Safely Removing Lead Paint from Furniture

Late last year, I was strolling through an antique store and spotted this gorgeous, turn-of-the-century fireplace mantel, and I had to have it. It was chipping and in pretty bad shape, but I knew I could bring it back to life. Of course, that meant I’d likely have to deal with removing lead paint.

Let me just say, I didn’t need this mantle. My house has one fireplace, fully outfitted, but I couldn’t pass it up. The store was shutting down after being open for more than 50 years, and the mantle was insanely discounted. So, on a semi-impulse, I snatched it up.

And then I was on to the annoying, but totally manageable, task of removing lead paint.

Lead paint is bound to pop into your life at some point. It wasn’t banned in the U.S. until 1978, which means there may already be some in your home. Don’t panic! Lead paint is toxic only when it’s ingested. If it’s not chipping and not the top layer, you’re probably fine. If there is exposure, though, it’s vital you get rid of the lead paint as soon as possible.

Lead paint can cause lead poisoning if you remain exposed to it over a long period of time. Lead poisoning comes with some serious symptoms, and in some cases, can lead to death.

Lead was originally added to paint because it enhanced durability and color in the products. Unfortunately, that same durability makes it a bit difficult to remove, but it’s not impossible. You can even do it yourself, but if you’re nervous or uncomfortable, call in a professional.

If you suspect something in your home of having lead paint, test it. You can get tests at most home improvement stores and paint stores.

6 Steps for Safely Removing Lead Paint

Most of what I learned about removing lead paint, I learned from one of the greatest, Bob Vila

Before you get started, detailed preparation needs to be done, and you’ll need to buy or rent a HEPA-approved vacuum

No, you can’t use your regular vacuum with a HEPA filter. 

Other materials you’ll need include:

  • Plastic tarps
  • Duct tape
  • Large plastic bucket
  • Water
  • Spray bottle
  • Hand scraper
  • Sandpaper
  • Lead rated respirator mask
  • Disposable rubber gloves
  • Protective goggles
  • Large garbage bags

Step 1: Isolate the furniture piece

The ideal location for lead paint removal is outside, but if you absolutely must do it inside, you need to limit where the paint chips can travel. Remove any extra items from the area, block all vents and door openings with plastic tarps, and cover the entire floor with a plastic tarp. If inside, turn off your HVAC.

Step 2: Protect yourself

Wear protective goggles, an approved respirator mask, and old clothes you don’t mind tossing. I even wore protective shoe and hair coverings to reduce the amount of paint particles that could get around elsewhere. 

Step 3: Work wet

The key to removing lead paint safely is to keep the particles in one place. If they’re wet, they aren’t floating around in the air. Fill a large plastic bucket halfway with warm water and keep it nearby. Thoroughly spray chipped areas of lead paint with water. You want to keep your work area small so you can keep it wet and not damage the furniture. Scrape away chipped paint. Smooth any edges with sandpaper while the surface is still wet, spraying again if needed.

Note: You don’t need to remove all the paint — just the parts that are chipped. However, my mantel was severely chipped, and there were multiple sections that could become compromised later on. I didn’t want to go through this process again, so I made sure I was as close to the original layer of paint as I could get. 

Step 4: Sponge clean

As you go, wipe and clean the surface with a dampened sponge. This helps remove excess lead dust. You’ll need to change the water in the bucket often to keep it clean. 

Step 5: Vacuum

When you’re done, vacuum your work area thoroughly with a HEPA-approved vacuum. Go over the plastic sheets with a wand tool to collect as much of the lead dust as you can.

Step 6: Remove plastic

Carefully remove the plastic sheets, folding their edges into the center to trap any remaining lead paint. Roll up the sheets and place them in garbage bags. You may be able to put the bags in your outdoor garbage can for pickup, but because another disposal method may be required, you need to check your local guidelines first.

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