Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

UnPaint My Art

Not enough emphasis can be put on the fact that there is no universal print stripper — Rubin M. Operowsky, speaking at the 1954 Convention of the American Electroplaters’ Society

By Rebecca Widiss


Photo credit: Etan J. Tal via Wikimedia Commons

Jiamei Tian’s recent paint spraying spree in DC raised many questions. Who is she? What was she thinking? And, if you’re like me, how exactly does one unpaint an important object?

Like many somewhat-esoteric conundrums, defense and aerospace researchers seem to be the main people investigating paint removal. And what struck me, as I perused several recent studies online, is how many exotic ways there are to separate paint from its perch. Here, for instance, is a potpourri of approaches I plucked from a 2011 University of Dayton chemical engineering thesis by Ebenezer Nyarko:

  • Pyrolytic stripping – Toss your object in an oven (with low oxygen levels) at 700-800F to pyrolize, or decompose, the organic portions of the paint you’ve targeted. Turn up the heat and add some oxygen to form CO2. Scrub off the remaining inert pigments and fillers.
  • Laser stripping – Pyrolyze your paint with energy from a laser beam. Since most of the beam’s energy is put to work decomposing your paint, you’ll be able to get your work done at relatively low temperatures. Works best on flat products.
  • Mechanical Stripping – Depending on the nature of your treasure, blast it with wheat starch, sodium bicarbonate, glass beads, nut shells, corn husks, or fruit seeds.
  • Cyrogenic Stripping – Crank up a high-pressure jet of -320F liquid nitrogen to remove unwanted paint. However, as a Navy-sponsored study I ran across cautions, “Cryogenic methods are not recommended for use on ships b/c of the danger of steel embrittlement by low temperatures.”

So what have conservators been using to save DC’s landmarks? According to Chemical & Engineering News, the National Cathedral’s conservators are keeping mum about their chemical choices. And it appears the National Park Service is no more forthcoming. But the Smithsonian – that science-loving institution – didn’t shy from C&EN’s questions. After testing out toluene and denatured alcohol, Carol Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator at the museum, went with good old paint thinner.


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This entry was posted on August 14, 2013 by in Art, Research and tagged .
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