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How to Refinish Woodwork

Whether it's a quick cleaning or a complete strip-down, you can always remedy a tired, old wood finish

If you have an old house blessed with artful millwork, you can always breathe new life into it with proper cleaning or refinishing methods. Wood finisher John Thomas is doing just that at the 1904 brownstone in Brooklyn, New York, owned by Karen Shen and Kevin Costello. The couple's home, a TOH TV project, has some glorious but long-neglected woodwork.

Karen and Kevin's place is filled with fine woods—solid bird's-eye maple, quartersawn oak, and cherry—that today are considered quite valuable. But in the late Victorian era, when this house was built, says Thomas, "The middle class who bought these places wanted their rooms to look like they'd been paneled in mahogany, a wood within the means of only the very wealthy." As a result, most woodwork was given a dark finish that obscured its natural grain and color.

These finishes also helped to hide lesser-quality or poorly matched woods. In such cases, if the finish is intact, the best way to revive it is with a simple cleaning. But at this house, an earlier refinishing left the door panels blotched and uneven, so Thomas's only recourse is to remove the existing coatings and get back to the original material. Here's a look at how he strips, seals, colors, and varnishes to give vintage woodwork a fresh face.

Step 1

Test the finish

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Thomas assesses the finish on an inconspicuous area, such as a door edge (below), by rubbing it with denatured alcohol. Shellac will come right off. But if the finish softens and doesn't come off, it's a water-based polyurethane. If nothing comes up, it's an oil-based polyurethane or varnish.

Step 2

Strip the old finish

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Using a wide natural-bristle brush, Thomas paints on a thick coat of commercial stripper, then lets it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, waiting for the surface to turn from glossy to dull. (Dull means the finish underneath has liquefied.) He keeps all the windows open to allow any fumes to escape.

Step 3

Scrape down to the wood

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

A dull scraper is the best tool for removing stripper-softened finish from flat panels. But when Thomas comes to the tiny curves and crevices around the panels, he reaches for his pull scrapers, dental tools, toothbrushes—anything that can get into the hard-to-reach places. He's careful not to apply too much pressure: "Remove the finish, not the wood," he says.

Step 4

Seal with shellac

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Thomas rubs the stripped wood with fine steel wool and denatured alcohol to dissolve any shellac residue.Then, after a thorough vacuuming, he applies a coat of de-waxed shellac—sold in cans as Seal Cote—which is compatible with most finishes. He rapidly pads on the finish using a wad of cotton rag wrapped in cheesecloth, replenishing the shellac from a dispenser as needed.

Step 5

Add color

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

To even out the maple's blotchy color, Thomas brushes on very thin coats of a water-based glaze that he mixed himself using dyes and pigments. The wood gets darker with each coat he applies; in this case, it takes two glaze coats for Thomas to approximate the original mahogany stain. But he can't just apply a glaze over a glaze, because the two would dissolve into each other and smear. So after the first coat of glaze, he wipes on a barrier of 1 part gloss spar varnish diluted with 2 parts thinner.

The invention of modern penetrating stains in the 1960s made it easy for homeowners to get a consistent color, but those stains work best if a clear sealer of lacquer or shellac is applied to the wood first.

Pro Tip: Maple, cherry, and pine don't absorb stains evenly, but you can give these woods a uniform color with aniline dyes.

Step 6

Top-coat the color

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Once the color is right, Thomas wipes the dry glaze with two more coats of the thinned gloss varnish, which forms a tougher film than satin or matte sheens. (He shuns polyurethanes, which get so hard that they can pull off the underlying shellac.) To soften the sheen, he brushes on a final coat of satin spar varnish (left). A brush lets him apply this finish full strength so that it can form a rich, deep film.