100+ Years of Paint

July 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

  72-100P 003

Next year our house will turn 120 years old. We’ve only spent three of those years with it, but that’s enough to generate a hopeless list of projects. Everyone makes this list, and the goal is to complete as many things as possible before you move out or die, whichever comes first. Luckily our house has been relatively well-cared for over the years. It has its issues here and there, but nobody has ever gutted the place down to the studs and replaced it with the “superior” modern materials like sheet rock, mdf, and particle board.

The woodwork is mostly original (or close to it), including the doors, moldings, trim, and baseboards. Sometimes it’s a bit random, especially the baseboards where in some cases they don’t even match within the same room. Crown molding was present at one point, but taken down in areas and in most cases just a picture rail remains. And when indoor plumbing was invented and the bathroom was added to the back of the house, they clearly just took some leftover trim and moldings from here and there and did the best they could. But everything, save for some chair rail that got added later, is original, solid wood.

But…it’s all been painted several times over. The first color was likely white, as this is a classical treatment for Victorian style interiors, and the house probably looked quite nice freshly painted with that first coat. Then someone liked the color green, then blue for some of the doors, and burgundy, and one owner must have gone through a pink phase. And the owners just before us? They decided the house would show better if everything was painted a nice dark brown (sigh).

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Typical doors and moldings in the house. The dark brown paint gives each room a quaint cave-like atmosphere.

So back to that list of house projects. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if all this original wood could show again, stripped of its paint?”. It could, but you never know what lies beneath. It’s possible that the wood was never meant to be bare, and made from flatsawn tight-knot boards. I suspected, however, that instead we had nice clear vertical grain stock hiding under all that latex.

A small remodeling project gave us the opportunity to see what we had. A doorway in the house needed to be widened (long story), so I removed the door, molding, jambs, and baseboard. In the now larger doorway we are substituting in another door in the house that we rarely shut. I’ve stripped paint before, and it’s a miserable job. I’ve used SoyGel and the other green strippers and while slow and messy, they do work. The rattle-can stuff from the hardware store works faster, but the fumes are something wicked. And I’ve used heat guns and blow torches, etc., etc. At some point, though, you need to ask yourself what your time is worth. Luckily I live in the United States where someone, somewhere, will do almost anything you want for a price. Here in town there is a place that specializes in stripping paint from woodwork. Sounds good to me.

I dropped everything off on a Saturday afternoon, hoping for the best. And I was thrilled with how the stripping turned out. For a little more than $200, they stripped a 32″ wide door, 36 feet of moldings, 14 feet of door jamb, and 8 feet of baseboard. And they did the job in a week. Talk about a bargain. Only small remnants of paint remained in some nooks and crannies that I needed to pop out with dental picks. Even the narrow grooves of the molding came out almost perfect.

It’s impossible to know if there was a ever a period where the wood was left unpainted. The size of the nails suggest that maybe it wasn’t, and it was immediately painted white. And who knows how long that original color lasted, but the several layers of paint suggests that every 20 or so years someone had a vision, and a few gallons of paint entered the house.

And the wood? A few surprises. Douglas-fir is the dominant wood here in the Northwest – it builds almost everything. Cedar, alder, and oak are used as well, but to a lesser degree. And when sawn vertical grain, Douglas-fir can be quite attractive, especially if the grain is tight. I’m not completely sold on it as furniture wood, but for structural work it’s about perfect. I assumed the doors and moldings would be made from Douglas-fir, but in fact they were cedar. While you lose some strength in toughness with cedar, it does make for a lighter door – easier on the hinges I suppose. And I was happy to see that it was mostly all tight vertical grain wood. In the few places that weren’t vertical grain, it was still clear, beautiful wood. No knots to be found – nothing paint-grade here. The baseboard and door jambs were in fact CVG Douglas-fir, and the baseboard had an especially beautiful tight grain.

Seeing this woodwork makes me hopeful for the rest of the house. Only three more doors and a couple hundred feet of moldings and trim to go.

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A “before” picture

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I stripped a small portion of the door, curious to see how many colors it has been over time.

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Cedar door

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A brace and bit excavated lock mortise

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Cedar moldings and Douglas-fir baseboard

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Douglas-fir baseboard

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The stripping was done by Houck’s Process Stripping Center. Even for the most die-hard DIY fanatic out there, hiring someone else to strip a five layers of paint is a no-brainer.

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§ 2 Responses to 100+ Years of Paint

  • Rob campbell says:

    Wow! What a great looking door under there. Reminds me that I wanted to suggest you try pure tung oil with no solvent, warmed in a double boiler or slow cooker if you think it’s too thick. I’ve become quite a fan of it.

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      Hi Rob,

      Yeah, we were excited to see the wood looked so good after stripping.

      I’ve heated up Tried and True’s linseed oil to give better flow, but I guess I’ve never done the same with Tung Oil. How long does it usually take to dry?

      -Eric

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