Tactile warmth and friendliness: The joys of refinishing radiators

January 30 | Guest post by stealmystapler
Finished and in our home!
Finished and in our home!

When my husband and I bought our current home, a bank-auctioned late 19th century brick Italianate joy, the first big problem we had to solve was its total lack of heating and plumbing. We chose to treat the theft of copper, and age of the boiler, as a gift — a chance to start anew, which isn't always so easy in an old building. We studied our options (mini ducts, baseboard heating, etc) and decided to bring back what must have originally served the house — cast iron radiators.

While some people may dislike them for their industrial appearance and sturdy presence within a room, I love radiators' tactile warmth and friendliness and the simple beauty of a molded decorative radiator. And, after a little TLC, our salvaged radiators are truly beautiful!

Have a few radiators in your home that need some love, or are looking to install some? Here's some tips and tricks to beautify your radiators…

Refinishing your Radiators
Radiators for sale

1. If you don't already have radiators…

Find your local salvage shop or parts warehouse. With very little searching, we were able to get a set of matching decorative radiators for our major rooms and others that suited the rest. Be sure to buy radiators that have been tested (air is okay, water is better) to check for leaks.

2. Make them pretty!

Whether you have radiators in your home already or are buying salvaged ones, the odds are that they will be covered in layers of old paint. Your radiator is (or will be) a fixture of your home, so make a beautiful one!

You can certainly flake off the old paint with a wire brush and repaint, but we chose to have ours sandblasted and powder-coated and I can't recommend it enough. For new purchases, ask the sandblaster to pick up your radiators from the shop; for ones in your home, call your plumber to have them drained so they can be picked up.

Our powder coated radiator
Our powder coated radiator

3. Sandblasting and powder coating

Choose neutral colors that you can live with… then you'll never have to paint them again!

find-a-radiator

4. Flying home and installation

Our powder coater delivered our finished radiators to our front door via crane, and our movers arrived soon after to put them in place; we treated them to doughnuts. Later, our plumbers hooked them into the new system and finished the installation.

Our radiators have provided us with lovely heat, but also a warm friend to cozy up to and a great place to dry a wet jacket this winter. And we always receive compliments on them! By treating our radiators with care, they've become stars in our new old home.

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  1. This is so fun! strange question. If one were not able to remove them for a powder finish, does any one know tips/tricks to repainting?

    2 agree
    • Not a strange question at all! We did a lot of research on this, as we were considering doing a DIY route before the install.

      First – I still say the powder coat is worth the hassle. You'll need to hire a plumber to drain and remove the radiators (during the summertime, of course) and have them transported to the sandblaster/powder coater. You'll also have the opportunity to do any deferred painting behind the radiators while they're gone!

      For the DIY route – being super detail oriented and taking your time scraping / wire brushing the radiator is the biggest thing here. The more of the old stuff you can get off, the better any detail will show through. I saw a lot of sites recommending a metal paint primer that works well in high-heat contexts and then your final coat. For both, I saw more recommendations for spray paint – it will help you get into all the nooks and crannies and won't show brush marks.

      This blogger's takes on her experience were very helpful as we worked through what would work best for us.
      http://www.doorsixteen.com/2013/08/29/refinishing-cast-iron-radiators-small-budget-edition/
      http://www.doorsixteen.com/2014/03/23/refinishing-cast-iron-radiators-big-budget-edition/

      1 agrees
      • Yes, I wanted to say this. My parents house has radiators just like these (oh that floral design… be still my heart) and we've taken them out to spray paint them. It isn't as perfect as OP's powder coat, but they look nice and cleaned up.

        I miss having radiators like these! There's no better way to dry off wet shoes, coats, and gloves in the winter.

  2. Has anyone gone through the process of removing current baseboard heaters and installing radiators instead?? What on earth would that entail?

  3. I love radiator heating! Did you know that they can double as humidifiers? Just set a pot of water on top and the radiator will help it evaporate. It's a great way to recycle an old chipped enamel pot that may no longer be safe for cooking, or an old tea kettle that is rusting.

    1 agrees
    • We moved from an apartment with electric heat to a large house with radiators. It took awhile for us to adjust to the dryness of that type of heating (think waking up with nosebleeds, chapped lips, super dry skin) so for about a month now we've had a makeshift humidifier going in our bedroom and it's made a world of difference!

  4. I grew up in a 150+ year old house with radiators (fun, unrelated fact: the house was so old that when my dad remodeled the back bathroom, the baseboards that he replaced included a two-foot wide board with bark still on it and an old fireplace chimney blocked up with early 1800's newspapers!). The radiators came in so handy for drying wet clothes in the winter or after a rainstorm. I think my fondest memory of radiators as a child was sitting on them briefly and jumping up and screaming, on purpose of course – my younger brother and I were trying to mimic old Bugs Bunny cartoons we had seen on TV. Good times!

  5. It took me a minute to figure out how on earth Americans heat their houses if they don't have radiators. Central air is only a thing in office buildings and the occasional hotel in the UK. If you told someone your house didn't have radiators here, they'd assume you were using the original fire places (or a lot of electric heaters).

    A note on drying wet clothes on radiatiors – you need to open a window in the same room, because otherwise the moisture from the clothes gathers on the walls and you get damp and mildew. Of course, if you live somewhere arid and making the room damper is your goal, keep those windows shut!

  6. Love this! Our home as great old radiators but unfortunately they're currently painted white just like every other damn thing in the house. I'm working on changing that and decided to do the radiators a nice charcoal grey to match our ceilings. Haven't started on that project yet since it's the middle of winter but I'm excited to see how they look when they're done!

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