Restoring an iron fireplace – to strip or to paint?

Restoring an iron fireplace can be a joy. However, there’s the dilemma of whether to freshen the fireplace up or strip and black lead it if it’s painted.

What is black lead I hear you ask? It’s basically a black liquid stove polish that protects the iron against rust and gives the fireplace an even gun-metal colour. Don’t worry it no longer contains lead!

There are pros and cons to both options and some of it’s down to personal taste. However, if your fireplace is so thick with paint it’s spoiling the cast iron detail it’s best to strip it back when restoring it.

Restoring an iron fireplace Victorian cast fireplace before and after stripped painted black leaded
I stripped my parlour fireplace as the paint (left) smothered all of the beautiful detail (right)

See my House Tour photos to see my restored fireplaces in my house.

Painted – the pros

  • can match the colour of the room’s woodwork or wall colour so blends in better
  • painting a lighter colour looks less austere and gloomy
  • doesn’t require messy stripping which could mean redecoration if your fireplace is in situ
  • more durable than a black leaded finish which is not waterproof

Black leaded – the pros

  • shows the cast iron detail best and gives it depth, particularly if buffed up with a cloth
  • easily removable and doesn’t build up like paint when reapplied, preserving ornate detail
  • cheaper than paint
  • reacts better if using as a fireplace – paint bubbles or blisters if near to a used grate

What’s more authentic?

Restoring an iron fireplace Biclam Victorian cast iron fireplace catalogue
This Biclam fireplace was available ready enamelled to resemble oak, mahogany etc.

Well, both! Historical fireplace catalogues show that a painted finished was often an optional extra and could include a woodgrained effect.

Suppliers often painted all-in-one iron fireplaces, especially if there was a surround detail. However, they would always black lead the grate as paint doesn’t react well to heat.

Likewise, iron fireplace inserts were always blackleaded if they had a separate surround.

Victorians tended to black lead smaller bedroom fireplaces in more ordinary homes where this was a cheaper and easier option. Old photos from this era show this.

Restoring an iron fireplace Victorian iron catalogue painted tiled inserts
A high-end Victorian catalogue shows bedroom iron fireplaces were often available with white surround detail
Restoring an iron fireplace Victorian blackleaded bombed house World War 1
Small bedroom fireplaces were often black leaded as this World War 1 photo of a bombed terraced house shows

Tips for restoring an iron fireplace – painting

Restoring an iron fireplace painted Victorian fireplace arch inset bedroom
A painted grate can’t be used as a fire and is not authentic
  • use a spray paint if you’re not precious about getting the same colour as a wall or woodwork paint to help preserve the fireplace’s detail
  • apply a metal primer on bare iron to avoid rust coming through the finishing coats
  • black lead the grate, fire bars, fire back and hood if you plan to use the fire
  • apply a matt black paint to the grate and hood area for a more authentic look if you are not planning to use the fire

Tips for restoring an iron fireplace – stripping

I’ve stripped unfitted and in situ fireplaces and have made many mistakes so please learn from them!

If the fireplace is not in situ:

  • seek out a shot blasting company as it’s a very time consuming and messy job, particularly if you have more than one fireplace to strip
  • avoid DIY store paint stripping products as they are not as effective as they used to be. You’ll be at it for days and it will cost a fortune in the endless tins you’ll need
Restoring an iron fireplace Victorian painted and stripped
I painted my bathroom fireplace for practicality (left) but I have stripped by bedroom fireplaces

If the fireplace is in situ:

  • try Peel Away, which is a paste that you apply to the fireplace and then cover with plastic sheets overnight
    • it gets most layers off will but leaves small paint traces that you’ll have to remove with a scraper or a wire-head brush on a drill
    • Peel Away 1 is for more durable old lead paints and Peel Away 7 is for more modern paints, so buy samples of both to see which is more effective for your job
    • I’ve used this product on a bedroom fireplace and I managed not to damage the surrounding wallpaper but I wouldn’t recommend – best to do if you are planning to redecorate the room
  • protect surrounding floors and walls with sheeting and mask inset tiles and separate fireplace surrounds
  • be careful not to apply the stripper to separate antique surrounds as these often have a lacquered or painted finish
  • take a cautious approach by not applying the stripper within 1cm of inset tiles and a fireplace surround – carefully scrape off small remnants of paint using hand tools
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6 thoughts on “Restoring an iron fireplace – to strip or to paint?

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  1. Hi Mr Victorian,

    We are in the process of touching up our fire place. We have stripped the ornate details down to the iron. But when we have applied the metal, water based primer from valspar rust has started to seep through. Be great to understand what you would recommend? For example can we apply the colour straight on top or will the rust seep through again or should we first apply an anti-rust coating, the challenge being these seem to be oil based? Look forward to hearing from you as we are a bit unsure what’s best to do next. Thank you! Jess

    1. Water is the nemesis of cast iron. The rust will continue to bleed through subsequent layers if not properly addressed. You could apply a rust blocking layer and continue as planned. However, as you’ve already highlighted, these are oil based and oil + water based paints dont combine well. If it were me, I’d strip back the water based primer, apply a rust treatment (to ensure it doesn’t continue to eat away – rust is cancer to cast iron!) then proceed with oil based primer & paint (assuming you’re painting with colour, otherwise black lead). Good luck!

    1. No, if you are going to black lead or stove polish as it is now known you won’t need to do this. Make sure there is no paint on the iron fireplace otherwise the polish won’t adhere.

      Kind regards, Peter

  2. Hi, great article and thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m looking at buying a cast iron fire surround to put around our log burner; something like this:

    I’d like to paint this the same colour as our walls. It’s not clear to me whether I’d need to strip back the existing finish before applying the primer and paint. Would you be able to offer any advice? Many thanks

    1. I would try and remove any stove polish that has been applied as this may affect the paint’s ability to adhere to the iron. You’ll need plenty of clothes/tissues dipped in white spirit to remove. Hope this helps.

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