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A homeowner’s guide to painting a radiator

The last detail - paint your radiator to complete your grand design

How to paint a radiator

Is it okay to paint a radiator?

Radiators are a lot more attractive than they used to be – in some cases. If you have a hand in designing your home, or if money isn’t one of your primary concerns, there are a huge range of radiator models and styles to choose from nowadays.  Designer radiators, horizontal radiators, even radiators that double as mirrors – they’re all available to those who have a choice in the matter.

However, many of us will have inherited our radiators from the previous owner of our homes. As long as they work, they probably won’t be a major worry, at least at first. This may change if you decide to redecorate.

After finding the perfect shade for every corner of the house, from ceiling to skirting boards, the stubbornly off-white rectangles in each room may be too much to bear. Must they be that colour? Is it a law or something? The good news is that no, there's no law that states radiators must be the colour of dice from a seventies board game. You have options, and one of them is painting.

Cleaning and preparation

Like most painting jobs, half the work involved in painting radiators is preparation. The first step is to turn the radiator off and allow it to cool completely. Place a cloth of some kind on the ground underneath the radiator to protect your carpet or floorboards from drips.

Clean the radiator with warm water and allow it to dry off. Sand it down with very light grade sandpaper, something around the 120 mark. This is just to break the surface of the previous layer of paint a little and help the new layer stick, so you don’t have to go mad. A light sanding all over will do. Dust down the radiator and, ideally, shake out your cover sheet or vacuum around the area before you start painting. This is to ensure dust doesn’t waft up and spoil your lovely paint finish while it’s drying.

Depending on the condition of your radiator, you might need to use an undercoat, or at least touch up any rust spots with an anti-corrosive primer. If you apply a full layer of undercoat, you’ll need to leave it to dry for at least 8 hours. It might be best to leave it until the next day, unless you’re in a hurry.

Do I need special radiator paint or brushes?

Not necessarily. Specialised radiator paint is widely available from most paint retailers, who will tell you it’s specially designed to dry quickly and retain its colour.  For instance, if the paint is white, the radiator won’t slowly turn the colour of old Scrabble tiles.

You can also use regular satinwood (or ‘half-gloss’) paint if you like. It’s oil-based and will also hold its colour. If you buy good paint and mind your brushstrokes, you might even get away with one coat on a radiator. As satinwood is used daily by professional painters and decorators, you might find it easier to get the colour you want.

You can get a special, angled brush for painting radiators, but any brush of a sufficient quality and the right size – around three inches or so – should be fine.

Is there any particular way to paint a radiator?

Yes. Begin by painting the edges and work your way around the frame of the radiator, leaving the front and grooves until last. Take care not to use too much paint, as it will build up easily on the radiator edges and drip. Paint the front grooves in long strokes, as evenly as you can. Once again, try not to use too much paint, as a drip on the front of a radiator will be quite obvious when it dries. Make sure you meet up with the edges you’ve already painted, so you don’t miss any spots.

No matter what the design of your radiator, there will probably be parts of it you won’t be able to reach with a brush. Many of these areas won’t really be noticeable unless you go looking for them, and people differ on how exacting they want to be here, but there is a tool that can help. A radiator roller is a small paint roller with a long handle which you can use to finish off those parts the brush can’t get to. Again, radiator rollers are commonly available.

When you’re sure you’ve covered everything, you need to ‘lay off’ the front of the radiator. Run the brush over the areas you’ve already covered in long, straight lines. This way, you’ll have a nice, even finish when the radiator dries, and you might pick up a drip or two that you missed as well. Now, all you have to do is leave it to dry for a day, and you should have a nice, colourful radiator.

Spray painting

You do have the option of spray-painting your radiators, but it's an option probably best left to the professionals. Spray paint is a bit tricky to use, and the best results would probably be achieved by taking the radiator off the wall and spraying it somewhere else. This is all possible, but by no means easy, and would present a challenge to all but the most hardcore DIY enthusiasts.

How about radiator covers?

These are highly customisable, box-like frames that hide the radiator from view while – in theory - allowing the heat to circulate. So are they the perfect solution? Well, maybe. You need to take care when choosing a radiator cover, as some designs could make your radiator less efficient.

Despite the name, radiators work mostly via convection rather than radiation. Cold air at floor-level rises through the radiator as it is heated. The newly-warmed air comes out at the top and circulates around the room in what’s known as a convection current. The radiator drives and sustains this cycle for as long as it’s warm. Direct heat from the front of the radiator contributes a small amount to making the room warmer, but it’s the convection currents that do most of the work.

Radiator covers are very versatile in design terms, and prices range from the fairly reasonable to perhaps a little more than that. It's worth noting that radiator covers will significantly impact the performance and efficiency of your radiator, even more so if it has a thermostatic radiator valve (TRV) that's fitted within the cover. This would render the TRV useless. If you set your heart on one, just make sure it has large gaps for the air to pass through at the top and bottom, as well as ventilator grilles at the front. If it doesn’t, no matter how much it ties the room together, you might want to consider another design.

Of course, no amount of covers or paint will fix a damaged radiator, so you should try your best to keep them healthy. We’ve put together a bit of guidance on that front here. You might also want to consider standard boiler cover, which includes emergency repairs as well as routine maintenance of your heating system. Some radiator types, such as towel rails or old fashioned iron models, aren't included as part of the boiler cover. Please make sure your radiators can be insured before you buy.

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