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original trim -- how to clean up?

The 109-year-old house I'm buying has almost all original wood trim on baseboards, doors, and windows. I can't tell if they were coated with varnish or shellac, but the wood has a "crackled" look to it now and an uneven surface.

Refinishing might be in the future, but for now I'd like to just clean it all up and make it smooth.

I expect some ultra-fine steel wool is necessary, but how do I go about determining what to use with it? Mineral spirits? Alcohol? Which products work on varnish and which work on shellac?

Re: original trim -- how to clean up?

Clean and degrease the trim first, with a heavy-duty cleaner, and a scrubby/sponge. TSP, spic & span, Fantastik, etc. work. Since it's already alligatoring, I'm not too worried about cleaning too vigorously, but if the finish were intact, you'd want to be more gentle.
When it's clean and dry, you can start sanding with 220-grit sandpaper and sanding sponges.
Don't sand through the varnish, but sand down to the alligatoring.
There's a possibility that the original finish was shellac (a high possibility), but tha alligatoring was caused by re-coating (years later) with some kind of oil finish. The two layers bond imperfectly, and the upper layer crawls on the previous coat as is dries out. This is alligatoring.
The situation will require a little experimentation to get a satisfactory finish. And if it looks good to begin with, it may not last many years.
Things you can try for varnish:
Sealcoat Shellac. De-waxed. Dries very clear and will be glossy unless rubbed out with steel wool and wax. May craze the underlying finish.
Regular shellac, 3 lb. cut: Contains wax, do not use.
Wipe-on gel varnish: Satin finish. May cloud/haze over old finish. Durable, has some polyurethane in the mix. Not as shiny as shellac. Worth a try, IMO.
Brush-on poly: To be avoided, as it can't easily be removed, would have same if not worse clouding risk.
Acrylic poly: Never tried it in this situation, but perhaps worth the experiment.
Wipe-on oil finishes:not for over-coating existing finishes, ever.


Re: original trim -- how to clean up?

Find an out of the way area and try denatured alcohol.

On some old finishes, you can "fix" the finish by just wiping it good with denatured alcohol and it will smooth out the finish.
Used enough, you can take it down to the wood. But it will take for ever to do that.

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