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Q.I need to remove several layers of interior paint from elaborate egg-and-dart moldings in a historic house. What is the most efficient way to proceed?

A.John Leeke, a preservation consultant from Portland, Me., responds: First, do some tests to determine what paint removal methods will work best on the particular paint buildup you face. Heat methods are quite efficient, but because of the risk of fire, they should not be used unless the casings can be removed to a workshop. In that case, a hot-air gun or radiant lamp is used to soften the paint, which is then removed with special scrapers.

If the casings must stay in place, most chemical strippers eliminate the fire hazard but introduce a new hazard: noxious fumes. Both heat and chemical methods can generate lead-containing chips and dust, which must be controlled to prevent health problems for workers and building occupants. With chemical methods, you must work slowly to prevent damage to the moldings. Highly aggressive and abrasive paint removal methods will round off the corners and edges of your carvings. The chemicals will begin to attack the wood or plaster of the casings, softening it and making it more susceptible to damage. Test at least three different methods or chemicals in small patches to determine which will work best.

When I recently removed paint from some egg-and-dart moldings that stayed in place, the method that worked best was chemical stripping. I used a solvent stripper, applying just a little and covering the surface with aluminum foil for a long period until the paint film was softened only a little. I waited until the paint had the consistency of leather all the way through to the substrate. Then I carefully lifted it away with special scrapers. I custom-ground the scraper blades, using a Dremel tool. Starting with the Embee Molding Scraper no. 1240 with five interchangeable blades (Embee Corp., 800/228-9245), I ground the scraper blades into curves to match the curves in the carvings. I also used sharp wood-carving chisels to "carve" the softened paint film out of the deep recesses of the carvings.