How to finish old doors

bostonpamNovember 10, 2010

We're converting our 1825 Federal/Greek Revival home back into a single family. We have mostly original 1 3/4" 6 panel black walnut doors in all sorts of condition - painted and unpainted. I've taken them to a highly respected refinishing company to hand strip the doors (at this time I can only afford the 1st 10). The doors are beautiful and I want to keep them unpainted. How should I finish them? I have a new fir door in a half bath that sees lots of water (near pool) that I finished with Bona Woodline products (dry fast sealer and oil based polyurethane) and it was easy and came out great. Should I use this on my other doors? Pardon my ignorance but shellac appeared to be the latest and greatest thing in the 18th - 19th century but it seems to be much more work to apply to the doors. Should I go this route instead? The refinisher thinks some of the doors have been stripped and refinished once (he could see machine sanding on one door).

I have a few pine doors (mainly in the 2nd floor bedrooms) originally painted with milk paint that are being stripped too (the latest paint is having a tough time adhering to the milk paint). Should I repaint once stripped or leave them natural? Thanks for your help!

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If they were finished in natural walnut originally, it was probably an oil or wax finish. Varnishes were quite hard to come by in the period and were reserved for furniture. If you wanted to oil, your choices would be tung oil (matte finish) linseed oil (a bit shinier) or a modern resin/oil finish such as Waterlox, which is available in a satin or gloss finish. Regular oils are wiped on/wiped off , but waterlox has the option of being brushed and let to dry because it's more of a varnish. If desired (and I recommend this) it can be wiped on sparingly.
You could also varnish, with either an oil or spirit varnish. I would advise against poly, because they are not original or reversible (penetrating oils are not reversible either, but they have authenticity). Very high-quality non-poly varnishes are still made, but you can't get them at the big box stores. Spirit varnish (shellac) dries by having the solvent (alcohol) evaporate, and is completely reversible. It can be removed without harming the wood. It sits on the surface and doesn't penetrate the wood cells. It gives a slightly more "dead" finish by itself than an oil, which is why a lot of fine furniture finishes consist of a penetrating oil to expose the most color/grain and a clear film finish like varnish to act as the "lens" and focus the grain.
The depth of grain in this cabinet was achieved by oiling and shellacking:


    Bookmark   November 11, 2010 at 11:45AM
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Casey, that's beautiful!!!

    Bookmark   November 11, 2010 at 8:41PM
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Ok, I bought my 1st gallon of Waterlox and before I begin I have my next problem. This is a Xpost from woodworking. I have a 6 panel black walnut door. The stripper thought it was from the late 1700's to early 1800's (much thinner than my other doors). Prior to 1914 the hinges were moved to the other side of the door and the 1st side broke. That side of the door was painted (used in bathroom) so they replaced the black walnut with maple or possibly poplar (about a 4" x5" flat triangle). I'm going to finish the whole door with Waterlox - no paint. How do I stain that repaired section so it may look a little closer in color to the black walnut? Is it a losing battle? Any other words of wisdom?

A friend suggested the only true way to get it to match is to paint that maple to walnut and then apply the Waterlox. But, he suggested to embrace the historic repair (almost 100 years plus) and just waterlox the whole door. It will be difficult to match perfectly. I'm already embracing other quirks of my house like a partial brick wall behind the sink that was the fire stop for the old stove, keeping a hallway door that use to separate the private part of the house to the public part, framing old wallpaper found during construction, etc. Any other ideas or comments?

    Bookmark   November 16, 2010 at 8:18AM
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Only comment I can make is I'd love to see pics of what you are doing.
I've got a Federal style house myself.....1830's. All the woodwork in this house is painted and seems to have been so since the beginning. I'd love to see what you're doing.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2010 at 10:17AM
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Hi Carol - we're near the end of a long phase one project. We converted our old house back into a single family, gutted the kitchen (and added 8'), gutted 2 baths, add mudroom, half bath, central air, home automation system and pool, moved the main staircase near where it was originally, all new wiring, plumbing, updated heating, and shored up the basement. I have a blog on the journey. We have some beautiful paneling around and under the windows. We did strip one but it's a mix of woods and always was painted (so we're repainting it). Our 1st floor doors are black walnut and some are painted. Others have been stripped before. We're having them hand stripped and then with Casey's suggestion using Waterlox on them.We're also painting everything ourselves. Trying to get the house ready for 10 - 12 overnight guests for Thanksgiving week! We could really use that bathroom door.

Here is a link that might be useful: Blog on our house conversion

    Bookmark   November 16, 2010 at 1:20PM
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Pam, just wanted to say how much I love your house!

    Bookmark   November 16, 2010 at 2:38PM
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I agree with your friend. Just stain it all the same, embrace the change/fix made to the door 100 yrs ago. If you tried to make everything "perfect", you'd drive yourself crazy, imho.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2010 at 6:16PM
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For what it's worth, I also like the idea of mixing/embracing the combination door. It would make a great conversation piece, but I am not very fussy about that sort of thing. I am, almost literally at this moment, giving the "go ahead" to stain and refinish our front door that still has it's slightly green patina (thanks to old paint that will not let go).... Did I notice *4* babies in your life in addition to all of this renovation!? You go girl!!

    Bookmark   November 16, 2010 at 10:04PM
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Thanks for the kind words antiquesilver. Mrsrichards - I have only 2 kids (10 and 13) the other two are my nephews - I watch them on Fridays plus they're over at our house 1 or 2 more days/night a week. (I get my baby fix and then give them back ;)

I decided to let the repair stay as is - no stain. It's near the floor and inside the bathroom. The Waterlox was easier to apply than the Woodline oil polyurethane. The poly has to be sanded between coats, really thin coats or it runs, etc. (the poly still wasn't that bad though). The Waterlox just soaks right into the wood. I had to refill my container 3 times for the one door. I didn't realize I needed that much (vs. the poly). I had my respirator ready but didn't use it - the smell wasn't that bad (this was only a door). I was worried that we couldn't stay in the house while it dried but will do another coat this weekend. After Thanksgiving I may shellac the doors. Thanks for the suggestions and comments.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2010 at 2:53PM
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The guys we had put tung oil on doors.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2010 at 9:05PM
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OT but I just looked at your blog. I LOVE your pool, but after we looked at the Massachusetts pool fencing laws and considered the liability issues if we did not comply, we decided against a pool. I see no fence now--are you getting one, and are you aware of the local regs?

Seekonk's are linked as an example, I'm sure it would be easy to get your town's latest.

It's not just the worry of a little kid wandering in and...well I don't even want to think about that. What would really rip me would be some drunk teenagers trespassing while I was on vacation, drowning or having a bad accident, and then my getting sued for their irresponsible behavior. At least with legal fencing I'd have a defense.

And normally I'm one of those people who roll their eyes when people talk about safety. But dh and I have worked very hard to attain our meager net worth; I'm not willing to risk losing it over something like this.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pool fence regs

    Bookmark   November 26, 2010 at 8:29PM
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I am deciding what varnish to use on my beautiful antique full length oval bevel glass door with gorgeous carvings.
I have included pics in process of sanding & repairing..
The door I suspect is about 100 years old and came from Chicago. It originally had green enamel paint(geeeez) covering this beaut', yuk. I have had it under wraps for 30 years.
I would appreciate your suggestions.
This I know: I don't want to use polyurethanes, do not want to stain, prefer satin finish, need excellent water protection, and the door will get direct morning sun from about 7 until around 10 AM in Southern Louisiana.

Here is a link that might be useful: Door before....

    Bookmark   February 12, 2011 at 11:37AM
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Grab the most recent issue of Fine Woodworking.

The article on finishing is actually pretty good.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2011 at 7:41PM
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