One of our readers, Natalie, asked an excellent question a few days ago. She wondered what type of paint you use on radiators, and what special brushes you might use.
Thus far, we have only painted one of our radiators. We spray painted the upstairs bathroom radiator with Rustoleum’s High Heat spray paint (found at most big-box hardware stores) in white, and it has held up beautifully. But it took about 4 cans of spray paint, and the room was gutted so there was no worrying about the mess it was making. It’s not something we’d be able to do elsewhere in the house, so I did some digging around to see what other options we have.
In the houseblogger world, House in Progress had their radiators sand-blasted by pros. After that, Jeannie spray painted them a lovely metallic silver. They came out great, but she learned a few things during the process; check out her notes here.
As far as paint goes, oil-based paint or high-heat spray paint seem like your best options. Latex will peel and crack because of the heat (steam radiators can go up to 212°F), and can also cause rust. If the radiator is still bare metal – if it has not been painted – then you will want to put a coat of bare metal primer on it before painting.
As with all painting jobs, prep work counts. Make sure the radiator is clean of all the grimey dust and cobwebs! They sell special brushes for cleaning radiators (Amazon carries one), but a long snow brush works pretty well in my experience. If the radiator has a coat of paint on it already, a light sanding is a good idea. If the current paint is chipping or peeling, make sure to remove all loose paint and keep in mind that it could be lead-based.
There’s some debate as to whether color matters, but according to this article from Heatinghelp.com, and others I found online, the color doesn’t matter as much as the finish. Metallic paints conduct less heat than matte paints. Whether it’s white or black (or hot pink!) shouldn’t make much of a difference. Weird, right? I would have thought the opposite since all our radiators have a metallic finish. Turns out the experts didn’t figure this out until around 1920.
If you have extra fancy radiators and want to showcase them, there area few traditional techniques you might be interested in. Old House Journal has a good how-to article on a bronzing technique – Bronze Beauties - and another article on polychroming (using two or three colors to make the details pop). Both mention that homeowners got tired of trying to minimize the appearance of their radiators, so they started taking artistic license with them. Wish I could find a photo online of an original polychromed radiator. Anyone seen one?