Paint Stripping Smackdown: Three Men Enter, One Man Leaves

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One inevitably makes mistakes, small and large, when painting miniatures. The small ones can usually be dealt with by painting over the error, but the larger ones often defy such straightforward solutions. And then there’s the case where you buy already-painted armies to cannibalize them, because it’s cheaper than paying for new models off the shelf. In these situations, you need to get back to bare metal or plastic. So I present the Twilight Forge paint stripping smackdown, in which I test three paint stripping methods against one another, side-by-side.

Let’s begin by meeting the contenders.

Super Clean Cleaner/Degreaser

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  • Description: Formerly a Castrol-branded product, this is a sodium hydroxide (i.e. lye) based fluid that’s sold for degreasing engine parts. It’s purple in color and heavily alkaline.
  • Quantity: Comes in 22- and 32-ounce spray bottles as well as 1-, 2.5- and 5-gallon jugs.
  • Price: About US$7 for a 32-ounce bottle, and US$10 for a 1-gallon jug.
  • Availability: Found at auto parts stores and in the automotive section of your neighborhood Walmart.
  • Safety Precautions: Because of the high alkalinity of the stuff it will irritate the bejesus out of skin if not washed off immediately, causing redness, cracking, and peeling. Wear protective latex gloves while using it, and don’t get it in your eyes.
  • Stink Factor: Oddly mild. You would expect something like this to reek, but it has only a faint soapy smell. Easily the least stink-worthy of the contenders.
  • Quirks: It’s biodegradable, so you can pour it down the sink when you’re done. Also, while the stuff is harmless to plastic and resin, it will gradually corrode soft metals like pewter, eventually pitting them and eating away detail, so it’s important to avoid leaving metal miniatures soaking in the stuff too long.
  • Key Recommendation: A Girl’s Guide to Gaming Geekery.

Weaver Models Scalecoat II Wash Away Paint Remover

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  • Description: A specialty product sold by Weaver Models (a model railroad vendor of long standing, which also sells lines of hobby paint) expressly for removing acrylic and enamel paints from plastic models, though they seem to intend it for spot paint removal rather than for whole-model paint stripping. It’s green. Unfortunately Weaver Models doesn’t advertise exactly what’s in the stuff.
  • Quantity: 16-ounce (i.e., 1-pint) bottles only.
  • Price: Currently US$12.25 per bottle.
  • Availability: Can occasionally be found in larger hobby stores (usually in the model railroad section), but is most reliably available over the Internet from Weaver Models directly. Note that Weaver Models has a US$20 minimum order for paint and paint-related products, which means that you’re stuck buying two bottles of the stuff at a time.
  • Safety Precautions: None specified, but definitely avoid contact with eyes.
  • Stink Factor: It has a pretty harsh chemical smell that will fill up a small room quickly and cling to models. Ventilation is vital, as is rinsing the stuff off stripped models.
  • Quirks: While it’s most easily used as a bath, it can also be painted directly onto models for localized paint stripping – kind of a chemical “undo” button for acrylic paints. It can be reused (just pour it through a coffee filter, to remove any detritus), but it loses its strength over time: when it turns from green to pale green to clear, it’s time to replace it. Also, like the Super Clean, it will gradually corrode soft metals like pewter, so you have to be careful how long you leave metal miniatures exposed to the stuff.
  • Key Recommendation: I’ve used this stuff myself for more than ten years.

Dawn Power Dissolver

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  • Description: A grease pre-treatment foaming spray for getting rid of hard-to-remove cruft from dishes. Active ingredients include two bases: monoethanolamine and our friend sodium hydroxide.
  • Quantity: 12.8-ounce spray bottles.
  • Price: About US$4 per bottle.
  • Availability: With the dish detergents at your local supermarkets, though at the time of this writing some internet rumors suggest the product has been discontinued.
  • Safety Precautions: Similar to Super Clean (because of the similarity in active ingredients): wear protective latex gloves while using it, and avoid getting it into your eyes.
  • Stink Factor: Smells like dish detergent, only somewhat stronger. It’s not unpleasant, exactly, and it’s not so strong that it’s going to chase you out of a room, but you’ll still want to open a window.
  • Quirks: Unlike the other two products it’s a foaming spray gel, so instead of soaking miniatures in a bath of the stuff you just spray it where you want it.
  • Key Recommendation: From The Warp.

At this point some readers may be asking: what about Simple Green? I’ve used it successfully in the past, but in my experience the stink is just intolerable: it leaves the models, not to mention the space, absolutely reeking of sassafras. Also, while it does a serviceable job of stripping paint, the people who recommended these alternatives believe them superior to Simple Green.

Now that we know the contenders, let me describe the testing protocols. I’m using three North American Combine Alamo Superheavy Tank models for OGRE Miniatures. These are pewter figures assembled using CA glue, primed with a Krylon spray primer, and painted with Testors acrylics. They’ve also been given two coats of gloss varnish on top of the paint job (the first to create a smooth surface for attaching waterslide transfers, the second to “seal” over those transfers). These are, in other words, a coat of matte varnish away from being “done,” and thus are at the tougher end of the paint stripping difficulty spectrum.

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One model will soak in a bath of Super Clean, another in a bath of Scalecoat II Wash Away, and the third will get sprayed down with the Dawn Power Dissolver. The baths, and the sprayed-down model, will sit in identical Ziploc disposable bowls during the test. I’ll check the progress of each paint stripping solution at regular intervals: one hour, two hours, four hours, eight hours, twelve hours, and twenty-four hours. Progress checks will consist of lifting the model out of whatever it’s been soaking in, scrubbing lightly at the surface with a stiff-bristled nylon brush, and rinsing away any sloughed-off paint in the sink.

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One Hour

After an hour, the model treated with the Super Clean had lost all the glossiness from the varnish and started to show some wrinkling of the paint, a tell-tale sign that the stuff was making progress. Light scrubbing with the brush removed paint easily, but left the primer intact.  The Scalecoat II Wash Away showed similar, if less impressive, results: while the gloss varnish was gone, there was somewhat less wrinkling of the paint, and a bit more elbow-grease was necessary to remove paint down to the primer. The Dawn Power Dissolver, though, was a pleasant surprise. Like the other products it had stripped the gloss varnish, but it had caused by far the most significant paint wrinkling, and just a light scrub with the brush took off paint and primer, stripping the model down to bare metal.

Two Hours

By the two hour mark the model soaking in the Super Clean was starting to slough off paint and primer just from the simple act of lifting it out of the bath and holding it for the camera; I barely needed to scrub it to pull paint off the figure in strips. The Scalecoat II Wash Away had obviously continued to work, causing much more visible wrinkling, but while it was doing a good job of stripping paint, it had hardly attacked the primer at all. The Dawn Power Dissolver continued to lead the pack: the model treated with the stuff was sloughing off paint at a downright impressive rate, even moreso than the Super Clean.

Four Hours

Four hours in, the Scalecoat Wash Away was just starting to attack the primer beneath the paint layers: with some fairly vigorous scrubbing I was finally able to get down to bare metal. However, paint continued to slough off the model treated with the Super Clean; just picking the miniature out of the bath with a pair of tweezers peeled off more color. By this point it was catching up to the Dawn Power Dissolver: simply running the bristles of my brush over the surface of the model treated with the Dawn, with very little pressure, lifted off most of the paint on the model’s upper hull.

Eight Hours

By hour eight things had gotten more interesting, as the downside of the Super Clean manifested itself. The liquid had started to attack the CA glue bonds holding the model together, and as I scrubbed the model with the brush it started to come apart. However, only a bit of primer in the recessed areas of the model remained. The Scalecoat Wash Away had progressed further against the primer, but still required a fair bit of elbow grease with my brush to remove those base layers. As for the Dawn Power Dissolver – what was left of the paint was literally oozing off the model at this point, and despite the Dawn containing some of the same active ingredients as the Super Clean, it hadn’t attacked the CA glue and caused the model to come apart.

Twelve Hours

At hour twelve, I called “done” for both the Super Clean and the Dawn. The Super Clean had removed those last stubborn bits of paint and primer but also destroyed the last CA glue bond, leaving the model in its four component pieces. Rinsing the model off left me with bare metal covered with a bit of dingy patina (I was able to get rid of this by lightly brushing the model with a steel-wire brush). Rinsing off the Dawn, in contrast, left me with a still-assembled model stripped down to base metal with no patina; the model was shiny, like new.

The Scalecoat Wash Away was still making progress against the paint, but was leaving a lot of cruft in the recessed areas of the model: the treads, in particular, were filled with primer, and there were still some stubborn patches of color that even scrubbing with the brush refused to get rid of.

Twenty-Four Hours

A full day after starting the experiment, the Scalecoat Wash Away remained the only product not to have finished the job. While much of the paint on the model had been removed, a few bits of color remained, and, more worryingly, fairly significant areas of the model remained covered by primer impervious to brushing and rinsing. This was what the Mythbusters guys would refer to as “a result.”

The Verdict

Somewhat surprisingly, the product I’d been using for years turned out to be the biggest bust. I can think of no reason to buy Scalecoat II Wash Away for general-purpose paint stripping ever again. Possibly it still has a role for gentle spot-stripping of paint – a kind of Wite-Out for acrylics – but even that seems dubious given the expense of the stuff and the fact that it loses its potency. Does anybody really do so much spot-stripping that they’ll go through a full pint of this product before it runs out of mojo? I certainly don’t.

As between the other two products, things are a little harder to call. Both do an excellent job: with very little effort on my part, they finished stripping the test models down to bare metal in about twelve hours. The Dawn Power Dissolver did arguably the best paint stripping job in that it left none of the patina that the Super Clean did – I felt like I could’ve primed that model immediately after rinsing it off. However, the Dawn is more expensive and a little harder to find (and may become harder still if the product’s really been discontinued by Proctor & Gamble). The nature of the product as a spray gel is also both a pro and a con: while you can apply it more precisely than the Super Clean, if you’re stripping paint from batches of models having to spray them all down (and not just dumping them in a fluid bath) can be a real inconvenience.

The Super Clean, in comparison, did nearly as good a paint stripping job as the Dawn, just leaving behind that patina that I had to remove with the steel-bristled brush – not that big a deal. It’s also cheaper and easier to find. But as we saw, it eats CA glue bonds, potentially forcing you to reassemble a metal or resin model, which can be a pain. Also, you really need to be careful of the alkalinity of the stuff: even though I made a point of washing my hands every time I handled the model that had soaked in it, I’m still experiencing a bit of dryness and cracking. I should have worn gloves.

All things considered, I have to give the nod to the Super Clean by a hair. I’ll definitely keep the Dawn Power Dissolver around for those occasions where I just want to strip paint from a handful of models, or when I want a redo of a painted model’s head but not its body. But because of the lower cost, higher availability, and convenience of being able to set up a fluid bath for models, Super Clean is my new go-to paint stripping solution, even as I kick the Scalecoat II Wash Away to the curb.

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  1. amrogers3 says:

    Hello, interesting article. Have you tried LA Awesome? I used that in a heated ultrasonic cleaner and it cleaned both metal and plastic minis very well. Almost look brand new after a few cycles and a brush.

    • Brett says:

      I’m unfamiliar with that product. Where can you get it, and how much does it cost? And do you know what the active ingredients are?

  2. amrogers3 says:

    I am not sure about the ingredients, however, you see the results on dakkadakka.com. Check out this link: http://www.dakkadakka.com/dakkaforum/posts/list/0/365067.page

    I picked it up from a dollar store here in the U.S.

  3. amrogers3 says:

    And I got 32 oz for $1

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