Safety Precautions in Working with Old Wood

working with old woodBy Kim Whitley-Gaynor

Many Greenspiration Home readers have commented that they were concerned about the health of my family after reading my recent blog about my mudroom project. They were concerned because the project entailed the sanding and use of the installation antique bead board and floors, which may have contained lead paint.  It got me to thinking about all the safety measures we always take when working with old wood, so I thought I’d share those as well.

Lead-Based Paint

The dangers of lead are well known so we take all necessary precautions in working with wood that has old lead-based paint.  For example, when sanding old wood, I use a hand sander equipped with a HEPA filter, and that filter is cleaned frequently.   I forego the paper masks and use a NIOSH- or MSHA-approved respirator with high filtration efficiency that is specifically designed to protect against fine airborne contaminants.   Also, 95% of the time, I’m sanding outside on a non-windy day to keep contaminants from entering our home.

Once the old wood is sanded to my satisfaction, I clean the wood and remove any dust by washing it with mild soap and a garden hose.   This is also a good time to clean any gunk out of the grooves or around the tongue.  After it’s been thoroughly cleaned, I place the wood on an elevated surface and give it time to dry completely in the sun.

working with old wood and lead paint

BEFORE polyurethane coat

After installation, if there is still paint on the boards, as was the case for my mudroom ceiling and floors, I always apply a few clear satin polyurethane coats to seal the wood and prevent any chance of future exposure to flaky lead paint. This step also has the added benefit of amplifying the richness of any remaining color.  It makes a major difference as shown by the photos.

By the way, you may be wondering how we know when wood contains lead-based paint.

It’s pretty simple to deduce.  According to the EPA, any homes built before 1960 contain lead paint, and lead is still present in some homes built into the late 1970′s, when lead paint became illegal to sell or use.  Because we’re interested in salvaging old growth lumber and other vintage materials, we tear down old homes built from the turn of the century into the 1930′s or so.  So, it stands to reason that if wood is painted, it’s probably lead paint or milk paint.

AFTER polyurethane coat

To diagnose which type of paint is present, there are numerous lead-based paint diagnosis kits available that are easily found using any search engine.

Rusty Nails

If you deal with old wood like we do, there’s no doubt in my mind that you will come into contact with many rusty nails.  And when I think of the health effects of rusty nails, I immediately think:  tetanus.

I don’t know about you but the symptoms of tetanus don’t sound fun to me.  They include muscle spasms, difficulty swallowing, drooling, breathing problems, and excessive sweating.  Also, it would be a horrible way to die.

removing rusty nails

Remove rusty nails from vintage wood

When I was researching this post, I learned that rust, in and of itself, does not cause Tetanus, but rusty nails are a prime breeding ground for the bacteria, called Clostridium tetani, that causes lockjaw.   It’s also found in soil and manure.  (The latter includes dog, cat and rat feces.)  And, one more “gotcha” that applies to Texas:  it’s much more common in hot, humid areas.

When my husband and I started our business, we made sure to get our tetanus shots, and we’ll continue to get them every 10 years as recommended.

Splintery, Jagged Wood

Have you ever run your bare hand over a piece of wood and lived to regret it?  I think we’ve all learned that lesson at one time or another.

Protecting yourself from splinters and cuts may seem like a minor thing, but even a tiny splinter can hurt and make you think twice about working without hand protection.  Whether you’re working with old or new wood, it pays to protect your hands.  Invest in a good first aid kit and good gloves like we do — we buy them by the case! If you religiously wear gloves like we do, you’ll rarely have a splinter but if you do, you want to know how to remove a splinter correctly. Try one of these remedies.  (I’ve personally used the tape method before.  It works!)

Dirty Lumber

Dirty wood deserves a special mention.  In addition to having a huge “ick” factor, dirty wood can make your life miserable if you suffer from allergies or asthma like I do.  Dust particles, molds and other fine pollutants can cause irritating and sometimes life-threatening health problems.  Therefore, I always keep allergy medications, including eye drops, and an inhaler with me when I’m working with old wood.  We also have rags soap and clean water in jugs to wash our dirty hands and faces when needed.

I rest easy knowing that I have products on hand to prevent or lessen any allergic episodes from getting out of hand.

In closing, we should all be aware of the hazards of working with old materials. Your individual sensitivities, reactions to allergens, and overall health should be in the front of your minds at all times.  We don’t need to be scared of working with old materials, just be safe when it comes to your personal health and safety.

Formerly a high-tech project manager, Kim Whitley-Gaynor decided to follow her heart.  She is now an old home salvager, home improvement fanatic, and builder of little houses … using reclaimed materials, of course!


4 Responses »

  1. Great article for DIYers working on their old homes. Pre-1978 homes very likely do have lead paint. Another alternative to sanding lead paint, is to use infrared, low heat.

  2. Very good advice on working with old wood. Another couple of points to consider.

    De-nailing is a critical part of re-purposing vintage lumber. If you have larger projects that will require sawing or machining of the material, investing in a metal detector will pay off in a hurry. Ruined saw blades are not so bad to repair or replace but planer and jointer knives are expensive and time consuming to sharpen and replace. Also metal shards flying off of high speed tools is dangerous, eye protection is especially important when working with recycled wood!

    Another concern is wood that is insect infested. We heat treat all of our heavy timbers, beams and logs. We have a local saw mill that has large kilns that heat the wood to a point that will kill any insects and their eggs that may have been deposited in the wood. Several companies also offer chemicals for treating smaller quantities of lumber. Nothing worse than installing a beautiful vintage beam in a expensive new home and introducing a insect hatch a few months after the owner has moved in.

  3. Great article. I have COPD and about 3 months ago. I came down with bacterial pneumonia while planing some dirty reclaimed barn wood. I have since invested in dust masks. It took me over 6 weeks to feel better. Think barn, think what barns are for, think animals, think poop, THINK MASK,!!!!

  4. As a contractor & gone threw Lead Certification I would strongly urge people to do there own research on the proper way to handle materials containing lead paint. Any home built prior to 1978 should be tested for lead before any work is performed. 1978 is when lead paint was no longer produced…Paint suppliers exhausted their inventories beyond 1980. Sanding outside is a good idea to keep dust & fine particles from entering your home but make sure you use a drop cloth & wear a Tyvek suit while sanding along with mask & eye protection. Dispose of materials properly according to the EPA. Your hair on your head & body is like a feather duster and will collect lead dust a transfer that dust to your home. Wet sanding will produce the least amount of dust. Please visit the EPA website for more information.

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