This post was originally published on DIY Network’s blog Made + Remade in January 2015.
Ahh, radiators. They aren’t usually considered from a design standpoint, but they do take a good beating, what with being dented and scuffed, and amassing an impressive collection of dust (and pet hair).
Whether you have big, heavy cast iron radiators in your home, or modest baseboard heaters, you can easily improve the look of them with a little bit of paint and patience. Go neutral and paint them the same colors as your walls, or get creative with color if you want them to stand out.
The hot water radiators throughout my house are encased in metal baseboards which have been painted time and time again. I’ve found that painting them with latex wall paint works perfectly, plus it helps to have them blend in with the walls themselves. To do this in your home, sand all of the baseboards using a high grit sandpaper (180-220). Use a coarser sandpaper if you are needing to level out previous layers of paint or drips on the surface. Dust the surface clean, and then use a high-density foam roller to apply paint evenly. Go back over the narrower areas with a high quality paint brush to get into the cracks (better quality brush and roller = fewer paint strokes).
Side note: If you can easily remove the end brackets and the front plate from the baseboard, I definitely recommend it. The components can be easier to paint when laying flat, and while the radiator coil is exposed, you can go at the dust collection with a vacuum hose. Less dust on the system = higher efficiency.
If your radiators are still the original manufactured finish (i.e. not layered with lots of paint like those shown above), you can easily update using spray paint. You’ll need to clean and prep the metal surface using a very fine sandpaper (220). In a well-ventilated area, apply spray paint in multiple layers and from a variety of angles, and allow it to cure outdoors for a day before trying to reinstall. When you snap the encasement back onto your wall, you’ll find it to be a nice, low-investment DIY improvement for your home.
If you’re dealing with big, cast iron units, you’re not alone. They are a pain to refinish but very worth it if you use the right tools and techniques. Some people rely on spray paint to change the look of their radiator, but if you aren’t planning on disconnecting and moving it outside for the job, you risk misting the floor and surrounding areas if you’re not careful. Painting it by hand works just as well, and is easy to do. I’ve only ever used oil-based paint for these units (I find that it levels really well, has good coverage with one coat, and the high-gloss or metallic always looks nice). Prep the radiator with a long wire brush that can shimmy in between all of the crevices to loosen dust, and then use a vacuum to find any residual stuff. These things house serious dust monsters, something to be wary of it if you have allergies.
As I mentioned, oil-based paint is the way to go but in order to use it, make sure the temperatures are warm enough so that you can open the windows in your home for cross-ventilation. Wear a ventilator mask too, and if possible, close off access to the room where you’ll be painting to keep fumes at bay.
Use multiple brushes to get the job done, especially smaller, long-handled crafting brushes to reach in the small spaces.
(One more tip: If you’re painting the wall behind the radiator, wrap your radiator in cellophane like this so that it doesn’t get painted in the process.)
If you’re looking for tips on how to strip paint from radiators, please learn more here.