PAINTING STRUCTURAL METAL Steel is a more perishable material than wood, and more difficult to paint. Without regular expenditure for maintenance, wooden bridges last longer than steel ones; there are wooden roof beams a thousand years old; and iron roofs are so short-lived that they are used only over furnaces and the like, where wooden ones would take fire. The painting of structural steel is therefore important; and it is also difficult, if we are to judge by results.
In the first place comes the preparation of the surface. When we paint wood, we have the surface clean and dry; and then we soak it with oil, so as to have the paint bound to it in the most intimate manner. Iron and steel, on the other hand, always come to us dirty, and covered with oxide; and as the surface is not porous, the paint does not penetrate it, but has to stick on the outside the best way it can. If we paint over the dirt and scale, and that ever comes off, the paint comes off with it; if the metal is actively rusting, and we paint over the rust, the corrosion is perhaps made slower, but it does not stop.
Air and moisture cause rust; if we can keep them away, the metal will last; but, unfortunately, all paint is very slightly porous, and if exposed to the weather it in time deteriorates. The most essential thing in painting metal is to get the paint on the metal, not on an inter mediate coating.
There are only two ways to clean steel perfectly. One is by pickling it in dilute acid (usually 10 to 20 per cent sulphuric acid), followed by washing to remove the acid; and the other is by the use of the sand-blast. Neither of these processes is available to the ordinary painter, who must do the next best thing. This is to remove absolutely all dirt and all loose scale and oxide. First clean off the dirt, if any, with brushes, as it would be cleaned off any other surface. Then, with scrapers and steel-wire brushes, clean off all the scale which will come off. If there is any new rust (not mill scale), it must be well scraped out and cleaned off. This is indispensable. When this is done, immediately paint it, before it begins rusting again.
One of the most popular materials for a first coat is red lead in oil. This must be mixed on the spot, shortly before it is used, because
it will harden into a cake in the pail or can if allowed to stand very long. From 30 to 33 pounds of dry red lead is to be mixed with each gallon of oil—not less than 28 in any case. This is immediately painted on the metal; if it is put on in too thick a coat, it will run and be uneven. Some use raw oil, others boiled oil; it does not make much difference which is used. The paint dries rapidly; and as soon as it seems hard, a second coat of the paint can be applied. Red lead is different from all other paints in this, that it will finish hardening just as well away from the air. This is because it does not dry by oxidation, as other paints do, but by the lead combining chemically with the oil, just as water combines with Portland cement. In the opinion of the writer, red lead should have one or two coats of some good paint, other than red lead, over it. But red lead is not the only first coating which may be used. Any good paint may be used—a good graphite paint, or other carbon paint, or some of the varnish-like coatings containing linseed oil and asphaltum which are made for the purpose. It is important, in using any of these, to let plenty of time for drying elapse between coats. Not less than two coats is permissible, and three are desirable.
Projecting angles, edges, and bolt and rivet heads are the places which first show rust through the paint. This is partly because the brush draws the paint thin at such places. To overcome this, it is now becoming common practice to go over the work after the first coat, and paint all edges for about an inch from the edge or angle, and all bolt and rivet heads, with an extra or striping coat; then, when the second coat goes on over the whole, there is the equivalent of two full coats everywhere.
Painting on iron, as on wood, should be done in dry weather, when it is not very cold—at any rate not below 50° F. Full, heavy coats should be used, and well brushed on. Care must be taken to get the paint into all cracks and corners.