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Still in the midst of stripping my stairs, I’m trying not to use any smelly, highly dangerous chemicals , nothing that requires a mask or moving the cats out for the duration (good thing, too, as it’s going on month four in the project). But, I ran into a lot of trouble when, under multiple layers of paint, I uncovered a layer or two of old mastic. The stripper I’m using is purported to remove up to 32 layers of paint with one application , and it is effective against the paint. Against the mastic…not so much.

First I tried sanding for about a half-hour on one tread. This kicked up an astounding amount of baby-poop-colored dust, which settled all over the hallway – even on the 12′ ceilings (apparently I need to invest in a palm sander with better dust collection). Yet a thick layer of the mastic remained on the tread. I thought I’ve have to cave and resort to the flammable-solvent-filled stinky stuff. But no. After having to listen to my extended lament, Editor Christopher Schwarz handed me the Benchcrafted Skraper.

This $34 tool is tipped with a 1/8″-thick bar of solid carbide with a 90Ã?° cutting angle; unlike the others scrapers in my extensive collection (I tend to lose them, buy another, then find an older one…I now have six hardware-store scrapers), it doesn’t flex at all in use, so once I found the right angle at which to hold it, there were no adjustments to be made. The tip is honed to razor sharpness on eight edges, and the bar can be flipped over as necessary to use the fresh long edge. But after three stairs worth of use, I’m still using the edge with which I began. Plus, it can be resharpened. I also like the angle of the handle, which allows for zero-clearance use in corners, such as where the treads meet the risers.

It took me about an hour to completely remove the patches of mastic from three stairs. At 1-1/4″ wide, this tool clearly wasn’t intended for use on large areas; were a wider version available, I’d buy it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. But, it did the job far better than anything else I’ve tried, and with far less mess. The detritus piled up on the tread, not on the ceiling (and walls, and floor and me), there were no chemicals involved and I could listen to my favorite iTunes playlist while I worked. Still, I’m not looking forward to the remaining stairs. And unfortunately, there’s still a lot of sanding ahead to prepare for finishing. For that portion of the project I have another tool: my checkbook.

– Megan Fitzpatrick

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Showing 7 comments
  • megan

    Thanks for the advice and warnings — and of course, you’re all absolutely right — except for Jakers 😉

    I’m fairly certain these treads were replaced in the late 70s, post lead additives in paint. But I’m not sure the mastic doesn’t contain asbestos. So, based on your warnings, I shut up the cats on the third floor, donned a good mask and used a methylene chloride stripper on the remaining mastic (it worked gang-busters), which I then neutralized as recommended. I’m not looking forward to hand scraping the treads rather than sanding – but better that then releasing carcinogens into the air and HVAC system.

    And Dynami — I think the ’80s are back, so your cabinets are right in style!

  • kerry doyle

    Those treads almost look like yellow pine, which is maybe why they were painted way back when. It’s a durable wood and somewhat attractive, but painting or replacement are viable options you’ve probably already considered.
    The floors of my first house (the ‘practice’ house) were covered with nasty 60’s shag carpeting in the 80’s.
    Peeling back the perimeter of the carpet revealed a finished floor suitable for sanding & staining, or so we thought. The floor was finished in from the walls only about 16" to where linoleum or rug overlaid it. Surprise! The only finish the center wood had received in its 60 years of existence was provided by incontinent dogs .
    Solution? Sand, clean, refinish, then celebrate the story the formerly unfinished ( and still slightly different colored) center told. Good vernacular dwelling space.
    Maybe there’s an alternative to all your scraping & sanding.

  • Jakers Biostahr


    Nice write up.

    However, this really is more suited to mans work. Ladies are better off laying down doilies and such. Let a man remove that junk. While he’s doing that you can weave a carpet for the stairs and start supper.

    You really shouldn’t bother your pretty little head with this stuff!

    TiCPS (Tongue in cheek post scriptum)- As editor of a major woodworking magazine, I have to assume you have a fairly succinct understanding of what you are doing, regardless of the other comments here.

  • Steve

    I concur on the warnings about lead and asbestos. I had a vinyl floor tested a few years ago (prior to replacement), and it was a full 25% asbestos by weight. Once asbestos gets aerosolized and spreads around a room, it’s going to contribute to the indoor air supply for the forseeable future, so if you’re going to remove it, you’d better be sure to do it the right way.

    [Aside: Regarding stuff like nasty paint removers, we have a tendency to want to categorize things as just "good" or "bad," and stick with the good things and avoid the bad things. But the truth is that pretty much everything is bad to a greater or lesser extent, and we have to understand _how_ they are bad if we’re going to make good choices.]

  • Justin

    In addition to the above warning about lead paint, please be advised that the ‘mastic’ to which you were referring likely contains asbestos. I am sure you are familiar with the effects of asbestos so be advised that when you were sanding the mastic you made it airborne and thus likely to be inhaled. I would suggest having some of your scrapings sampled. If they are positive for asbestos I would advise stopping your work and having the mastic abated by a professional. I hate to put a damper on your project, but asbestos is very damaging and was commonly used throughout many building materials (glue, vinyl flooring, roofing, insulation, etc.).
    On a side note, keep up your great work at the magazine!

  • Dyami

    I have to agree, quality scrapers are a must. If you can’t get you hands on the Benchcrafted one next time, or if you need a bigger one, try one from the paint department with a carbide blade. I have a fancy Sandvik model and a cheapo Kobalt one. They both work great. I used them to scrape the mastic off my improperly re-surfaced kitchen cabinets. They excelled at taking off both the glue and the original finish the re-surfacer chose to leave on. Once re-glued I now have ugly, 80’s cabinets with the laminate properly adhered!

  • David

    Megan – Perhaps you know this, but you’d be well advised to use a more effective methylene-chloride based stripper in lieu of sanding anything in your house. From the pics that you’ve posted in the past, you’ve an older home, and that pretty much guarantees that most of the paint is lead-based.

    Such paint and the surfaces that came in immediate contact with it should never, ever be sanded (that includes the bare wood directly underneath the paint). It’s simply not possible to completely seal out the dust with a mask, and it will wind up in your HVAC ducts, which means that you’ll be breathing it many months after completing your project.

    Trust me, you’re far better off with a one-time, low toxicity exposure to methylene chloride than a continuous and unknown concentration exposure to lead.

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