Roff Home steam radiators refinished and renewed!

Refinished radiator in the front parlor of the Roff Home

Refinished radiator in the front parlor of the Roff Home

This summer, as floors were being redone and windows repainted, we took out the cast iron steam radiators from the first floor of the Roff Home and hauled them to a guy who does sandblasting in Stockland, Illinois. Afterward, I repainted the radiators, first with a couple of base coats of primer and then two or three coats of a silver metallic spray paint.

First of all, let me say that I had no idea what a radiator weighed. Holy cast iron. I knew they would be heavy, but the biggest ones must have weighed 200-300 pounds. Lifting those things was like dragging a cast iron corpse through the house.

And of course, the warning the historic preservation people had given me was that steam radiators are fragile and are probably being held together by their own rust, so be careful and don’t drop them when you’re moving them!

Considering we could barely lift a single radiator more than two inches off the ground, the chances of damaging one by dropping it was pretty much nil.

The next challenge was loading them and then driving in such a way that they wouldn’t get tipped over in the truck on the way to Stockland. So we leaned three or four radiators against each other in the back of the truck, and I drove to Stockland slower than a blue-haired octagenarian in a midnight snow storm.

While I was spray painting, I had a bit of a panic attack about the color. At the beginning of the process, I could tell from peeling paint that the lowest layer had been a brass or gold color. But when it comes to metallic colors, I prefer silver to gold. So I went with my inclination and bought a hoard of silver spray paint. But when I started painting, I realized the silver was going to clash with the renovated flooring of the home. I panicked. The only way I could talk myself off the ledge was to promise myself that if I didn’t like the color combination, I could always unscrew them, haul them out back, and repaint them.

However, now that they are installed and I can see them against the finished flooring, I have grown to like the combination of the silver against the flooring. I think the silver adds a splash of color to each room, instead of having a color that just blends in. Sometimes it’s better to stand out, don’t you agree?  

A couple of tips on our sandblasting and painting experiences :

  • Wrap any openings on the radiators — or anything that you don’t want to get sandblasted — with duct tape. For us that meant wrapping the entry pipe where steam goes in and the little bullet valve that lets steam escape.
  • We had been warned not to leave the duct tape on too long because it can start to adhere and be a nuisance to remove. We had the duct tape on for several days until repainting was complete but didn’t have too much trouble getting it off.
  • When repainting, make sure you have the little valve completely covered that allows steam to escape. Otherwise you’ll end up with a partially painted valve.
  • We used a silver metallic spray paint on the radiators. There was a temperature warning on the paint cans that said that the paint shouldn’t be used on surfaces hotter than 200 degrees F. We had some debate here whether that meant that it shouldn’t be used on radiators. I looked at the high-temperature paints, but they all looked like these industrial colors — black like a barbecue grill, a dark mottled green, and other colors so unattractive that I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy’s radiators. I called the paint company, and the support person believed it was fine to use the silver metallic paint on steam radiators. Considering heat transfer through the pipe and the distance of the steam from the boiler, we thought that it was unlikely that the surface of the radiator reached 200 degrees F.
  • The radiators smelled for a couple of days after first turning on the heat. The new paint vents off some chemical when it is first heated, or something like that. So we ran the boiler a couple of times with the windows open to get rid of the smell before it got too cold.
  • I’ve seen some postings online about the effectiveness of heat transfer through radiators when painting with light versus dark colors. Considering that much of the paint had peeled off of the radiators, I wondered whether I would notice a difference. Quite frankly, I don’t.

Cost < $100 per radiator
The cost of getting the radiators sandblasted was much less than what I had anticipated. We probably spent as much in primer and paint as we did in sandblasting. Not counting our time for hauling and repainting, the process cost less than $100 per radiator.

The next challenge: radiators on the second floor
We completed the radiators on the first floor of the home, plus a small one upstairs. That leaves all of the radiators on the second floor to be sandblasted and refinished. Now, once we figure out how to get 200-300 pound radiators down from the second floor without killing ourselves or destroying the home, we’ll do those, too.

Here are some before and after pics for your viewing pleasure:

A forlorn, solitary radiator, prior to restoration, in a room yet to be attended to.

A forlorn, solitary radiator, prior to restoration, in a room yet to be attended to.

A radiator prior to restoration

A radiator prior to restoration

A small bathroom radiator, after sandblasting and refinishing

A small bathroom radiator, after sandblasting and refinishing

A radiator in the kitchen, after sandblasting and refinishing

A radiator in the kitchen, after sandblasting and refinishing

10 comments to Roff Home steam radiators refinished and renewed!

  • Dear Roff homeowners:

    Terrific job! Bless your heart for being patient enough to do the job right.

    Could you pass along the name of the Stockland contractor? We maintain a database of just these sort of specialists on our website.

    Landmarks Illinois

  • Daren

    Hey John, they look great. Love the Xmas tree too! Looks like you did your homework on refurbing these. Me, I moved one across a room with a dolly and decided to wire brush, wipe and paint in place all my upstairs radiators. Now, just 5 years later, they already need touch up. I think you’ll get a lot of years after the prep work you did on these. Bravo, and happy solstice!

  • Fortunately, there was a sandblaster in Stockland, Illinois, who was very reasonable on price and schedule in getting the radiators sandblasted. So that helped tremendously with the process.

    After the ordeal of hauling these beasts across the county this summer to be blasted and then the multilayer paint job, I can assure you that there will be much gnashing of teeth if I have to repeat this at any time within the next decade!

  • Your rads look amazing. I also notice how unusual some of them are, which definitely adds visual interest. I would love to have rad heating in my house, but as far as we can tell, the house was first heated with coal stoves, then a gravity heated air system that was then retrofitted to natural gas forced air. I still manage to find the odd lump of coal in the basement…

  • Thx for the comment! I lived in NYC for ten years and never saw radiators with round pipes like some of the ones in the Roff Home. A couple of historic preservation people have said that they are unique, too. I have no idea how they used to heat this house. I think that there was a gut renovation in 1940 that ripped out nearly all evidence of how they used to heat the home. It’s all detective and guesswork now.

    I placed a link to your site on the blog, and I have been looking at it to learn from your experiences as I renovate this home. Thank you for placing your renovation info online! It’s helpful to those of us just getting a start!

  • karl

    That was inspiring. I’m gonna do exactly what you did. I went back and forth on radiator color probably a million times. But, what you did with the silver is classic and it fits in great with the woodwork, floor. etc. I really needed to see that combination. Problem solved. Thank you

  • Thanks for the comment on the Roff Home blog about radiator refinishing. I’m glad that the info and the photos are helping in your process. As for me, I knew that some of the radiators were originally painted a brass color, but I’m not a big fan of the gold-looking finish, especially when silver is an option. I agonized over the color choice for weeks before plunging in and just doing it. I was afraid that the color choice would clash with the reds, yellows and browns of the rest of the room. However, what I’ve found is that the silver makes for a nice highlight and contrast against the color scheme of the wood flooring. I did multiple coats of silver spray paint on the radiators, because I wanted them to gleam like solid silver ingots. When the radiators are dusted and wiped down, they do seem to take on that quality.

    It’s now been a year since I refinished the radiators on the first floor of the Roff Home, and I’ve never regretted the color decision.

  • Eva

    This looks fantastic! What type of primer did you use? Any specific silver spray paint that I should look for to replicate? Did you just spray them yourself, straight out of the can? No problems getting the spray paint to evenly coat the rads? Again – fantastic!!!

  • Sorry for the delay in replying to this post… The primer was a spray-on primer from the same manufacturer as the silver paint. I’ll look up the silver paint info (Rust-o-leum, I believe) and post it here. I went through a lot of paint to get an even finish and to thoroughly cover the primer, even on inner radiator pipes. I did have some trouble with spray paint beginning to run and drip, but it usually meant I was getting too close to the pipes with the spray paint or that I needed adjust my angle when I was trying to spray inner pipes (I would be aiming for inner pipes, but the paint would start to run down the outermost pipes). I just kept a rag with me and blotted up the excess and they turned out ok. The worst case would be that I would sand off the top of a dried running drop of paint and then do a light recoat to hide the sand marks. My overall goal was to have the radiators look like giant silver ingots standing in each room of the home. I’m pleased with how they turned out.

  • Home Helper

    I have a rare round steam Ratiator Im looking to sale anyone interested email me at!

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