Taking it all off: To strip, or not to strip?

March 5, 2009

So, among the many house projects I’ve been chipping away at this month is this one, which has involved some literal chipping:



So the thing is, I wasn’t actually supposed to be working on this right now. D. had tentatively endorsed this as a project for next year, and even at that was somewhat lukewarm on it. But then a funny thing happened: we had a handyman out to help plane down the front door so that it would close properly, which involved taking it off its hinges. Turns out that this can get tricky when hinges are painted over. The best solution? Whack them with a hammer, apparently! (Or so says the handyman—but I must admit that it worked wonders.)

But the hinges weren’t the only thing that came loose. So did one giant chunk of paint on the door frame. In fact, it did more than come loose—it peeled right off. Neatly. Cleanly. Like it had been sitting there waiting to jump off for years. So then curiosity got the better of me, and with a six-way paint stripper (a handy little gadget that ran us under five dollars) I made short work of the rest of this section. The few sticky spots seem to be places where wood filler or putty had been used for old holes or imperfections; in every other area, the paint came pretty cleanly off of the wood without protest. (Interestingly, there are several layers of paint there, and only the newest is white. Below that is pastel green—which from all appearances seems to have been the color of our entire house, inside and out, at one point!—and gold.)

Wood grain

Wood grain on door

The tricky part, though, is that I got a bit overzealous with this and just kept going—on to the door, on to the baseboard woodwork. (I took this photo before I’d even started in on the panels—and in the process, I also took apart the door lock and sort of learned how a mortise lock works….or at least, figured out enough to put it back together again!) Then D. came home and started to worry. The thing is, he rather likes the look of the painted woodwork, and is very concerned that if any of the paint doesn’t come off, looking at it for the next however-many years will bug him to pieces. He’s also worried that stripping these down to the natural woodwork will darken these two rooms a lot. (Less a concern for the living room, I think, but unfortunately that’s the more difficult of the two rooms to finish since it involves the built-in and the fixed windows in the front.) The dining room also could do to have its plate rail replaced, so obviously the stripping question is a big one for that—I don’t want to install paint-grade trim and then decide to strip it all (or vice versa).

So what’s next? My original plan had been to give this wood a once-over with a heat gun from the tool library and then to scrub it with denatured alcohol to take off the shellac, which is pretty scratched up. In theory that should leave the stain clean and intact. But we have no idea what kind of shape the wood will be in once that’s done, and it will be hard to guess at how dark the rooms might be before the project is pretty well underway. (For whatever it’s worth, it looks like the wood in the living room is all red oak, though it’s hard to be sure at this stage. If our dining room woodwork matches our neighbor’s—which is likely, as the houses are mirror images built by the same family at the same time—then it’s elm panels framed by oak. The plate rail has been removed but was probably oak originally as well; there may or may not have been picture rail, too, since there are a few spots around the door frames where it looks suspiciously like the moulding has been cut.)

So should we go for the natural look, or simply repaint with lead-free paint (which would be progress in and of itself)? I admit that I’m drawn to the natural woodwork in part just because it feels more “authentic,” and D. may well be right that the rooms are more functional and light with the painted woodwork. Anyone have any good examples of woodwork that’s been stripped and come out beautifully that might convince me I can actually pull this off? Or are we likely to end up with all sorts of problem areas?

(Next up on the stripping calendar: the windows!)


  1. If it were on my house, and it was an original door, I’d be inclined to strip it. However, it appears to be later and lacks some of the detail a 1920s door might have. I think that the massive flat surface below the windows could be overpowering if it was all dark wood.

    A thought just came to mind – consider putting a bit of trim on the door, rectangular in shape, that would be the same width as the group of windows, but more vertical.

  2. It is indeed the original door, circa 1915—I’ll have to get a shot of it from the porch at some point, as it has lovely Arts and Crafts details on the outside below the lites (and fortunately that side was never painted). I’m less enthralled with the inside, which is pretty boring since it’s a single panel. The darkness/massiveness is definitely a concern—the idea of breaking it up visually is an interesting one, so I’ll have to play with that a bit. I also realized I don’t have any dining room pics up yet, but the woodwork there goes up about five feet, so it’s a lot of the wall space, especially if it turns out to be oak instead of elm. Argh….

  3. I’m a big fan of natural wood grain, so I’d vote for that for the door at least. It’s darker than bright white paint, but not overly so.

  4. I’m living with some dark stained woodwork and I would love to paint it white (I won’t, but still). I wish somebody had painted it before I moved in! I know, not very popular 🙂 So, I vote for white paint.

  5. if you elect to paint it put some shellac on it first-it will keep any sap in the wood from spoiling your fresh paint and make it easier for the next guy to strip the paint if they want to.

  6. The wood on your not-original-to-the-house door appears to be Douglas Fir.

    Your house was built after 1916 – the year they figured out how to make white (and lighter) paint inexpensively http://www.oldhousecolors.com/2007/10/16/the-great-divide-%e2%80%93-what-happened-to-colours-in-1900/. After that period, most woodwork was made to be painted (and which is why, incidentally, that prior to 1916, houses had dark trim (which was difficult and expensive to paint/repaint) and lighter surfaces(which were easy to paint/repaint)).

    Best of luck – what happened to your Craigslist find?

  7. Oh! I missed my point (which was probably obvious). Your interior woodwork was most likely painted originally. Strip only if you want to reveal more detail when you repaint (or if you want to easily open your windows – how is that project coming??)

  8. Thanks, Patrick. The house was actually built in 1915, and the woodwork (at least in the dining and living rooms) was indeed finished originally, which is probably a large part of why it’s so easy to strip—there’s a layer of shellac under there so the paint flakes right off to reveal the original dark finish. (It’s still in its original unpainted condition in the twin house next door, which gives us a great window into what it might look like if we did strip it.) And we’re pretty convinced the door came with the house—the other two houses on the street built that year have identical doors, and the hardware is still the original mortise lock and handles, which date to that period.

    Oh, and the sad story on the Craigslist find is that when we went to get the piece, it was in much worse shape than we’d anticipated and I ultimately decided it was a bigger project than made sense to take on, so the hunt for the perfect kitchen piece continues. (We did luck out and score another great find for the dining room that weekend, though, which I’ll photograph and post soon!)

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