Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Horror

It's never too early to begin to stress about design choices like paint colors, window treatments, and woodwork finishes. This is really the part of the process I dread. Over the next few months I can look forward to countless sleepless nights and hours spent looking at paint chips. And if history repeats itself I will spend $75 on paint only to decide I don't like it after it is on the wall.

Oh, what joy.

One of the things I have thought about doing with several rooms, and then later chickened out, is to paint the frieze and ceiling sky blue and then sponge on big, fluffy white clouds. Then hire a local artist to come in a paint on a few blue birds streaking across the sky. I'm thinking about it again with the parlors, but it probably won't happen.

If I don't go that over-the-top route I do need to start thinking of a more realistic pallet. The parlors can be considered 2 rooms, but from design standpoint I will treat them as one room. While not huge, together they create a room that measures 14X28 feet. I'm not sure that I can get away with really bold colors in a room this size. Or maybe I could, but they would definitely need to be the right colors. Also, unlike the other major rooms on the first floor there will be no dado in the parlors, so it will basically be 3 colors: Field, frieze/ceiling, and woodwork.

The woodwork is really the starting point. I need to strip off the layers and layers of poorly applied paint before I do anything. If the woodwork in these rooms was originally shellacked, like it was in the foyer, stair hall, and dining room, it would be a no-brainer. I would strip back to bare wood and re-shellack. For years now I have had a very strong suspicion that the woodwork in these rooms was originally painted.

During the 1920s, when the home was converted in to apartments, the two parlors became a living room and bedroom for one of the first floor apartments. To separate the space more they added more framing to make the opening between the 2 rooms smaller and added a pair of French doors. They reused the original casing, plinth blocks and head blocks to trim out the new French doors.

They did a nice job, and you really couldn't tell at first, except that the French door hardware was definitely 1920s and not 1895. It became even more apparent when I started to strip off wallpaper and found that the area around the French doors was sheetrock while the rest of the room is plaster. Then of course, once the sheetrock was removed, it was obvious the framing was not original.

Later, when I was working in the kitchen I reused some of the casing from around the French doors for the dumb waiter style door and when I stripped back the paint I found that the original color was a creamy pale yellow. One thing I have found repeatedly when working with redwood is that if the original finish was paint, getting back to bare wood clean enough for a new shellack finish is almost impossible. I'm not saying it is completely impossible and unheard of, but it is so much work on high Victorian woodwork with all of its detail, and the results are so poor, that it is simply not worth the effort.

On the other hand, if the woodwork was originally shellacked stripping back to bare wood becomes very doable and in fact I did it with great success in the dining room. I mean, it took me 3 months and was a hell of a lot of work, but the results speak for themselves. If I tried that same thing on redwood that was originally painted I would not have nearly the same results.

So the question I've been asking myself all of this time is, was the casing I used in the kitchen really original to the parlors from 1895. There was a possibility that when they framed in the opening and added the French doors they milled a few short runs of new casing and the creamy, pale yellow paint was originally applied in the 1920s. If that were the case then the rest of the woodwork could have a nice, protective layer of shellack underneath all of the thick, goopy layers of paint that look as if they were applied by Jackson Pollock.

So yesterday I got out the trusty heat gun and did a little exploratory surgery. Sure enough, just as I expected, I found that same creamy, pale yellow pant. That means that the woodwork in the parlors was originally painted in 1895. That also means that I will be repainting.

I will most likely go with chemical strippers, as opposed to the heat gun. Not sure which product I will use at this point. To be honest, I'm a little relieved. Stripping all of the woodwork in these 2 rooms back to bare wood good enough for a shellack finish would be a lot work, even if it was originally shellacked. There are 6 windows that would take forever, especially that large front stained glass window. After nearly 10 years of restoration I just don't have that kind of stamina anymore.


Ragnar said...

If that's old linseed oil based paint I suspect it might have been a LOT less yellow than that originally. From what I gathered online, linseed oil paint has the odd characteristic of yellowing when kept away from sunlight. This might have been a pale cream or even white when it was new (looks a bit dark for that though). Sanding doesn't really do much but I found caustic strippers to take yellowed linseed oil paint back much closer to its original hue if scraped off before it ate through the entire layer of paint. I'm fairly sure there are more professional ways to determine original colors, but to me this seems to be a cheap and practical ones. Caustic strippers make a big mess though, and you have to make sure you neutralise the wood afterwards or any new paint will just come off again.

Greg said...

Yea, determining the absolute original color would be difficult. The color you see there is darker than it should be, due to the heat gun. A picture at the link below gives you a better idea. Look at the casing around the little door. That is stripped with a heat gun and then sanded quite a bit.

To be clear, my intention is not to strip back to the original color and attempt to use that original paint as the finish. The goal of stripping is to regain detail and get rid of drips and runs from bad paint jobs.

Good point about being exposed. In the kitchen, the original wall paint was much darker where it was exposed to light and air. The wall was an almost blood red where exposed, but where it was behind the casing it was more of a mauve.

Marilyn said...

You might want to take a look at this blog. He has done the cloud thing on several ceilings:

Greg said...

I'll also add, in case any would-be paint strippers read this that of the caustic stippers, methyl chloride based stippers don't need to have the wood neutralized after stripping. A product like Peel Away will change the ph of the wood and you will need to neutralize the wood before it is painted.

Greg said...


Who! That is nice. Someone really knows how to paint clouds. Oddly, I'm no intimated at trying it myself.

Sean said...

So are you going to paint the palor side of the pocket doors to match the trim or leave them natural?

Greg said...


Boy, good question. I hadn't thought about it until you asked. I think leave them natural. I'm not sure I could bring myself to paint them after working so hard to fix them up.


kelly said...

I am about to embark on another paint stripping adventure and was going to go the heat gun/ infared paint remover route but am interested in what methyl chloride based stippers you are using? might need to change my approach...

Greg said...


If the original finish was shellac, then it is a no-brainer for me: heat gun.

If it was originally painted and a flat surface then I will also use a heat gun. I go this route in this case mainly because it quick. I don't have to apply stripper, wait for it to work, test it, wait some more, etc, etc.

If the piece of wood is flat and has no detail then a heat gun and sharp edged scrapper goes pretty fast.

In the parlors I have wood that was originally painted and has a lot of detail. The heat gun a scrapper routine would be very tedious and time consuming.

In this situation I normally use the methyl chloride based strippers because they do work reasonably fast, compared to some of the "green" strippers. I like the semi-paste variety (think slime) because they cling to vertical surfaces.

The downside to methyl chloride based strippers is the caustic odors and potentially flammable fumes. It is not a big downside in my opinion, but it is something to consider.

In the parlors, since I'm only working on the weekends I may try one of the "green" strippers. These usually work much slower and can stay on for days. The idea is that I will apply the stripper Wednesday evening and then spend the weekend taking it off. Methyl chloride based stripper generally dry out quickly and don't like to be left in place after they have done their job.

I would be interested to hear about "green" srippers from others.