Stripping old paint off a car can be time a consuming and dirty job — Jim shows you how to do it with the minimum of fuss
I’ve been spending time with strippers again as my 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon restoration project was finally mechanically restored, so it was time to do the bodywork and paint it. The problem was the thing had three paint jobs on it already, so all of the old paint had to come off.
I could have media blasted the car — that has its own problems — or I could have paid a body shop to do the stripping, provided I didn’t mind lots of hard-earned dollars flying out of my wallet. If you can do this work yourself you can save money.
Any way you go about it, stripping old paint off is nasty work. The good news is that it involves minimal skill and can easily be accomplished by a home hobbyist. However, safety precautions are paramount because automotive stripper is toxic. It will blister your skin, and the methyl chloride in it will damage your lungs if breathed it — so wear at least a particle mask.
Before you start taking off the paint, remove any chrome — door handles, ornamental strips, emblems and badges. Aircraft stripper can turn chrome a light blue and cause it to lose its lustre, and it will dissolve some plastic parts in no time.
Work outdoors on a calm day if possible. Good ventilation is critical. Put a large tarp down under the car to catch the drips. Pull plastic rubbish bags over the wheels and tyres to protect them. Also, put on heavy clothing such as jeans and a long sleeve sweatshirt or coveralls. And don’t forget to wear a pair of safety goggles and a painting mask. Stripper is so toxic that it can damage your eyesight, and your lungs if you breathe the fumes.
Stripper will work more effectively if you sand the car with eighty-grit sandpaper to break the surface of the old paint — if you sand the paint with coarse sandpaper, you increase the surface for the stripper to attack and you break through the hard, outer layer of paint.
Use a cheap paint brush and spread a thick coat on an area about a metre square. Make sure your brush strokes go just one way, and don’t paint back through the stripper, otherwise you will hasten the evaporation. Just slop on a thick coat and keep the surface wet with stripper until the stuff has had a chance to do its job. If you are working on a warm day, cover the applied stripper with sheets of newspaper too, in order to slow down the loss of the active ingredients.
When the paint has bubbled and the stripper seems to have done all it’s going to do — about 10-15 minutes usually — lift off the newspaper and dispose of it in a rubbish bin with a lid. Carefully scrape the paint off using putty knives or plastic filler spreaders. If the paint does not come off to bare metal, don’t keep scraping. Instead, apply more stripper and let it set for another 10-15 minutes.
Wipe your putty knife or scraper onto old newspaper and place the dirty paper in the rubbish bin. If your car has been painted several time before, you may not get down to metal the first or even second time you apply the stripper.
You can tell what kind of paint was on your classic by the way it comes off. Enamel wrinkles and crinkles, while lacquer turns slowly to soup — lacquer makes a bigger mess. Finally, there will be a layer of primer underneath that will need to come off too, and that can be done using coarse steel wool and water.
If you don’t finish the stripping job all in one day, rinse and dry the areas you have worked and wrap them in plastic tarps to protect them from moisture. This is important because even in dry weather bare metal rusts quickly. If you are going to store items for any length of time, you should shoot on a coat of polyester primer to protect them.
Also, any areas you come across in the stripping process that contain plastic filler will need to have the filler taken out and replaced because stripper destroys filler. Grind it out with a heavy-duty twisted wire wheel.
When your parts are completely stripped, rinse them thoroughly with detergent, water and coarse steel wool, making sure to get all the stripper out of every groove and fold. If you get impatient here, any little bit of stripper left behind will eat away at your new paint and ruin your work. Dry your parts thoroughly.
Once you have the car stripped to bare metal, it’s time to make any repairs that might be required. When you have everything the way you want it, go over the car with eighty-grit dry sandpaper to develop a tooth to the metal.
Finally, use a good metal prepping solution to etch the metal and convert any unseen rust.
It is important that you protect all the parts you have stripped as soon as possible. If you don’t, you will soon have to contend with surface rust that will eventually bubble and eat through your new paintwork. One good product for this purpose is DuPont’s Variprime primer — this actually etches into the metal. Such primers protect your parts from rust until they are ready for finishing, and they create a good surface for high build primer.
Follow the instructions on the cans and let your parts cure indoors for a day or two before going any further.
When you’ve finished stripping all the old paint off your classic, the worst is over. The next steps are final bodywork and metal finishing, then comes spray painting and rubbing to produce that show-winning finish. And when it’s all done, you’ll be glad you spent a little time with a stripper.
Guide to Stripping Paint
Words & Photos: Jim Richardson