Painting oak woodwork in 1915 house?

Stephen CostaFebruary 24, 2010

The ~100 year old house I am renovating is full of natural woodwork. The living room & fireplace room have a nice closed-grain wood (cherry, maple or birch, not sure) and the rest of the house has oak trim. The dining room is oak, but in a darker tone. Photo link is below.

Woodwork Photos

The lower & upstairs hallways are oak, but have a real super orange shellac look to them. Here's the worst part though - a misinformed contractor took a sander to some of the trim in the 2nd floor hallway!! So now some of the trim is now both orange and damaged.

What a dare ask is: what if we painted the lower & upper hallway trim, doors, stair risers and banisters white, and refinished the natural wood railings and newels (leave them natural).

I would never touch the living room, fireplace room, or dining room woodwork - but the hallway just seems ready for a possible makeover, and stripping/refinishing the woodwork would take forever or thousands $$...and, in the end it's still oak.

I look at the big arched window, and imagine it in a nice glossy white, and imagine something really classy looking.

Any votes? Of course there's two issues here: 1) painting ~100 year old natural woodwork, and 2) having different kinds of trim in different parts of the house.

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Painting the wood work should not be a decision that you should make right now. It looks like you are renovating the house so I am sure you have a lot to think about. Take your time. Let it be for a while. I looked at the window at I said what a beautiful wood work. I did not see it as white at all.... But that's me.
If what is in the wood is just shellac it should not take for ever and absolutely not $$$ to refinish. Shellac dissolves in denatured alcohol which is not nasty as other chemicals and you can use a green pad to scab it off rather easy. Then you can reapply shellac which has a beautiful sheen and goes very well with old houses. Shellac is also a natural material and not toxic (nothing like poly). Why don't you give it a try? You could try to refinish a small portion and see if you like it. Also, if you like to give a fresh look to the wood in your living room you could lightly rub with denatured alcohol. It melts a thin layer of the shellac and renews the finish. Just experiment in the baseboard to get a feel for it.

Again, take your time. Once painted it is such a huge pain to remove if you change your mind.

And I did not get the comment about "it is just oak". What's wrong with oak?????

LOVE your place by the way. Beautiful home.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2010 at 9:53PM
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Fixing what the misinformed contractor has done would not be hard. If you need to touch up the stain color, get samples of oak scrap from a lumber yard. The density of new scrap won't be the same as the old growth oak that's in your house, but I'd suggest testing out colors and you'll be able to get it to match what's in place now. Pre-mixed shellac comes in a variety of colors - clear, amber, garnet. I'd suggest getting amber - it will have the orangish color that should match your existing wood. As alexia says, shellac is about the most forgiving finish you could have.

From looking at your pictures, there is no way that I would paint the trim. What you have is beautiful as it is.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 5:44AM
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Well, since you asked for "votes".
I vote "no" on painting 100 year old never painted woodwork.

I love all of your unpainted woodwork. And if you did not give any instructions to contractors to sand the woodwork, why did they? If that was their error, they should be the ones responsible for restoring the wood's finish. (Unless, of course, this was done before you purchased the house or something.)

My vote stated, it does sound as though you like the idea of painting the woodwork. I'm with Alexia10, that you should give it some time before making the decision. You may grow to love your unpainted woodwork. If not, you could also consider whether or not this is your "forever" house and/or whether you are planning on selling before long. If selling, what will have value? Old houses with original characteristics would have more value to me as a potential buyer. JMHO.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 12:37PM
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I doubt that your woodwork is stained; it is probably shellac. I also concur with leaving it alone. In our area, homes with original woodwork are a LOT more valuable. Please consider not changing things that cannot be put to right.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 6:32PM
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I'd love to have that unpainted woodwork in my house. I am working to remove the paint applied by an ill-advised previous owner. They painted all of the woodwork similar to the woodwork that you have. I will echo the other comments that based on the condition of the woodwork that I can see, I think that repairing the finish should not be a lot of $$$. Shellac is easy to repair.


    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 7:45PM
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Painting that beautiful old wood is a great way to decrease the resale value of your home. Please don't mess with it until you are able to properly restore it.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2010 at 4:13AM
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Repairing shellac is actually very easy.

You need to determine what shade the shellac is (it cones in at least 4-6 shades), and then simply apply another coat to the damaged area.

Buying dry shellac and mixing it with denatured alcohol will give the most control of color and working qualities.

you can clean shellac trim using paint thinner to wipe off any grime and dirt that has built up.

If there are any badly worn spots, another coat of shellac on the area will hide them, and a complete new top coat usually makes the repair disappear.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2010 at 2:18PM
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Don't think of that woodwork as "unpainted." It just needs to be re-FINISHED.
Painting over that gorgeous trim would be a insult to that beautiful house, akin to installing carpeting. I'm sure you wouldn't consider doing that!
One of the reasons you have this 1915 home is precisely because it's not a 1998 home. Celebrate that fact by respecting the original builder's integrity. (And once all the windows are re-stained to your liking, you can then toss out those anachronistic mini-blinds.) Your house will breathe a sigh of relief.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2010 at 4:16PM
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I vote with the other posters - do not paint! The woodwork is stunning!!!!
Your house will be so beautiful when it is finished.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2010 at 6:06PM
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If you decide to keep the shellac take some time to learn about how shellac works and what's the difference between shellac and poly. There is tons of info online. Do not assume that your contractor knows about it or that he will be interested in learning. Most guys today only deal with poly.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2010 at 9:56PM
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I had a house built in 1918-19 for the manager of the then newly built oil refinery in our city. The woodwork was almost exactly the same as yours from what I could see from your pics, except it was all painted. My wife spent weeks stripping the paint off the hand rail, balusters and treads. Our opinion is that you would be at the very least , foolish to even consider printing the trim, for a couple of reasons first , from what I can see from your pics, it will take you forever and a day to prepare , prime and paint that much woodwork, and second , from my experience , you would be lowering the resale value.
Listen to brickeyee, he's on the money as to the approach you should take!!

Fantastic house, good luck with the redo !

    Bookmark   February 27, 2010 at 8:17AM
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The thinner you need the use is called "denatured alcohol". It works the best and the smell dissipates quickly. Don't mess up with mineral spirits, turpentine and the likes. That's one of the beauty of shellac. Itself is not toxic and only requires d-alcohol for clean up which is not nasty as the other cleaners.

    Bookmark   February 27, 2010 at 9:11AM
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Another voice to add to the chorus. Don't paint your beautiful wood! If I could go back in time and slap the paintbrush out of the PO's hand in my house, I would.

And old oak is a lovely wood.

Your house looks wonderful. Keep its character.

    Bookmark   February 27, 2010 at 12:32PM
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If you paint it I will personally fly to where ever you are and shoot you :oP

It's not 1980's builder grade's old growth oak and it's gorgeous. It's supposed to have an orange shellac look to it. Learn to love that tone and work with it please???? Your house begs to be left in it's wonderful condition.

We are going to be doing some work on our house and part of that means replacing some oak that has been removed in the past. the restoration specialist said to cover the oak with orange tinted shellac to get the same lovely tone.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2010 at 12:56PM
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"Itself is not toxic and only requires d-alcohol for clean up which is not nasty as the other cleaners."

Just do NOT attempt to clean shellac using denatured alcohol.

As the only solvent for sheallac it WILL disolve some of the existing finish, mix anything on the surface withthe old finish, and not make it any cleaner except by removing the finish.

Paint thinner is great for cleaning dirt from shellacked woodwork since it does NOT dissolve the shellac, contains no water that could blush the shellac, and easily removes dirt, oils, and wax on the finish.

TYou do not need to dye shellac 'orange' to match old work, you just need to find the correct grade of shellac that matches the finish already there for repairs.

Garnet Lac and button lac are two of the darker forms of shellac.

Do NOT use the already canned liquid shellac.
Once dissolved in alcohol shellac has a shelf life, and it is not all that long.
Old shellac will not dry and harden, but remains soft and gummy.
You can test on a pieces of glass.
If it is not hard in a few hours it is bad.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2010 at 5:54PM
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Your house is gorgeous! You certainly have your work cut out for you. I'm usually a "its your house do what you want" type, but in this instance I have to agree with everyone else and suggest that you not paint any of the woodwork. I realize that oak isn't popular right now (at least that's what I get from hgtv), but it will be again, probably in 10 years at the most. And you have very beautiful exceptional oak.
I hope you post after pics when your reno is done, or even more as it progresses. I'd love to see them.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2010 at 8:35PM
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I prefer oak. It's my choice for furniture and woodwork. Like Kathy said, woods go in an out of style, and frankly making a house look like the carbon copies of HGTV stages, is the kiss of death as far as I'm concerned. It's like buying bell bottoms in the sixties. Try wearing them in the seventies. Dated, and fashion channels (house and otherwise) are sponsored by companies who WISH you'd change your woods and cabinetry every ten years. LOL.

Many older homes do have different woods in different areas of the house. Even those folks of the last generation who were wise enough not to slap paint on their natural woodwork, often took liberties with the bath and kitchen woods. sigh. My folks have an arts and crafts bungalow and those two rooms have had painted woodwork since before they moved in.

It's your house, but it will devalue it if you paint. When those walls get finished off completely the natural wood will just come into its own. You would have to be Bill Gates to afford to put wood of that quality in a house built today. It's a treasure.

Danged if I wouldn't have the contractor make it right for sanding that woodwork. Somebody had their head where the sun don't shine.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 1:09PM
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Stephen Costa

First, thanks everyone for all the concerned comments, house compliments, and thoughtful advice!

Second, stop all the alarms as we have definitely decided to NOT paint any woodwork! Rest assured knowing that the tomatoes thrown here as well as in other forums factored into the decsion, so your vote did count!

I had never thought of painting any of the woodwork until the contractor got crazy with the sandpaper. Wondering if there'd ever be a chance to re-match the hallway woodwork (un-sanded to sanded) without thousands in restoration costs, I couldn't help but consider the unthinkable option.

Now that a week has past since that dreadful night of discovering the sanding-massacre, things are much more calm and methodical around here. The fact is, most of the woodwork in the house was not sanded, and there is hope for the stuff that was sanded. Once person local to me who has undertaken a massive antique house restoration had these reassuring things to say about re-finishing damaged shellac:

"A new coat of shellac melts and merges into what remains of the old, creating a nice finish. Even if you have some light portions that were sanded down to the wood, others that were scrubbed with the pad until the wood is light, and others that were not as vigorously done... once a few coats of new shellac is on, they will all appear the same; a nice consistent colored finish. The new shellac darkens the light areas to match the old."

So there is hope, in that shellac is apparently a very forgiving finish. We shall see... Brickeyee, you are the first person to advise NOT to use denatured alcohol!? That's all I've been told to try, so that's what I've done some testing with (more below). I'll now have to investigate the use of paint thinner. Although, I will tell you, we actually ARE interested in lightening the wood, and so far we have been able to achieve that with the alcohol test spots. A lot of the shellac on now is amber or orange, we'd like to have it re-done in clear (or "white", as some call it). If I DO want to use the d-alcohol to strip/lighten the finish, perhaps the first step should be to clean with paint thinner first so that I get the grime off before melting the shellac with the alcohol?

Anyway, the big problem remains that I have loads of woodwork, and not enough time to refinish it all myself. I did have a couple wood refinishers look at the job - one quoted $8k minimum, the other $10-$12k. So, that's not happening. My next option is to find some semi-skilled laborers to help me clean/strip the wood, using steel wool and denatured alcohol (possibly preceded by paint thinner cleaning?). Entrusing help like this would be risky, but if I can direct them on the right cleaning method than it might work out...

I tested cleaning with denatured alcohol on the closed-grain wood in the living room & fireplace room, and it works *really* easy on that surface. On oak elsewhere in the house, it works, but then you have the tarnish in the oak grain to contend with (I'm thinking a brass toothbrush style tool may help?). Then in places where heavy alligatoring has happened, the alcohol works but much slower and with much more elbow grease.

I also tested a small spot with "Citrustrip"... This worked really fast, and I'm tempted to use it -- but I am unsure of whether left-behind residue from this product will screw up the new shellac finish. I know there's an afterwash, but still it's unlikely I'd be able to get off every trace of this stuff once applied.

Finally, in talking with a master woodworker today, he suggested I try acetone instead of alcohol - he said it would be much faster than denatured alcohol in cleaning the wood. I guess I can try a spot and see what happens...

So while I am facing down the challenge of refinishing the woodwork (and NOT painting it), I am trying to weed through all the cleaning/stripping options -- denatured alcohol, paint thinner, Citrustrip, acetone... I didn't mention it but one of the high-end refinisher guys propsed methelyene chloride!

My aim was to stay as low-toxic as possible, and use something that is the most forgiving. At the moment that seems to be denatured alcohol, but I have yet to try acetone.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2010 at 11:35PM
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Thanks for checking back in!

    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 9:08AM
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Cleaning products: paint thinner will loosen old wax and grime. "Fantastic" cleanser will do the same, but is water-rinseable, same goes for spic&span, other heavy-duty detergents, and TSP. Any of the water-based cleansers can cause the finish to be harmed, unless used lightly and sparingly. Paint thinner's downside is that you may just be moving grime and wax around on the surface unless you continue to rinse with clean thinner and rags.
Alcohol as a cleaner is risky because all the while it is softening the finish. Downside to using it as a stripper is that it evaporates very fast and is always gumming up the surface as it dries. It only dissolves the shellac resin, it doesn't break it down. To me it's frustrating to use for stripping because of the gumminess. I use a liquid stripper called "Kutzit" to remove shellac. It has evaporation-inhibitors and a active ingredient which actually breaks down the shellac and lifts it off the wood. So, to me, even though it's more toxic than plain alcohol (which isn't very healthful of itself) it lets me work a lot faster, which you will begin to appreciate.
You want a stripper that doesn't have to be rinsed with water (which will give you an extra round of sanding and prep, because water+wood= raised grain), an leaves no thick goop in crevices that takes more work to get out. A potent liquid (almost water-thin) stripper like Kutzit has always filled the bill for me.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 11:22AM
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I'm supposed to be working, but I just had to comment! I LOVE your house! It is everything I hope mine will be one day (we do not have any of the original trim or doors). I literally was almost holding my breath as I went through your pictures.

Oh boy do I know this feeling LOL: "Now that a week has past since that dreadful night of discovering the sanding-massacre, things are much more calm and methodical around here."

Just wondering - is it necessary to do all the woodwork now or can you take it room by room? Anyway, good luck and I hope you post more pics as you complete projects!

    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 4:45PM
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If you want to lighten or even remove the shellac denatured alcohol is the way to go.

I cautioned against it for the exact reason you found, it removes the shellac.

A real surprise if all you want to do is remove surface dirt and grime.

Paint thinner contains no water, and cannot dissolve shellac, so it is a safer cleaner if you do not want to alter the finish.

Once you remove enough shellac to get to the color you want, any of the 'blond' shellacs will introduce a very minimal change in the color when applied, but still provide a nice finish.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 9:13PM
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A couple of things. Usually, they use acetone to dissolve lacquer. I personally can not stand acetone so I would use it only when absolutely necessary. In my experience (of a hobbyist and not a professional) acetone is not faster than d-alcohol for shellac.On the other hand the stripper that Casey suggested is a lot faster. I never used it for house wood (doors etc) but I did use it in refinishing furniture and it worked really well.

In my house I have wood everywhere and all is shellacked. I had good luck hiring people to help me cleaning it but I would never trust anyone to apply shellac unless this person has experience or he/she is really wiling to learn. Most people are used to apply poly and will mess quiet a lot in applying shellac especially in large flat areas (like a door or wall paneling). The staircase might be easier since there are smaller surfaces and mistakes not going to show as much. Maybe, I am no sure.

I agree with previous poster that you should take your time. Cleaning/restoring/refinishing all this wood is quiet a task.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 11:06PM
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Who would use acetone to dissolve shellac?

Denatured alcohol is one of the safest solvents around.

The basic alcohol is the stuff folks have been drinking for thousands of years.
The denaturant is added to avoid the tax for drinking alcohol.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2010 at 1:30PM
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Lacquer thinner contains several solvents, typically butyl acetate and xylene or toluene.

Acetone is not commonly used in lacquer thinner.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2010 at 1:32PM
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Stephen Costa

Just wanted to let everyone know that, amidst a monster renovation, we did go forward with cleaning all the woodwork to prepare for new shellac. After all the advice on solvents and strippers, we just stuck with plain denatured alcohol, steel wool (various grades) and brass brushes (various sizes). We went through A LOT of alcohol, gloves, wool, brushes and rags!! We worked much more aggressively on the oak (in an effort to lighten it a bit) and gentler on the fine grain wood(maple/birch/cherry? not sure what the exact species is).

Will share pictures soon... now that we are finally ready to re-shellack (will be employing the help of a pro painter, but giving him specific guidance & oversight on handling shellac). I am now in the process of trying to source the freshest canned shellac (Zinnser) that I can. For the technical folks out there who know shellac - Zinnser advises using a 2lb cut blend on woodwork trim & doors; the can comes pre-mixed at 3lb cut. To step it down to the 2lb cut, the instruction is to blend 2 parts alcohol with 5 parts shellac. Wondering if others have followed this guidance, or just applied straight out of the can? After this epic prep, the last thing I want to do is screw up the finish... I'll have the painter thin it out as directed, although I was hoping to make this process as straightforward as possible for him to avoid mistakes.

The other thing I need to grapple with is the possiblity of tinting the shellac that we'll use in the dining room, which was a tinted shellac to begin with (in a brown cherry tone). We'll test how the clear shellac will work on it, but I think we'll have to use a tinted shellac to even out the variations in the wood's tone after the cleaning process. Also as we widened a doorway in that room and had to have a new header replicated out of white oak, so I think a tinted shellac would help with blending (I've already rubbed the new wood down with "dirty" alcohol during the cleaning to begin to match it). I was thinking of experiementing with a universal colorant (we don't want to use amber/orange in there). The plan is to hit the rest of the house (which has an orange glow) with clear shellac.

Again, if anyone has technical advice in this area, it'd be great to hear!

Here is a link that might be useful: Shellac Application Data

    Bookmark   March 31, 2010 at 12:38AM
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Glad to hear you are not painting it! It is gorgeous woodwork.

The grain and look of the first floor wood, along with the time period resembles the woodwork in my Parents home. Their wood is chestnut. There is a very good chance that yours is chestnut as well. If so, it is worth MUCH more unpainted.

American Chestnut is rare and beautiful. The trees were wiped out in a blight in the 1920's.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2010 at 9:30PM
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very happy it has worked out for you. I recommend using the seal-coat shellac from Zinsser. From the can it is a clear (lightest shade) de-waxed 2 lb. cut. It is very high quality. I actually prefer it over the $20/lb ultra-blond. Your painters can apply at least 4 coats per day. For 2 lb. shellac, you will need five to seven coats for a durable finish.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2010 at 9:43PM
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Stephen Costa

Thanks Casey... I didn't realize that the "SealCoat" blend from Zinnser was in a 2lb cut. That would certainly make things easier, as I wouldn't have to do any thinning.

So you do not think the regular Bullseye Clear Shellac would have any different look to it than the SealCoat version (for better or worse)? If not, then I wonder why they'd make the waxed version at all, given all the finish compatibility issues around the wax.

The "orange" oak trim that we cleaned came out slightly inconsistent (some lighter areas, some darker areas - you could go on for weeks scrubbing the wood with wool and alcohol trying to get a 100% balanced look). Do you think a new coat of clear shellac will help even-out the appearance?

Also I'd love to hear what you think about TransTint dyes, and using them in shellac (waxed or de-waxed). I need to re-post some photos, but I have some tone-evening to accomplish in one (dining) room that had a tinted shellac in it. I can experiment with amber shellac to see if that will help level it out, but I'm more interested in achieving a brown tone in there than an orange or garnet.


Here is a link that might be useful: TransTint Dyes

    Bookmark   April 5, 2010 at 4:28AM
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The regular 3lb. canned clear shellac has wax in it. Wax allows them to make it cheaper, it eliminates another step in the refining process, and it builds a finish faster, and it rubs out very nicely, but has the disadvantage of being softer, gummier in humid/moist conditions, and breaking down over time. It's also less clear if you are building up a multi-coat finish.
The water-resistance shortfall is why I avoid it.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2010 at 7:37PM
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Hey motoq, this was a great thread--how did your woodwork come out? Or is it in progress?

Thanks for sharing the before photos, although I could feel the pain and horror of finding all that unauthorized sanding. No clue what they were thinking, but I'm glad you've found a fix. Hope you can share the after photos when they are ready.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2011 at 11:36AM
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Saw the photos of the woodwork! Why it looks stunning! I vote that you keep the wood railings natural. But a little varnish would help.

Here is a link that might be useful: teds woodworking

    Bookmark   May 10, 2011 at 12:13PM
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