I hate the RRP. There, I said it.
Count me among the thousands of remodelers who have griped about the difficulties of complying with the EPA’s Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule since it was implemented in 2010.
I’m not just whining from a builder’s point of view. When not swinging a hammer, I research and write on construction-related topics. I also live with my wife and son in a 1903 Queen Anne Victorian that we’ve been restoring since he was a baby, so the dangers of disturbing lead-based paint (LBP) are very real to me.
I’ve written many articles for JLC and other publications that explain the effects of lead poisoning on young children as well as on workers (see “Working Lead Safe,” Jun/2016), and the requirements of the RRP Rule (see “Lead Safe Paint Removal,” Mar/2011.) For research purposes, I’ve also sat through as many as 10 RRP classes over the years. And at the end of each one, I always felt like a survivor of a “Scared Straight” prison program.
Europe began outlawing LBP more than a century ago, but the U.S. didn’t get around to it until 1978. In my opinion, it is a problem created and perpetuated by big industries (like galvanizing plants and coating manufacturers) and left for the little guy (building remodelers) to clean up or face the possibility of a $37,500 fine for each violation of the RRP protocol.
Nevertheless, the effects of lead poisoning are very real. I hope for the day when medical researchers achieve a breakthrough that enables the body to differentiate lead from nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. Until then, it’s incumbent upon all of us who must disturb a painted surface in the course of our work to first do no harm.
Thankfully, technological solutions that enable us to strip paint without releasing dust or toxic fumes continue to improve. I was delighted to have the opportunity to try out a Speedheater Cobra, a new offering from the Swedish company that introduced low-temperature heat stripping to the U.S. more than a decade ago.
IR Paint Stripping
Like its older brother, the Speedheater 1100 (in photo above, removing paint from clapboards), the new Cobra uses infrared (IR) radiation to separate multiple layers of paint from the wood substrate. Compared with torches or heat guns, IR paint strippers operate at significantly lower temperatures (200°F to 400°F) that won’t vaporize harmful chemicals such as lead, or pose a fire hazard—if used as directed.
I bought an 1100 way back in 2004, and it quickly became my go-to for stripping paint from broad surfaces, such as clapboards and baseboards. But the 1100 is bulky, and not quite as effective at softening layers of old paint that have taken refuge within inside corners and the crevices of moldings.
The new Cobra is smaller and lighter than the 1100 and features a compact, shrouded heating element that focuses the radiation on its intended target almost like a laser beam.
I tested this tool on flat surfaces, various molding profiles, and a few windows I was restoring at the time, all of which were heavily paint-encrusted. It was remarkably effective, but not until after I mastered the learning curve.
The manufacturer’s instructions clearly state that one to three seconds heating time is all that’s needed to prepare a typical painted surface for scraping. And they warn that “excessive heating can potentially mar the wood, release toxic fumes, and start a fire.”
What worked for me was to hold the Cobra in one hand (fingertips grasping near the neck, as if it were a pencil) and a sharp, pull-type scraper in the other. I’d hover the face of the heating element about an inch over the doomed paint until it began bubbling and smoking, then slide the heater to the next section of paint and scrape away the debris. With practice, I was able to keep the heater and scraper moving across the surface in a fluid motion.
When I reached the end of the line, I learned the hard way that it was crucial to have planned for a safe, fireproof, parking spot for the tool. One time I set it down too close to the 6-mil poly I was using for ground cover; another time I held it off to my side, heating element facing the ground, while I momentarily finished scraping a corner, and inadvertently melted the insulating jacket on the power cord.
On flat surfaces, the Cobra proved adequate but slower than the 1100 (because of its much smaller heating element). It worked well for stripping paint from intricate, profiled surfaces, such as moldings, spindles, and balusters (as long as the scraper blade was a good match for the profile), but it excelled at restoring window sashes. The heating element was perfectly sized for stripping the frames, and it softened rock-hard glazing putty better than anything I’ve ever tried—I found that after two careful passes of heat over the surface, the putty came off as easily as if it were DAP right out of the can.
Photos by Tom O'Brien