Refinishing Woodwork

There’s a little-known fact about the beauty of stripped and refinished woodwork, and I discovered it the hard way starting with a blunder I committed in the spring of 1990. I’d just built and hung an insulated exterior red pine door and began applying a walnut-coloured outdoor varnish to it. I’d never used this product before and in my haste to get the job done I let impatience rule. Instead of testing the new finish on scrap wood (as I always tell other people to do), I went right to the finely-sanded, bright new door with brush in hand. That proved to be a mistake. The first coat looked great, lending a rich brown, antique tone to the surfaces of the door. But the second coat didn’t look so good, and the third was just plain silly. Since the product had a very dark colour, it showed brush marks prominently as it built a surface film. Areas with a slightly thicker film were almost opaque; thinner areas were lighter. All that work and the new door looked like a toddler’s first attempt at faux woodgrain finishing. As I was to find out later, the manufacturer discontinued the product I’d used a short time later, for reasons I was all too familiar with.

After a day of trying to convince myself that the door really looked okay, I admitted defeat, slathered on the paint stripper and began gently scraping off the mess. But as the sheets of soft, new finish fell to the floor, my eyes lit up. The door looked fantastic, much better than new. Where the embarrassing goop used to be I found rich, warm, old-looking wood. In a matter of just a few days I’d accidentally created the kind of golden, antique patina I’d always believed took decades to develop naturally. But there it was, and with it came the realization that there’s more than I thought to the perennial popularity of stripping and refinishing woodwork. While there’s certainly value in getting rid of old encrustations of ill-chosen paint, I know now that refinished wood looks so good because of the burnishing and polishing that inadvertently happens in the fight to remove old coatings. And knowing that fact can help you coax the most beauty from old trim, floors, moldings and furniture. The main thing is to always use the gentlest methods needed to get the job done.

Understand What You’re Doing

There are 3 ways you can remove an old wood finish:

  1. with abrasion alone
  2. with heat and abrasion
  3. with chemicals and mild abrasion

And of these three methods, the third offers the best opportunity for preserving and enhancing the antique-wood look that’s so prized. And believe it or not, chemical stripping has also become the safest of options because of low-toxicity formulations that soften old coatings while keeping potentially harmful paint dust out of the air.

Methylene chloride is the active ingredient in traditional strippers and it remains popular because it’s effective. But to be safe, it must also be used with levels of ventilation that are almost impossible to achieve indoors. Two less toxic, citrus-based alternatives that I’ve used are Citristrip and Organic Strip. Though both work more slowly than methylene chloride products, they continue working longer, without drying out. They also smell great.

With the old finish softened, it’s time to remove the goop. And for this you need a gentle scraping action using tools more sophisticated than the dull putty knives usually brought to bear on the job. Cabinetmakers have traditionally used the widest range of scrapers of all professional woodworkers, and it’s in their toolboxes you’ll find the best scrapers for stripping curved surfaces like moldings and fancy architectural woodwork. All specialty cabinetmaking suppliers carry a wide selection. For stripping large, flat areas, pay the extra money for a carbide tipped, two-handled paint scraper. The reversible carbide blade stays sharp almost forever, and can be replaced inexpensively when the time comes.

Open-pored woods like oak, ash and walnut often retain paint in their pores if it was applied as the first coat of finish on the wood when new. In this case, gingerly work the area with a soft, plastic-bristled scrub-brush over a slathering of fresh stripper. If that doesn’t do the job, switch to a fine, brass-bristled brush. Just remember to scrub all areas evenly, regardless of whether or not they harbour paint. This creates the most visually-even surfaces, and the best final result. As you’ll discover, the best scrapers and brushes will get you 80% to 90% of the way to bare wood. After that it’s time to switch to something more delicate for the final, prefinish clean up.

Walking the Fine Line

After you’ve removed all the old finish you can with chemicals and gentle scraping, there will still be bits and pieces of ugly stuff hanging around. This is especially true around moldings and surfaces with concave curves, and these are the places where mild abrasion is useful for final clean up. Just be careful. Don’t over do it. You want to clean the wood, but not remove any surface layers. That’s where the prized burnished patina is found.

steel_wool_burnThe gentlest option for post-chemical cleaning of curved wood is fine steel wool. Use #000 or #0000 grades. Steel wool is especially useful here because it conforms to curved shapes willingly, almost eliminating the danger of rubbing through high spots. And one pad goes a long way because you can turn it over and fluff it up, exposing a fresh surface for more work. Surprisingly, steel wool this fine actually poses a fire hazard in the workshop. Take a little bit outside and put a match to it. You’ll see that it burns with glowing hot embers that race around the pad like a dynamite fuse on a road runner cartoon. That’s why it’s always safest to keep steel wool stored in air-tight metal cans.

For cleaning up flat areas, start with sandpaper no coarser than 120-grit; 180 or even 240-grit usually makes more sense. Work gently, remembering that you’re only removing the surface residue. If you’ve got a house full of ornate trim to strip, consider a power tool like the Porter-Cable detail sander. It’s unique in that it has many different concave, convex and angled attachments for prepping just about any shapes you’ll find.

Final Finishing Options

Choosing a successful finishing procedure is a lot like choosing the right methods of stripping. Use the least intrusive products needed to create the required level of protection. In the case of interior trim or primitive antiques, for instance, that might mean a penetrating oil only. If more protection is called for, consider applying cabinet wax after allowing the oil to cure for two weeks. If your stripped wood is in a high traffic area, or gets spattered with water from time to time, consider two or three coats of satin or flat urethane. That door I struggled with back in 1990 is the kind of thing that needs more than the usual amount of protection because of its outdoor exposure. But even under three coats of lightly-tinted, transparent sealer it still looks a whole lot better than it would have if I’d never made – and stripped – that finishing mistake in the first place.

It wasn’t until 1978 that the safety hazards of lead were taken seriously enough in Canada to result in a ban on the substance in all paint products. That’s why it’s quite likely that any painted woodwork or furniture you’ll be stripping is covered in this harmful substance. And although it’s possible to strip lead-based paint safely, you must recognize the hazard and prepare yourself for it.

The biggest threat posed by lead in old coatings comes in the form of airborne dust and vapours. That’s why you must never sand old wood finishes or soften them with heat. Tiny particles of lead-laden paint will invariably waft into the air, making their way into someone’s lungs sooner or later. And that’s bad because lead is among the nastiest of toxins, causing everything from permanent brain and organ damage to long-term behaviour problems in children. Heating old coatings poses a similar, though invisible, threat. A torch or heat gun will vapourize lead-based compounds as it softens paint, releasing them into the air where they will be ingested through the lungs. The safest stripping tactic starts with a respirator and rubber gloves. Use stripping chemicals while realizing that the goo they create must be consider toxic. Work on plenty of newspaper and gather it all up after each work session. Dispose of gloves and residue at a hazardous waste facility.

Posted on November 19th, 2010


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