How To Identify Lead Paint on Vintage Decor

How To Identify Lead Paint on Vintage DecorThe moment I walked through her front door, my friend anxiously grabbed my arm and marched us straight to her living room to present her latest rustic find. Propped in the corner, encircled by handmade signs reminding us what really matters in life, was a BEAUTIFUL chippy exterior door. Her hand expressions became larger and more exaggerated as she shared the adventure, she endured to acquire this charming piece for only $10. I was so happy for her. It was darling!

After congratulating her on her prize I asked what the story was on this piece. She proudly stated it was from a local farmhouse built in the 1940s. I then asked if it was prepared for indoor use. Her happy expression fell and appeared confused, “What do you mean ‘indoor use’? It’s just a door.” After closely inspecting the chippy paint and the exposed wood, I looked up to meet my friend’s watchful eye and could see she was emotionally preparing herself for some bad news.

How To Identify Lead Paint on Vintage DecorThere are two things you MUST address before introducing reclaimed wood or vintage items into your home. Nasty lead-based paint and bugs (i.e.: termites, boring bugs, etc.)! Today in this article I will be focusing only on lead paint, there is a lot to cover.

How To Identify Lead Paint on Vintage DecorAs much as we all love vintage, lead-based paint must always be on top of mind. Your safety, and especially the safety of small children and animals, is priority #1. Today, I want to share some facts about lead-based paint, how to identify it, and how to protect yourself from it while still safeguarding that amazing authentic chippy look.

    (Disclosure: I receive commission for purchases made using Amazon links in my article. I appreciate your support!)

    How To Identify Lead Paint:

    3M LeadCheck Swabs, 8-PackMeet my best friend, 3M LeadCheck Swabs. They are super inexpensive and really easy to use. If you have lots of vintage décor items in your home, I recommend buying several packets and start testing right away. I always keep them on hand in my studio so I can test every item I plan to resell. I also like to supply my buyer a 3M Lead Check Card showing those results. Believe me, they appreciate it every time!


    3M LeadCheck Swabs test results

    How do they work? If the 3M LeadCheck Swab rubs red, it has lead paint. If the swab rubs yellow, you’re in the clear! To clean off the yellow and red spots from your piece, simply use a wet paper towel to rub it off. So stink’n easy! Here is a great video by 3M explaining all the steps…it’s really short and worth watching.


    Here is my video demonstrating this test using a fabulous old bird cage I found at a Maryland consignment store.


    How To Protect Your Home:

    How To Identify Lead Paint on Vintage DecorIf your item does test positive for lead, but you still want to keep its chippy look, you must apply a protective coating that will prevent any further chipping or dust. There are some bloggers out there that say if you place an item out of the reach of small children and animals you don’t need to seal it. I FIRMLY DISAGREE and believe this topic is non-negotiable. Please share your opinion in comments.

    Rust-Oleum Zinsser 408 Bulls Eye Clear Shellac - 1 gallonI personally have found Rust-Oleum's Zinsser Bulls-Eye Clear Shellac Sealer to be the best because it’s heavy duty and thick and doesn’t change the color of your piece.

    (Disclosure: I receive commission for purchases made using Amazon links in my article. I appreciate your support!)

    Rust-Oleum Zinsser 408 Bulls Eye Clear Shellac Spray 12 ozRust-Oleum does also offer a Bulls-Eye Clear Shellac Spray which is very fast and easy to use. However, after using both I much prefer the liquid sealer.

    This stuff is STICKY and will not wash out of a brush, not even with Mineral Spirits! I highly recommend using a foam, disposable brushes so you can throw it away afterwards. Simply apply this sealant to lock in the lead-based paint so it doesn’t chip any further. At least two coats is recommended.

    TIP: I do not recommend this practice for high traffic pieces that have lead-based paint (i.e.: chair, dresser). Every touch to a piece will put wear on the finish, thus eventually wearing through the protective coating which will expose you to the lead paint. 

    Some Facts:

    • The federal government banned consumer use of lead-containing paint in 1978. However, keep in mind people may have stored and reused old lead-based paint throughout the 1980s.
    • The danger lies in ingesting paint chips and inhaling paint dust, not in touching. So, chipping surfaces pose the greatest threat.
    • Lead-based paint is not dangerous unless it starts to deteriorate which results shedding lead dust and chips into the atmosphere. That worn, authentic look that so many of us are after means, by its very nature, that the paint is deteriorating.
    • The danger for lead paint with children is that it has a sweet taste, which makes them want to chew on sills and eat paint chips. 
    • DO NOT sand or scrape on items with lead paint. That means refinishing (sanding & staining) a piece with lead paint is a big NO-NO. Contact your state and local health department’s lead poisoning prevention programs and housing authorities for information on contractors who can safely remove lead-based paint for you.
    • Clean items with lead paint using a rag and soapy water to remove loose pieces of paint and dispose of it immediately. Lead paint chips are considered to be "hazardous waste" and may be disposed at your local Municipal Solid Waste Landfill.
    • Make sure to wash your hands and clean up really well after handling any item with lead-based paint.
    • You can find more information by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) here.

    Knowledge is Power:

    OK, my friends. After reading this it is my hope you feel more empowered when scouring future flea markets. The health of our home and family is the number one priority, don’t you agree? Thanks for reading! Happy hunting!

    Porch Nook | How To Identify Lead Paint on Vintage Decor


    • I appreciate that you warned us that chipping surfaces pose the greatest threat when it comes to the dangers of lead-based paint since you might end up ingesting the dust from paint chips by inhaling them. It seems like my father wants to move into my grandfather’s house place starting this September, so renovations for the house will begin soon. I’ll have to tell him to get lead testing done first before they proceed with any renovation work inside the house.

      Anna Collins
    • My question isn’t so much about lead based paint but about metal that shows lead from an Amazon test kit ( not 3M) I inherited a very cool old ice box. Before storing anything in it I decided to test it and the swab showed lead on the metal surfaces the fridge is lined with. My mom stored our baked goods in this ice box which is unsettling. Any input?

      Vanessa Foster
    • Thanks for mentioning that you shouldn’t sand or scrape with lead paints. I’m hoping that I can get one of my rental properties tested for lead paint because I’m a little worried about it. It’ll be great to know that the tenants are protected against lead.

      Eve Mitchell
    • Hi,
      I’m in Australia and have read your piece about lead paint pieces.

      I’ve got an old dumbwaiter. Wearing goggles and P2 mask I have sanded both manually and with an electrical sander and yes, I admit it was very messy task and not all together healthy!

      I read you recommend using a clear shellac to seal the lead paint. But shellac is very sticky right!?

      So I want to keep the present look of the piece and maybe finish it with a gold dry brushing effect.

      This piece is to be used only as a window display piece in my store…no children or pets around.

      I thought about proceeding with the traditional technique of distressing the piece ie two coats of paint and glue some aged paper then sand back etc etc. but this could release or finally get rid of remaining lead paint?

      I’m seeking your opinion. Which technique should I go with please?


      Chrissie O'Neill

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