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Painting Cast Iron Radiators

How-To

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.

Bronzed radiator

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?

Comments, Thoughts, and Feedback

housegirrl had this to say on 11.30.07:

This all sounds good. Of course the other option is to just paint over the old painted radiators with semi-gloss paint. Which is what I did. So far, so good. It was a real challenge to paint in between all the radiator ribs and they did need three coats, but it cost a lot less than taking them out and having them sandblasted.

natalie had this to say on 12.02.07:

oh, girlie! thank you *so* much for doing all this research for me. i’ll let you see the “after” pictures in january! :-)

Walter Lehmann had this to say on 08.04.09:

We are using Sherwin Williams ProCryl Universal Primer followed by the DTM acrylic coating for our hot water baseboard radiator covers. This was recommended by Sherwin Williams. What is your opiniom?

diane had this to say on 10.05.10:

I have cast iron baseboard radiators, the house was probably built in the 60’s when i first bought the house I stripped all the radiators and used rust0leum on them. Now it’s time to do it again – I can remember from the past that I almost killed myself with the fumes of removing the old paint, andhow for months the radiators smelled and smoke in the house fromthe paint burning on it when the heat was turned on. So you can see now that i am olde and wiser I really want to do this correctly – I would think there must be a real way ofpainting these radiators. So many things to take into concideration – toxic fumes-smell- the paint never drying – do i use a paint that can withstand high heat- some of my radiators have rusted in spots (bathroom) others have discolored- I want to do them now so any help will be greatly appreciated – thanks

Florence had this to say on 03.02.11:

Hi: I have had baseboard cast iron installed in my home recently and need to clean and paint them as well so any other input would be appreciated as well. The installer said I could use any kind of paint, but somehow not sure if he’s accurate in his suggestion.

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