Your Place | Whatever you do, don't spray-paint any copper

Posted: August 03, 2007

Question: The previous owners of our house spray-painted the copper flashing over the bow window at the front. Any ideas on what the best method is to get the paint off - something that won't ruin the shine of the copper flashing? I've gotten sick of looking at the brownish spray-paint marks. They did a horrible job to boot.

Answer: Why anyone would spray-paint copper flashing is beyond me, since copper is so expensive and gives any house a high-end look. I'm assuming the copper began weathering to a nice patina, and they decided they didn't like green, so they painted it brown. There is new construction in Philadelphia that uses a chemical to accelerate the weathering process that creates such patina. Obviously, your home's previous owners weren't up on the trends.

According to the National Park Service, which administers many a historic site, trying to remove paint from copper is risky because there is a better-than-average chance of pocking or pitting the surface. The "gentlest means possible" of removing paint or dirt from any building surface can be achieved using a low-pressure water wash, the Park Service says, scrubbing more persistent areas with a natural bristle (never metal) brush. Steam cleaning can also be used effectively for some materials.

A third technique to remove paint, as well as dirt, stains or graffiti, the Park Service says, involves the use of commercially available chemical cleaners or paint removers, which loosen or dissolve the paint, etc. These cleaners can be used in combination with water or steam, followed by a clear water wash to remove the residue of paint and the chemicals themselves from the surface.

Check out the complete explanation at, and good luck.

Q: At long last, I am going to bite the bullet and get serious about redoing our kitchen. It's small, 10 by 10 feet, in an 80-year-old house. We have no intention of breaking through walls, although we know we will need some plumbing work and rewiring. We have lived in this house for 41 years and know every nook and cranny, so there should be no surprises.

I read an article recently that said you would love yourself and probably save money if, up front, you consult with an architect. What do you think? What is his job exactly? We have gone into some of our household adventures half-cocked before, and I would surely like to get this one right.

A: Yes, consult an architect. Find one with residential experience who is familiar with the kinds of houses in your neighborhood; who has worked in your community before, so he or she knows all the rules and regulations; and who can work with a contractor. Calling three and getting estimates never works - what you do is call architects until you get some serious interest, then make some appointments.

Before the first appointment with any of the architects who respond to your call, measure the exact square footage of the space, see whether you can obtain the original plans for your house and subsequent renovations from the local building department, list all your wants and desires, come up with photos of your dream kitchen from shelter magazines, look on the Internet for material and product ideas, and then come up with questions to ask the architects (what they do, how they might proceed with your kitchen, how they get along with certain contractors, and so forth).

Make the same presentation to each architect. Don't ask one architect one series of questions, and the next one an entirely new set. And don't be afraid to ask how much the services will cost.

The key to avoiding another home-improvement adventure is making sure you and the architect, you and the contractor, and the architect and the contractor are all on the same wavelength. You need to communicate easily and to compromise.

Have questions for Alan J. Heavens? E-mail him at or write him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.

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