Refinishing a towel bar after testing for lead paint

Q: I have moved into a house built in the 1930s, so I’m pretty sure the towel rack in the bathroom was painted with lead-based paint. The paint is chipped. If I leave it alone, it will continue to chip and get lead dust on my towels, which seems like a hazard. Sanding it down and repainting it is also a hazard, and I would need to get all kinds of equipment I don’t have. I don’t want to hire someone for one small job. Any advice?

A: Lead paint that’s stuck well to a surface isn’t hazardous. But if you sand it, you turn it to dust, and that is dangerous if inhaled. If children younger than 6 are in your house or if you are pregnant, you should be especially cautious.

Lead paint definitely was used in the 1930s, but not always. Although a 1930s house probably has some lead paint in it, it isn’t necessarily on your towel bar. And even if the paint there did have lead, there’s a good chance that sometime in the past 90 years, someone repainted your towel bar, using paint that may or may not have contained lead. They might have simply covered the old paint. Or they might have scraped off all the paint and started fresh.

The only way to know is to test the paint for lead. Although home test kits aren’t considered as reliable as testing done by professionals, it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars on a professional evaluation if the only paint you’re worried about is that on a towel bar. To test a specific surface, a home test kit should work well, especially if you cut a shallow notch, about 1/4-inch wide, into the paint with a clean utility knife or scraper. The idea is to expose a little of each layer of paint, so angle the blade as you scratch across to create the notch, which needs to be as deep as the base paint layer. When you begin to expose wood fibers, you’ve cut deep enough.

Test kits are widely available at paint stores and home centers, or you can order them online. For example, 3M’s LeadCheck two-pack of disposable, nonstaining lead-detection swabs costs about $10 at Home Depot. The swabs turn red, usually within 30 seconds, if paint contains lead. The kit has two swabs, so you can repeat the test on a slightly different area if the first test is negative.

If both tests are negative, you can scrape off the loose paint, lightly sand the surface to scuff it up and round over any sharp edges of paint chips, then repaint. Use a primer first for best results.

If one test is positive, assume the paint contains lead. You can still repaint, but the key is to keep the surface damp as you prepare for repainting, so you don’t generate dust. First spread plastic on the floor under the towel bar, and tape it to keep it in place. Spritz the towel bar with water. Scrape off any loose bits of paint with a paint scraper or the tip of a putty knife. Most of the paint will probably remain in place. Scrub that with a damp abrasive pad, which will round over any sharp edges where paint chipped off and scratch up the old paint to help the new paint stick. You can use wet-dry sandpaper, a sanding pad or the kind of scrub pad you would use to clean pots.

Wipe away the residue with a damp rag. Wipe again with a clean, damp rag. Then bundle the scrub pad and rags along with the chips in the plastic on the floor, place the bundle in a plastic bag, tie it shut and throw it away. Let the surface dry, then repaint just as you would if the paint didn’t have lead. The new paint layers will cover the old lead paint and keep it from creating any dust on your towels.

If you’re worried that the new paint might wear off and expose lead paint underneath, you could strip the paint using a chemical stripper.

Or you could replace the bar. Because it’s held in place by ceramic brackets, that might seem impossible. But you can fit a new bar in place if you get a replacement bar that has spring-loaded pins on the ends. Home Depot sells a 24-inch Franklin Brass replacement bar with a square profile in white or clear plastic for less than $10. The end pieces slip out, so you can remove them to cut the bar to the length you need, then fit in the end pieces and place the bar between the brackets. If you want a black bar, you could probably adapt the concept of these manufactured bars by using springs and a piece of painted wood.

To remove the old bar, you would need to saw through it, which, of course, would generate dust, although most of it would be sawdust. To keep paint dust out of the air, keep the surface damp. A helper with a spritz bottle would be helpful. A simple handsaw, such as a hacksaw or coping saw, should work fine.