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Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

Posted by nursekathleen (My Page) on
Wed, May 19, 10 at 23:06

The wood trim in my 1920's bungalow is a bit...worn ;) Let's just say the PO's did everything to it EXCEPT paint it - totally (well, in one room they actually did, but it could be worse!). However, in the meantime, they DID slop all manners of room paint on it, drilled holes through the beautiful high baseboards, and ripped random pieces out here and there :(

My goal is to restore it to it's former glory.

The house was built in 1927, a lakeside cottage that isn't fancy - very workmanlike. No frills! I am thinking the finish might be shellac, and the trim gumwood? How do I go about tackling this? I know I can take off the shellac with Denatured Alcohol (right?) but what colour would this shellac be? I am not even sure where to buy it - Home Depot's shellac comes in two colours and two colours only.

Here are some pics (forgive the move in boxes and terrible mess - these are from when we first took possession).

We pulled up all the stinky old carpet off the hardwood

The dining room, through to kitchen

The Pulley Windows in the Living Room.

Living Room again

Follow-Up Postings:

RE: Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

Hard to tell, but is that picture molding running around the rooms? That means you won't have to put holes in the walls to hang your pictures.

The two colors of shellac you mention....would that be white and orange? It has been YEARS since I've done a shellac finish. Surely there is something better to use now?

And the last picture you posted, what is that brown stuff on the floor? Old carpet? Or maybe old linoleum? From the other floors I see, you will wind up with some lovely wood floors! And on the walls, do you have wallpaper or is that beadboard?

I know you are very excited to get your hands on a place which is already responding to your efforts.

RE: Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

Search the internet for sources of colored shellac. You can buy it premixed or mess around with mixing up your own custom color. You can buy it as dried flakes to be reconsituted in alcohol, or in liquid form.

You can easily test for the type of finish on the trim with a Q-tip dipped in denatured alcohol and rubbed firmly on the finish. Shellac liquifies (gets gooey or sticky, or comes off) pretty readily on the Q-tip. In areas where you still have an intact, though possibly alligatored, scratched, cracked, or slumped shellac finish, you may be able to get away with re-liquifying the finish and resmoothing it, followed by a new top coat. This presupposes it is a color you like and it is not too contaminated by dirt, grease, oil, or waxes which would make a nasty mash-up. In that case it would be better to remove as much as possible (using alcohol-wetted rags or pads - a goopy, messy job), and start from scratch.

(It doesn't appear to be the case in your pictures but it is possible to have layers of shellac and varnish on top of each other. This was often done deliberately where there was faux-grain painting decoration -very popular in the last third of the 19c. The decorative treatment was done with one medium and a different one was applied over it for a finish. This allows - when you're lucky, and careful - for surface cleaning/refinishing without disturbing the underlying decorative work.)

The first thing to do is test the finish as described above. That will tell you what you're dealing with. The other clear finish alternative to shellac would have been varnish. The stripping solvent for varnish is mineral spirits/turps and other altogether nasty and vile remover potions.

Shellac application takes a bit of experience/skill, though I found it was pretty easily learned. Shellac is also very quick drying (which has its own pitfalls), and though a bit finicky about brush marks, easily repaired if you mess up. If it is shellac and you want to renew or replace with the same finish, choose a place where you can learn the application process and aren't under too much pressure to finish a high-visibility project.

One thing to keep in mind, though, with shellac. It is not particularly water-resistant. That makes it a less desirable finish where water splashes, spotting, standing, or even, regular water-cleaning is to be expected. Clear varnish would be better in those instances.

Also, bear in mind that lots of modern (e.g. polyurethane, even water-based poly) products are described as "varnishes". Technically that's correct, but they have little in common with early 20th c, or 19th c, versions of varnishes.

Two other things re shellac's solvent (alcohol): just because it is seemingly less noxious than solvents used in varnish finishes does not mean it is completely benign. You should be sure to work with good ventilation as you can get a cracking headache (symptomatic of what I don't know, but probably nothing particulary healthy) when working in an enclosed space. And, of course, any rags, steel wool pads and shellac/solvent-saturated towels should be considered very flammable and either hung out to air out thoroughly or discarded/stored while submerged in water. Never put them in trash cans or piles as the closed spaces can create the conditions for spontaneous combustion with potentially tragic results.

I recall your house from earlier posts. Did you wind up changing the high dining room window into french doors, as you were contemplating?

PS: Periods of very high atmospheric humidity can be problematic when working with shellac finishes. In extreme cases, it can cause the finish to have a hazy, milk-ish quality. So I wouldn't plan on taking a vacation week in the hot, humid days of August in order to knock out the shellac project! Prep, yes; but the finishing should be done in a dryer period.

RE: Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

Wow! What a great explanation. Thank you for the wonderful tips!

No...I won the battle over the french doors and we kept the original ones in the dining room. Even hubby admits that on a rainy day he loves the sound of the rain on the trees in the backyard with those big swinging doors open; so we are both happy with the result.

It certainly has been a labour of love though; lots of things that didn't have "pretty" appeal had to be done first - basement waterproofing, new roof, etc. etc. etc. But we are now moving on to the "fun" stuff and I am excited! Many thanks, once again!


So sorry - forgot to address the questions in the first answer! The carpet in the living room has been pulled up. It stank and we wanted the hardwood underneath (which needs refinishing). There was a layer of crappy wallpaper on one living room wall, we have also removed that.

And YES! That is picture molding. Though PO's ignored it and screwed a million holes into the walls anyway ;)

RE: Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

You house has a similar look to ours as far as the trim goes. Ours was shellac painted over. So when I stripped it, patched and sanded it, most of the shellac was gone. I ended up restaining it and it looks great, but I wish I had tried to shellac it again. Shellac has such a nice finish.

You will love that picture rail; it is so easy to hang stuff from it. We bought the hooks on line at House of Antique Hardware.

RE: Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

I have been stripping paint and refinishing my house's trim (from 1907) and like you have painted sash. Even though I did remove all the glass and strip the paint from them I kept the original intent by repainting the sash. I chose a color that kind of coordinated with the wood tone.
Window restored


RE: Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

We also used shellac on our douglas fir trim we rescued from 60 years of bad paint jobs. We did a wiping of pure linseed oil first to bring out the grain, but I'm not convinced that was absolutely necessary. Pic colors are a little off and dark, but you can see the closest door trim as representative:

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RE: Refinishing wood trim...what am I doing here exactly..

Casey, I like the way you did the window. Wish I had thought of that. Ours are so beat up that restaining them made them look worse.

And CircusPeanut, that trim looks great!

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