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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.

Kitchenbeforeafterpaintstripping 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.

Manualstripping_2 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.

Cornerickydetail 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.

Beforeaftershellac 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.

Cornerdetail 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.

Cornerdetailstained Here is the same corner after I applied the stain. Not bad, eh?

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.

Windowsalmostdone

Comments

dt

Very nice. We have been struggling with one banister for months. Can't seem to get it totally clean. I'm tempted to try the gel stain on it.

Steve

Nice job! Another nasty but effective product for final cleanup is MEK. It's sold under a variety of trade names like "After Wash" and is great for removing the filmy blur that strippers sometimes leave behind. The Lowes on 12th St carries it.

PS: is your blog feed on houseblogs.net?

Shawn

What do yo use to test for lead in paint?

carrie

I didn't actually test the paint before stripping; it dates back to circa 1920... and you can generally assume that paint that old is lead.

That said, you can get a lead testing kit at a hardware store.

jessica

And THAT said, be sure that you really want to know FOR SURE that you have lead paint.

I just assume that I MAY have lead paint, since my house is as old as Carrie's. But if someone were to put me on the witness stand, I wouldn't be able to say for sure that I do, because I haven't tested for it.

And, having just done some stripping myself, I'd like to add that Peel Away 1 gave me the least flakiness and residue as I removed my (possibly lead) paint. It is recommended for removal of lead paint. It did significantly discolor my wood, however.

If you're stripping to keep the wood clear, and not re-paint, I'd go with Carrie's suggestion of Peel Away 7. I would add to that the special Peel Away paper that is sold separately. This allows everything to come off on one piece of paper and would probably minimize exposure to lead. It also might cut down on the nasty fumes that emanate from Peel Away 7.

Another product I like for stripping is Klean-Strip KS-3, but unlike Peel Away, this stuff does contain some serious toxins so be sure to use it in a well-ventilated area. It doesn't discolor the wood and works like magic in 15 minutes. Wear a respirator!

Jabeen

Hi,

Misery is right...I'm in the middle of stripping our foyer molding and it's hard ass work. After much research I found about about Peel Away's new product, Strip Smart. It's working good except leaving a lot of gooey stuff behind. I'm thinking of waiting until I've finished the first round of stripping and then dry scraping as much as possible and then applying the varnish and calling it a day. the molding has very fine detail and it's a pain to try to get all the nooks and crannies clean. Wish me luck!

Jabeen

Oh I've a question for you guys. On the advice of the Peel Away manufacturer I didn't put plastic on the walls and when I scrape with water, the residue leaks down. Any advice on what I should do. Neutralize the walls before we paint. We live in an old victorian in San francisco so also worried about lead paint. I am using Smart Strip because it the best to use for lead paint because it don't release any vapors in the air. Any ideas you ladies have would be very much appreciated. My husband's words, "are you sure you want to take this on?" and my very stupid "Yes" keeping coming back to me as I scrape away in misery.

carrie

I didn't have to neutralize because I used Peelaway *7*, which is formulated specifically for antique woodwork that you don't plan on painting. I did have some dripping of the underlying shellac... to stop that I just made sure to use the Peelaway paper and remove the gunk as soon as it started dripping.

Good luck!

sharon

I am a stripper myself; I purchased a house that had to be moved. I was so excited to learn that my bid won me the 1955 home. The owner of the house had painted the "true" 1 inch thick tongue and grove virgin oak walls light blue. well to say the least my number one goal was to get rid of the blue paint. I took down a piece of the skirting and took it to every paint store I could find. Finally I found Klean Strip KS-3. this is the only product I could find to get the paint off the board. But the trick isn't getting off the paint; it is getting the residue off. That is where the denatured alcohol came to save the day! I put the alcohol in a spray bottle and sprayed the area after I had taken off the bubbled paint. then you use the steel wool ,rubbing with the grain, then rub with a clean dry cloth. The area was paint free; the alcohol does not wet the wood at all. In fact, you could immediately put on your poly coat. the products worked perfectly. It took me a total of 18 hours to do ALL of the kitchen walls and All the cabinets. I paid $21.00 per gal. for the ks-3; It took 5 gal. I purchased 3 gal. of alcohol, and bought $12.00 worth steel wool. now I'll tell you the rest of the story; I had contacted 4 different companies that specialize in paint removal to help me get rid of the blue paint; to make a long story short,the cheapest estimate i received was 5700.00 and no guarantee that "all" the paint would come of and it was going to take 6 weeks to complete the job.i am very relieved that the job is done, and I would do it all over again.

joe blown

I love the use of the word's "hell" and "insane" - this is exactly what some paint stripping projects become, even after a moment or two of rational thought before diving in. Excellent.

Gloria

I'm in Pittsburgh, living in a house built in 1870 or so.

I am stripping the woodwork with a heat gun & strypeeze (not sure of the spelling). Dental picks are a must. Also, sanding with a fine grade of sand paper takes off any marks the heat gun might leave. With experience it gets to the point where you don't burn the wood at all.

However I think completing all the wood in the house will take my lifetime. I told my kids that, if they keep the house once I kick the bucket, that I'll come back & haunt them if they paint the woodwork.

Kristine

I am about to take on a ton of painted windows in my 1895 Victorian in CT. My husband also thinks I am insane, but it needs to be done, the old paint is flying off right now. Thanks so much to everyone for their invaluable tips!! My local store carries Smart Strip, so I am going to pick that up, and denatured alcohol, tomorrow and get started. My dream is to strip the painted wainscoting and trim in my dining room. The windows are my test case for starters. Thanks for all the info!!

trish

where can i buy the peel away 7 paper and denatured alcohol>?can i find that at lowes?
i want to strip the paint off my bathroom vanity...for some reason the previous owner painted a lovely espresso color to rust..good thing is i think it's just one coat.Any tips are welcome. THanks.

Luke

My wife and I just purchased a turn of the century victorian and we are in the process of removing paint from all the woodwork in our master bedroom. We love the color that you have on the window casings. What were the exact gel stains that you used? We're also having problems getting the nooks and crannies on the casings and the fireplace, so I'm hoping your gel stain idea works for us.

carrie

Trish: yes and yes. You should be able to find the alcohol at ANY hardware store (peelaway 7 is less common).

Luke: for the window casings in that top photo (the detail before/after closeup), I used no stain at all. That was just the color of the wood after years and years with its original stain. For the other casings in the photos below that, I used a mix of Bartley's Maple and Dark Oak. Those casings were already a deep amber, though, from the shellac that had soaked in over the years. I didn't use much stain on those -- the stain was primarily useful for the nooks and crannies (particularly places where I didn't completely get the peelaway off).

Delores

I'm working on removing paint from woodwork in our 1922 home.

I'd like to know if anyone has ever tried simply removing the whole piece of woodwork by gently prying it off and then moving it to another area, such as the garage, to strip and clean. I don't want to strip and scrape in the house since I have children and thought I'd try to remove the wood pieces gently. I've removed window wood to repair the pully ropes without issue. Has anyone tried doing this?

carrie

It is possible -- a neighbor of ours with a very similar house did it. You need to be VERY careful with things like trim, though. If they're thin, they're likely to split....

carrie

Christine

I read every word and feel a bit more confident that I can strip the bathroom window in our 1917 home. The paint is coming off in chunks and I have kids to be worried about.

But I think that I have a lot to re-learn... my last experience with wood stripping was in 1987 when I stripped the orange varnish off of a maple bedroom set. After stripping and washing, I sanded and hand rubbed the furniture with tung oil.

Obviously the products available have changed, and the difference between furniture that moves and a window on a wall will make for different muscle aches.

Thanks for all of your words of wisdom!

Jen

I've been restoring a 1788 5 over 4 colonial farmhouse in MA for the past year. Most of the woodwork is fairly simple since it was only a farmhouse. Because of this, I've just been encapsulating (due to lead paint) the window trims and door trims, etc. and painting white.

The one thing i'd really love to strip is the main staircase (we have 2 staircases :) ). The treads are painted and I'd like to take those down to the natural wood - it'd be so pretty! I tried using peel away 7 last night, and it seems that the treads must be soft wood because they started to splinter when I scraped. Any recommendations or opinions as to what I might be doing wrong?

I do have the silent paint remover but I haven't tried it because on of the tubes are broken. grrrr..

Thanks so much! Great site!

-Jen

Nancy

I live in an apt with a built in cupboard and wanescotting, all painted over. The landlord seems to think it's "worthless" wood which is why it was painted over, I'm not sure she is correct. So, without starting a major project, only to find out she is correct, is there an inexpensive means of removing the paint to see if it's worth the trouble? thanks.

carrie

You'll fork out for some paint stripper, but it doesn't cost much; maybe $10... just try a sample spot in an inconspicuous area and see what you get. Most stripped wood looks lousy before it's got a finish coat, though.

Calvin A

Wow, What a great article. I started stripping the woodwork in the front hall of my 1909 Vic farmhouse when I bought it eleven years ago. Five kinds of stripper, a heat gun, sandpaper, countless hours later, your comment about "no rational sense" made me spit coffee all over my desk from laughing.

I am now going to try stripper number six, and buy some of the Peelaway 7. I will also be trying the denatured alcohol because I've never heard of that before.

Thanks for the informative post and all the great followup comments.

Calvin

Margaret

Thank you all so much for all the advice and especially for the humor, I too have taken on the impossible... Since I have a 1925 Craftsman, I have far less detail to worry about than do those of you with Victorian homes. I started two summers ago with the front door and sidelights, then moved to windows, then to all the woodwork in one bedroom, and now to the living room, with a fireplace surround, two windows, two doors and baseboards. I also started the hallway & it is about halfway done, and eventually would like to do my dining room (with the bannister of the stairway leading upstairs) ... it'll take me the rest of my life, for sure! Maybe there should be a 12-step group, wood strippers anonymous. I find it the perfect activity for my OCD. I haven't used the products you suggest, will see if they're in my area (Tennessee). I've used citrus strip and a heat gun most successfully, always wear a respirator, and use plastic dropcloths, gloves, etc. I also use TSP (trisodium phosphate??) for cleanup and as I'm working, because the phosphates in it bind to & render harmless the lead dust. This according to my vet -- anyone have any more info about it?

Ken

I am retired from the paint business. I probably have tried most of the paint removers and paint removal systems on the market...do-it-yourself and professional. For myself, I used Peel-Away 7, and cleaned up with denatured alcohol. You MUST have good ventilation (fan, etc.) when using denatured alcohol...it can ignite, so no smoking! I own a Brooklyn brownstone built in 1898. After removal I finished with one coat of amber shellac and 2 coats of Spar varnish (not polyurethane). Most brownstones' interior wood was shellaced, then topped with tinted varnish, so any subsequent finishes are "sitting" on the varnish/shellac base. It's not an easy job (if it was it would be hard to charge the prices they (?) do).

Janet Ridgeway

Question I moved into a home about 50 yrs old. The person who lived here before me was a sloppy painter. Any suggestions on how to remove white paint from brown stained wood work without removing the stain?Thanks

Loretta

We recently bought a house built in 1908 in Wisconsin and there are at least 8 layers of paint on the woodwork that I have started stripping. I didn't realize just how long it would take, but after getting the dining room baseboards and window trim stripped, I am excited by the difference and bringing the house back to its former glory is awesome. I have been using Klean Strip KS-3 and it has taken several applications. I am glad to hear that everyone else has had to deal with the sticky residue! Since this is my first attempt at anything like this, I thought I was doing something wrong! :) I will definitely try the denatured alcohol. I have one room down and 7 to go! Also doing the stairs and banister that the former owners thought looked really good in Barney purple. Also found excellent hardwood floors under the scary carpet that will be getting refinished.

Thanks for all the tips and when that 12 step program comes to town, I think I will have to attend the meeting because I am addicted!

Christine

Ah, I'm not alone.

I stripped the woodwork - baseboards, windows, doors, fluted columns, etc. - in a 1917 New England bungalow for 20 months. I probably had various combinations of shellac base, oil paint, latex paint. No sanding in between colors, poor quality painting, and an alligator crackle finish for me.

I thought the safe citrus stuff was worthless. I used 5F5 ($32/gallon - $5 True Value coupons) before I discovered Peel Away ($29/tub - Home Depot).

5F5 took coat after coat. Peel Away was effective, but I always tried to wait close to 24 hours between application and removal, so that meant planning ahead. It took so much Peel Away that I should have bought it in volume online.

One of my mistakes was not to wash/clean/neutralize the residue on the woodwork after removing the chemcial. I would absolutely recommend cleaning the woodwork as you go.

I used a heat gun to get the last of the paint and chemical residue off, then I would rinse with hot water and vinegar or After Wash ($7/quart - Home Depot). I used LOTS of After Wash.

I also relied heavily on dental picks (Rockler & Woodcraft). My favorite scraper has a small triangular scraper head and an orange & black handle (BANCO).

The refinished hardwood floors were covered with craft paper, then tarps, but I frequently worked with old vinyl table cloths. They move easily, hurt nothing, are basically waterproof, and can be washed easily.

Be careful pitching the residue rinse water down the drain. The gunk tended to settle in sink's p-trap and at one point, casued a backup into the washer. I cleaned out the p-trap and that was that.

Good luck! I'm exhausted, but it looks phenomenal!

Bryan

I recently moved into a tenement building in the East Village of NYC and decided to tackle the two windows in the bedroom that had been painted with maybe 10 coats of paint. They looked like they had a coating of whipped cream on them, and had horribly done repairs all over the place.

It took forever. I used a combination of heat gun (for the bulk of the paint), scraping tools and peel-away... after I was pretty much done I read about this newish product Removall on This Old House's website and ordered a small container online. The stuff worked great... still time-consuming, but without most of the nasty fumes that you get from other chemical strippers. I still took care to cover everything with plastic, but now it's done and it's really satisfying to see the bare wood (albeit crappy pine).

Here is the article:
http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,386353,00.html

Definitely recommended.

Now I am trying to figure out how to best fill in all of the flaws on the wood, and seal the gaps before I stain the wood.

Any suggestions?

Catherine

I'm not clear why you rejected the infrared heat method so quickly after all the hundreds of dollars you must have spent on chemicals. The mess, the waiting, the neutralizing, the sanding likely took so much longer than using the low heat, no-lead-vapor-releasing method. Containing all that wet goo must have been taken a lot of newspaper and plastic. Or what did you use? I do understand if you rejected the silent paint remover's quality; it is a knockoff from the original Swedish Speedheater which is the only one UL listed. Would you buy a modern electric tool if you didn't see that UL stamped on it? NOT!

Bob Marvin

The infrared heat method can start a fire in the debris trapped in the void behind hollow woodwork. It also will not remove varnish under the paint, so chemicalpaint remover is still needed.

eric

This is a great blog. Very helpful. I was hoping you could offer some advice. I've started stripping my woodwork using zip strip, which seems to work great but the fumes are just too much so I've switched over to Peel Away 7. I have a whole two floors worth of intricate woodwork ahead of me, but I've started testing some spots on my fireplace mantle. The Peel Away seems to do a good job removing the paint but it leaves the wood looking cloudy with a whitish residue, which is strange because there was no white or light colored paint removed from the area I stripped. It's all dark colors. I washed the stripped area thoroughly with denatured alcohol immediately after removing the paint sludge. What am I doing wrong here? Any help would be appreciated.

carrie

The white film is dried peelaway. It's water-based so cleaning with denatured alcohol won't work. I was always able to remove by putting wet peelaway on and taking it off immediately, but I'm pretty sure water would work as well. good luck.

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