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.
Test the finish
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.