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Abrasive Methods (Mechanical)

If hand sanding for purposes of surface preparation has not been productive or if the affected area is too large to consider hand sanding by itself, mechanical abrasive methods, i.e., poweroperated tools may need to be employed; however, it should be noted that the majority of tools available for paint removal can cause damage to fragile wood and must be used with great care.


• Brief 06 - Abrasive Cleaning

Recommended Abrasive Methods (Mechanical)

Orbital sander: Designed as a finishing or smoothing tool--not for the removal of multiple layers of paint--the orbital sander is thus recommended when limited paint removal is required prior to repainting. Because it sands in a small diameter circular motion (some models can also be switched to a backandforth vibrating action), this tool is particularly effective for "feathering" areas where paint has first been scraped (see figure 11). The abrasive surface varies from about 3x7 inches to 4x9 inches and sandpaper is attached either by clamps or sliding clips. A medium grit, opencoat aluminum oxide sandpaper should be used; fine sandpaper clogs up so quickly that it is ineffective for smoothing paint.

Belt sander: A second type of power tool--the belt sander--can also be used for removing limited layers of paint but, in this case, the abrasive surface is a continuous belt of sandpaper that travels at high speeds and consequently offers much less control than the orbital sander. Because of the potential for more damage to the paint or the wood, use of the belt sander (also with a medium grit sandpaper) should be limited to flat surfaces and only skilled operators should be permitted to operate it within a historic preservation project.

Not Recommended

Rotary Drill Attachments: Rotary drill attachments such as the rotary sanding disc and the rotary wire stripper should be avoided. The disc sander — usually a disc of sandpaper about 5 inches in diameter secured to a rubber based attachment which is in turn connected to an electric drill or other motorized housing — can easily leave visible circular depressions in the wood which are difficult to hide, even with repainting. The rotary wire stripper — clusters of metals wires similarly attached to an electric drill-type unit — can actually shred a wooden surface and is thus to be used exclusively for removing corrosion and paint from metals.

Waterblasting: Waterblasting above 600 p.s.i. to remove paint is not recommended because it can force water into the woodwork rather than cleaning loose paint and grime from the surface; at worst, high pressure waterblasting causes the water to penetrate exterior sheathing and damages interior finishes. A detergent solution, a medium soft bristle brush, and a garden hose for purposes of rinsing, is the gentlest method involving water and is recommended when cleaning exterior surfaces prior to repainting.

Sandblasting: Finally — and undoubtedly most vehemently "not recommended" — sandblasting painted exterior woodwork will indeed remove paint, but at the same time can scar wooden elements beyond recognition. As with rotary wire strippers, sandblasting erodes the soft porous fibers (spring wood) faster than the hard, dense fibers (summer wood), leaving a pitted surface with ridges and valleys. Sandblasting will also erode projecting areas of carvings and moldings before it removes paint from concave areas. Hence, this abrasive method is potentially the most damaging of all possibilities, even if a contractor promises that blast pressure can be controlled so that the paint is removed without harming the historic exterior woodwork. (For Additional Information, See Preservation Briefs 6, "Dangers of Abrasive Cleaning to Historic Buildings".)

Summary of Abrasive Methods (Mechanical)

Recommended: Orbital sander, belt sander (skilled operator only).
Applicable areas of building: Flat surfaces, i.e., siding, eaves, doors, window sills.
For use on: Class II and Class III conditions.
Health/Safety factors: Take precautions against lead dust and eye damage; dispose of lead paint residue properly.
Not Recommended: Rotary drill attachments, high pressure waterblasting, sandblasting.