Restoring metal furniture is hard work, but the rewards are well worth the effort. According to Martha Stewart Living television style editor Tom Tamborello, you can give old iron furniture new life with just a little attention -- and a lot of elbow grease.
Before you start this project, determine whether the piece of furniture is worth restoring. Make sure it is structurally sound and that there are no weak spots or suspect welded joints (old iron can break repeatedly in the same spot). Consider how pleasing the piece is to you aesthetically or whether it is an antique or otherwise valuable.
To strip the layers of paint, Tom uses a chemical paint stripper, which dissolves the paint quickly and efficiently. Chemical paint strippers contain methylene chloride and solvents, which can irritate the skin and cause nausea and dizziness. Some strippers are water based and contain diabasic esters, which aren't as volatile and hazardous as methylene chloride, but they strip paint more slowly because the chemicals aren't as strong.
Whichever stripper you choose, read the label carefully. Always work outdoors or in a room with good ventilation. Wear gloves and a respirator for the fumes. Respirators, available at hardware stores, should have a HEPA (high-efficiency particle air) approved filter. Use a cheap paintbrush to apply the stripper in one direction. Several applications may be required, depending on how many layers of paint there are to remove. Remove flaking and bubbled-up paint with a scraper. If any paint remains, reapply the stripper, and scrape again. Wash the stripped chair with soapy water to remove residue. Use steel wool or a wire wheel attached to a drill for hard-to-reach areas. Coat the furniture with metal primer, and let dry. Apply oil-based paint with glossy finish.
If the piece of furniture isn't painted and only has a rust problem, Tom recommends using steel wool and paint thinner to remove the rust. If you have to remove a great deal of rust, use a wire brush attachment on a drill. Sand the furniture, then brush on primer and a new coat of paint.
If you want to leave your furniture with a raw metal finish, simply cover it with a sealer after you've removed the paint and rust. This produces the metallic look of iron or steel and usually a more weathered or rusty look. Keep in mind, however, that clear sealer doesn't preserve furniture as well as paint does.
Zip-Strip paint stripper, Pratt & Lambert metal primer, Benjamin Moore paint, wire brush and wire-brush attachment for drill are available at local hardware stores.