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Paint Stripping Services

STRIPPING heavily overpainted furniture or architectural elements - mantels, balusters, doors and moldings - is a labor of love for some homeowners. But it is time-consuming and can mean weeks or months of living with drop cloths and chemical fumes.

For those who do not want to take on such an enterprise, professional vat stripping is an alternative.

Fine antique furniture should not be vat stripped, but carefully done by hand. A professional restorer is probably best. ''The grain and texture of wood can be marred by the stripping process, '' said Donald Withers, manager of Brownstone Beautiful Antiques in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. ''The finer the furniture the more important careful stripping becomes.''

But for heavily painted pieces, exterior shutters, fretwork or interior doors and woodwork, vat or tank-style stripping is effective.

When shopping for a vat stripper, Patricia Poore, editor in chief of The Old House Journal, suggested having a sample piece stripped before a contract is signed. She also advised asking if the chemical to be used is appropriate for the piece.

''If they're using a high-quality chemical like methylene chloride, they won't need to keep it secret -they're going to be proud, '' she said. Professional vat strippers use two basic methods to remove paint: immersing the piece in a large tank filled with hot or cold chemical solvents and soaking until the paint loosens; or pouring the chemicals over the surface and brushing or scraping the paint off.

The hot tank method uses tanks filled with lye and water and heated to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the least expensive method, but is abrasive to wood and not good for fine furniture or glued joints - the lye dissolves the glue. Thorough stripping of wrought iron, heavily painted solid wood doors and radiators usually requires this method.

The cold tank method uses methylene chloride at room temperature. This water-soluble chemical is more expensive than lye, but less harmful to wood. It is effective for removing modern synthetic paints, not the older lead-based paints.

The flow-on process is used for more delicate, lightly painted wood with veneering or inlays. The piece is hosed down with chemicals, but not immersed. Then it is brushed, scraped and washed in a high-pressure, clear-water rinse.

Water-soluble paint removers such as methylene chloride have changed the stripping process. These solvents lift varnish and dirt gently without altering the wood grain. Vat strippers often use these chemicals with the flow-on process. Lye and caustic acids are generally used only on articles that can withstand them, such as ferrous metals and wood with many coats of paint.

Costs vary widely. To strip a door clean without refinishing can cost $50, but stripping and restoring an intricately carved mantel could cost thousands. The cost generally depends on the quality of the piece - whether it is solid wood or veneer, the amount and type of paint to be removed and whether or how it will be refinished. Attached architectural detailing may have to be removed by a carpenter.

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