Due to overwhelming demand (at least two people have asked me), I want to write about stripping, staining and varnishing the wood trim in our house on Adams St. Like much of the restoration project, this aspect of it had no budget and no timeline. And I had no idea what I was getting into. Laura claims we never even had a discussion about stripping the white-painted wood rather than just repainting it. I find that hard to believe, but there is a small chance that in the rush of construction I forgot to mention to her that Scott, my brother-in-law-contractor, had scraped a spot of white paint off of some window trim and in one of those "eureka!" moments we realized there was varnish under the layers of paint, which pointed to the only possible course of action that made any sense--strip all of the wood in the house and restore it to something like its original look. As luck would have it, there was a lot of original woodwork just waiting to be stripped and restored. All of the windows, doors, and baseboards; the window and door casing and jambs…. Laura, I was sure, would love it when we were finished.

After some lessons from Scott involving scrapers, heat guns, chemical strippers, steel wool and wire brushes, mineral spirits and paint thinner as cleaners, I was feeling confident enough to take over the job. Scott wisely chose to limit his involvement from that point on. (By the way, we decided to do all of the work "in house" rather than take pieces to a shop for "dipping." Dipping is obviously much faster and easier, but the harsher chemical treatment seems to leave the grain in a dried-out, lifeless state. It's also pricey).

With just one helper wielding a heat gun and a scraper, several months must have passed before I noticed how slowly things were going. (Laura had noticed long before I did.) But then I found Mel.

Some of you in the neighborhood already know Mel. Friendly, amused, chemically affected, incomprehensible Mel. Mel will happily work all day stripping wood until it is perfectly clean. He'll even use a respirator if you provide it. At the end of the day, he takes off his apron, and his clothes are as neat and clean as when he started. Mel was invaluable, on the days he showed up.

We did all of the stripping while the walls were still bare (no sheetrock). (Baseboards were removed and stripped outside and weren't reinstalled until after the sheetrock was up and the walls were painted). As the sheetrock went up, my education with stains began. I must have tried 20 different oil- and water-based stains and varnishes on samples of trim and two whole rooms before deciding on the final combination that I used throughout the house. My goal was to approximate the tone of the staircase, which, mercifully, still had its original, rich, never-painted, varnished look. What I found was that a light first coat of Minwax oilbased Cherry stain followed by a light second coat of Minwax oilbased Red Oak gave the stripped pine trim a more even, darker tone that still showed some of the richness of the grain. A top coat of Formby's Tung Oil Finish (from Lowe's) or a semi-gloss or satin polyurethane finished off most pieces.

Things I learned the hard way:

  • Label the back of EVERY piece of trim, baseboard or quarter-round that you remove for stripping or repairing so that you know what room it needs to go back to.
  • Sherwin-Williams on N. St. Mary's has the best collection of small curved scrapers in town, sold as a set with 6 blades. Wider, flatblade scrapers are available everywhere. (I like the ones made for Ace Hardware the best).
  • A cheap heat gun should be adequate. It can't get hot enough to vaporize lead paint like the heavyduty professional guns can do.
  • You can buy white cotton rags by the pound at San Antonio Rags and Wipes, 207 Roosevelt (next to the tombstone shop). A 10 lb. box is less than $10.
  • You can buy 6 packs of rolls of blue shop (paper) towels at Home Depot but not at Lowe's.
  • Try a variety of strippers to find what works best on your paint. It might vary from room to room. I never had any luck with the environmentally friendly stuff, but you might. The KleanStrip in a red can worked best on most of the paints in my house.
  • Hand sanding with 120 to 150 grit paper before staining was worth the effort.
  • Find Mel. You'll have to ask around town. He never seems to keep a mobile phone, a car, or a permanent address.
  • You can never have too much steel wool, at least not for Mel.

John Hartman