Freestanding radiators have been keeping us warm since the 1860s. They warm homemade pies, dry your wet gloves, and humidify the room when you place a pan of water on top of them. Joseph Nason's design has been improved over the years, but remains basically the same. Most of the radiators you will find in salvage yards are coated with old paint, which could contain toxic lead. You should have the paint removed professionally, or take precautions not to release lead dust into the air. Cleaning and reconditioning an old house radiator is the same, whether it is already in your home, or whether you rescued it from a salvage yard.
Cleaning the radiator. Sandblasting is the easiest way to remove the old paint. This should be completed by a professional, as the old paint may contain lead. If you are prepared to take all the precautions necessary to deal with lead-based paint, then proceed on your own.
Decide if you want to do the work in the house or outside of your home. If the radiator is currently working, you need to unhook all the connections. Moving the radiator will not be an easy task as they are extremely heavy, and the entire system has to be drained. Most people elect to leave them close to their normal location while cleaning and repainting.
Sandblasting it probably not something you want to do in the house, so grab the sandpaper and go to work.
Scrubbing with a wire brush will remove the grime, dust and loose paint chips. The trick is to be able to get into all the small cracks and crevices of the radiator. There doesn't seem to be a specific size or shape of brush available--you have to be inventive and see what you can come up with. This is where the sandblasting has its only real advantage.
Spray the clean bare radiator immediately with an oil-based primer. The cast iron will begin to rust in twenty-four hours if left untreated. Spray an even coat over the entire radiator, including between the sections.
Choosing to use a high heat primer and paint is not necessary, as the hot water systems do not reach temperatures hot enough to require it. Latex paints can lead to rusting, therefore they are not recommended.
Selecting the color to paint your radiator. Some believe color affects the efficiency, while others argue that is no different. They all agree that metallic paint does reduce the radiator's ability to heat the room. Painting can begin when the primer is dry to the touch.
Bronzing is another option if you like the unpainted look.
Dusting your radiator regularly will improve its efficiency. The same problem exists with dusting as with painting--how do you get into all those tight hard to reach places? You just have to experiment until you find the brush that will work for you.
Searching and finding the right radiator for your home, cleaning and or painting it, and getting a plumber to install it (if necessary) may seem like a lot of trouble. Cast iron radiators have been heating homes for over one hundred years. Maybe they are worth the trouble.