|Vintage Clawfoot Tubs at Ohmega Salvage|
The outside of the old tubs are almost always painted with house paint of some kind. The tubs, when originally sold, came with raw cast iron on the outside. When the person took the tub home, they usually painted it the same color as the wall of the bathroom. If the tub was set close to a wall it was not usually painted all the way around. So, if your tub's paint is still in fairly good condition you can just repaint it before you set it into place.
You will need to do a good prep job before you repaint. If the paint has cracks, pits or is powdering or peeling you can scrub it thoroughly using a stiff plastic brush and a fairly strong concentration of T.S.P. Make sure to rinse thoroughly as residue will effect the adhesion of the new paint.
If the tub paint is in bad shape or is showing rust or there are simply too many coats of paint, then the best thing is to have the tub sandblasted or media-blasted down to the raw cast iron. You may be tempted to do this yourself with wire brushes, sand paper, etc. but it is not recommended. The tubs are old enough that the bottom layers of paint are likely to be lead-based. It is better to let professionals deal with the clean-up of the old paint residue. This is especially true if you have kids around.
To paint the tub yourself, be sure to use a good quality primer. Ask the paint store which one they recommend. Latex paint is better than oil in this case because it is more flexible. The tubs will expand and contract slightly when they heat up and cool down. To repaint, you can use a good quality latex paint. Be sure to use either semi-gloss or gloss paint so that you have a surface that is cleanable. Flat paints do not work well for tub exteriors.
Another option is to send it to a auto body shop to be painted with a car paint. Auto paints are designed to withstand the elements and are more flexible than regular oil paints. They do not stick well to old house paint which is why they will not work unless you have had the tub sandblasted.
Another choice is a epoxy paint. This paint is also best when applied directly on the raw cast iron. You can do this one yourself if you would like. The down side to this paint is that it doesn't clean-up easily and has a lot of fumes. There are not a lot of color choices either. The up side is that it is a very durable and flexible finish.
You could also have the tub powder-coated by a professional. This is a powdered plastic that is blown on the tub and then baked on.
It is best to take the feet off before you paint so that you can effectively cover all surfaces. If you like, the feet can be plated (for a metallic brass, chrome, etc. look), powder-coated, or painted as well.
Where to get your vintage clawfoot tub? Ohmega Salvage, of course!