Brownstone Boys: Searching for Wood Strippers to Restore Woodwork

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 24th installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com.

It’s hard for us to believe at this point that coming into this project that we didn’t plan on stripping our woodwork. It was so far out from all of the other work that needed to be done that it’s just something we didn’t think much about.

As the walls move into place, the plumbing is tucked away, and the shape of our home is showing through it started becoming very obvious that we couldn’t just add to the many layers of paint on the original woodwork. All of the details are clogged, definition is missing, drips and clumps are everywhere.

So we set out to determine if the wood could be restored to a natural finish or at the very least stripped of the many layers of paint to be repainted with a clean, neat, and crisp single layer of paint.

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The infamous heat gun

After a quick conversation with our contractor we figured out that this is a specialty item that would require someone with the technical expertise and a passion for it. Just like the plaster molding restoration, it’s more an an art form than a construction project. We had more people come through to give us quotes on this than we did for general contractors. The estimates were wildly different. No doubt for different levels of how the work could be done.

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The layers of paint covering the original door with test patch removed and after the heat gun stage

We needed a starting place. We had the opportunity to visit some new friends and neighbors who recently moved into their renovated brownstone in Bed Stuy that they bought from a developer. The woodwork in their place was stripped and left with natural finish. It looked really beautiful, so we got a recommendation for the wood restorer that did it.

He came by and really loved our place and thought our wood would restore beautifully. He had a vision for the finished product and quite the process to get it done. As much as we would have loved to fully restore the wood to the scope of what he wanted to do, it was outside of the scope of our project and budget.

He basically wanted to remove the majority of the wood, restore it off site, and then reinstall it. As he was talking, dollar signs were flashing through my head. This is an add-on for us and not part of our initial project.

It may have been the best way to do it, but at $90,000 (a full third of our entire budget) it just wasn’t a possibility for us. It was encouraging to find out that under all of those many layers of paint there is beautiful original wood that one day could see the light of day but disappointing that we might not able to afford to see it.

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Details of the door frame after heat gun

We didn’t give up that there might be another solution for us so we went the other direction and had painters that did wood stripping as well take a look. They might not be experts in wood restoration, but we hoped they would at least have the knowledge to strip paint. A couple of them did not bid the job at all, probably because it’s a hard and dirty job. Then we got a bid for about $6,000 and one for $2,000. Happy that we were getting bids within budget, but skeptical they wouldn’t work out, we decided to give the $2,000 bid a chance.

As can be expected, it was obvious after a couple of days that there was just no way that this guy was going to get it done. He didn’t have the technical expertise or the capacity for it. We called it off and went our separate ways. The $6,000 quote was now busy with other projects (or perhaps reluctant to take on ours) so we were back to the drawing board.

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The original banister after heat gun and stripping

We decided to leverage the new network and community we’ve built since starting this project and blog. We’re not the first to have this problem to solve. Others have come before us and would have results that can help us. So we put it out there.

We got back a bunch of great recommendations, and had another round of bidders come through. The first came highly recommended and we found out that he does a lot of work in the area. He took a full inventory of every window, shutter, baseboard, spindle and molding. He also thought our woodwork would restore beautifully.

We were on pins and needles for a few days waiting for his quote with fingers crossed it would work out. At this point, it has become even more of a priority for us to get this done. There is just no way we could live with it as it is but it would be very hard for us to increase our budget for it.

The quote came in at $23,000. Although I’m sure it’s fully worth the cost, it’s still just not in the cards for us. We were disappointed again but hopeful since we were still waiting for a couple of other quotes to come back.

Both seemed very knowledgeable and able to do the work. They showed passion for the project and seemed to be very interested in it. The two quotes came in at $8,000 and $9,000. We were immediately relieved to have two viable options. The $8,000 quote came back first and they were ready to start that week. So we moved forward!

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The newel post before wood stripping, left, and after the heat gun and wood brushing, right

We’re a week in and the results are amazing. We were floored when we saw the beauty of the wood that was installed more than 130 years ago and enjoyed by the first owners of the house showing through after decades of being hidden away.

This might be some of the hardest work being done on our place. It’s painstaking, slow, and must be done by someone who respects the wood. It’s fascinating to watch.

The first step is to remove the majority of the paint with a heat gun and to carefully scrape the wood. Then a chemical stripper is applied and steel wool is used to scrub off the remaining paint. A wire brush is used to get into the tiny crevasses and intricate designs in the wood. Then a solution of denatured alcohol and water is sprayed on and more scrubbing and wire brushing is done.

They are moving slowly and deliberately through the process and it’s one of the things we have been the most excited to see at the end of each day. Time will tell if the wood underneath will be in good enough condition to leave natural. So far the results have exceeded our expectations.

[Photos by Brownstone Boys]

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