Our New Old House

1918 Bungalow


Remember Mr. Wizard?

So, way back in November when we hosted the Des Moines Rehabber’s Club’s inaugural meeting, I met a guy named Todd who blew my mind with his crazy talk about how I could strip stubborn layers of caked on, baked on paint that has covered all the metal fixtures in my house for aeons.  His suggestion included only one ingredient: ammonia.

“Just regular old Bo-Peep ammonia, soak your fixtures in a bucket overnight, and in the morning the paint just peels right off,” is what he said.

I was skeptical.  I went to the Internet and worked all my librarian magic in searching for evidence that this might work and found none.  Well, with nothing to lose but a few bucks’ worth of ammonia and a night’s worth of time invested, I set myself up an experimentation lab in the basement.

Here’s where I’m going to interrupt my story to interject a story from my childhood. When I was little, we had cable TV for like, three years. During those three years I watched as much Mr. Wizard as I could because I just knew I was going to become a scientist someday. So my five-year-old self started stealing things like oven cleaner from under the sink to spray on aluminum foil and watch it dissolve, and pouring ground pepper into a pot of water so I could watch a drop of soap disperse it. It drove my mother crazy, and led her to post a poison control phone number next to every phone in the house. One day she read in the paper that the producers from Mr. Wizard were auditioning Midwestern kids to appear on the show and that they’d be making a stop in Des Moines. She dressed me in my cutest jumper and my red yarn leg warmers, and we trucked on over to the mall.  We waited in line for what felt like hours, but at last it was my turn to audition.  I don’t remember a single thing about the audition except that I was very confused the whole time and I knew when I left that I wasn’t going to get to be on the show.  I don’t think I was crushed or even overly emotional about it.

So, back in the present, inspired by my childhood hero, I set about preparing my experiment.

Remember the extra doors I wanted to practice on before I tackled anything upstairs? They came complete with painted over hardware that I felt ok about throwing away if this didn’t work.


Here they are soaking in the radioactive-looking ammonia. I didn’t buy just “regular old” ammonia, I bought “lemon scent” ammonia. Don’t be fooled, people. The lemon scent is only there to mock you while the ammonia kills you slowly. This is nasty stuff.


I put the lid on the plastic tub, went upstairs, and forgot all about it until the next day. I half expected to come back the next morning and find just cleaner, lemon scented paint still stuck tight to the hardware.

But when I lifted the lid and pulled out the first piece of hardware… Heavens ta’ Murgatroid, it worked!  I grabbed a piece of scrap wood from the floor nearby (you need very specialized tools for this kind of work, you see) and started scraping away and the paint just slid off the metal like cheese off a greasy pizza.


When I finished the test pieces they looked like this:


I grabbed my husband, stuck a screwdriver in his hand and said, “Quick! Take off all the doorknobs and faceplates and door hinges all over the house! We have to soak them! We have to rid our house of the awful layers of paint and restore the metal! Do it now!” I grabbed my own screw driver and started removing the nasty old registers from the kitchen and the dining room. Fortunately, Brandon didn’t go about his task with quite as much zeal as I’d hoped to inspire in him. He dutifully brought me the hardware from two doors, which was about all I could handle in the tub at one time. It’s good that I have someone to keep me grounded in times like these.

So I soaked the registers and hardware with yet more ammonia and they looked like this:



(I added some more ammonia to the tub after I took these pictures so the hardware was actually covered.)


After about a day and a half of soaking I started cleaning off the loose paint. By this time it was just falling off the metal.



A quick scrub with a scouring pad got the leftover bits of paint from the grooves and corners.



They came out looking pretty good!





After I rinsed them off in the sink, I laid them on the floor and dried them really quickly with… you guessed it! The heat gun! I didn’t want any more rust forming than had already started on these registers.

I’m now on a search to find out how I can spraypaint or otherwise treat the registers to give them a bronze color or at least protect them from future rusting. As always, I’m open to suggestions.

And as a final thought…

Someone asked me about the shirt I was wearing when I did all this wierd science. The shirt simply says, “PANTS!” and comes from a group of badass musicians called $trick9 and The Truth. I got them all to sign my shirt at their CD release party last Friday, so in the hopes that some of their badassness would rub off on my blog, here is the PANTS! shirt.

(The shirt is inspired by this video and you can check out more about the band at www.yostrick9.com. They’re loads of fun.)


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4 Responses to “Remember Mr. Wizard?”

  1. December 21st, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    Jenne says:

    if you wipe the hardware down with 3 in 1 oil after you strip them, it will prevent the formation of surface rust…and just make it look nice too 🙂

  2. December 21st, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    jm says:


    Your mom must be soooo proud 🙂

  3. December 23rd, 2007 at 4:14 am

    Ann says:

    ooh, impressive shlepping off of paint! good ammonia tip. I recently found your blog. My husband & I bought a 1923 Craftsman in Oregon this summer & I too am a librarian (at least I assume you’re one, if you’re using mad librarian skills). so hey, greetings from one bungalow owning librarian to another! 🙂

  4. September 13th, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Our New Old House » Blog Archive » Past the block! Back to work! says:

    […] painted the window hardware was all painted over. I used the handy dandy ammonia trick as seen in this post but the paint was hard to get out of the moving […]

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