If you’ve moved into an old Victorian or Edwardian house, there’s a good chance you’ll find at least one original fireplace somewhere in your home. If not, perhaps you’ll consider restoring an authentic one that you’ve picked up from a salvage yard or eBay. These old fireplaces often get covered up with paint, as was the trend in the 1960s, and it can be time consuming to bring them back to their former glory, but this is certainly a worthwhile project as the end result will be a beautiful feature of your home.
Sandblasting is by far the quickest and the easiest way to fully remove all the layers of existing paint from a fireplace (and the same applies to authentic painted metal radiators). Of course, this costs money and not everyone has a budget to work with so we’ll cover removing the paint yourself below.
Using sandblasting, the fireplace or radiator is stripped back to the bare cast iron, ready for its new finish. Then, a high temperature matt black paint is applied, heat proof to 600 degrees Celsius, in around 5-6 thin coats. This allows the definition and detail of the restored fireplace to show through but gives a full covering.
Once the black paint is on and dry, there are a number of options for finishes: grate polish, detail polished or powder coat, for example. All of this is done by a professional who can walk you through the different options.
Removing the paint yourself
If you decide to remove the paint yourself, consider that it will probably contain lead. Most paint prior to the 1960s did and although you can get lead testing kits from your DIY store, it’s safest to assume that if it’s got a few layers of paint on it, it probably does. So you’ll need to take safety precautions see the advice on the British Coatings Federation website). You’ll also need to protect the walls and floor around the fireplace unless you’re able to move it out of its position. Mask off the surrounding wall with newspaper or masking tape and lay out a plastic sheet on the floor to cover a large area. This is a messy job!
You won’t be able to use a heat gun on cast iron – the sudden difference in temperature may cause the iron to crack. Instead, you’ll need to choose a chemical paint stripper. Eco-friendly options are water-based strippers such as Polycell Less Mess Paint Stripper and Home Strip Paint and Varnish Remover.
Take the necessary safety precautions before starting – rubber gloves, goggles and any recommended precautions for the possible presence of lead paint. Apply the chemical stripper with an old paintbrush (following the instructions on the container). Leave it for as long as you can but don’t let it dry. You’ll see the old paint bubbling up and dissolving – when you’re ready, remove this with kitchen paper and a paint scraper, or a brush with stiff bristles (take care if using wire as it can scratch). Old toothbrushes are also great for getting into awkward spaces, and lots of white spirit can help too. Don’t wipe the fireplace down with water as it may rust.
If it’s a real old fireplace, you’ll find this is going to take time. You’ll likely find yourself repeating the process two or three times to get most of the paint off because there are so many layers. Any remaining bits of sticky paint can be removed with white spirit, and any existing rust stains can be removed with a rust remover.
For more stubborn paint areas, dip some wire wool into the white spirit and scrub at the area. This is especially useful for the parts of the fireplace that have more detail, where the build up of paint gets stuck.
If the tiles around the fireplace have also been painted, as they so often have, you can use the stripper on those too. Test it on a small area first, and then when you’re happy, apply in the same way, leave for a while and scrape off the residue when bubbled, this time with a plastic scraper to avoid damaging the tiles.
Once you’re done getting off the paint from the fireplace, give it a sand down with some steel wool and a final wipe with white spirit. Then you’ll need to apply your finish.
Finishing your cast iron fireplace
To finish your fireplace, you need to apply cast iron paste – Liberon Iron Paste, Zebo or Hotspot are recommended. Cover the fireplace with the paste using an old paint brush, working it into the fine detail. This usually takes about 7 hours to work but of course, follow the instructions on the bottle. After the recommended drying time rub it off using a dry soft cloth. Take your time to rub all the dried paste off, otherwise you will get black marks on your fingers each time you touch it!
When you’re cleaning the fireplace in future, don’t use water as it may rust – WD-40 is a good alternative.