What is a Paint Scraper?

Karen Bernardo

A paint scraper is any implement used to remove paint from a solid surface through scraping or abrasion. Most people who do a great deal of painting, finishing, or remodeling have a favorite paint scraper, some more unorthodox than others. Some prefer tools manufactured for that purpose; some prefer putty knives; some prefer razor blades. In different applications, all these tools work. The key is matching the tool to the project.

Paint scrapers work best on solid surfaces rather than fabrics.
Paint scrapers work best on solid surfaces rather than fabrics.

First, however, it's important to note that any paint scraper works much better on paint that has first been chemically softened with a paint-stripping preparation. Trying to scrape dry paint will almost invariably damage the underlying surface and produce unsuccessful results. Allow the stripper to do its work; use a paint scraper to push off the gooey paint; repeat if necessary; and lightly rub the surface with steel wool to remove any residue.

Only after old loose paint is scraped off, should a surface be repainted.
Only after old loose paint is scraped off, should a surface be repainted.

With so many choices, choosing the right paint scraper for the job can be a bit daunting. The simplest tool is a stiff-bladed putty knife, almost as rigid as a chisel. Many people consider putty knives their tool of choice because the hand is placed very close to the surface being scraped, and thus the user has more control over the process. Putty knives work well for flat surfaces like a tabletop or the side of a dresser, but it's hard to get them into small nooks and crannies.

A “multi-use paint scraper,” also sometimes called a five-in-one, could best be described as a putty knife with benefits. This handy little gadget has a variety of cutouts and indentations that can open paint cans, pull nails, and perform a variety of other handy tasks. Best of all, it's wonderful for those nooks and crannies few other scrapers can touch. Its blade is not very sharp, but this shouldn't be a problem if a chemical paint stripper is used first.

For large applications like a garage door, hardware store personnel tend to recommend a double-bladed paint scraper. Also called a double-edge scraper, this is a curved piece of metal with a screw fastening it to a handle. Each of its blades is sharpened in a different direction so it can be pushed and pulled across the surface being scraped, rather than just worked in one direction. This speeds up the scraping process. The disadvantage of the double-bladed scraper is that it's somewhat difficult to control and isn't adaptable to small, intricate areas.

Another tool often used to remove paint is commonly known as a “safety scraper.” In reality, a safety scraper is a single-edge razor blade that fits into a plastic or aluminum holder, and it's not very safe. To be sure, it's very handy for flicking tiny droplets of dried paint from the floor or scraping paint residue off glass. But razor blades are obviously dangerous to flesh and also likely to damage the painted surface being scraped, so this kind of scraper isn't the best choice on wood. If the paint has been sufficiently softened chemically, a razor blade shouldn't be necessary.

Other tools that can be used to remove paint include infrared heaters that melt the paint enough to enable it to be scraped off by mechanical means, and rotary strippers that employ whirling metal wires to strike the paint off the surface being stripped. Infrared heaters can be a fire hazard, and should only be used with extreme care. Rotary strippers chop up wood surfaces, although they may be a perfectly good solution for removing paint from metal.

Unfortunately, there isn't one paint scraper that works well in all situations. In most cases, a variety of tools must be employed for best results. For example, to remove the paint from a carved wooden desk, start with a water-based, low-VOC stripper – one with a very low level of volatile organic compounds, which release a noxious gas into the atmosphere. Give the stripper enough time to work, and then try a putty knife or double-bladed scraper on the flat surfaces and a multi-use scraper in the carvings. Feel free to experiment, focusing on the safest tools with the least potential for damage. As with any tool, care in the choice and use of paint scrapers will produce the best results.

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