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The Great Door, Revisited (And Getting the Lead Out)

This weekend, we revisited our coat closet door; the door that taught us so many life lessons. When we purchased it from our local architectural salvage, we were told that it was old (obviously), and we could see that there were 2, maybe 3 layers of paint we’d need to strip off. We wanted to go much darker (navy or black; more on that after the saga that is this door!), so it was important for us to get every single layer of paint off, which would allow the details in the paneling to shine through once we were done.

Our goal for the weekend? Strip the paint, spackle and fill the dents and grooves and prime it with a dark base. (We’d be painting it once it was framed out with drywall, after the contractor’s work was complete.) But – surprise, surprise! – this didn’t happen. At one point when discussing our stairs, a reader mentioned that it would be a good idea for us to test the old paint for lead. In our honeymoon induced state of love for this house, a thought like that honestly hadn’t crossed our minds, but ever since, it’s all we can think about.

Oops, Scott, before you sand those walls, do you think they’re laced with lead?

Be careful walking down the stairs! We don’t want to cause any lead chips for the kids to inhale.

And now, the closet door. Wait! This door is almost 100 years old. Should we test it for lead?

We did test it. We used this Lead Check kit from the hardware store, followed the instructions to activate the test stick, and rubbed our little goo of testing liquid on a chipped portion of the door. Almost instantly, the stick turned hot pink, which – womp, womp – meant we had a lead situation. (It was at this point that we stopped chewing on the door, thank goodness.)

Now, I read enough blogs to know that it’s smart to check paint on salvaged furniture for lead (just in case, anything from the 70s and prior can trigger a positive result), but with every post I read about safety first!, I never see a test come back positive. Until ours.

So, I did what anyone would do, and I took to the internet! I read article after article aloud to Scott, and I found a few frightening forums that had me thinking we should chuck the door and start fresh. We’ll buy a new door, I thought! We’ve learned our lessons, so it’ll be easier this time! But in the end, I found a handful of reassuring sites that brought me down off my crazy-high, and by properly prepping the workspace, I realized that we’d be fine. Because it’s just one door (and not, say, our entire house), it was manageable enough for us to tackle on our own, but we’d need to be mindful of a few things:

ONE. Protection! We actually have a handful of throw away jumpsuits (we know, how random!), which were given to us by our neighbors. I geared up in one of those, used a dust mask and eye protection, and I swapped out a fresh set of latex gloves between each scraping marathon. TWO. We laid a heavy duty plastic drop cloth (at least 6 mil thick) under our workspace to trap any and all discarded paint. (And by Sunday, we had to move the entire set up to the back deck due to rain.) THREE. Jack and the girls were confined indoors; this was a paws-off zone.

With all the precautions in place, stripping the oil-based paint containing lead was no different than if it was just regular ‘ol latex paint. We used Citristrip and applied our first coat with a cheap paintbrush…

… And by the time I was finished with my first coat, the top of the door had already started to bubble up. The first coat of paint was not oil-based, and using a putty knife and wire brush, this layer came up ridiculously easy.

We were a little disappointed that the Citristrip only pulled up one layer – I suppose we were hoping for multiple layers to pull up at once; not so much – so I spread the paint stripper over the front surface of the door again. After the latex paint was pulled up, every subsequent layer was oil-based, so I covered the door with trash bags to keep the Citrstrip wet. Two hours later, I was able to get off coat #2.

With every coat that was pulled up, it seemed the next coat was stronger and more determined to stick. (They were serious about their lead-laced-paint back in the day, apparently!) This was me, all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday: Strip, wait, scrape, brush, repeat. Again and again and again. In and out of my little jumpsuit I went, waiting hours (and at some points, over night) between each layer, watching the clock and cursing the smell of citrus.

But! Monday! By Monday – after layers of white, ivory, sage and more ivory – we hit wood! I allowed the final coat of stripper to sit for a full 24 hours, and with a lot of determination, I scraped and brushed every last bit of lead loaded paint from that door. Um, well, the front of the door at least.

Over the course of my 3 days of scraping, I would discard the the larger chunks of paint in a trash bin (with a liner, placed on top of my plastic drop cloth), and everything I couldn’t toss right away fell directly to the plastic drop cloth below. I cleaned the door with a rag soaked in mineral spirits, and I did the same with the putty knife I used throughout the process. Once the door had been scrubbed clean, Scott and I moved the door inside, and I folded the entire plastic drop cloth in on itself, trapping every bit of paint. All this fit into the same liner where I had been tossing paint, and I tied everything up – metal scrub brush, paintbrush, jumpsuit, and disposable gloves included.

After a call to the city’s information line, I confirmed that it was okay to drop off my little bundle of lead paint and paint-clogged materials to the City of Chicago Household Hazardous Waste Collection Facility. (Note: Check your own city website for local information; but we bet you knew that already, you smart cookies, you.)

For now, we’ve propped the door back up in place. You might be wondering, wait! What about the back of the door? To which we say, pffft! After our 3 day cleaning spree, we’re opting for the Do-Nothing Option, and we’re leaving the paint untouched. (We stumbled across many articles that actually recommended this as a good bet for a small surface, as untouched lead paint is safer than disrupting it.)

Luckily, the back of the door is coated with latex (non lead) paint, so we’ll fill in any scrapes with spackle and wood filler and coat the whole door in primer before it meets the final color. Speaking of which…

For one hot second, we thought about keeping the wood tone (maybe staining it a bit darker), but we’ll have wood in the stair treads, and we’d been so excited about navy! Or charcoal! Or black! And with all the effort that went into stripping the paint in our best attempt to have the most seamless finish on the door front, we’re sticking to our guns on this one. (Not to mention, the stripper, mineral spirits and paint residue has left a hazy finish on the door itself.)

Eventually, the front door will be completely replaced (we’re in the midst of that agonizing decision right now – doors! Who knew they’d be such a hot topic for us?), and with the help of suggestions from Cait, we’re leaning towards adding a transom window.

Regardless of where we land on that decision, you know we’re going with Behr’s Subtle Touch for the walls, the trim’ll be bright white, the floor will be tiled in a neutral color (we think!) and the front door and closet door will be the same shade of… Hague Blue? Off-Black? Or maybe Intellectual? Hague Blue is the darkest shade of navy (this is probably tough to see on the screen, but we were smitten with it in Em Henderson’s photo), but if we’re going that dark, should we just go all the way? Or should we tone it down a notch with a deep gray? Or, or… what else?

Decisions, decisions.

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  • Kim Schutte9.18.13 - 7:34 AM

    I’ve painted all of my doors black and I love them. I also have white trim and a soft gray on the walls and it just looks so good together. That said, I’m sure any of the three would look good.ReplyCancel

  • Whew! “Labor of Love” doesn’t adequately cover that stripping job, now does it?

    I love the picture of Jack at the back door :)ReplyCancel

  • Rachel9.18.13 - 8:33 AM

    I love reading about all the wonderful things you are doing to your home! Sounds like you had quite an adventure with your door – I love that you said you stopped chewing on the door hahaha. That’s one of the best parts of signing a lease or something where they have to declare there might be lead paint – I’ll try to stay away from chewing the window sills but I can’t make any promises haha.
    I’m sure any of those colors will look gorgeous!ReplyCancel

  • Kim9.18.13 - 8:54 AM

    Kim, thanks! What brand/name of black paint did you use?

    Heather, Jack was so pathetic. He’s so used to roaming around HIS yard when we’re working on things, so he made sure to give me his very pathetic face.

    Rachel, thank you! You’re right, the door was tasting so good until we realized we were eating lead chips.ReplyCancel

  • Lindsey d.9.18.13 - 9:06 AM

    You definitely aren’t the only one with lead paint hanging around. Replacing my windows two years ago cost me an extra $50 per window (all 13!) because the lead paint test came up positive… Three cheers for old houses….ReplyCancel

  • Carrie @DreamGreenDIY9.18.13 - 9:07 AM

    “It was at this point that we stopped chewing on the door, thank goodness.” Hysterical…Entry is looking good!! My vote is the Hague Blue =)ReplyCancel

  • Molly9.18.13 - 10:02 AM

    Next time, for removing lead paint use “Peel Away.”*
    It’s specially made for removing lead paint and apparently makes the job much easier. The people over at my OTHER favorite home decorating/restoration blog “Old Town Home” use it all the time in restoring their Victorian era town home in VA. I’ve never used it personally, but these people are INTENSE about their using of correct methods and restoring things properly. Go look them up!

    Apparently you spread it on like (smelly) cake frosting and put either wax paper or the provided paper over it and leave for a few hours/overnight. Apparently, it peels right off and you don’t have to worry about lead paint dust in the air (they are also very conscious of their animals..)

    Hopefully you can use it on those stairs/any other future lead paint removal so you’re not constantly in and out of the suit!

    Love your blog btw.


  • Kim9.18.13 - 10:10 AM

    Molly, thank you times ten million! We’re pretty positive that our stairs have lead paint, and I was dreading the job. Thank you, thank you, thank you.ReplyCancel

  • Laura at Rather Square9.18.13 - 12:08 PM

    You have so much dedication! I don’t know if I’d have the patience to take that multi-day job on. But the finished product is beautiful. So glad you tested for lead before starting!ReplyCancel

  • Alexis9.18.13 - 12:28 PM

    Ooooh!!!!!!!! Pretty, I vote off black, such a cool interesting shade.
    LOOOOVE seeing how the house is shaping up, as always, you leave me inspired.ReplyCancel

  • ann9.18.13 - 1:05 PM

    Any of the three colors will look great. We just wish we were there to help (not with the paint stripping though.)ReplyCancel

  • Jodi9.18.13 - 2:44 PM

    ooooh, i like the look of that hague blue. very, very nice.ReplyCancel

  • Gloria9.18.13 - 3:16 PM

    I say Hague Blue all the way! I just realized that I too have a an old mirrored door propped against the wall in my bedroom that has a chance of containing lead paint. I’ve never checked it or even though to. It’s probably not doing too much harm to me since I only chew on it in times of high stress. I’m going check it out regardless for the sake of the little human I’m trying to keep alive.ReplyCancel

  • Kim9.18.13 - 3:43 PM

    Gloria, yes, very important for the little ones! Stay alive, baby. Stay alive.ReplyCancel

  • Manda Wolf9.18.13 - 3:48 PM

    You cat looks like he is having very superior thoughts sitting there. *smiles*

    I tried to use that citrus stripper on a cabinet and it did a good job but the doors were covered in decorative details and I couldn’t get all the paint off without destroying it. I didn’t have a lot of time so we took a paint sprayer to it and basically tore up the particle board anyway. I guess it is a good thing we only paid $20 for it.ReplyCancel

  • Ellen9.18.13 - 4:24 PM

    Just a quick note – I think my heart jumped a little when I saw your mask with the bottom strap hanging lose. N95 masks do not provide full protection if they are worn improperly in this way (they don’t even work fully for guys with facial hair that prevents the mask from sealing around the mouth and nose). I don’t mean to nag but my flu-epidemic-hospital-employee radar alarm starting blaring as soon as I saw it.

    On a happier note, I love seeing the progress you’re making. Take care of yourselves!ReplyCancel

  • Kim9.18.13 - 6:10 PM

    Ellen, thank you so much for your concern! My little face can hardly breathe with both straps, so I’ll have to be better about just getting to used to it. :)ReplyCancel

  • Julia @ Cuckoo4Design9.19.13 - 6:13 AM

    Oh no…lead! Glad to see you were able to take care of it yourself.ReplyCancel

  • Britnee9.19.13 - 3:13 PM

    Nice job! That looks like a lot of work, I’m not sure I would’ve had the patience to scrape off all the paint layers.ReplyCancel

  • ryan9.20.13 - 1:41 PM

    This is so impressive. We were lucky to have original five panel doors throughout our house when we bought it but I’m too scared to strip them. They are covered in decades worth of paint!ReplyCancel

  • Angela9.20.13 - 2:41 PM

    I just saw these and thought of your guys, but it looks like I’m too late…

    My vote is for navy!ReplyCancel

  • pamela9.21.13 - 11:17 AM

    Just an FYI…you do realize that door is solid oak, right? It would be simply gorgeous stained a deep dark stain color. Wood is so lovely mixed in with your chosen paint finishes, which I also love. Consider keeping the wood…at least until you see what the stairs look like. Perhaps the stairs are pine and that wood grain is not nearly as pretty when stained, IMO.
    As an aside, you also may want to check out getting your doors “dipped” in paint/varnish remover. You might have to look around for a professional that does this, but you can save yourself the potential dangers of doing it yourself. You would still have much less cost than purchasing brand new solid wood doors.
    Love your blog, love your ideas. Kudos to you for taking on such a large project!ReplyCancel

  • Ooooh. I absolutely love the idea of a transom above the front door. I would have transoms over every door and window if I could. Great job on stripping the door. I had a similar experience with multiple layers of stubborn paint and stained it at the end. I think you’re right to go with paint. The wood looks lovely, but I found the haze still came through after staining.ReplyCancel

    • Kim9.23.13 - 7:26 AM

      Pamela and Julia – both great points! We still have a lot to think about as the construction around here finishes up, so plans have been changing and evolving DAILY. It’s been a back and forth on most things, so while we ARE leaning towards painting the door… well, things could certainly change! (We’re still very much Team Pro-Paint though!) Thank you both for allowing us to hear both sides though; love the input, and we certainly take it all in.ReplyCancel

  • Rachel9.24.13 - 8:28 AM

    Ooh, I definitely love off-black the best.

    What an ordeal with all that paint stripping! Super impressed! :)ReplyCancel

  • Lindsey10.5.13 - 8:12 PM

    We have 10 five panel doors in our house, some with windows built in. We finally finished stripping and sanding on of ours for our bathroom door. It was definitely worth it! We started out with citistrip but it wasn’t working great so we switched over to heat guns and they are much more satisfying. You can get rid of that hazy film if you sand the door after you’re done. We were going to paint our door but it was so beautiful when we were finished that we polyed it and stuck it on some new hinges. Love it!ReplyCancel

  • […] had recently read Yellow Brick Home‘s post on how they were preparing to remove old paint from a vintage door and decided to test it for lead first. And their test came out positive. Luckily, they were able to take proper safety precautions before […]ReplyCancel

  • Laura Hnatkowicz7.30.21 - 5:50 PM

    I realize this post is ridiculously old, but you’ve helped me greatly so I had to respond! Getting ready to go buy some Citristrip now! Thank you!!!ReplyCancel

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