Radiator: Painted!

Maybe it’s because I only stayed in my last apartment for a year and now I’ve been in this place almost 15 months (crazy, right??), but I just have this itch. By which I do not mean that I have an irritating skin condition, although while we’re being honest, I do sometimes develop a small rash under my watchband if worn for extended periods during the summer, an affliction that is somewhat devastating.

love my apartment. I have no interest in moving any time soon. But recently I’ve been going through this disconcerting phase where I basically want to change everything. If I don’t want to get rid of the furniture, than at least I want to rearrange it or re-stain it or reupholster it or dunk it in a vat of bleach and call it artsy. I keep regretting all these decisions that I made a year ago and wondering why I didn’t think of things earlier, like maybe before I drilled 4,000 holes in a plaster wall or painted entire rooms. I toggle between wishing everything was just finished already and knowing it will probably never be finished because by the time things could be considered finished, I will just want to change them all over again. I’m like that. Some people call it indecisive. Some people call it charming. Max calls me a torturous asshole.* But really, who’s to say?

*Max never actually says that, he’s much too fearful.

The thing is, I guess I really feel about my apartment the same way I feel about my face: aside from a few “problem areas,” if I’m being honest with myself, I actually think it’s kind of pretty and most reasonable people would be OK with living inside it.

So since it ain’t exactly broke, I’m trying to refrain from breaking it with the sole purpose of  trying to fix something I really can’t afford to break in the first place. Which is just an idiotic way of saying I don’t have money and I don’t have time and I need to stop fantasizing about a new sofa.

In order to distract myself, I’ve been trying to tackle some long-avoided but low-cost projects that aren’t too labor-intensive, at least while I try to save up and carefully plot my next move. Which is why I decided to paint the radiator in the living room.

Get a load of this horror show. We actually have two very old, very heavy, very cast-iron radiators in our apartment (the other one is in the bedroom), but for some reason I always found this one uniquely gross. Maybe it was how the feet were all yellowed and weird? Maybe it was that the silver paint chipped and flaked and collected on the floor like a light dusting of toxic lead paint confetti? Maybe it was that the monsters who previously painted this room bright red managed to spill some paint on the radiator, smudge it around a little, and let it dry, like hateful demons?

I don’t know why. Maybe just because it’s big and vaguely silver but mostly a mess but had significant untapped potential to be pretty? Like, what is the function of an old radiator other than to be charming? Except for heat and whatever, smart ass.

I guess the reason I didn’t do this earlier is because part of me has a very hard time accepting that I can’t fix everything exactly how I would ideally fix it in a perfect world. I knew I could paint it, but what I really wanted was to do this beautiful old radiator right, which would involve having it sandblasted and powder-coated, which would really reveal the gorgeous Victorian scroll-y patterns and make it gleam like some tortured 19th century factory worker just died in the process of making it. I looked into that stuff, but obviously it’s pricey as fuck and just definitely not an option. I thought of trying to strip it myself, but even that just seemed incredibly intense and potentially hazardous for a radiator I don’t own. But still…adding another layer of paint and 100% accepting that a thorough restoration is just never going to happen took some time.

Once I talked myself through that little year-long bout of crazy, I was ready to go and armed myself with some supplies.

1. The first step was to use a wire brush and a spackle knife to chip away at any loose and flaking bits of old paint. A word about this: yes, I’m sure it was lead paint. No, I don’t freak out about shit like that. I don’t have babies crawling around and I kept the dogs away and everyone survived it. People ask me all the time about lead paint, what precautions to take against lead paint, whether looking in the direction of a lead paint-covered object will kill you, and to be honest, I am not the authority, or even an authority on things like this. But from the advanced research I’ve done on the Google machine, it seems like lead paint is more or less harmless as long as you just leave it alone. If it’s flaking, flake off the pieces and seal all that shit in by painting right over it. Remain calm, don’t start eating the flakes like a freak, clean up when you’re done, and chances are you’ll live to blog about it. Or whatever it is you do.

(All this said, if you’re a worrywart, I encourage you to do your own independent research and make your own decisions about what you’re comfortable with. I’m not here to pressure anyone. I’m just here to dance.)

2. After you’ve flaked all the loose paint off, it’s a good idea to give your radiator a good cleaning. Of course, it was my half-Swedish half-unicorn friend, Anna, who knew exactly how to clean an old cast-iron radiator and shared her secrets with me after I voiced my frustrations one day. That magic fuzzy wand you see above is a dryer vent brush. Fun, flexible, and stylish, this glorious thing perfectly gets into all the nooks and crannies of old, crusty radiators. If you have a radiator and have never known how to get to those tricky inside parts, and then you buy one of these brushes: BE NOT ALARMED. That first cleaning will be—how shall we say—enlightening. But so worth it. Wear gloves and consider protective eyewear and a mask.

After you’re done cleaning, sweep and vacuum any dust/dead insects/loose change/misplaced teeth up off the floor. Consider making a shadowbox, disregard the idea as vile.

3. I kind of skipped ahead with that first picture, but it’s a good idea to protect the area under your radiator, just in case of any paint drips. I’m only making note of this because it’s so very uncharacteristic of me to take the time to do something so precautionary, and I feel extra proud of myself for doing it.

4. You’re ready to paint! Now, I know a lot of people like to spray paint their radiators, which is great and all, but I did NOT feel like masking off everything in the general vicinity and dealing with fumes, or trying to detach the whole radiator and drag it up to the roof, so I opted to just use regular paint with a regular brush. I also know that some people use paints made specifically for high-heat applications, but I’d also read in several places that this really isn’t necessary, particularly depending upon how often the radiator is actually used. Given that our landlords turn our radiators on about three times every winter, I figured it would be safe to just go with what I had around.

I started off with a coat of oil-based primer (the can of Zinsser in the supply photo above). The primer helps seal in weirdness while also bonding really well to the old paint and giving your new paint a great surface to adhere strongly to, preventing future chips over time. When in doubt, prime.

5. After you’ve let the primer dry a few hours, it’s time to paint. For some reason I had a can of this stuff already, which was perfect. Oil-based enamel is kind of thin and smooth and really coated the radiator nicely without getting gloppy, and dried into a very hard, very shiny, very durable shell. It really is the next best thing to powder-coating, in my opinion.

I kind of freaked myself out during the painting that I couldn’t get my brush much past the outermost parts of the radiator and worried that it would end up looking crappy and unfinished, but that’s definitely not the case. If you stand really close and look between the sections, I guess you can kind-of-sort-of tell, but really—it looks good. Like really good.

Am I right or am I right?

I mean, yeah, it would be nicer if it were stripped down and restored all fancy-like. But for a few hours and a couple coats of paint? Big improvement. And since I already had all the supplies, it was free. I like free.

I moved everything out of the corner so you could get a full view. Take it all in.

And this is a picture of my dogs because deal with it.


64 Comments

  1. I always made (silent, mental) fun of people who gleefully posted “FIRST!” when they’re first on something…but now I understand the sudden shot of adrenaline and amazement. FIRST!

    I hear you on wanting to spend time doing it up right, but I think it’s a huge improvement as you did it. I wish I had interesting old radiators to waffle over, but I just have huge, awful metal forced-air units in my rental. We won’t talk about what dog hair does to those…

    Love the pic of Mekko and Linus – that’s what my dog looks like while I’m doing projects too.

    • I know, I’m definitely lucky that I get to get all flustered and indecisive over cool original details like this! The beauty of really old stuff is that even if it looks crappy, chances are it CAN look awesome with a little TLC.

  2. Hey – re: the watch rash — depending on the material, it could work to apply a coat or two of clear nail polish. That used to work for me with a metal watch. The coating would wear off and need to be reapplied from time to time, but still better than the alternative.

    • Haha, oh dear, and now we’re talking about my skin problems…yikes. I guess I walked into that.

      I’ll try that though! I don’t think it’s a reaction to the metal, but it can’t hurt and I really miss knowing what time it is.

      • Just an FYI, clear nail polish is technically worse for your skin. It’s full of formaldehyde which you will in fact absorb through it touching your skin all the time.

      • Yes, but no rashes!

      • You can get nail polish without formaldehyde.

  3. wow- this makes such a difference!
    Oh, an the dogs are adorable- I love love love those faces!

  4. Oh MAN I hear you on the new sofa fantasies. Maybe it’s something in the air this time of year, but I also have been rearranging all my furniture and getting rid of stuff and regretting decisions made 3 (!) years ago when we moved in here. If I had an old radiator, I would probably paint it. For now, though, I’m saving my pennies for a new coffee table. I sold all the old hand me down pieces in the living room in a yard sale…and now I have nowhere to put a drink. Heh.

    P.S. My husband gets a rashy thing on his finger from his wedding ring, but nail polish works pretty well – it’s a nickel reaction (apparently nickel makes white gold white), if there’s nickel in your watch the nail polish trick might work. He reapplies it every couple of weeks.

    • Hey Adrienne,
      as a jeweller I have to say, nail polish is not good for your skin, it absorbs all the crap that is in it, if you don’t want your husband to have like balls cancer, stop him from doing this! Also, it is true that a lot of people are allergic to nickel, but there are other er… mix of metal!? (I’m sorry, English is not my first language!) for white gold that does not include nickel. Well, since you already have this ring you could rhodium plate it. I don’t want to be a pain here, so have a good day!!!

  5. Is it acceptable to say “ditto” past 3rd grade? If so, ditto to everything. I am also contemplating radiator painting over couch buying and if it’s going to happen I better get going because once they go on for the winter there goes the opportunity until next year. Ours are painted a cruddy bronze color rather than silver and I debate whether to go black or white against white walls (perhaps the choice was made for you as a result of having the white can hanging around?). I appreciate your paint recommendations as I was hoping to avoid spray paint as well. Thanks, Daniel!

    • I guess it just depends on how much of a “statement” you want your radiator to be, and how it balances with the other elements in the room. Since our apartment is small, this room has to serve a few different functions while still feeling open. So between all the furniture, the black pocket doors, and the big black fireplace right next to the radiator, I really just wanted it to recede into the rest of the architecture rather than stick out even more. Black (or other color!) radiators can look INCREDIBLE in the right space though, for sure!

  6. oooh! it looks terrific! well done you.
    love the thrilled looks on the pups faces. they are so crazy adorable.

    also, how have you been there for 15 months already? that’s nutty.

  7. Well done, you!

  8. It looks beautiful! What an improvement.

  9. My brain and heart do the happy dance when I get to work and see a new Daniel post. You could JUST write about skin conditions and it would be fabulous. Puppy pics are the icing on the cake.

    • This. ‘Course, I’d rather read about the hallway than about skin conditions. But I’m pretty sure that you’d rock both topics.^__^

      And, since I am already commenting: This is the only design/Interior/DiY/dog-blog I really follow and enjoy. Even the layout is fabulous, it makes me grin everytime I see it.

  10. About high heat paint: if you have hot water heat, regular paint is a-ok, as they never get hot enough to affect the paints adhesion. If you have steam heat* however, it’s a better bet to use the high heat paint, since those babies get super hot and will degrade the paint over time.

    *how to know the difference: (both will have a valve handle at the bottom, which restricts or stops the hot water/steam flow in order to cool the radiator) Generally, hot water radiators will have a small ‘nubbin’ at the top**, on the opposite side from the valve. Instead of a nubbin, a steam radiator will have a larger chrome bullet or rocket ship shaped pressure valve in the same location.

    ** Hie thee to a hardware store and ask for a radiator key. When the heat is turned on in the cold months, BUT the boiler isn’t actively firing at that moment (ie. you can’t hear anything coming from either your radiator or basement heat plant), hold a cup under that ‘nubbin’ and insert the key and turn a few or 5 turns. It may hiss, it may even be a bit stinky – but keep the key inserted. When water come shooting out, quickly crank it closed again. Now your radiator will heat up much better and stop making all those of ungodly noises when you’re trying to sleep.

    (sorry for the longwindedness…)

    • No apologies needed, thank you for that! I’ll definitely do an update on how the paint fares over time, especially after it’s gone through a winter. Based on your description, I *think* this means we have steam radiators, but I might be unclear about the nubbin. Our radiators are used SO infrequently though, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make either way.

  11. The rad looks great. And I love your blog. And your puppy photos. And your writing is wonderful. Cheers :)

  12. I have six, yes six, similar old-fashioned radiators in my flat (I live in London – radiators everywhere here), so that dryer vent brush tip is a bloody revelation.

  13. “Consider making a shadowbox, disregard the idea as vile.” You win at writing. And re: your radiator: you win at life.

  14. Puppies!

  15. Lead paint is dangerous when it becomes dust. So if you use a mechanical grinder, then get that mask on, and clean up everything well. What you did was easy peasy and low risk.

    For that watchband issue – if it’s a mild metal allergy, try coating the back of the watch with clear nail polish. Protective barrier, no more irritation.

  16. Thanks for this reminder to tend to my ignored radiators. We had a radiator repairman come in this winter when they were clanging and causing all sorts of trouble. He fixed it and also gave us the name of a company that will sandblast them for us. That was in … February? … so maybe September is the time to get those things out of the house for their makeover. If we can carry them down the stairs and into our car. Of course, I have no idea how much it will cost. Thanks for the alternative solution. And the puppy picture. :)

  17. No reason necessary when taking a photo of the dogs! Lisa xo

  18. I have 3 chipping radiators in my place begging to be painted… where did you get that brush thingy? I must get my hands on one of those!

  19. No more radiators — we live in an old house which had a ton of them but since we had to add ductwork for central air we just routed the (new) heating system through the ducts too. I love radiators — how they look and how they work, even how they sound — but having that extra wall space is even better!

    Thank you for being the voice of sanity about lead paint. It’s great that public consciousness re: lead paint and kids don’t mix has become so great, but if it was highly toxic to old-house DIYers a lot of us wouldn’t still be around. (I’m one of the “old people” who loves your blog, and wishes I could write as elegantly and entertainingly as you do!)

    • I know…I love a radiator but I constantly fantasize about just having them both removed…all the things I could do with the extra room! Which is ridiculous, since they aren’t really THAT big, I know.

      (thank you!)

  20. Hi there! So, the dryer vent brush thing just blew my mind. I’ve got a bunch of radiators in my apartment and they’re totally gross, but I never knew how to clean them. It looked like a huge pain in the ass, so naturally I gave up before even trying. So thanks for that! :D

    (Also, the paint job looks great, of course.)

  21. I just want to say…my mom scraped/sanded a whole exterior of a house made entirely of lead paint (and more lead everywhere else) while she was pregnant with me. and look how i turned out! (i’m pretty sure i’m ok, at 26 I have no mental disorders, learning disabilities or diseases) soo…lead paint, whatever.

    i look forward to your posts and how much i laugh. seriously. thanks for brightening a girls day.

  22. Oh Daniel, you have such a pretty face and a pretty apartment! Don’t stop wanting to improve though (your apartment not your face!) cause I love reading your writing!

  23. 15 whole months! I am letting out a depressed laugh over here. I have 7 radiators and none of them have been repainted yet and I’ve been living in my house for almost 4 years!

    I would totally spend the money sandblasting if I had radiators as lovely as yours, sadly mine are boring boxy unadorned affairs. Still, I should at least clean them once and awhile, but I am also totally afraid of what I will find and your post does nothing ease my concerns. My skin is crawling just thinking about it.

    Your radiator looks lovely though, and your dogs are the cutest!

  24. Oh I so understand the feeling! Living in an alcove studio, my husband and I are a bit limited in furniture arrangements that aren’t ridiculously impractical (ohhhh, to see some of the things my roommate let me do to our room our freshman year of college — beds in a T shape? Of course). I have recently had a bug up my bum to repaint all of the baseboard molding because it is sad old flat paint that looks pretty terrible after our two years of living there. My biggest fear is that once I do that, I won’t be able to avoid the nagging issue of wanting to repaint the ceiling, too, which I can thank you for inspiring.

  25. Just curious…. if you were to reupholster your lovely sofa… what textile & color? Just bought a vintage very square sofa similar to yours w/ a wood back & sides. Thinking Sunbrella fabric in gray or black.

    Btw, fabulous diy as always & LOVE that you throw in some pup shots for those of us who fawn endlessly. TY

    • Upholstering really depends on the piece of furniture and the room it’s going in! I’d probably prefer a medium grey in some kind of upholstery-grade linen, just because personally I like to keep big pieces like that neutral so that I can mix things up with blankets and pillows. I’ve recently been lusting over a sofa in a store near us that sounds similar to yours (long and rectangular, wood back and sides with chrome legs that I think would look AMAZING in caramel leather. I might worry about black because of fading. Emily Henderson wrote a good post about reupholstering vintage furniture that’s worth a read. (I don’t think I’ll try to reupholster my IKEA sofa though…it’s actually a very tailored slipcover so I may at some point buy a new cover or just wait for a great vintage sofa to come along that’s more worth the time/energy.)

  26. Re: the watch/rash issue. I found a couple nylon strap watch bands somewhere, maybe Target? I got a brown one and a blue one. They — well, I only wear one at a time, silly — slip in between the skinny springy metal bar at the side of the watch, you know, the thing you have to take out to attach a normal watchband, and then out the other side the same way. The nylon strap is between my skin and the back of the watch. Added benefit is that periodically I swap them out and throw the old one in the wash.

    I admire your courage and fortitude in tackling that radiator. I once lived in an apartment where a former tenant had painted the living room bright blue and the radiator alternating red and white stripes (yes, this was the early 70s). I decided I liked it, which was way easier than actually dealing with it.

  27. Yes! You did it. Looks totally great.

    P.S. Good going with using the regular paint and a regular brush, duh, I wish I would’ve thought of that the first time. Spray paint is way too messy and too much work.

  28. Looks great. Love old radiators like that.

    Greetings from Finland! ( I spied Marimekko pillows next to the two furry ones)

  29. so happy to have found your blog. total awesomeballs, i must say! can i purchase some of your dry wit?

  30. I’m fairly certain that your blog is the only blog that I read word for word instead of just jumping ahead to scope the pictures. So thanks for that.

    You’re top notch.

  31. love all pictures of all dogs :-)

    we went the spray paint route with our radiators and while it may have been slightly easier, it did take a crazy amount of spray paint and ended up being a surprisingly expensive project. i think it was 5-6 cans per radiator? we have 8 radiators… lowes started asking questions after we purchased spray paint number 10. i used the high heat paint just because.

    nice job, you’ve reminded me that i should probably dig out the brush that we used to clean prior to painting, and maybe actually dust those things every once in a while… yuck.

  32. The dogs seem really enthusiastic about the radiator improvement!

    I know exactly how you feel… I have been in my current home for 13 months (the longest I’ve ever lived in one place since high school) and am getting the itch to switch everything around, paint new things, buy new furniture, etc. I’m like you, I don’t ever think I’ll get to a point where it all feels “done.”

  33. Ohhhhhh how I love your blog. You are a shiny ray of sun in my otherwise dull, drab, corporate, financial industry job. keep ‘em coming… i want more, more more. And thanks for posting the pic of the dogs, I was wondering how Linus is doing.

  34. Your blog has become yet another blog that I started reading for the art/craft/DIY/interior design/witty repartee and continued reading for the adorable dogs! Your projects are cool, and I love your way with words, but Mekko and Linus and I know who the real stars of the blog are…

  35. I lived in a house with radiators once. The landlord had built these wooden boxes around them, which is what a lot of people do. I guess it’s convenient for a shelf, and maybe so you don’t burn yourself? Do they get that hot? Anyway, I love that you left yours exposed. They are so pretty and old and weird. And your paint job looks beautiful!

  36. <3 for the dogs.

    A quick word on lead paint (I've worked for a home inspection company): Most paint used prior to 1978 was lead paint, and paint from that point on was not. Unless you have animals or babies chewing on it, it's not a problem unless you're somehow blasting it into dust. Otherwise? Just paint over it and call it a day.

    As for the rash, if your local pharmacy carries hydrocortisone cream it's the best thing ever for healing it. Here in Canada-land, a low strength version is available over the counter quite inexpensively. That sort of thing is usually a nickel sensitivity; "sensitive skin" metals are usually ok, as are surgical steel and titanium.

    And, again, <3 for the dogs.

  37. Pit Bull haters eat your heart out! Look at those two so chilled and harmonious!
    Grats on the radiator, it gives me heart to know that this CAN be done.
    Bisous
    Janet

  38. Maybe if you are itching for projects but “done” with your apartment for now, you should take on some projects for others . . . sell your services as a designer!

  39. “some tortured 19th century factory worker” would be very happy to see his work taken care of!

    And YAY! DOGS!

    That’s all I gots to say ’bout that.

  40. It looks lovely!! I’m surprised that a simple coat of paint did that much of a difference.

    I manage construction projects and deal with a lot of lead abatement, and I just can’t resist giving your readers some lead safety advice. Painting over lead paint isn’t a big deal at all, and there are virtually no safety precautions needed if that’s all you’re doing. However, scraping and sanding lead paint will release particles of lead dust in the air, and that’s what’s VERY harmful. All you need is a respirator from Home Depot for $10 and you’re good.

  41. Daniel, I just moved into an old apartment in Boston and came here looking for this exact topic – HOW DID YOU KNOW?? Now, for the super rusty, creepy steam pipes in my bathroom (two! I’ve been cursed with two creepy steam pipes AND four ugly radiators!), would you recommend this same technique? I think you’ve painted them before but I don’t remember if you went into details on the process – I would love any insight!

    • Yep, I’d do the same thing! I think I even primed and painted my pipes with latex paint instead of oil (I honestly don’t remember, I’m sorry!) and that’s held up perfectly. But an oil-based primer should be more durable, especially in terms of blocking more rust from forming.

      • Thank you, Daniel! I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. To Home Depot, I go!

  42. I just painted the radiator in my living room last week but I went the “ohmygodmustdothisnow!!!!” route and just slapped on a coat of black high gloss oil based rustoleum. Fingers crossed it holds up over the winter, otherwise I have yet another project for next spring. I’m still trying to figure out what color to paint the one in my bedroom that a previous tenant painted a splotchy dark purple. She obviously got bored or was under the influence of something. It’s HIDEOUS.

  43. Excellent guide, thank you! Will definitely try paining one of my radiators, maybe even some bold colors like silver or gold – should look nice!

  44. I’ve had radiators in almost every apartment I’ve been in and I’ve *never* known how to clean them. Vacuum didn’t work, my Swiffer duster got shredded by crustiness and using a dusting glove was scary and unproductive.
    I now want to clean and repaint all the radiators. Thanks for the step-by-step!

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