How to strip paint from brownstone woodwork
I've spent a good chunk of the past year stripping the woodwork in our old house, so I thought I'd share some observations for those inclined to do it themselves.
Point #1: stripping several decades of paint off of woodwork makes almost no rational sense whatsoever. The job is so insanely time-consuming, it would have made more financial sense to rip all all the old mouldings, buy replicas at Dyke's, and spend my time bartending instead (not that I know how to bartend). That said, I'm compelled not only to keep stripping but to show you people how to do the same, because, as they say, misery loves company.
My stripping began in the kitchen, with some window trim that had been painted brown. Fortunately, there was only one layer of latex paint, so it was easy to remove with a chemical stripper. (After experimenting with a bunch of different brands, I stuck with PeelAway 7. ) It took maybe 6 to 8 so hours to strip and clean one layer of latex paint off casings for a tall window on the parlor floor.
In contrast, the woodwork upstairs has taken approximately forever. The paint upstairs dates to around the 1920s, is loaded with lead, and thick as hell. I tried all methods of stripping to figure out what would be fastest (including the silent paint remover) and found the easiest way was to manually pull off as much paint as possible with a 6-in-1 scraper.
Because the wood was finished with shellac in its earlier life, much of the paint on flat surfaces lifted right off. I noticed that winter is the best time to scrape because the woodwork shrinks a bit in dry weather, making it easier to pull off the paint. In scattered sections, I poked a hole through the paint down to the original finish, which often made it easier to lift a few days later.
For detailed areas, I used the PeelAway. While it worked on the most recent layers of paint (latex) within minutes, I ended up leaving the stuff on for 24 hour periods because the older paint was a real bitch. Through trial and error, I found two treatments of PeelAway (with at least a day or two inbetween) worked best. When I did more than that, it tended to discolor the wood underneath.
To avoid safety problems with lead dust, I wore respirators that I bought online and hung light plastic dropcloths from the ceiling, enclosing the immediate area around the mouldings. The rest of the room was also covered in plastic dropcloths, which I frequently replaced.
Here's what the corner detail looked like after a 24 session of PeelAway. The gummy mess just beneath the corner moulding is residue from the chemical, which I should have cleaned better. The only way to get that stuff off after it dries is to put more PeelAway on it (you can wipe it off a few minutes later). The lesson here: for the final round of stripping, carefully clean off PeelAway, using denatured alcohol.
To remove the shellac, I alternated between PeelAway and denatured alcohol.
PeelAway is faster but is a pain to clean off. Denatured Alcohol doesn't leave any residue (in fact, it's often used to clean wood) but the fumes can be hard to take. You definitely want all windows open, with an exhaust fan (a box works wonders). By the way, you may note that, in the BEFORE photo (left), the shellac is scraped up to hell. The scratches on the wood are mostly from my scraping (shellac scratches fairly easily), but most of that comes off once the shellac is off [AFTER].
Having a bunch of good dental picks was essential for getting at nooks and crannies. The picks bend easily but you can harden them to some extent by blackening them over a flame beforehand.
I dug out all the paint I could with the picks, and quit when I reached the stage shown here. At a certain point, I decided not to try removing any more paint because doing so would only damage the wood. Instead, I cheated by using gel stain — a combination of Barlett's Maple and Dark Oak — to conceal any remaining paint and other light spots or flaws.
Gel stain is more like paint than a traditional stain; I found it easy to work with. And though it's not going to hide a significant amount of paint at eye level, it worked well for small stuff.
The stain also came in handy for making the woodwork color more even. A same window casing is bound to be darker in some places than others, so I used the stain before finishing with dewaxed shellac. (Dewaxed is more water-resistant and durable than standard shellac; I purchased flakes from Homestead Finishing.com).
And there you have it. Now all I have to do is paint the walls and caulk around the edges to make everything nice and clean.