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This Old Crack House

From log house to farmhouse. Farmhouse to townhouse. Townhouse to apartment house. Apartment house to crack house. Crack house to our house. Our house to our home.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

How I strip wood. (and why)

Since this is a hot topic right now and a call went out for Housebloggers to document this topic, AND since I am in the middle of this process all over AGAIN, I shall give some tips and a synopsis of why I do what I do.

The first thing I ever stripped was a door in 1996. I used a belt sander but it wouldn't get into the panels so I used paint stripper. I rubbed the goop off with steel wool and paint thinners. Paint thinners does not raise the grain of the wood like water will.

The next thing I stripped was my entire Kitchen. I started with paint stripper but it was messy and took way too long. Then I heard about using a heat gun! So I bought one with an adjustable heat dial. If I set the dial to #1 I could dry my hair and if I set it at #10 I could toast marshmallows! I generally set it a little above #8 so I don't burn the wood.

After the kitchen came my dining room. Somewhere between the kitchen and dining room I started using furniture refinisher to remove the paint stripper before using thinners. This can get expensive and for some reason you don't find refinisher any more (what are those welts on my hand? Did my finger just fall into my coffee?)The heat gun was useful for stripping the glue and tar paper from the floor too before sanding.

By the time I got to doing some more doors I had the routine down to heat gun, then paint stripper, then furniture refinisher and steel wool, then paint thinners and steel wool. Then stain and urethane.


There was so much wood to strip at the crackhouse and the heat gun was relatively slow so we tried a "Speedheater" aka "The Silent Paint Remover" and this made stripping flat surfaces so much more pleasant and quicker however, a heat gun was still needed to deal with detailed moldings and situations where the SPR just isn't efficient. We tried a number of different scrapers over the years but I am down to these three as my favorites.

The flat scraper is a little flexible and yes that is a screwdriver with a sharpened head (since you can't find screws to use it with anymore) for fine flake removal.

The next step after stripping paint was discovered after realizing that furniture refinisher was hard to find and reading everything I could find about shellac.The original wood finish will now determine my next step.

If the original wood finish was shellac I will rub it down with steel wool and alcohol. The alcohol dissolves the shellac and will lift off most paint flakes. If you wipe up the goo as you go this is quite a time saver. I may have to zap some stubborn ones with the heat gun and use the screwdriver scraper.

I won't use paint stripper if I can help it unless an item can be coated in the stuff and sealed in a plastic bag so the the stripper doesn't evaporate, or dropped in a can with a lid like "ye old coffee can o'paint stripper" that I keep in the basement and top up every time I strip hardware.

I use coarse steel wool with the alcohol. When the wood surface is dry I sand with 80 grit then 100 or 120 grit sand paper to lift off any remaining paint. I then rub the surface with an alcohol soaked paper towel to remove and spread thin any remaining shellac. Any flecks of white paint are dabbed with raw umber colored paint or you could dab it wth a black marker.

To finish the wood I recommend three coats of shellac purely for depth of color. You can apply urethane or spar varnish over the shellac if you want. You can tint shellac with aniline dye too. I did this for our dining room floor. This is what they used to put on old furniture. If you strip old furniture you often remove the color and can't really replace it with stain. Rub your final finish with wax and fine steel wool then buff it and you are done. I recommend waxing floors if you are going to be creating a lot of dust because it makes sweeping them with a brush so much easier, the dust slides off! It also makes the floors very slippery though.

If the original wood finish was painted over fresh wood I say "SCREW IT" and sand and paint the wood again after stripping. It is way too much work to sand the surface clear of paint, especially if the molding is detailed. I am dealing with this right now in the bedroom. I say "Yay Less work for me!!"
If you want to preserve the look of wood, color wash the wood with a wiping of tan or brown paint so that some grain shows through and apply 3 - 5 coats of shellac. Our entry hall was done this way to prevent it from looking blotchy because I couldn't get all the original paint off easily. I discovered while stripping the paint that this was in fact the way it was originally finished although it was colored with a red mahogany tinted shellac over a pale green base. You can also rub the wood using artist oil paints. These contain the same pigments that are in stains and can be thinned with paint thinner. They will take longer to dry than conventional stain. Colors to use are Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna.

I will post a bit more about this subject soon because I am in the middle of dealing with this.

This is the top part of our mantle in the bedroom. The bottom has been finished this week and looks really good. I will post some before and after pictures with the next wood refinishing report. In the meantime I have to devise a way to mask the large burn mark and the numerous cigrette burns in this piece of wood. Since nobody could offer up any suggestions in my last post I shall follow the advice of "Old Blue Eyes" (Frank Sinatra to you young puppies out there) and "Do it myyyyyy wayyyyyy".


At 7/20/2005 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great post - I was especially interested in the dining room floor pics with the tinted shellac, since we'll be going dark with our floors to hide the (many) imperfections and any mismatches that may occur when we replace a few boards.

I know what you mean about wood with paint and no shellac..... one half of the front door I just did was like that. A week later, I'm STILL working on getting little bits out of the cracks. But now, after reading your post, I'm thinking I'll just go over them with a brown marker! They're on the bottom half of the door anyway, so unless someone is crawling around on our floor (unlikely, given it still has carpet staples embedded in it), no one will notice.


At 7/20/2005 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That post ROCKED! I am stripping my woodwork which is long grain pine (ca 1925) and I am repainting it. New house people think that sounds nuts, but the 10 coats of paint make all the details disappear. Anyway, when you strip to REpaint what is your primer of choice? Do you like to sand down the primer coat(s) before the final coat? Do you like oil base enamels?

At 7/20/2005 12:47 PM, Blogger Derek said...

I've never run in to cigarette burns, bleaching might do something, if it's not too deep, or sand it out and use filler. Thanks for the great article, we have a lot of stripping to do in our house. I'm not sure if our first coat is shellac, it's alcohol based, but it's opaque. It doesn't really come off with the heat gun, and paint stripper just softens it. Alcohol gets the final film of it off though.

At 7/20/2005 2:40 PM, Blogger Jocelyn said...

Great post Gary. I wanted to ask your opinion about using shellac to darken my swing door. I have pictures on my "Coming Through" post from Monday. The door is kind of too red and I wonder if shellac would brown it. If you have time, I'd like to get your opinion?

At 7/20/2005 6:59 PM, Blogger Gary said...

Regarding re-painting. I tend not to buy primer for wood. I slap a thinned down coat of shellac on the wood and then sand with 220 grit paper. Shellac is a sealer and is what wood sealer is if you buy it in a can. Your base coat can be thinned down and used as a primer. I like oil based paint because it settles and eliminates brush strokes but it takes too long to dry. If you dilute acrylic paint with water and apply over the first coat it will obscure the brush marks.

Derek, what you have is lac paint. This is a shellac based opaque paint that was common at the turn of the century. We had a burgundy lac paint on the floors of many of our 2nd floor rooms. If you heat and scrape it the resin comes off but the color remains and it smells like tar. If you can reduce the amount of the paint on the floor you will save yourself a lot of sand paper when you sand the floor.

Anyone wondering about what shellac does. Go buy a can for around $8 and do what I did. Play around with it. Apply it to wood scraps, painted wood scraps, paper (stencil card is shellac coated card stock), glass (shellac is used for painting faces and detail on plain glass for stained glass images, slap it on some metal, paint some ceramic tiles with it, paint your finger nails (just testing to see if you are paying attention). Soon you will figure out if it is something you can use in your house and with a gallon of denatured alcohol it cost less than $20 for the lesson. Can't beat that with a stick. Maybe you could use it to freshen up an old piece of furniture. Play with the amber shellac because you can always buy the clear later and mix it with the amber if it is too dark for your liking.

At 7/30/2006 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello and thanks for your site. Good luck with everything. I am hoping you or someone else may be able to answer a question for me. I have a 1928 long leaf pine door which was, over the years, stained and painted. I have stripped all of the paint off, and sanded it down as much as possible. It looks pretty good. There is some slight discoloration due to the original stain which has soaked quite deeply into the wood in some places, but it's nothing more than some added character. I would like to stain the door instead of repaint it. I am currently using a needle and some tiny screwdrivers to remove little flecks of white paint tucked away in the corners where the glass sits. My issue is this: I can't seem to get the little molded inside corners completely clean. No matter how much stripper I use, there remains a slight film of paint. The stripper thins the paint, but I can't manage to get it completely off. It just moves around a bit then dries again. I am looking for a method to completely remove the residual film of white paint. Thank you for any input.

At 5/24/2007 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found, when refinishing woodwork in my 1913 foursquare, that it pays to know the bottom layer. I found that Shellac melts from heat. A fire years ago caused the paint layers over the original shellac finish to delaminate. Some use of a heat gun allowed all the paint layers to come off, leaving only the shellac and a few paint bits on it to be removed with denatured alcohol. The downstairs woodwork and stairway railings, mostly flat surfaces, were old, alligatored shellac that was quite brittle. A few scrapes with a sharp scraper shattered and removed most of the shellac, the rest removed with the alcohol again. I found some cheap plant misters, filled 'em with the alcohol, sprayed, let sit a few minutes (keeping it wet) and gently scraped the heavy areas with various tools and rubbed other areas with a coarse green 3M pad. A final spray and wiping with Bounty paper towels (they are really thicker and more absorbant) left me with wood ready to stain and varnish. On oak, I really like Benjamin Moore's Architectural Penetrating Stains, which really penetrate the grain and are not just thin paints like most pigmented wiping stains. A first coat of BM's acrylic varnish (satin). light sand, tack cloth and a final coat of the same and I had a furniture quality finish.

For old house preservation purists, if the wood had no clear finish on it initially, it wasn't meant to be finished with stain and varnish. A nice vindication for those having problems trying to strip paint out of wood grain so they can have "natural" woodwork.

At 7/26/2007 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey guys, that refinishing article was pretty informative. I came a across a pretty handy read when I was doing my wooden furniture at home. I thought the readers might want to have a look cos I found it an ACE read! The link for it is http://www.ebookego.com/ebwmini/wfur/

Have a great day,

At 1/27/2009 8:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not alone...restoring a 1887 cape in Buffalo...removing many layers of paint...using a citrus based stripper for the top coats then removing the last with a heat gun right down to wood...then picking out all the nailhead spots..another few months..

At 12/22/2009 10:29 PM, Blogger leadqueen said...

Speedheater is not a Silent Paint Remover anymore! In 2006 Silent Paint Remover (SPR) stopped importing the original, UL listed Speedheater and copied it. Speedheater upgraded and put shock absorbers on bulbs to reduce breakage. SPR still has trouble with lower quality bulbs and breakage. Check www.eco-strip.com

At 8/24/2011 12:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this site while looking for a tip on how to strip oil based paint of of crown moulding in an older home...so I'm a bit confused..do I use a paint thinner and gloves and all that other messy stuff or do I use a heat gun? Any ideas or suggestions?

At 8/24/2011 1:40 PM, Blogger Gary said...

@anon, try using a heat gun first. The solvents will mess up your wall and your floor.

At 5/10/2015 6:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

One great technique for stripping wood completely chemical free is to use a mix of baking soda and water. Add about 50% water and 50% baking soda and stir. Cover the woodwith the paste and leave for a while. Use your scraper to remove the first layer of shelaq, wax or varnish and repeat until you are down to bare wood!

At 10/31/2015 5:05 PM, Blogger Bronwyn Shearer said...

Having spent endless months stripping the paint off our highly detailed interior woodwork only to find it's still not clean enough to varnish or stain I'm grateful for your suggestion of a tan paint wash. Maybe we can keep our wood look after all. Thanks.


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