Lead Testing - in furniture refinishing

furniture with lead paint – Safety in Furniture Refinishing

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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Refinishing furniture means being exposed to hazardous materials and learning how to work safely with each hazard.  Chemical Fumes, Toxic Wood, Chemical Strippers, and Lead Paint, are just a few dangers in the workshop. Learning how to identify each risk and protect yourself is key to keeping you and those around your work area safe. 

Table of Contents

Lead Safety Means Understanding the Risks

Lead hazards is not limited to the painted surface chipping. It was added to a number of refinishing products in the days of yore.  This included wood stains and varnishes.  That exposed wood antique furniture? Test it!

Unfinished piece, finish was failing.
Old Varnish and Stain could contain Lead.

Why Lead is a No-Go!

There is no safe level of exposure to lead and worse, our children are especially sensitive to lead poisoning.  If young children are in and around your workspace, you especially do not want to take any risks. 

For children their exposure to lead is at 4 to 5 levels higher than an adult. Exposure to lead can cause brain damage, learning disabilities, attack the central nervous system and cause other long term health problems.

Furthermore, pregnant women should avoid contact with lead as there are concerns around birth defects in unborn babies, stillbirths and miscarriages caused by exposure to this toxin.

If you believe you could have been exposed to lead, reach out to your GP and request a simple blood test to be sure. 

For more information on the dangers of lead to our general health the world health organization has a very in-depth article available.  

Lead Contamination - Not Just Eating Paint Chips

While ingestion of lead is often quoted as being the main cause of lead poisoning, it’s not. Most of us are not snacking on paint chips. 

Usually lead contamination occurs through skin contact or breathed in.  Lead dust is particularly dangerous when breathed in or absorbed via your skin. This is why sanding furniture with lead is DANGEROUS!  

Paint Dust can float and cover surfaces. If you have worked on furniture before, you know how dust particles can get on everything and are hard to stop. You want to avoid this for your safety and to keep your family safe.

Festool Dust Extractor and RO 90 sander
Dust Extractors reduce a huge percentage, but not all sanding dust.

A Brief History of Lead in Paint

Thankfully we are now aware of the dangers of lead, and it’s no longer legally allowed to be used as an additive. Countries first started banning lead as an additive to paint in 1909 in France, Belgium and Austria.  The Dutch government banned lead paint from homes in 1939 and nearly all European countries had taken steps by 1940.  

Unfortunately, The United States of America and Canada didn’t jump on the band wagon until the late 1970’s. These countries should especially test thrifted furniture. 

Oil stain was used on the drawer fronts.
Can you date this piece?

How to Test for Lead

Knowing what you now know, checking if the paint is chipping or flaking is no longer a sufficient method of detection. Lead Test kits are widely available, super easy to use and affordable! Definitely more affordable then medical costs.  


The Lead Tests I Purchased, required rubbing cotton swab tip on parts of your furniture piece for 30 seconds.  After which you check the resulting colour against the colour on the package to determine if lead is detected.  I did struggle with differentiating the test result colours initially, however, when I did detect the presence of  lead it was very clearly a result. 

I detected lead in an antique sugar dispenser, which we never used.  Lead can also be in old kitchen items and ceramics.  Thrift Stores are filled with items containing lead, so bring your swabs when thrifting.

Lead testing swabs after testing

When Should you Test for Lead?

We are not always able to date the piece of furniture we are working on. These vintage items can be deceptive!  I have worked on art deco styled pieces, from companies created in the 60’s. It could have fooled me! It’s therefore a good idea to test all your furniture. Overkill?  Maybe, but I consider the few cents a swab costs worth the piece of mind knowing that the piece is lead free.

Located in Europe where lead-based paint has been banned since the 1940’s, so should you bother testing your piece?  But are you 100% sure of the date and origin of the piece that you are working on?  A small test can ensure piece of mind.


What to do if you have furniture with lead paint

If you did detect lead, I would seriously consider whether or not the piece is worth moving forward with. As even small levels of lead dust can be dangerous for you and your children, it may be wise to dispose of the furniture piece and take the loss.

If you do decide to move forward with the piece, ensure you take all the proper health and safety precautions.

  • Use wet methods to remove lead paint, such as paint strippers.
  • Use a HEPA vacuum to remove any dust and ensure your whole workspace is cleaned of any dust afterwards.
  • Best to work outside, in a well ventilated area.
  • Always wear protective gear; including eye protection and ensure your mask meets recommended standards. 
  • Old clothing and gloves should be worn and disposed of afterwards. Even better, use protective clothing.
  • Work above plastic sheeting to catch all particles and dispose of correctly.
  • Ensure all items are thrown away following the local regulations for small toxic waste (Klein chemisch afval).
  • Keep Children Away!

Final thoughts

So when you go to work on your next piece of vintage furniture, I hope that you will consider the real dangers of lead and take it serious. As  vintage furniture continues to cross borders, it gets harder to know the real date and location it was made. Testing  is quick, affordable, and easy; and simply should not be skipped. Test results can inform you on how to correctly and safely move forward with refinishing.

Furniture Refinishing Basics


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