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Painting old Radiators

Painting radiators in our 130 year old house wasn’t difficult, just time consuming and a little messy. What paint to use and how to apply.

Our 130 year old house is heated with a boiler and radiators. The boiler heats the water and circulates it through pipes in our house to radiators in (most) rooms. This all seems scary to newer home owners, but so far it’s actually pretty simple. We replaced the boiler in March of this year with a new small unit and the radiators generate a lovely warm heat throughout the house.

When the boiler is on, the radiators are warm to the touch, but never hot in our house. We don’t do anything to the boilers or radiators – but we have the system serviced and inspected once a year by a pro.

(So far so good and definitely knock on wood)

Are Boilers Scary?

When I used to hear that a home had a boiler – I thought of a great big scary thing that puffed steam and made strange noises, like something from a horror movie.

Horror movie boiler?
Horror movie boiler?

Our new boiler is a little tiny box that sits on a wall above the ground and is not scary at all.

Not our boiler – but similar

In October, we had some lovely warm weather and didn’t need to turn on the boiler until later than usual. This is good, because we suddenly realized that we had meant to paint the radiators before it was time to turn on the heat.

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Inspiring, but not me!

Can Radiators be Painted?

Radiators are kind of funky looking, and I was thinking of painting them in bright colours, as I had seen in many other blogs and Pinterest boards. Painting radiators in bright and funky colours would certainly be a statement, but I was just wanting my statement to be clean and fresh and functional. So glossy white it was. They were previously painted in matte burgundy, mustard yellow and off white – and were chipped, full of cat hair (and we don’t have a cat), and just generally dust magnets. I thought the gloss would make them easier to clean and keep dust and hair free.

Max and a mustard coloured radiator -  we are stripping the floor upstairs too!
Max and a mustard coloured radiator – we are stripping the floor upstairs too!

How to Paint Radiators?

Many of the sites we read suggested we use spray paint on the radiators, but I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of all the possible overspray, and the spray paint in the air, which can’t be good for us. If I was to use spray paint, I would have to lay out plastic sheeting all around – on the floors, up the walls, etc. I would also have to open all the windows and aerate. I KNOW that I would still have LOTS of overspray, after all of my outdoor projects!

We opted to paint with a standard 2″ paintbrush and used a Tremclad Oil based Rust Paint in White Gloss.

The radiators and pipes are cast iron and all working and all had many layers of paint already, so didn’t need a prime. I had read some advice to sand down the paint chips, prior to painting, but I opted not to, as I assumed there was likely lead in some of the paint layers.

Clean the Radiators Thoroughly

First I vacuumed the radiators as well as I could. Then I wiped them down with water and Mr. Clean. The really nasty work was in using a scrub brush with a handle to scrub up and down between the ridges and underneath – to scrub out the cat hair, dust and spider webs.

Another mustard coloured radiator

Now – you could sand your radiators….. but how do you know what kind of paint is under all of those layers? There could definitely be lead in all those layers – and lead dust is unsafe! I also thought that sanding old cast iron – might make a hole or damage them – and new radiators are expensive and a pain to get someone to fix them!

Painters Tape and Drop cloths

After the radiators were cleaned up I taped newspaper and drop cloths under and all around each radiator to catch the inevitably spilled paint.

We painted on days when we weren’t using the heat – the boiler was off – and we were able to ventilate the house by leaving the windows open!

Paint with Patience

I applied the paint with a 2 inch brush – top down, slowly, one rung at a time, doing my very best to keep drips from accumulating. (I went through several paint brushes, as they got all sticky squishing between the rungs of the radiators). This was just a messy job – not difficult at all, but the paint was smelly and drippy and sticky. I gave each radiator 3 coats – allowing the paint to dry in between coats. The job was just tedious.

A burgundy radiator hiding in the living room

Don’t Paint the Taps Shut

One important thing to remember was not to paint the taps at the tops of the radiator shut (like all the windows I painted shut in the past), and I don’t think I did!

My hands were covered with paint and there were was paint all over the newspapers. I had no paint thinner of course, – but the really good news is that my collection of pandemic hand sanitizers seemed to dissolve a lot of the paint on my hands and clothes! Who knew?

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Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on

A fair bit of the spilled paint bled through the newspapers and drop cloths – but no worries – I was able to clean it up with paper towels and then chip away any dried paint with my beautifully manicured (not really) nails.

A clean white radiator was mustard yellow before

All in all this was just a messy, tedious job – but guess what? It’s really satisfying to have shiny clean radiators. The heat turned on the next day, and although there had been paint odour during the painting project, the radiators worked perfectly and there was no more paint odour!

The previously burgundy radiator is now scrubable white

After I’d painted the 5 downstairs radiators, I realized that I hadn’t painted any of the upstairs radiators. I procrastinated on that until the spring and in the meantime we are worked on the upstairs floors!

Can Radiators be Painted with Latex?

I had previously painted the downstairs radiators with Tremclad High Heat Paint in White Gloss. Later when I was painting the upstairs radiators, I read that as the radiators are only ever a nice warm temperature, it’s Ok to use latex paint. Apparently most Latex Paint will withstand a temperature of 180degreesF. So I painted most of the upstairs radiators with latex paint. I do feel that the High Heat painted radiators downstairs have a more scrubbable finish, but the painting process was much more pleasant and easy to cleanup for the latex paint.

Both my downstairs (High Heat paint) and upstairs (latex) radiators still look clean and fresh and white more than two years later.

Will White Paint Yellow?

I read later on that it is good to use a coloured paint on radiators because white paint yellows when heated……Hmmmm – that would have been good to know. Well, I can say that my radiators still look white, and if I have to repaint them once in a while, I can do that!

(Apparently white oil paint yellows when heated – but 2 1/2 years later now the radiators are still white – just a little off white. Even today – I prefer the gloss finish of the white oil paint to the latex semi gloss painted radiators. They are smoother and easier to clean!)

Painting Radiators was Tedious and Messy but Worth It

I used a lot of paint and paint brushes during this process, but it was well worth it. Doing the radiators one at a time turned out to be easiest for me. I was able to set up one radiator, paint it and clean it up each day, so that I didn’t get all “arthritic” and over-tired from spending all day painting radiators!

The latex paint was really much easier to use than the oil and the radiators still all look fine – but I am happier with the finish of the oil paint!

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