not kept up over time, it ended up deteriorating, and eventually, like the article that we previously linked to, you can actually see the ceiling coming down as well.

What’s important to mention is that the refinishing of one of these objects in an old home comes with exactly the same challenges that you will be experiencing when you are trying to bring an old radiator back to life. First you will need to find a way that you can strip away the paint, and then you will need to actually find a suitable way of bringing it into this century, as well as bringing up to speed all the surrounding components, like the rest of the bathroom. 

There are definite situations where you may want to buy an old home rather than build a new one, and having one of these bathtubs may just be one of the charms that help you make up your mind.

If you haven’t already, we also encourage you to read our article on whether it’s cheaper to buy an existing home or whether you should go out and try and build one instead

Either way, to get started out with the information on refinishing an old tub, it’s important that you take certain safety precautions. 

There are a lot of safety standards that simply weren’t the same back in the day, including the manufacturing of consumer products, and many people are still not realizing that they may actually still have a bunch of products lying around their home where the risk of lead exposure is rather significant – an old bathtub is just one of them. 

Why is it especially important that you test a bathtub for lead? While there are certain conditions that will cause paint to deteriorate faster, you may still be finding certain products around your home where the paint actually contains lead, however, it is in fact only dangerous when the paint is disturbed or starts deteriorating. 

When you are going about revamping an old bathtub like that, there’s no denying that you will be disturbing the old paint – you can’t simply paint on top of old paint, which is usually in poor condition anyway when it gets to the stage that you are wanting to refinish it. 

First, you will actually need to remove the old paint from the tub, and while there are a range of ways that that can be done, they all have in common that the paint will be disturbed. You should take safety precautions when you end up finding out that the paint actually has lead in it, similar to the way that you would be taking safety precautions when you are otherwise trying to encapsulate lead paint on the walls of your home

While you may consider sanding down the tub before you get started, we’d actually like to point out a couple of reasons why you may want to be careful if that is the way that you choose to do it. While it’s very easy to go down to your local home improvement store and pick up a sanding tool, it is also the easiest way to ensure that you are spreading as much lead dust around the room as absolutely possible, at least if the bathtub has been proven to contain lead paint. 

An alternative, and one that we recommend, is to use one of these paint strippers for the purpose instead, which has a significant amount of advantages when it comes to removing old paint, while still keeping your family safe. 

What you should be aware of when you are sanding down an old tub is that you aren’t just exposing yourself to the potential dust that is being thrown all over the place at the time when it is happening, but if you aren’t carefully protecting yourself and your home, all the dust can settle on various surfaces where it can then subsequently be inhaled and end up accumulating in your system, at which point it becomes a danger to your health.

While you may have thought that you were adequately protecting yourself in the process, there are simply more measures that need to be taken to actually ensure that your bathtub remodeling project doesn’t end up causing elevated lead levels in your blood; especially when you have a child who lives in the same home! (FYI children are a lot more at risk than adults are when it comes to lead exposure, and when exposed to lead, this can lead to a range of really unfortunate life-lasting consequences like developmental delay, although it can also cause kidney damage, and more.) Even if you may not be too concerned with exposure to this potentially harmful type of paint, at least consider proper protective measures for the sake of keeping your kids safe. 

Ideally you should not begin the paint removal process when the tub is standing somewhere where it is easy for lead particles to settle, but you should rather be putting it in an area that is easy to seal off with plastic sheeting, which will make sure that you can easily throw away the plastic when you are done with the project.

When you are using a sander rather than removing the existing layers of paint with a chemical solution, there are other problems as well. Sanding a surface area will usually cause the surface to become dry, at which point a lot more dust is spread into the room, especially with the turning motion of the sander. On the other hand, the chemical solution that we talked about previously will be able to adequately address the different layers of paint, at which point they will easily come off – make sure that you are following the manufacturer’s recommendations in either case. 

We would also like to caution – as we have seen other sites not really recommend that proper precautions are taken – that you both seal off the entire space that you are working on, that you wear the necessary protective headgear, as in the necessary lead respirator, if you are choosing to do this type of work yourself AND that you use a HEPA vacuum when you are done with the process, which will actually ensure that you can properly clean up the area and make sure that those nasty particles that may have gone places where they shouldn’t have, are properly cleaned up. 

After all, you want to make sure that no one in your family ends up with long-term health consequences simply because you were trying to refinish a bathtub that you have back from when you bought a house that was falling apart. 

So, when you are doing this, you will want to make sure that you are staying on top of everything, and taking all the necessary precautions. While you may want to bring the bathtub, or perhaps the entire bathroom back to its original glory, it’s still a task that you will want to be doing responsibly. If you have to do so for a while, it may be a good idea to move the bathtub to a safe storage location where its deteriorating paint doesn’t end up becoming an issue for someone. If you start seeing lead paint flaking, it will be releasing those dangerous lead particles that you don’t want to end up being exposed to; at least unless you are wearing the necessary protection for it.

While we are at it, you will also want to make sure that you wear disposable clothing when you are getting rid of the tub’s old paint, whether you choose to do so by means of a sander or a paint removal solution. While it’s important to be aware of the potential dangers associated with the deteriorating paint on the tub, it’s important to know, which you may or may not already know, that you should also otherwise be addressing deteriorating paint in an old home as it has the potential to cause issues. 

While you are at it, you may even consider remodeling the entire bathroom, assuming that the tub is going into the same location that it was previously in – you don’t want to be putting a new and revived bathtub into a space where it simply seems out of place. 

If you are going about doing an entire remodel of the bathroom, we also encourage that you make sure that what you have in mind for the bathtub is actually something that will fit with the rest of the setup. You don’t want to end up spending this much time, energy and money on fully revamping the bathtub simply to find out that you really don’t think it matches with the look that you were otherwise going with. 

If you haven’t already tested the tub for the presence of lead, it’s important to go about the whole situation as if you are fully convinced that it suffers from a bad case of lead paint inclusion. While we wish it wouldn’t realistically be something you had to worry about, chances are that it actually is, especially given the fact that the legislation that surrounds the use of this paint really isn’t all that old – although homes may have had lead paint banned from them in 1977, and homes built before 1978 require that lead testing is both done and documented, there were a bunch of things that would still have lead in them long past this year.

In fact, it wasn’t until the year 1992 where lead paint was banned in consumer products, meaning if you have a bathtub that is older than that date, there is a significant risk that you could unnecessarily be exposing yourself to some of these dangerous metals. 

Whenever you are doing something that could be endangering the paint, it’s important that you take precautions in protecting yourself, and while you may want to give an old tub like this a good cleaning, you should still be careful in making sure that you aren’t doing anything that will hurt yourself in the process. Getting good plastic gloves when you are cleaning the inside of the tub will not just keep lead particles from sticking to your hands, but they will also provide a protective coating against the strong chemicals that may be required in order to clean off all the dirt that has accumulated over years of use (and perhaps a lack of proper cleaning in a long time!)

While steel wool may be an option that you are considering when you really start getting desperate in wanting to clean the tub, it’s important to know of its abrasive nature, and the fact that it could be damaging the paint as a consequence. In addition, steel wool could also easily end up creating some hideous scratch marks on the top of the surface that you wouldn’t want to be looking at which could in fact end up meaning that you might have to call in a pro in order to get the job done rather than trying to do it yourself. 

We have collected a couple of different suggestions when it comes to the type of chemicals to consider for the cleaning part of the job, however, you might already have chemicals at home that are both strong and that you think would be good for the purpose. 

Here are our recommendations: 

  • Bar Keepers Friend Soft Cleanser
  • Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Extra Durable

Those are going to be some of the recommendations that you will be finding when you are looking around online, although you may be dealing with stains that are simply so ingrained that even those two chemicals, while very powerful, will have a hard time getting the job done. 

When you have an old bathtub that has a significant amount of rust on it, it will come to you as no surprise that getting that rust off can be quite the challenge. 

When you really put your mind to it, you will likely be able to bring the tub back close to its former glory simply by properly cleaning it, and when you are done scrubbing and actually putting in the effort, you might even be getting to a situation where you don’t think that a refinishing of the tub’s interior is needed. 

However, since the outside of a tub rarely has the protective coating that the inside has, there is a fair chance that this part of the project won’t be as forgiving with a round of cleaning as the inside may be.

An old tub will usually have a significant amount of flaking paint on it, and before you start being able to do anything that includes giving it a new coat of paint, you will have to have those uneven surfaces removed. 

The reason why we were encouraging you to test the tub early on for the presence of lead is because you may very well end up choosing that it is better to replace it than refinish it if it turns out that your bathtub does in fact have lead paint. 

Water is a material that will really cause wear and tear, especially if the material and the paint that has been applied isn’t one that was intended to withstand the damaging force of water. 

We cannot stress enough how much you may just want to give up the project if the tub proves to have lead paint on it. If you do find out that it includes the material, we encourage you to read our article on the topic of inner city schools. While not being the only issue, unaddressed, deteriorating lead paint is just one of the issues that these schools have, which can cause elevated blood lead levels. 

If your kids are going to be bathing in the bathtub, you don’t want them to accidentally start chewing on old, flaky paint, and even less so if it is as dangerous as lead paint is. 

If your bathtub has had multiple layers of paint and perhaps even been reglazed before, the risk that it contains lead paint only goes up. On the other hand, when you do end up finding out that the bathtub doesn’t contain lead paint, you are also more free to actually use the type of sanding device that you find to be easier – whether it’s a chemical solution or a sander. 

Whether or not the tub turns out to have lead in it, it’s always a good idea to actually make sure that you are properly protecting yourself. While lead may be the biggest issue that you would likely be running into, various small dust particles going down and situating themselves in your lungs isn’t all too desired anyway. A good tip to consider is that if the surface is wet, you will also be running into less dust issues, why it may be a good idea to wet it continuously. 

Before you even start considering the type of color that you want on this bathtub once it’s restored, you will want to make sure there is no flaky paint on it. 

The next important step is to apply a primer to the bathtub – something like a Rust-Oleum, high performance metal primer may be a good option for you to consider! It’s important to know that without a proper primer, you won’t be getting a paint job that will last you all that long. In the process of applying the primer, assuming you are doing it an area where you are concerned about the floors, you should be putting out protection on the floors so as to avoid any spillage. 

Finally, you will need to top the whole thing off with a nice coat of rust-resistant paint that fits the overall look that you are going for with your bathroom. 

Make sure to read some of our other articles on how to prevent lead exposure, like the one we just published on frangible ammo

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