stumped by our woodwork

arlosmomAugust 20, 2008

So many old houses have layers upon layers of paint on the woodwork that need to be stripped. We have the opposite problem. I think our woodwork is all chestnut, and it's never been doesn't seem to have any kind of finish remaining on it that we can see. It has taken a real hit over the years, with scratches and sun damage particularly on windows and sills (check out the corners of the window sashes in the first picture).

We're not really sure how to repair it or bring it back. We don't want to sand it heavily as that will dramatically change the appearance. It is pretty dark, but I'm not sure if that is the wood color or if it's been stained at some point, or if it's just got 104 years of dirt build-up. We definitely don't want to paint it. Is there a way to "feed" the old wood and then seal it? What would tung oil do? I've heard of Restore-a-finish...what would that do? I'd appreciate any advice I can get. So far all I've done is give it a light cleaning with warm soapy water.

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Oh my gosh!! I'm sorry I can't give you any help, but I had to say ... that staircase and window are AMAZING!!!

    Bookmark   August 20, 2008 at 7:05PM
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I would adopt a conservation approach to your woodwork. This means do no harm. Be suspect of taking irreversible steps.
There are two kinds of oil: drying, and non-drying. Tung oil, (boiled) linseed oil, etc are drying oils- they penetrate wood, and through polymerization become a permanent finish in and on the wood.
Non-drying oils are present in many furniture polishes, mineral oil, etc. They sink into the wood, but never dry. If you are lucky, they evaporate like lemon oil. If you're not lucky, they attract dust, and sometimes react with any existing finish, softening it and turning it to sticky goo.
Drying oils on wood are not reversible, since they penetrate. To remove them you will remove some of the wood fibers. The oil will always darken the wood.
You have some original finish left in less wear-prone areas. If you carefully clean and wax (Butcher's wax, etc.) you will reveal something close to the original color (somewhat darker, of course with the passage of time.) This will be the color you could try to emulate in fixing the water- and sun-damaged areas, like the sills and window sash.
The most conservative approach would be to clean lightly and wax. This removes no original fabric, and gives some protection, but would not restore the appearance. A more intrusive and destructive step would be some sanding and scraping of the darker wood/water damage, cleaning everything else, then a new shellac finish over the damaged areas, as well as the cleaned ones. This would come closer to representing the original appearance/intent of the builder. This still saves all of the original color, finish, and surface.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2008 at 7:20PM
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It is probably shellac that has darkened and thinned with age but it might also be lacquer or a combination of the two. There might have been a stain applied before the finish. I have attached a link that might help.

Here is a link that might be useful: shellac and lacquer removal

    Bookmark   August 20, 2008 at 11:18PM
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In my opinion, you probably can't change the appearance of that wood too much unless you sand it back to a uniform surface. You correctly point out that the various surfaces have worn differently, depending on sun exposure, friction wear, etc. You seem against the idea of sanding, but even a hard sanding still only removes a tiny amount of surface wood, if done right.

If you want to keep the weathered/worn look, you could limit yourself to what has been described above. But my vote would be for a careful sanding, then a nice light-shaded lacquer.

It's an eye-catching stairwell, and might be worth hiring a pro to do. Good luck.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2008 at 12:26AM
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We have a very similar situation as arlosmom with the window trim, window seat and wainscoting in our dining room. Casey, Are you suggesting to clean lightly, then use a drying oil and then wax? I'm not clear on how oil fits into the clean and wax piece of your suggestion.


    Bookmark   August 21, 2008 at 6:38AM
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Thanks for the responses. The "conservation approach" is pretty much what we've been thinking for a couple of reasons. The house was virtually untouched when we bought it and that was a large part of its appeal for us, so we don't have any interest in making it look shiny or new. Also, there's a LOT of wood in the living room, dining room and stairwell. We're afraid that if we mess with it too much, we'll end up with something that's far less uniform in appearance than it is now. That would be very very bad.

Casey, I'm hoping you'll check in to this post again. I've avoided using any non-drying oils for the fear of creating a sticky mess. But after reading your post I'm unclear about the pros and cons of tung oil vs. wax. Is tung oil and then wax an option?

Here are a couple more photos from when we first bought the house. This gives and idea of how much wood we're dealing with here.

Dining room fireplace, plate rails all around, 9 inch baseboards and windows with built-in bench:

Living room with stairwell, pocket doors and more benches:

We plan to tackle this ourselves. Husband is a woodworker (for leisure, not professional) and I've done tons of wood stripping and rehab. We tend to be much more meticulous than we could afford to pay anyone else to be. We just don't know quite to do with this yet. As Casey stated, more than anything we don't want to do harm here.

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   August 21, 2008 at 8:23AM
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Find a discrete place and test this technique:
1. light sanding w/ 180 or 220 grit. Use a sanding block on flat areas so as not to damage edges
2. vacuum, wipe w/ paint thinner to remove dust.
3. with a rag, apply a mixture of shellac and butchers wax. this is a nice easy finish that doesn't coat the wood but just fills pores and protects it. You can do 2-4 coats depending on how much of a finish you want to build up.
4. If you like it in that test area, do the rest!
I use this finish all the time and you will love it

    Bookmark   August 21, 2008 at 11:00AM
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All of the woodwork in my Mother's house is clear American chestnut and has never been painted. It still has much of the original varnish or shellac on it.

When my Grandparents owned the house (Dad grew up there, they bought the house from the grantparent's estate) one of my jobs for Grandma was to twice a year go over the woodwork with a rag soaked with kerosene.

I don't know if that did more harm than good, but Grandma swore by it.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2008 at 11:38AM
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My point was 'no oils of any kind'; because they either do nothing, or do something irreversible, or attract dust, or degrade the good surviving areas of finish.
Stick with shellac and paste wax, they are good conservation-oriented materials. Also stay away from aerosol furniture polishes, any type of "wipe" that promises a miracle result, and be wary of free internet advice!

    Bookmark   August 21, 2008 at 5:31PM
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What would be the best thing to use to clean the wood before waxing? I'm assuming TSP is way too strong. Diluted Mr. Clean? Diluted dish soap? The guys who refinished our floors warned against Murphys Oil Soap -- they said it left a silicone residue -- so I assume that's not a good option.

I've not worked with shellac, but I'll do some research.

I LOVE free internet advice...taken with the proverbial grain of salt. :)


    Bookmark   August 22, 2008 at 8:43AM
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Cleaner idea: naphtha. It's flammable, but it will remove wax, etc. Evaporates clean relatively fast. Does not harm original varnishes/shellac.
Buff away any residue with a microfiber cloth. It will leave white flecks in the pores, etc. So you will have to put something on the wood to get rid of that; paste wax does that perfectly. For a bit of deeper cleaning/polishing, you can apply the wax with #0000 steel wool. Buff the wax with a woolen cloth. Only wool will do for buffing. In areas of carving, use a bristle brush for buffing. IOW, it needs to be a natural hair-type fiber. Some characteristic of hair makes the wax gleam, with less effort.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2008 at 8:41PM
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Do not use silicone furniture polish, but you probably already know that. I'd test with denatured alcohol to see if it's shellac. If so, you're in luck, as a shellac/wax finish is easy to care for.

Since you have so much wood, you might consider paying a local finishing expert or cabinet maker/restoration specialist to evaluate and suggest what you should do. I'd think that $500 or $1,000 spent up front would save a ton of time and, possibly, heartache.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2008 at 12:26AM
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If you use naptha, turn off ALL electrical applicances (clocks, etc.), open the windows, and put a fan in one window blowing IN. That way the fan pushes the fumes ahead of it, it doesn't draw them across the motor.

Years ago there was an explosion in a home where the owner was using naptha to remove years of built up wax from a hard wood floor.

He didn't vent, and was smoking.

He survived, but was severely burned.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2008 at 11:06AM
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Hire a professional to restore some important part of your house and then use that technique to do the rest yourself. Otherwise you could do some real harm to hour house.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2008 at 7:13PM
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Mineral spirits (AKA paint thinner) is marginally safer than naphtha for cleaning woodwork.

Its slightly slower evaporation helps with using less and removing heavy grime.

Using a fan in a widow to push air in is still a good idea, but moist box fans are shaded pole motors and outside of the on-off switch do not produce any sparks in operation.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2008 at 8:47PM
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It's just me but before you go into the stripper realm, I would go with a good cleaning. Start with a simple cleaner and some soft scrubbing to remove grime and the ages. Once you get that you'll find areas that may need a touch up with the finishing.

Kudos for your viewpoint to keep the original feel. Sanding and more aggressive "cleanup" with also affect the patina which is really what gives your house the original feel. Clean first then address finish issues in areas where needed.


    Bookmark   August 28, 2008 at 11:17PM
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"It's just me but before you go into the stripper realm..."

Paint thinner and Naphtha are not strippers, even for shellac.

The problem with ANY water cleaner is that it can cause additional damage if there are defects in the finish film.

If the finish is shellac water can very easily turn it into a massive mess.

Lacquer is more water resistant, but even it can 'blush' and turn cloudy from excess water that penetrates into the film.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2008 at 9:00AM
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Thanks for all the suggestions. The window bench in the dining room has hinged doors below, so we have a hidden area where we can experiment a little. I think I'll try the mineral spirits first -- I've used mineral spirits before so I have some comfort of the familiar. The naphtha combustibility scares me a little. I expect this project to take a while. It's an old house that needed literally everything, and we always have three or four projects going at a time.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2008 at 10:10AM
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Your house is so gourgeous. I hope you post pics as you progress.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2008 at 12:03PM
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Be careful.

Mineral spirits is flammable also, just not as badly as naphtha.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2008 at 6:27PM
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Don't complicate things too much. Buy a couple of boxes of nitrile gloves, the blue ones mechanics use as they will not fall apart when using petroleum products. Wipe down all of the wood with mineral spirits or naptha, there is a deodorized paint thinner available. Any rough spots can be smoothed out slightly using lacquer thinner or alcohol thereby avoiding sanding(this step is optional as a few nubs and bumps look good to me. Then put on a coat of shellac or lacquer.
The only problem is that the new coating will be quite glossy although in your case it would probably take a few coats to get there. Satin or semi-gloss lacquer is available but I haven't seen low gloss shellac. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can rub out the gloss with steel wool, that is for smaller jobs and you will be there forever. I am meticulous to the point of ridiculous but this is not a piece of furniture, it is an entire house of trimwork.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2008 at 9:44AM
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There is a deglosser additive for shellac that works well.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2008 at 9:54AM
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Circus Peanut

eandhl, do you have a brand name and source for that deglosser? I've spent quite a while hunting for just such a beast for shellac. Thanks!

    Bookmark   August 31, 2008 at 11:45PM
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Found it!
I assume it's mostly intended for spraying shellac, since it's being sold to the industry, and if you are a one-off furniture maker finishing in shellac, you are probably English polishing or French polishing, and the final finish is going to be hand-achieved anyway.
If anybody tries it, please report back with the results.

Here is a link that might be useful: Shellac Flatting Agent

    Bookmark   September 1, 2008 at 9:33AM
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That stuff on the pocket door molding looks like pigmented shellac. Test, discretely, with denatured alcohol. If you're lucky it's shellac and not varnish. Any decent paint stripper takes shellac off easily.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2008 at 2:37AM
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It appears that your woodwork may be "fumed", a process where ammonia was used to darken the wood. If so, that's why it has such a uniform color.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2008 at 12:07AM
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all that beautiful wood I would call in a good painter get his opionThe guy we had was an expert,he has since passed away,he worked magic.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2008 at 8:09AM
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