Pre Paint Cleaner -- Does It Really Matter Which Kind You Use?

Jeremy Holderness

I've told this story many times over the years, but everybody loves a good cautionary tale so I'll tell it again now.  

Back in the early 2000's when I was working as a sales rep for Sherwin-Williams, one of our largest commercial painting contractor customers was hired to paint a few dozen steel entry doors on a new construction project.

The architect's specification called for a water-based, direct-to-metal coating to be applied (basically that's just paint speak for an industrial grade latex paint).  The spec was followed, the paint was applied, and within a few days it all peeled off of the doors in sheets.

As you can imagine, the contractor was none too happy -- in fact he was quick to blame defective paint as the culprit -- so we were called out to investigate the situation.  It didn't take long to figure out what had happened.  When I peeled-off one of the few remaining sections of loosely attached paint I notice that there was an oily film between the metal and the paint chip.

I asked the contractor if he had cleaned the doors prior to painting them.  He responded that he had solvent-cleaned them all with mineral spirits.  While solvent-cleaning is a commonly accepted practice, not all solvents are created equal.  Mineral spirits (also known as oil-based paint thinner) in particular is known for leaving a film on any surface it comes in contact with.  This becomes a serious issue when you apply a water-based paint on top of an oily film -- the whole oil and water don't mix thing.

Long story short, he thoroughly cleaned the doors to remove the residue, re-painted them with the specified paint, and we all lived happily ever after...and I left with a good tale to tell.

What's the moral of this story?  All forms of cleaner are not the same, and when you're doing your surface prep for any painting project, it really does matter which kind you use.

Why Pre Paint Cleaner?

Pre paint cleaner is not just a generic term used for cleaning a surface prior to painting.  It's referring to a particular type of cleaning product that is designed to remove specific contaminants that can interfere with the adhesion of new paint.  

Surface contaminants such as:

  • Dirt
  • Grease
  • Nicotine
  • Mildew
  • Wax
  • Old Wallpaper Paste

Some other great benefits of prepaint cleaners are:

  • No Rinse Formula - Many pre-paint cleaners don't leave heavy suds or detergent residues behind after you've cleaned with them so the surface doesn't need to be rinsed prior to applying your paint.

    Now this doesn't mean that you shouldn't rinse away dirt, grime, etc. from the surface as you're cleaning, but it does mean that you don't need to be overly concerned if there are areas where the cleaner was left on the surface, as it won't interfere with adhesion of the new paint.

    This is especially handy when you're pressure washing your home and you're dealing with harder-to-reach areas.  Yes, many of these liquid cleaners can be run right through the chemical injector tube on your pressure washer.

  • Liquid Deglosser -Some pre-paint cleaners contain a liquid deglosser that will actually help to dull shiny surfaces so your new paint will stick better.  This is no substitute for proper preparation of particularly glossy areas that need to be scuff-sanded and/or coated with an adhesion-promoting primer before painting, but they certainly help under most normal painting circumstances.

  • Non Toxic - As opposed to high-VOC solvents, most prepaint cleaners are low-odor, water-based, biodegradable, and non-flammable.  All of this adds up to a cleaner that is much more user-friendly to work with.

A Couple Of My Favorite Cleaners For Homeowners

KRUD KUTTER® Pre-Paint Cleaner / TSP Substitute

This product comes in a 32 oz spray bottle, and since it is a spray-on, wipe-off formula it's great for smaller jobs.  You can use this at full strength, and no dilution is required.

Savogran Liquid TSP Substitute

This is available in both a quart and gallon size containers.  Unlike the Krud Kutter brand, it is a concentrate that makes up-to 4 gallons and 16 gallons of cleaner, respectively.  The concentrated formula makes it great for use through your pressure washer's chemical injector tube.

If you live in the Greater Tampa, Fl area and would like some assistance with your house painting project please give us a call at (813) 570-8800, visit our Contact Us page, or click on the button below to request your free, no-obligation consultation and quote.

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