Tag Archives: paint removal

Pushing Through with the Banister

A quick note: It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks. I should have published this about 2 weeks ago on April 8. I present it to you now as if I had.

It’s been a tedious month. We left off with the banister and the paneling below looking more or less like this.


The sequence was burn paint off, sand, wood filler, sand, prime, then see everything I missed (and the grain that the primer raised), wood filler again, sand again, prime again, rinse, repeat.  And because I was getting so fed up with this job, I did what any sane person would do and squeezed in the upstairs banister. I was going to focus on the downstairs part and let this go till later. But the job was so bad I thought getting it all done now made more sense.


So the dirty part was going on upstairs while my OCD got free reign downstairs.

wood filler.jpg

This work might seem pretty sedate compared to Phase 1, but I’ve also done it on top of working out 5 times a week and cooking myself heaps of meat and vegetables so I stop wanting bread. You see, I’m 30 now and to my great horror, my waistline has grown enough that for the first time in my adult life I’m wearing a pants size that American stores keep in stock.

And today I have a couple dear old high school friends coming for dinner, which was a bit of a problem because I was still working on the banister yesterday and I haven’t done a lick of house cleaning in a month. I just let the place look like this, plus a continuous accumulation of dust and clutter.


And so, my parents came down yesterday. My dad and I got another round of priming done and my mom cleaned the house. Maybe I should be ashamed that I let that happen but it was her way of helping. So where are we now? Well, just about all of it is primed (except for some difficult spots where the 2 banisters overlap). In this critical corner, there is no sign left of the hatchet job someone did moving the basement stairway door. The paneling has its sticking in place and the sticking matches the door perfectly. The only thing missing is the little piece of ogee trim under the cap above the door. With a compound miter cut that the Irishman said was not easy to do.


Upstairs I have a little bit more priming to do and then, sadly, there is more sanding to do there. And there are 8 balusters missing from around the volute downstairs, but I don’t want to install those until everything else is painted. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone would fit their hand in there except that they did a really terrible job painting this.



But anyways, I’m ready for a break again. And the house is spotless, so keeping it that way for a while would be a nice thing to do instead of messy, tedious projects.

Or, maybe not. On the morning of the 8th, a few hours before my company’s supposed to show up, there’s a crazy person cutting high density fiberboard on my sidewalk! Can you guess why?



2 Projects for the Fall

2 big life changes since the beer tour. First, I’ve been eating those vegetables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. And second, the joy of NOT working on the house isn’t strong enough to get me to shrug off certain glaringly unfinished pieces anymore. An aside, the Philly shrug is an important part of this city’s identity. I’m not sure if I can explain why it’s endearing at the same time when it also gives us trash strewn streets, a grand city hall with window unit air conditioners, and a robust transit system that still uses tokens. (Okay, that last one might also have something to do with rabidly anti-urban state legislators.)

So as for what I don’t want to shrug off anymore? Did you notice the marble I was ignoring just to the right of the steps? Yikes.


I let this go because the whole façade needs to be stripped and there’s only 7 ½ feet of sidewalk separating it from parked cars and I need to save up for somebody with liability insurance to do the deed. But now that the steps look so good and the rest of the marble base looks so bad… I went out for the masonry paint stripper the GSA recommends for historic masonry. So yeah, maybe my house (left) won’t look so gross anymore. (But remember, the brick to the right was not restored correctly.)


Yep, that goes against all of my old sensible plans. I decided that this is happening Saturday, and I’ll just have to find a way to protect the stranger’s car that will be parked right out front of my house. The idea of splashing harsh chemicals terrifies me. I’ll probably put a tarp over the cars.

I called the Irishman asking what to do about this. He told me, “Don’t worry about it. I put the most caustic things there are in the street just yesterday. If anyone gives you shit about it, come to me and I’ll take care of ’em.”

So wish me luck.

Then there are 2 pigtail lights in my house even though I’ve owned real light fixtures all along. Neither is usable right now but I’m eager to get them working. I’m having some work done to this pan light, so the next time you see it, it’ll be actually be safe to use and I’ll tell you more about it then.


Then, do you remember this chrome chandelier?


I bought it early on and it’s been at my parents’ house until this week. I knew from the beginning that it needs a new chain and ceiling canopy and that the center wire is too short. At the lighting place I went to, the lady also straightened out the bent arms and sold me nice chain and the paper insulators it needs. This was great but I balked at the cost of having it rewired and took it home to do it myself. I felt a little bad not to give them the job after she was very nice and helpful, but decided that it’s good enough that I’m already spending good money on the other one.

And plus, I have a lingering fear that this chandelier will never be my style and will stick out like a sore thumb in my house. We’ll see though – I’ve played it safe with most of my decorating choices and maybe something jarringly blingy and modern will be fun.

Speaking of blingy, this piece used to have 30 crystals hanging from the arms that don’t have lights. What do you think about these?

chandelier crystal.jpg

Facade Plans Post 3 – How NOT to Restore Historic Masonry

Then comes restoring the brick, and this job is scary. I’m going to take the paint off my brick. Many sources recommend avoiding this as it can damage the substrate, but you saw what the paint looks like on my house. For further reading, I suggest this piece from the National Park Service, the preservation guidelines for Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the New York and Philadelphia Rowhouse Manuals.

The problem is that traditional bricks have a durable outer layer from being kiln fired. Inside of that they’re much softer and it’s important  not to take that off. So…

What you really should never do is of course what everyone does. Scrub pointing, or covering over the mortar joints with new mortar without removing the old. This alters the look of the brick and it doesn’t hold up.


Don’t power wash the brick with high pressure. Traditional bricks were kiln fired and you could take off the outer later, which is the most durable part. And NEVER sandblast historic masonry. This can wear away the surface badly, altering its appearance and shortening its life. I encountered this poor facade on tony Spruce Street. I would have thought it was some kind of rustic 1920’s brick except for that little square that was once covered, revealing the same pressed brick as I have. Also pictured: scrub pointing, paint.


NEVER use dry heat like a heat gun. This can drive paint deeper into the masonry and make permanent stains. Plus, it doesn’t work well on masonry.

NEVER clean or strip masonry when there’s any risk of frost as any extra moisture that absorbed could freeze, expand, and cause the masonry to spall.

Avoid driving too much water into the masonry even in mild weather as it’s weaker when wet. Repointing before cleaning the surface is a good move, but you can also temporarily caulk the joints and repoint later.

Don’t sand or grind the surface.

Avoid strong acids (Hydrochloric/Muriatic) and alkaline (lye) products and only use in very limited applications.

Don’t use acidic cleaners on acid sensitive stone like marble. (That’s me!)

Don’t expect surfaces to look brand new. Some patina may be desirable and vigorous efforts to remove troublesome stains or residual paint can damage the substrate.

So what can you do? Use the gentlest means possible. Low pressure washing, hand scrubbing, washing with a non-ionic detergent, some mild acid and alkaline cleaners, steam cleaning, and dangerous chemical solvents can all be effective. Test in an inconspicuous area (which I don’t have) preferably a full year before proceeding, but at least a month.

And when I repoint I must not use modern masonry techniques. My house is made of traditional clay bricks with lime mortar. Modern mortars are harder than this kind of bricks, so if the wall shifts, the bricks fail instead of the joints. Some preservationists recommend only using lime while others specify a soft mortar made with lime and Portland cement.


My façade is pressed brick, which is very smooth and uniform with very thin mortar joints. The mortar is washed or colored red to match the bricks. Scrub pointing is putting a false wider mortar joint over the real ones. This kind of halfassed job eventually pops off and until it does, it fakes the look of inferior and historically incorrect masonry.

And what about that damaged area?


I think I should use a water resistant coating here. These are formulated to let water vapors out but prevent liquid water from getting in. Never use a waterproof coating that traps both. And even the best of these products can do more harm than good, but it sounds like treating the damaged areas only could help preserve it. Or if I pick the wrong one it could help destroy it.

So this will be fun right?

All by myself!

The plan was that I was gonna bring in the Irishman to do some pre-flooring repairs, but he’s not well. This was scary, but I actually did totally fine without him and was even sorta fast… I think. So what all had to be done?

One kinda straightforward job was that the cove molding under my steps was missing. The carpet installers took it out many years ago. And they put about 5000000000000000 staples in with some sort of military style machine staple gun. I hate whoever did this.


But I got to the Home Depot and to my horror, the oak cove molding wasn’t the same size as what’s on my nosing! That piece that still has the cove on the end of the step is all one piece of wood. So then with 40 minutes until they closed, I drove a half hour to Tague. And I found out that what I actually need is called scotia. Which looks just like cove except it isn’t.

I bought it, got it home, and found out that it wasn’t quite the right size either! But luckily, the Irishman’s table saw is in my living room. So I did this.


Can you see the difference? Probably not. But it shows on the steps I promise.


Then I installed it and forgot to take a photo. Stupid, but I’ll get one later.

And then I moved on to the the threshold at the back door. I have weird slopy things and holes all along this end of the room. I thought building something to cover both would be hard.


I set the Irishman’s table saw at a 10 degree angle and put a nice bevel into the end floorboards, ripped the boards down to the same widths (because I’m using whatever was left from upstairs), notched one of the boards on the end where the wall is thicker, and glued them down. I had to trim away a bit of the kitchen floor and found that it is in fact made of the good solid pine, so I’m glad I never went through with ripping it out. It looks like this now. The asymmetrical bevel to take out the cross slope is a little crude, but the floor finisher will even it all out.


And then I had enough time left over to burn paint off of the bit of baseboard and casing that I never got to before. This paint job was a thing of beauty. And the baseboard had poly from the floors slopped up about an inch and a half. I don’t miss it, obviously.


So it all came out well, except that the outlet in my baseboard has a plastic box and I melted it with the heat gun! One more small job for the punch list, but I’m moving forward with the critical work first.


I told the floor finisher to confirm me for the 9th, so it’s on! Before then, I have some more flooring repairs in the kitchen, a little more staining and finishing, and a whole lot of cleaning and emptying the house. It’ll be a fun week.

Let’s just pretend the stripping is done now

I had a goal to be done stripping, all the stripping, before July came. That’s not going to work out. Because of course everything is slow. Incidentally, I’ve been watching houses getting thrown up  by the dozen on my way to and from work every day. Except that I know a mansion that was in the DuPont family came down to build them. (The crazy one who killed someone.) I was of course mad about that. Especially since half the development is townhouses anyway and you’d think there’d be a way to subdivide the mansion without leveling it. But I was surprised to see that they’re not that bad. Until I saw this. (And yes, I drove the beater car with the junkyard hood that’s the wrong color into the subdivision to take this photo.)


I may be putting 2 years and all my money into the Crooked House. I may have let my social ties lapse, my clothes fall apart at the seams, my hair turn grey, and my parents’ house fill with junk, but at least I will never suffer the indignity of owning a cantilevered chimney veneered in fake stone. If they hadn’t bothered with the stone it would have been better, no? For comparison, here’s the house across from my parents, which shows you that there is a correct way to build a chimney on the same wall as a flat foundation. But a cantilever ain’t it. Cantilever a bay window instead.


Alright, back to my house. I want to say all there is to say about stripping now and be done with it, even though it’s not finished. I’ve been using the heat gun, Klean Strip, and SoyGel. Yup, all 3. The heat gun gets most of the paint off clean, but then I burn the wood if I have teeny bits left, so for these, out comes the KleanStrip. But for what I’m stripping stain grade, the SoyGel works as well as anything, stays wet a long time, doesn’t burn my skin, and cleans up with water. Plus, I paid dearly for it and want to justify the expense. I’m doing the railing stain grade, using only chemicals. There are too many curves for the heat gun to work. Here’s what I’ve got now:


Those little paint chips aren’t stuck to it either. So this is about ready to stain!

Except inside the teeniest crevasses of that volute. You can see them from the underside. And they might drive me insane. Any ideas? I’m talking about inside the crevasse; the flat bottom will practically strip itself.


Then there’s the basement stairway door. Someone busted the panel out and then replaced it with plywood that wasn’t cabinet grade. I busted that out and will replace it again and it’ll look almost as good as new. I was gonna leave the back side because who cares about the basement stairwell. But then I couldn’t fight the urge to make it look decent.


And under the paint I found definitive proof that the door was not free!


And remember how I used a highly alkaline stripper on these scrolly things under my stairs? I’ve finally neutralized them with an acid wash and then (lol) used a heat gun to get off what that complicated process missed.


So there you have it! I’m almost ready to move on to prettier, (hopefully) less labor intensive things!

The Balusters are Heating Up

I had high hopes about all the progress that would happen when I switched to the paint stripper that burns skin. The post about it was to be called Toxic Love. You’ve probably already gathered that I was unimpressed. I’d put it on, have a beer (very important) while the paint alligatored. And then scrape off just one layer, leaving the next one down more ghastly and blistered than the last. It looked like it would take a solid 5 coats to get this off.


So I got even moodier than I was last week. Saturday morning, while the stripper was doing its work, I went to the corner café (because beer before noon is simply not done) and ran into an old friend who I haven’t seen in at least 5 years even though she happens to have moved like a block away from me. But it gets better. Her partner loaned me his heat gun.

And I had written off the heat gun before (partially because my dad’s broke and I didn’t want to buy another one) but it works AMAZINGLY. Usually pulls off all the paint. Down to bare wood. Sometimes a foot of it in one scrape! The removed paint stays hard and solid and not dusty. Also kind of fun, when I stripped the box newel at the top of the stairs, a little sap bled out of the wood. Amazing how new it looks as I’m pretty sure it’s 80 years old. Also, you can see that the Shop Vac took over the railing’s role as interim towel bar now.


This changed things. In a big way. Then even better, on Sunday a friend came to help me because he thinks paint removal is fun. So now the upstairs railing is essentially complete! (A few hard spots where the two railings overlap are still goopy.)

And the stripping is marching down the stairs. Does it look better yet?


And here it is an hour and 15 minutes later.


I think you can see in that last photo how much thinner the balusters look without the paint. Even when I knew it had to come off I didn’t appreciate just how bad this paint job was. And now I can see that the balusters are a weensy bit crooked. But I guess that’s as it should be. So before the paint-wax-goop look is gone forever, here’s one more look.


Now, I should admit that I scorched the wood a bit. The heat gun worked really well on plain square paint grade pine posts, but if you have trim that deserves to be stained, this could be dangerous. And it would be hard to get it off anything with curved details in it. We’ll see how the newel at the bottom goes. It looks like at this rate I’ll be stripping the handrail itself (to stain) before long!

Out of Denial and Into the Stairwell

Now that the spraying operations are winding down, I can turn to one of the last things I’ve sort of ignored for the last two years: the bannister. It’s pretty and old, but a little worse for wear. I was imagining for a while that I could strip the handrail alone (which will be easy because there is varnish under the paint) and leave the balusters in as found condition. I guess I never took a good look at them. Probably because I didn’t want to. They look more like candles than millwork grade wood.


Ack. That’s definitely a little more abuse than anyone could ever call character. What to do about it? I really wanted to make this an easy job. And oil based paint on wood with no varnish under it is not easy to strip. Plus, going to all that trouble just to repaint seems unrewarding. My first thought was that the top layer of latex paint is so thick, I could probably sand the runs off of it without going through to anything that contains lead. (Note: This is called cutting corners and is not a lead safe practice.) But (luckily for my health) the candle wax faux finish started peeling off in sheets. Like Saran wrap.


And so I got busy picking at it. This quickly became addictive.


But not really. Because the cure for this “addiction” was to keep doing it. And I realized that this approach wasn’t working so well. Sometimes big, satisfying sheets came off. Other times they didn’t. I went to the Home Depot to get a spray bottle of latex paint remover. This didn’t turn out to be the magic bullet I hoped for. It’s really made to take spills and overspray off of things, not to strip full coats of paint. And plus, the oil based paint underneath still wasn’t wonderful looking. I asked around for advice. My dad proposed using the belt sander. This is a terrible idea. But I was tempted. My co-pay on having the lead chelated out of my blood might still be cheaper than having the railing restored professionally. My mom chimed in with a little much needed moral support: “Lorraine and David were stripping theirs but they only got through 3 posts and then they gave up.” Thanks Mom, I feel so much better now. Then I asked the Irishman. He said dismantle it and number all the posts and run them through a planer. Nope. Nope. Nope.

And so Sunday morning I bit the bullet and got to work. No I didn’t. I went to a brunch potluck and whined about the job ahead of me to a bunch of people. Then I got back and on went the SoyGel.


I didn’t bother with Saran wrap because I thought it would be brutal to get it tight around every spindle. Instead, I just let it do its thing for a couple hours and sat Indian style – and remember, my hallway is narrow and I can barely fit doing this. Well, it’s clearly going to need another coat of SoyGel, but at least the square posts are starting to emerge.


So, do you think I’ll be a stripper forever, or are you optimistic that soon I’ll move on to more respectable work?

Strip Act

Warning: This post contains photos of nude doors. If you object to this material or live in a country where viewing it is illegal, please click here.

Now I wanted to set this post to music but I have bigger fish to fry than making my web site nice, so just play this music while you read if you’d want to set the mood right.

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