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Working Safely with Old Wood
By Living Vintage on Feb 26, 2013
My mudroom project was recently featured on Trish Holder’s blog, Greenspiration Home, and many of her readers commented that they were concerned about the health of my family after reading that I sanded the antique beadboard and floors, which may have contained lead paint.
It got me to thinking about all the safety measures we’ve taken in working with old wood.
For example, hen sanding, 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 it and remove any dust by washing 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.
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 has the added benefit of amplifying the richness of any remaining color. It makes a major difference, as shown by the photos below.
Beadboard before polyurethane:
Beadboard after applying polyurethane sealant:
See the difference?
By the way, you may be wondering how we know that the wood contains lead-based paint.
It’s pretty simple to deduce. According to the EPA, any homes built before 1960 contain lead paint, and its used continued into the late 1970s, 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.
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.
If you deal with old wood like we do, there’s no doubt you will come into contact with many rusty nails. And when I think of the health risks related to rusty nails, I immediately think: tetanus.
I don’t know about you, but the symptoms of tetanus don’t sound like a bit of fun to me. They include muscle spasms, difficulty swallowing, drooling, breathing problems and excessive sweating.
Also, it would be a horrible way to die.
When I was researching this post, I learned that rust in and of itself does not cause tetanus, but that rusty nails are a prime breeding ground for the bacteria, called Clostridium tetani, which 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?
Honestly, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if your answer is “yes”. I think we’ve all learned that lesson at one time or another.
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—we buy cases of them!
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.
If you religiously wear gloves like we do, you’ll rarely have a splinter. You may still get a splinter from time to time, and if you do, try one of these remedies. (I’ve personally used the tape method before. It works!)
Dirty wood deserves a special mention.
Now I realize that some of you may chuckle to read that I’ve included grungy wood in my list of safety precautions.
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. So when I'm working with old wood, I always keep allergy medications with me, eye drops and an inhaler included.
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.
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