• February 8, 2004

Stripping Paint and Refinishing Woodwork

Foolproof way to remove paint and stain wood

How To, Removing Paint, Stain, Woodwork

Dining Room Woodwork, Before + After
Dining Room Woodwork, Before + After

We have been asked a lot of questions about the process used to refinish our Douglas fir woodwork and have finally wised up enough to write it down!

Paint Removal
We tried many different methods to strip paint off the woodwork, everything from off the shelf Home Depot chemical strippers to the Silent Paint Remover.

Although we really liked The Silent Paint Remover, it was too bulky to fit into small corners and I had difficulty using it on surfaces that weren’t flat. In the end, a chemical paint stripper called Master Strip, Formula A Remover sold in 5 gallon drums from the McBride company (Los Angeles, CA 818.507.8900) was the weapon of choice. Be sure to wear a respirator and to have good ventilation because this stuff is toxic.

The stripper was brushed on with a paint brush, allowed to sit until it started to work and scrapped off with a wide putty knife. This process is repeated until all the paint was removed.

Here is a trick to remove any paint residue left on the wood. Brush on the paint stripper and use steel wool to wipe it off. This will also help to sand down any of the wood grain that was raised by the chemical paint stripper.

It is difficult to remove paint from cracks or crevices. People with the patience of Saints use dental tools to go in and chip out all the particles of paint. That didn’t happen at our house. A good effort was made to remove all visible paint but the paint in cracks and crevices was dealt with after the wood was stained and I’ll explain the way that was handled once we get through the staining process.

Any cracks, holes or gouges in the wood were filled in with *gasp* Bondo Body Filler, which is normally used in car repair. Bondo has several things going for it. It’s cheaper and more pliable than wood fillers and putties. It is also a brown-red color that blends in well and is barely notable once the wood is stained.

Finally, lightly sand the wood with a handheld sander.

Wood That Was Originally Painted (instead of stained)
If the woodwork you are stripping was originally painted, the wood will need heavy sanding prior to staining.

Bleaching
To bleach or not to bleach…ah, that is the question.

This step is not necessary in many cases. It really depends on your situation and the type of look you are after.

The original finish on our woodwork was very dark, almost black. If our woodwork had never been touched and was in original pristine condition, I would have learned to live with the dark wood, although it’s not my taste. But our woodwork had been touched, many times. We decided to refinish the wood in a lighter tone more to our liking.

Perhaps because our woodwork was originally so dark the grain of the wood stood out and was considerably darker after stain was applied. We wanted a more uniform finish so a bleaching product was applied. This allowed the wood to accept the stain evenly.

Woodwork that has been bleached
Woodwork that has been bleached

A word of caution, be sure to tape off the edges of the floor with several layers of painter’s tape because the bleach will run off the baseboards and onto the floor. We found this out the hard way.

A furniture wood bleach product was used. It comes in a bag and you follow the directions on the bag regarding mixing the product and the amount of time to leave it on. You will need to wear a respirator, goggles to protect your eyes and gloves to protect your skin.

The bleach is brushed on and left per the manufacturer’s instructions. Bleach was left on our wood for a few hours. The bleach is washed off with water soaked rags and a bucket of water. You will need to change the water bucket often and to rinse the wood several times to be sure all the bleach is removed.

Let the wood dry overnight.

Wood That Was Originally Painted
The bleaching step was skipped for our upstairs woodwork which was originally painted. Bleach was not necessary to get an even stain coverage.

Staining
Select several stain colors that you think you will like and apply the colors to your woodwork. Apply a large enough portion so that you can get a clear idea of what the different stains will look like. It is also good to view the stains at different times of the day because the color will shift depending on the light. Another thing to keep in mind is that the stain will get slightly darker after varnish is applied.

Don’t be afraid to mix different stains together to achieve just the right color. Be sure to write your formula down, especially if you are planning on doing another room in the future. Another lesson learned the hard way.

We have used Watco brand Danish oils and also a mixture of several Minwax stains with great success. I don’t see any benefit of using one over the other.

Woodwork after a few applications of wood stain
Woodwork after a few applications of wood stain. Several more coats were applied to achieve the desired look.

Apply a light coat of stain with a soft, clean rag. Let it sit on the wood for a little bit, then very lightly wipe it off with a clean rag. A cotton tee shirt type of material works well. After that coat dries, keep adding coats and letting them dry until you achieve the desired color.

The dining room which was done earlier is actually a slightly different color than the rest of the wood in the house. Another thing to keep in mind is that the color will get a little darker after the varnish is applied.

Here are the 2 “recipes” that were used in our house:
Dining Room:
Watco Danish Oils – 3 parts Dark Walnut to 1 part Cherry

Living Room, Den and Back Porch woodwork:
Minwax Stains – 2 parts Special Walnut, 1.5 parts Cherry, .5 Red Oak

Just mix all the colors up in a big bucket.

Touch Up
Now is the time to touch up any tiny places and specs where the paint wasn’t removed. The stain will make these areas stand out so they will be easy to see. Mix some paint until it is the color of the stain. With a small brush carefully paint over all the little spots where the paint wasn’t removed. Allow to dry.

Varnish
The varnish was a mixture of 2 parts clear coat, one part semi gloss. This can be applied several ways. It can be lightly brushed on but you can end up with visible brush strokes. A better and faster way to get a smooth finish is to spray on the varnish using a paint sprayer.

Either approach will require 3 to 4 light coats of varnish. Allow the varnish to dry between coats.

After the final coat of varnish has dried overnight, lightly sand all the woodwork with a very fine grade of steel wool.

A lot of people have had good luck sealing their woodwork with shellac or Linseed oil instead of varnish.

Dining room woodwork after restoration
Dining room woodwork after restoration

Order
It is best to strip off all the paint first. If you have layers of painted wallpaper covering your walls like we did, now is a good time to remove it and patch the walls. If you wait to work on the walls until after refinishing the wood, you risk damaging the finish on the woodwork.

After the wallpaper has been removed you can see if repair work is needed on your plaster walls. Once you have addressed your walls you can begin bleaching and/or staining your woodwork.

After the varnish has been applied and is dried, you can tape off the woodwork with painters tape, and prime and paint your ceiling and walls.

Comments { 47 }
  1. Bill

    Heather,

    This is one of the best descriptions of the overall paint removal process!

    On my old house, a combination of heatgun for flat areas and chemical stripper for the smaller or more complex shapes was the ticket.

    Your sequence of events matches what we discovered exactly.

    Good luck and we’ll be watching.


  2. Dennis

    Fantastic! I agree with Bill…I have been boinking around the Internet looking for a description just like this…I am sure you have helped numerous people with your knowledge here. Again- wishing you all the best and keep up all your great effort…I can’t wait to see future improvements!
    Dennis


  3. heather

    Hi Bill! We have been following your progress over at 118 Henry Street (http://www.118henrystreet.net). You guys have done so much work, it is really coming along. Thanks for your message.

    Best,
    heather + dave


  4. heather

    Thanks Dennis! It was your message that prompted me to finally write all this down. Best of luck with your own restoration project. Please keep in touch.
    heather + dave


  5. Mike

    Great job restoring the woodwork to a beautiful house! My wife and I moved into a just rehabbed foursqaure with some craftsman style woodwook on the first floor. The rehabbers stupidly splashed and smeared stain over the original varnish and then put on a coat of polyurethane. It could look a lot better with restoration work. Will the same removal techniques and chemical work for this as for your paint?


  6. heather

    Hi Mike!
    Thanks. Ugh! Since starting this site we have been emailed stories similar to yours. The chemical stripper Master Strip Formula A will take off polyurethane. We learned this fact the hard way when a little bit of stripper got on our floors around the base boards. My concern is that the chemical stripper will also damage the original stain used on your woodwork.

    There may be a way to remove the poly and new stain without damaging the original finish (if that is something you want to keep). I recommend posting your question on American Bungalow’s online forum (http://www.ambungalow.com). Those folks are so knowledgeable about old houses and they have ran into just about every problem imaginable.

    I wish you and your wife the best of luck and commend you on wanting to tackle the woodwork. It’s a big job!
    Best,
    heather


  7. Kate

    Great descriptions. We’ve been using CitriStrip for our fir trim and it works quite well, with less fumigation required. But we’ve only got latex paint to deal with, and I think that’s more pliable.


  8. Robert Young

    Your woodwork looks great! I have a 1915 bungalow very similar to yours and I’m in the process of refinishing all of the woodwork. I’ve had a difficult time coming up with a stain color I’m happy with and really like the color of your wood. What exact stain formula did you use?


  9. Ivee

    I second Robert’s question! I’ve finally finished stripping and sanding my woodwork and would love to know what stain combination you used.

    Thank you,
    Ivee


  10. jessy

    You guys are fantastic!! We live in Brooklyn, NY, and are restoring an old brownstone. It needs about as much restoration as your place- your site is so encouraging.

    I have kind of an unrelated question to this blog- We have shutters and the wood where the hinges screw into them is stripped. Do you have a trick for this, or know of a product that we can use?

    Again, amazing site! Please keep posting! Thank you, Jess


  11. Wensday

    I am stripping 6-8 layers of paint off a door in my 1922 home. I am using the Silent Paint remover and am down to the orginal finish. However, there is some residue left and some bits of paint. I am not having any luck getting this stuff off. When I pull too hard with the scraper after heating I am removing the original finish (it’s lighter than the area around it). I have tried reheating and area that is pretty much clean except for the residue and have burned the wood, I have tried several products (Opps, mineral spirits, linseed oil, etc). I did find someone who used denatured alcohol – haven’t tried that yet. To get to my question, I was talking to someone who does restoration in CA, he thought that the door may have been originally treated with milk paint (I live in Virginia and he said this was commonly used during this time). He said that milk paint is hard to get off – I am stuck, I have spent a small fortune so far and am getting ready to head back to the hardware store. Any ideas or suggestions? I really want to keep the original finish but after ready everything I think I am going to have to stain again and apply a shellac or varnish.


  12. heather

    Hi! We had that residue, too. Kind-of like a thin layer where you see wood in some areas and a thin layer of paint in others? We used denatured alcohol to get that off. We sponged denatured alcohol on and wiped an area clean, let it dry and went over it again (letting it dry in between) if necessary. If denatured alcohol doesn’t work you might consider trying a thin layer of chemical stripper.

    I have seen milk paint in one house here and it looks completely different then what I described above. The paint is really thick and mostly solid. Chemical strippers make it like a thick mess – kind-of bubbles up and is really sticky- but doesn’t come off. You might be able to see wood in a few areas but you see mostly paint. From your description, it doesn’t sound like milk paint to me. On the off chance it is milk paint, a company called Behlen makes a special stripper to remove it. I have also heard that lye removes milk paint.

    Using a tinted shellac could even out any variations in the finish and you might not need to restain. I’d so a test in a small area when you get to that step.

    Something I am thinking of trying is renting a high powered, professional steamer and steaming paint off. I recently read an article about that. We are going to try it in our bathroom. The plaster walls have been painted numerous times and we want to get down to the plaster. The article I read (maybe it was in This Old House) talked about using the steamer to strip paint off wood as well.

    Good luck! Don’t get discouraged.


  13. Don

    The milk paint you have may be “pickling” or “whitewash” and was made by dissolving shellac flakes in denatured alcohol.Sanding this material is futile and will take forever. It’s a very hard finish. I am restoring a 1950′s bungalo and all the fir trim was treated this way. After stripping all the layers of paint off I removed all the pickling by using alcohol on a rag. Using steel wool will get caught on the grain and can give you a life altering sliver if not careful. The best way is to rub cross grain. When all the pickling is removed sand with a hand held sander with the grain and never cross grain.

    Hope this works out for you and good luck.


  14. Sarah

    I just painted my sons bedroom a canary blue. I placed the blue tape on the baseboards, however some of the paint bled under the tape. How do I remove the paint without damaging the baseboards?

    Sarah


  15. Kathleen

    Great info here. Thank you all. Now my problem. We just bought an old house where the beams and rafters are stained dark dark brown in the room that will be our office. my husband washed them down but a lot of the stain ended up in the bucket. we let it dry and i just tried to paint over it (no i dont want the natural wood, just too dark in a room with small windows and these are not orig beams, possibly 20 yrs old.) but with the first stroke of white paint (undercoat) this latex paint just mixed with the brown stain and created a slightly lighter mess. no idea what the stain is though i am wondering if it isnt something like that wood stain you use to cover scratches on furniture–that never seems to dry. i also bought some oil based paint but havent tried it yet. does this stain need to be sealed in some way before painting..such as varnish first then oil based paint ..or latex? the house is very old but, as I mentioned, the beams are not.
    thank you all, i may be tired but am inspired.


  16. Andrea

    I am in the middle of a master bedroom/bathroom remodel which was originally constructed in 1955 as bonus/rumpus room on the other side of the garage separate from the rest of the house. The bedroom has always had a douglas fir beam and wood ceiling. The bathroom ceiling was sheetrocked but once that was removed we exposed the same wood and beam ceiling as the bedroom, which I would like to keep as part of the remodel even though it has a very different look from the honed marble and coffee bean caesarstone countertop we are installing. My contractor, without researching the steps to correctly seal and stain this part of the ceiling applied a cherry stain to the beams which is way too red and won’t match the deeper browns of the other materials. He states he would rather not sand and strip this off but suggests he’ll apply a darker stain..something in the walnut family. I read the posting from a couple of years ago about the stripping and refinishing process but I’m not sure we have that kind of time since other subcontractors are due to start. But I do like the recipe that was of 3 parts dark walnut to 1 part cherry and I’m wondering if we can use this to apply over the first coat of cherry he applied. Since I don’t know much about woods and finishes I have no idea if this is a feasible solution or will it look terrible and are we digging ourselves in deeper. I am thinking it might be better to paint over the beams the same color we’ll be painting the walls and leave the natural wood slats of the ceiling (he hasn’t touched those yet and they are a light, warm natural wood color). I would rather keep the wood ceiling and beams in their lighter natural color but since he already made the beams much darker I’m not sure if there is any turning back. Any quick suggestions before we spend a boat load of $$ would be greatly appreciated.


  17. heather

    Hi Andrea,

    Sorry for the delayed response. We have been on vacation for the past week. You should be able to put a darker stain over the first stain as long as it hasn’t been sealed with a varnish, etc. You might need to adjust the recipe by adding a little more dark walnut because the cherry stain your contractor applied will probably sho through. I’d test a small area with just the dark walnut first. If that doesn’t look right, keep adding in a little bit of cherry until you get the right shade – doing tiny test patches of color and letting them dry as you go.

    Good Luck!
    heather


  18. Dave

    Hello :) Ive just started some test batches using JASCO paint remover and also CitriStrip. The Citristrip didnt cut 4 layers of paint, but the JASCO brand did fine.

    Ive never heard of “Master Strip, Formula A Remover” before. Can you buy it at Lowes or someplace else? Did you feel this worked better than anything from Home Depot/Lowes? The JASCO I bought works pretty good. Thanks…. Dave


  19. heather

    Hi Dave.

    We used JASCO to strip our fireplace. That was before we found out about Master Strip. I think Master Strip is marketed more to contractors then to the general public. To my knowledge, it is not available at hardware /big box stores. I have seen it at a paint store frequented mainly by professional painters in down town LA.

    I have to tell you that Master Strip rocks! We haven’t found anything better. That said, JASCO would be the product we would use if Master Strip was not available to us. If you have a lot of wood to strip it is more convenient to purchase the 5 gallon drums.


  20. jenn

    If it is possible to respond as soon as possible that would be great. we are doing our living room and dining room. we were wondering if after sanding and then polyurethane should we not walk, move or be in the house for defumication reasoning due to the polyurethane or are we free after a period of time? what would that time limit be if there is one?

    Thank you for reading and helping us better our home

    jenn r


  21. Heather

    Hi Jenn. I am not sure from your post if you are talking about refinished hardwood floors or trim and other woodwork? With our floors, we waited 24 hrs after the final coat of poly was applied to make sure it had thoroughly dried. We refinished our wood trim with varnish which did not smell that great. We let the house air out for a few hours but were in the house that night. I’m not an expert, but my general rule of thumb when working with chemicals or paints is that if I get a headache the chemicals are getting to me and I need to provide better ventilation or go outside (get out of the environment).


  22. Sara

    Heather,

    You two are our inspiration!!! Whenever we get depressed about our 1930 restoration, all we have to do is visit your website and your determination and hard work lifts our spirits!
    We’ve been stripping and sanding the heart pine trim in our family room for the past several months, and started staining a test piece of baseboard just last night. The trouble is that, even with wood conditioner, we are running into blotchiness problems with the stain. I’ve consulted a local wood refinisher, and he suggested using a washcoat of sealer cut with thinner prior to staining, and also mentioned that residual chemical stripper may have soaked deep into the woodgrain and could be contributing to the problem. Did you have any problems like this when you were staining? I believe that douglas fir is a soft wood similar to pine. Thanks!!


  23. Carol Morgan

    I have been reading articles about staining woodwork for the last several years and all of them are just a little different regarding the process of removing old paint and what stains to use and how to apply them. I have been stripping my doors and woodwork for the past several years (only have 1 day a week to work on it) and I am almost to the point of being able to apply stain. Since you worked with a lot of vertical surfaces, what is the best way to protect the floor when you are applying the stain? Will a heavy duty tarp be enough? Any help would be appreciated.

    Thanks.


  24. Heather

    Carol,

    Hi! I recommend taping off the parameters of the floor with wide painters tape and then putting down protection for the floor. We used a roll of thick paper, kind-of like butcher paper and taped that to the floor. As long as you are able to secure the tarp that should work well, too.

    Best of luck with your project!


  25. Larry

    Hello Heather -

    I really need to talk to you in regard to your bleaching process and what you used.

    PLEASE contact me at:

    correus @ yahoo.com

    Larry


  26. Russell

    Just wanted to says thanks for the help. I’m refinishing the front room of our 1915 Bungalow in SF, CA. I’ve used your site numerous times. The tip on the 50/50 mineral/linseed oil did the trick for our fireplace.

    We used Peel Away 7 to take the paint off our fireplace brick and douglas fir. It doesn’t stink at all which was a big plus for me and it doesn’t burn if you accidentally get it on your bare skin. I could only find it at paint stores that catered to professional. You put it on like cake frosting and put a sheet of backing on top of it, the next morning you just “peel away” and the paint goes onto the sheet. Took off years of paint in one go, took some time to learn how to use it but we loved it.

    One other thing. I used a product called Minwax wood conditioner on my douglas fir before staining at the recommendation of both the paint store and my father. dont ever do this. I applied the stain after using the conditioner and the stain just sits on top of the wood and doesn’t absorb in. after about having a nervous break down because i had just applied this to my entire room(I normally test ever step this time I didn’t, go figure), i called the minwax co. and they said “I would not have recommended putting that on your old growth wood”. long story short, the old growth wood is to dense and doesn’t need the conditioner. I had to sand my entire room down again to get it off. I used it because it says it evens out the stains, and on the can it says “when in doubt, use it”. I was also worried my stain would disappear like yours did so I figured better safe then sorry. i was just happy i could get it off my wood, only set me back a day. lol so you live and learn, hope this helps


  27. Lead Queen

    Wow! Your work looks beautiful. I was alarmed to read you recommend sanding painted wood to be stained later. If your painted wood surfaces were flat enough to use a sander, you could have used the Speedheater. It doesn’t generate the kind of toxic lead dust sanding does. It only heats paint and wood to max 600 degrees, unlike a heat gun at 1000+, so it doesn’t vaporize the lead in the paint. Lead paint removal is very dangerous and should be taken seriously. Read about it at http://www.epa.gov/lead.


  28. Elizabeth and David

    Wow! I cannot (but should) believe that someone actually painted all that gorgeous woodwork! People never cease to amaze me!
    We own a 1920 bungalow in Michigan. It has all douglas fir woodwork, painted. Fortunately, it only has 2-3 coats of paint. We plan on stripping this year!
    Great blog!


  29. amanda

    Thank you so much for posting this. I recently purchased and rehabbed a 1929 true brick bungalow that had oodles of white paint all over the original woodwork. I am grateful to have somewhere to start (our floors are a similar color to yours and your stain mix will be a good place for me to start). Thank you so much.


  30. Nina

    Wow, absolutely gorgeous dining room! I wish my Craftsman had one of those divider half-walls (not sure what their called) in between my dining and living rooms. I am stripping all my woodwork as well. I use Peel Away 7. It works pretty good, not really any smell, and don’t need gloves. But it’s $100/gal.


  31. JS

    Hi-

    Great article. We recently bought a 1908 Bungalow which unfortunately, the previous owners saw fit to re-stain the glorious chestnut trim in BLACK.

    Can you tell me about your bleaching process and what the product was?


  32. Mark

    When using a stain conditioner, don’t follow the directions on the can. Wait about a week for the conditioner to fully be absorbed and dry. Otherwise the stain can still go on blotchy with a softwood. Someone has a website describing this with photos, but the name escapes me.


  33. Nicki

    I have been searching all over the internet to find out the best way to strip 2 old doors in my foursquare home that have been painted. The only question I have is how long do I need to wait to stain the wood after I strip off the old paint? I am usually very handy and remodeling savvy but, this is a project I have never attempted before. I love the details that you gave here! I was nervous about taking this project on because the doors are original to the house and I would feel horrible if I ruined them! Thank you so much!!


    • Heather

      That is a great question! At the minimum wait 1 day. We usually waited a 2-3 days before staining. My tip for stripping doors is to take them off their hinges and strip them outside! It is much nicer to keep all the mess outside your home. Remove the door hinges and soak them for a few days in TSP (trisodium phosphate) to remove the paint. Put the doors up on saw horses or even lie them flat on the driveway. They are much easier to strip when they are flat. After you get most of the paint stripped off you can sand the doors to remove the last little bit of paint. It goes much faster this way. I think you will be very happy with the results!


  34. Poli

    http://www.oceanmanorhouse.com/?page=paintremover

    I made my own modifications and putting together a hands free stand.

    I will try to post some pics of the paint remover and my progress.


  35. JBanker

    For anyone starting paint stripping. A safe water based paint remover you can use for interior jobs: READY STRIP(http://www.ibacktonature.com/Pages/readystrip-PD.html). You can buy it from Home Depot or Amazon. Works fine for our 3 or so layers of paint. It smells, but not too terribly and is not harmful both for you and environment. It takes a while to start working (best if left overnight) but we use it around small kids and animals with little ventilation. So give it a try. It’s not too pricey.


  36. mike

    Guys that woodwork is amazing and I know it was a Labor of Love as any Historic Restoration is. I have used that same stripper before to remove old layers of caked on lead based paint and as someone who works for a Remodeling and Restoration company in the Charlotte NC area I have made money and lost money bidding on jobs like this. There have been times when the old paint bubbled up and simply wiped off then there were times it was grueling and we had to apply the paint stripper 6 times to reveal the wood underneath. I commend you for a job well done and may you enjoy this beautiful historic home for years to come


  37. Daniel

    What would you suggest for causing laser engraved text to stand out – something to rub over the letters to darken them, but that won’t soak into the surrounding wood? Thanks!


  38. Nancy

    Thank you! This is timeless information, as I see you did your project in 2004 and here it is 8 years later. I especially like the advice about painting over the tiny bits left behind when stripping the paint, and also recommended brands. I have a huge project ahead of me and the advice from all of you who have written here will make it manageable.


  39. Brian

    My question is… after using a stripper, can I restain and is there any conditioner needed?


    • Heather

      Yes, after the wood has dried from the stripper at least 24 hrs. you can stain. We did not use a conditioner. I suggest staining a small section of the wood and letting it dry to see the results. If you are unhappy, try another section with conditioner first and then stain.


  40. Kim

    Oh my goodness I am so pleased that I stumbled upon this website. My home was built in 1909 and has the fir strips on the wall like yours but I never knew just what they were. I also had no idea that the entire bottom half of my walls had the same beautiful wood that yours does. I also have boxed beam ceilings. Did you strip the beams as well? I’m almost certain that the main part of the ceiling is plaster, not wood, because of the repaired and painted cracks. About how long did it take you to strip your dining room? I don’t have any built-ins in my dining room, pretty much just walls and windows. Did you refinish the floors or install new? I don’t remember if you mentioned this or not. If you refinished, how did you do it? Thank you so much for sharing this info!


  41. jay

    It worries me that you do not mention lead in the paint in this article. Did you test for lead? If not. I would suggest you do now. If you sanded the wood that you stripped and it had lead paint you created a lot of lead dust. I’m just curious, and worried.


  42. Seana Yates

    Hey, could you make it so I can pin your articles on Pinterest? I’m having a hard time saving it there for future reference. I really like the article. Thanks!


  43. John

    Really nice job on this huge project.

    I own a foursquare in New Haven, CT that was built in 1918. The chestnut woodwork on the first floor still wears its original finish (we’re treating the whole thing like an antique and are not messing with the finish, as one wouldn’t with an antique). I do know, however, that the finish isn’t varnish but is shellac. And it’s highly likely that any original clear finish on residential woodwork installed before about 1925 is shellac.

    If you need to refresh such a finish, you’re in luck! It’s fairly easy and non-toxic.

    First of all, do a test to figure out what your old finish is. First try wiping an inconspicuous spot with a dab of denatured alcohol. If the finish is shellac, a little bit of it will come off on the rag (a yellowish-brownish stain). If this doesn’t work you probably do have varnish, which is outside this discussion. Sorry!

    Anyway, to spruce up your shellac finish without making it look ‘new,’ gently remove the old shellac with a 00 grade pad of steel wool dipped in alcohol. You’ll need a fair amount of alcohol, but the finish should basically dissolve right onto the steel wool. This method uses a rather light touch; you shouldn’t have to rub too hard, so there’s not much danger of leaving bits of steel wool in your wood’s pores. Just be gentle!

    Once you’ve cleaned off the old finish, simply replace it with new shellac. You can do this with a good paintbrush (bristle, not poly). You can buy shellac at your local home center. DON’T use it straight from the can! It needs to be thinned. I thin it to a ‘one pound cut’ by mixing three parts alcohol with two parts shellac. The resulting mixture is thin, and will dry on your woodwork almost instantly. It’ll take a little practice before you’re good at this, but it’s worth it. Two or three coats should be fine. Wait at least an hour between coats. You might want four coats for really heavy traffic areas. Light traffic areas are fine with two coats.

    If you want, you can tint the shellac to match your pre-existing color. Use alcohol-soluble dyes available online from woodworking websites, and be discrete – a little bit will go a long way.

    If you really want your woodwork to look like a fine Stickley antique, the final step would be to gently rub it out with a good paste wax (I have used Briwax for years, but any good wax will do). Again, this will take a little practice to master the technique, but the result is absolutely gorgeous – you’ll have guests stopping in their tracks!

    The beauty of this finish is 1) that completely it’s authentic to the period, which polyurethane most assuredly isn’t! and 2) it’s more or less non-toxic. The only solvent is alcohol, which dissipates very quickly. It simply is much less hazardous than polyurethane, and much more ‘green.’ Finally, if you screw it up, simply wash it off with alcohol and start over.

    Good luck!


    • Heather

      This is wonderful! Thanks for sharing.


  44. huberhouse1886

    Another Benefactor. I have done a lot of stripping, but my tongue and groove wainscoat boards was a little too much detail. Now I will have to decide if I want to paint the grooves to match or continue grooving. Great Idea!



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