Brightening Old Wainscot Trim
What to do when you want to update old wainscoting
The old house we just purchased has knotty pine wainscoting in the kitchen. It was finished in some unknown clear coat that has yellowed over time. My first choice is to keep it since I really like its look, just not the yellowed color. Ideally, I'd like to refinish it with a semi-transparent whitewash finish of some sort to keep the knotty pine look while brightening it up.
Stripping and sanding it down to bare wood would be a massive amount of work I’d like to avoid. Could I just sand it with 220-grit paper and go directly over it with a thinned-down latex paint? My concern is that latex paint will eventually flake and be a disaster if the clear coat is oil-based. (Is there a way to tell if the existing finish is oil- versus water-based?) If the finish is water based, will my plan work?
—Gary Krupa, via email
A yellowed finish usually indicates that it’s oil based, but to find out for sure, rub a cotton ball soaked in denatured alcohol over the surface. If the finish is a lighter color after the alcohol dries, then it’s water based. Alcohol will have no effect on an oil-based finish.
Although it’s possible for a latex finish to stick to oil, if properly prepped and primed, I don’t think you’ll be happy with the appearance of your wainscot if you go that route. You can try applying a thinned finish as you propose and see if it’s what you want. But I suspect you’ll get better-looking results if you bite the bullet and strip the existing finish down to bare wood. Besides, stripping a clear finish won’t take nearly as long as you might think because It’s not nearly as thick and stubborn as old paint would be.
Start by getting a good zero-VOC stripper like Smart Strip Pro Professional Strength Paint Remover (Dumond Chemicals).
It contains no toxic methylene chloride or NMP, and can dissolve these thinner coatings in about 1 to 6 hours. Then find out how long the stripper needs to soften the finish (known as “dwell time”). Brush some stripper on a test patch, cover it with Dumond laminated paper, which limits evaporation, and after about an hour lift one corner of the paper to see how it’s working. If the finish doesn’t lift off the wood, check it again every 30 minutes or so until it does. This stripper remains active for 24 hours, though it’s probably not going to take that long to soften your finish.
Knowing the dwell time enables you work efficiently and remove the coating in the least amount of time. Once the laminated paper is lifted off, all you need to take off the finish is a plastic scraper, some latex or nitrile gloves, and a nylon scrub brush to get in the wainscot’s nooks and crevices. Use the scrub brush with water to get rid of any stripper residue, then wipe down all the wood with a wet sponge. When the wood is dry, sand it with 60-, 80, and 100-grit paper, going with the grain. Wipe away the sanding dust with a tack cloth or a microfiber cloth and denatured alcohol.
The whitewash look is popular right now, particularly on floors. So you’ll have to best chance of getting that look with floor finishes. As with the stripper, I recommend that you apply test sections before you proceed. Some pines have an orange undertone that looks pink when whitewashed.
The easiest way to get the look you want is to apply a tinted, two-part, penetrating-oil finish like the kind made by Monocoat.us
Mix it up, wipe it on and you’re done. There’s a slight odor of linseed oil, but no VOCs. You might want to look at trying their smoked or fumed finish, too.
Penetrating oil finishes don’t have any sheen to speak of. If you do want some gloss, along with the whitewashed Scandinavian look, then go with a Bona product such as their White DriFast stain or NordicSeal sealer and top it with a one of their low-VOC waterborne finishes.
Good luck with your project!
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