Heritage Restoration, Inc.

Painting Radiators and Finding Studs

There are always projects to do, especially in old homes. We struggle trying to use modern products in old building with mixed results. Sometimes we make things worse, or sometimes we buy something that is useless. Here are two popular old house project tips:


A radiator is a device that transfers heat by convection and radiation, where hot water or steam runs through metal fins to heat a sBronze Cast iron Radiatorpace. Mid-late 19th century radiators were large, heavy, and highly ornate cast iron fins, ganged together to fit the heating demands of the space. They were placed near sources of cold air, like windows, to assist in the natural movement of the air. These radiators were designed to maximize surface area to transfer the heat into the room. The radiators were typically painted in a silver or bronze metallic paint.

In the early 1900s, heating engineers analyzed what paint coating was best for the radiator. Their tests showed the paint had no effect on convection but could dramatically reduce radiation. Many layers of paint caked onto the radiator will lose efficiency.

The best way to paint a radiator is to remove the paint and apply a fresh coat. Removal can be tricky and messy. In the off-season, Silver Cast Iron Radiatoryou can easily remove steam radiators although hot water systems will require to be bled. Once removed, you can have the radiator sand blasted and painted by an automotive painting company, or there are even companies that specialize in radiator painting. Be forewarned, they can weigh several hundred pounds so be prepared.

You can also paint them in place. A wire wheel or wire brush will prep it fine, but keep the dust and debris contained especially if you suspect lead paint. I have painted many radiators in a neutral color that adds to the beauty of the room, like the gold or silver. You can use any metal oil or latex paint and do not need to use a high temperature paint.

And since radiators work off convection and radiation, keep furniture about a foot away to allow air to circulate around them and maximize how much heat they throw. If you feel cold spots in a radiator, call a plumber to check the system for clogs. If your steam radiators make a lot of noise, call a qualified steam system heat specialist. Steam is said to be a dead man’s trade, where most that knew how to fix them are long gone, but there are still a few that can actually fix them. Steam heat is great when it works well.

Finding Plaster Wall Studs

A stud finder on a plaster wall is useless. An electronic stud finder works by changes in density, where plaster and lath does not read the same way drywall does. Typically studs are not regularly spaced, so finding one does not mean you can find others. The best ways to find a stud in a plaster wall involves some detective work. You can use a magnet to find nails in a baseboard that lines up with a stud. You can use a flashlight to shine across trim to find depressions where a nail was filled. You can sometimes lightly press the wall, and where there is movement, there is not a stud. And if that fails, you can use a drill with a small 1/8” bit to make holes horizontally about 1” apart. If you want to reduce the dust, wet a rag and hold it around the bit as you drill. Be careful not to catch the rag and spin it around.

There are no shortage of ideas and challenges. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments about your old house.