Monday, November 4, 2013

Stripping 123 Years of Paint off My Victorian Staircase

Last week I decided to strip the paint off my staircase. Because I have nothing better to do, right?

This is what it looked like before I started. Pay no attention to the Exorcist Dog.

I will eat your soooul!  Not really. She might eat your pizza, though.

It's not that I don't like the black and white paint. Black and white is much better than the various shades of green that it was when we first bought the house. If you look close, you can see some of the green on the baseboard, just as it turns to go up from the landing. I was still painting when Doodle decided she needed to go upstairs.

But a year ago, give or take, I had a Twitter exchange with Bob Vila, and he said he thinks my staircase is American Black Walnut.

American Black Walnut. That's way better than black and white paint.

Ever since, all I've been able to think about while walking up and down that staircase is what's hiding underneath all that paint. Because stripping a staircase is no small project, I just tucked it away for later.

Later is apparently the casual term for Friday, Nov 1, 2013.

I should back up a bit. There was a minor disaster in my office last Friday. I'd decided to clean the white carpet, but wound up with a spray of muddy water, and a much worse mess than if I'd left it alone in the first place. While picking up the chemicals for a different steam cleaner, I spotted paint stripper. After a brief chat with the Ace Hardware dude, I walked out of the store with my steam cleaner chemicals, and a can of stripper.

I paid for them.

Because I do things like this, I brushed a coat of stripper on one small part of the newel post before heading upstairs to work on the muddy carpet. I had to test it, after all, since there were who knows how many layers of old paint that needed to just go away.

I should say that I have stripped and scraped an awful lot of paint over the years. But this staircase is 123 years old. And the previous owners really, really loved their paint. There were so many layers, the whole thing started to take on a rounded, almost Disney appearance.

Once the top layer of paint started to look like a pair of baggy socks, I brought out the scraper. With my first scrape through the goopy mess, I found green, more green, white, assorted shades of beige, brown, and tan, more green (this time, Kelly green), and then numerous layers of some sort of varnish.


Yeah. We ain't playin in this house, not when it comes to covering up wood.

I used a product called Klean Strip. It's thick, it's gelatinous, and it's nowhere near as easy to brush on as the can implies. But it's recommended by the Ace Hardware dude, and it doesn't dry out as fast as thinner paint strippers.

Fastest! Strongest! Best! 

Now I am aware of citrus strippers, which are safer (and a lot less smelly). They do work beautifully for some projects. The problem with the citrus stripper approach is that I would really love to rid this staircase of all its superfluous paint while I am still young enough to brandish a 5-in-1 paint scraper.

I should also say that I could use a heat gun, but I don't own an infra red model. A standard heat gun heats up the paint too much for a project like this. There is almost certainly lead-based paint under there somewhere, and a standard heat gun would help it release its leady goodness into the air. Yum yummy. So to chemicals, we go.

I will not be finished with this project anytime soon, that's for sure. But I can see the old wood grain in some areas now. And that's enough to spur me on.

What would you change in your own house, if you had enough time and energy? 

Here's some of my progress so far:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Spines In, Thumbs Down

I heard and then read something this morning that makes me wonder where I've been for the past few years. Apparently there is a decorating trend which calls for flipping around the books on your bookshelf. That's right; spines turned in, not out.

This is one of the book shelves in my house. Pretty average.

Yes, I actually kept most of my college textbooks.

I rearranged that shelf to give you an idea of what a spines-in / pages-out bookshelf looks like.

Poor Calvin and Hobbes has seen better days.

Is it just me, or is this plain weird? Do these people not read? Or am I the only one who needs to see the spine of a book to know which book it is?

Mr. Vagabond and I have always adored books, both to read and for their aesthetic appeal. I am constantly changing around my book cases to make them look a little bit different. I've got nicknacks mixed in with books here and there, some larger books are stacked up and lying flat and there are magazines stacked on a couple of shelves, too. But one thing I've never considered is flipping books around backward.

If a uniform color scheme is what these decorators are aiming for, why not make matching book jackets for all of the books? That might actually be cute. It could be done with wrapping paper or unpasted wallpaper. The pasted kind might stick to the book.

Something like this:

Cut some wrapping paper (Sorry, Mr. Baldacci).

Fold it to fit the book.

Tuck the ends of the paper around the ends of the book cover and voila: Book jacket

If plain or white is what you're after, flip the paper over, use white paper or even brown Kraft paper.

Maybe even add labeling stickers to write the title on.

Book spines are functional. They help hold books together and guard against dust and UV rays. With the spines turned in, page edges will age and yellow a lot faster. Plus it just looks odd, and not groovy odd. Weird odd.

My official, and not terribly important judgment call for this trend is Thumbs Down.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Once Upon a Window Seat, Part IV: The Final Chapter

Catch up on the project with Part IPart II and Part III.

The mostly finished window seat and book cases.
Building a window seat and book cases in our living room proved to be challenging, but the work wasn't over after the last board was fastened and the last cabinet door hung. I wanted the wood to complement the other dark woods in the room. Woods that are likely to remain, such as the mahogany china cabinet, antique piano and foyer doors. 

This piano is probably the oldest thing that I own. 

One thing that breaks my heart about this house is that the old, original parquet floor in the foyer only comes part of the way into the living room. Oh, to have parquet throughout the house!

I used oil-based stain because it has a longer working time than water-based. With pine, you never can tell how stain will absorb, so I wanted something that I could work into the wood really well. I chose antique walnut, which is the same stain that I used on the foyer doors. It also complements the piano and china cabinet. Wearing rubber gloves is a must when working with stain, especially if you're covering a lot of ground.  

Find an old rag that you don't mind sacrificing, and rub the stain into the wood really well. When you wipe off the excess, work in the same direction as the wood grain to avoid dark streaks. 

Smaller cabinet door for under the window seat.
The trim around the cabinet doors doesn't match the plywood perfectly because they're different species with different levels of porosity and wood grain. Once I wiped on polyurethane after the stain was set, the colors turned richer and the differences became less noticeable. Although we hadn't painted the room yet, I taped off the walls around the cabinets to protect them from stain.

Although I knew better, I used masking tape to tape off the cabinet. It peeled off some of the paint primer on the walls. If you try this at home, do yourself a favor and use painter's tape.

After staining, I installed the cabinet hardware. Prefab cabinets come with pre-drilled holes for hardware. When you build your own, you have to figure out where the hardware goes. 

First, I measured the distance between bolt openings on the door handles. They're usually somewhat standard, but measuring helps avoid major screw ups. I marked the edge of the cabinet door to show where the handle should fit.  

Sometimes it's easier to measure from the 1-inch mark than from the end of the tape.

Tiny silver marks on the door from a washable marker help with alignment.

Finding the width of the trim helps you find the center where the handles should fit.
Speed Squares are such amazing little tools. So simple, but they help you keep everything straight. 

Speed Squares have a perfect 90-degree angle, which keeps things straight as long as the edge of the board is also straight.

To the extent possible, keep the drill bit horizontal to the plane of the cabinet door. If the bolt holes are tilted, the bolts won't align with the door handles.

Slip the bolts through the back side of the door and into the handles, and tighten them until the handle fits snug against the door. 
After installing the hardware, there was one more thing left to do. I deliberately left the back wall of the book shelves bare because I wanted to decoupage pages from old books. 

I cut out certain paged and pasted them on the wall with thinned wood glue and a sponge paintbrush. It's like going back to kindergarten craft time, except that nobody tells you not to eat the paste (Don't eat the paste!). The only rules that I discovered are that thinning the glue with water makes it easier to spread, but thinning it too much can warp the pages. 

This is my Edgar Allan Poe section when I'd just started the job. 

Lime green flip flops aren't mandatory. 

We ran out of time because company was arriving, so I had to put the remainder of decoupaging on pause. I do that a lot, putting off projects. 

A bit of advice for decoupaging. Cover the surface with pages that aren't special before layering on the pages that you want to see. That way, you won't have to cut and trim and cuss to make the pages fit the way you want them to. I trimmed and cussed a bit. 

Besides finishing the back walls, there are two more things that have to be done. I still need to finish sewing the bench cushion cover, and I want to install a plant shelf between the two book cases. Mr. V. and I found two of these brackets at a little antique shop, and they will fit under the left and right ends of the shelf. 

$20 for a pair of these. Not too shabby. 
It will look a little something like this, except that I'll fasten them to the cabinets so that Mr. V. doesn't have to hold them forever. 

He isn't crazy about modeling for me.
All in all, I would call this project an official success. The bench seat is so sturdy that I can walk on it without any bends or creaks, and the cabinets are so sound that I think that's where I'll hide next tornado season. 

Building a custom cabinet takes a lot of planning, flexibility and compromise, especially in an old house where nothing is square.  But that's also part of the fun. You can customize it any way that you like. As long as the structure is sound, anything goes. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dealing with Hazardous Chemicals during Home Modification

Today, I have a guest poster, Brian Turner. Brian is an environmental and safety advocate for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. His concern for workplace safety, even during a DIY project, inspired this blog post, which helps raise awareness of the hazards that sometimes lurk inside old homes. 


Whenever men and women undertake a renovation project in their own homes, they will need to be carefully aware of possible hazardous materials. Older homes may yet contain asbestos, which was used for many years to aid in insulation measures. Asbestos, in fact, contains serpentine-like molecules that can become ingested into the human body, where they can lead to mesothelioma and other serious issues. If individuals will be working specifically with tearing out insulation, they will need to follow some guidelines that will allow the modification to proceed without any ill effects.

One of the first things that renovators should do is assess where the asbestos itself is located. If it is beginning to deteriorate and is also located near vents or air ducts, then it will have to be ripped out and disposed of. It should be treated as a carcinogen and should never be handled except with professional techniques that make use of hazardous material suits, masks, and gloves. Asbestos that is located near vents can release airborne particles, which can eventually be breathed in by anyone who lives in or frequents the house on a regular basis.

There are a number of places that asbestos may show itself when old fixtures and materials are being replaced. In addition to the insulation that is found near ducts, men and women should also look out for textured paint and certain kinds of tile, which can also contain the material. In fact, old paint may in fact be lead-based, which is another hazardous chemical that should be watched for. Scraping paint off of old walls should be done carefully and with the right gear. If individuals insist on performing the work themselves, they may want to glean some trusty information from renovators who are more experienced with paint removal.

Because special care must be taken to remove asbestos, there are a few things that should be done straightaway. A well-ventilated area is absolutely necessary. Closed-in locales will lead to the continuous buildup of tiny particles, which will make the air thick with carcinogens. This is also why masks and gloves must be used. If there is any doubt, renovators should err on the side of caution. With regards to specific tools, people will want to use manual devices whenever possible. This will allow them to slowly chisel away the degrading material while leaving other porous regions free of chemical infection. Power tools should be avoided; mainly because they are too strong for delicate work

The cleanup process must also follow specific stipulations. A thorough vacuuming job must be done after the rip-out work has occurred. This will allow for any remaining materials to be removed from the area. If individuals feel somewhat sick or lightheaded, they should of be seen by a medical professional right away. With the right precautions and an attention to detail, most do-it-yourself projects can be brought to a successful conclusion. Renovators can then move on to another part of the house.


Brian Turner has been working with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance as an environmental health and toxic substance safety advocate since June of 2007. Brian brings a tremendous amount of research and awareness experience in environmental health risks, environmental carcinogens, and green building expertise. Brian is very interested in all types of cars; his favorites are classic, muscle, and imports. Brian is commonly found playing and watching various sports with his friends.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Once Upon a Window Seat, Part III

Other installments of this project are found at these links: Part I , Part II and Part IV.


This is the third installation of my window seat and book case project. In Part I, I showed how Mr. Vagabond and I plotted the layout and started building the framework. Part II shows real progress with the bones of the window seat and book case really taking shape. In this installation, Part III, we’ll take a look at some finishing work issues that arose and how we worked around them. 
Throughout this project, I learned one very annoying thing: It’s not easy to find a straight board. At the finishing carpentry stage, I also discovered that it’s not necessarily a good idea to buy small boards in strapped bundles. 

We needed 1 x 2 pine boards to use as cleats, which would support the shelves. We bought a bundle of “premium” boards that looked pretty straight. The label gave me some confidence about the purchase:

See? Premium lumber. It has to be good, right? We were disappointed when we cut the straps on the bundle at home. 

Aside from the fact that there was not a single straight board in the bundle, we also discovered this:

This made me wonder what other grades they carry besides “premium” and what those grades look like. The challenges that this premium lumber presented were wrestling with each of the boards to mount them relatively straight, and sanding off the rough, gnawed-looking texture. Thankfully, 1 x 2s are thin and light, so we were able to force them into position as we screwed them into place. To do that, we marked off the level line where the board would mount, pre-drilled the holes and then fastened a board with one screw. After one screw was inserted we pushed or pulled to align the board, and then fought with the rest until it was secure and somewhat straight. Never underestimate the importance of checking the lumber that you buy to ensure that it’s straight. If there are several boards strapped into a bundle, cut the bundle and check each one.

Sanding off the coarse surface proved to be an impossible feat. The more I sanded, the worse it looked. It went from jagged to fuzzy, and never improved from that point. I turned the most awful side toward the wall, and let the least awful side face out. Because I needed nice-looking boards for the front edge of each of the shelves, we made another trip and bought cedar 1 x 2s. They had beautiful, clean, straight edges.

Most of the materials that we used were pine. Additionally, we used poplar plywood and some cedar trim. Staining the three to look reasonably uniform was challenging, but it worked out. 

There’s a trick to nailing a board and then hiding those nails, and that trick is called “countersinking.” Finish carpenters know this trick well, and it is one way to make your project look more professional. This is a close-up image of one of the cedar boards after I had driven in a finishing nail. Notice that the small nail head stands proud of the face of the board. Also note the small depression in the center of the nail head. 

The plywood peeking out under the cedar board would eventually be covered with fancy trim molding. 

I drove in each nail, leaving the head proud of the boards by about 1/16 inch. This saved the boards from being dented by the hammer. Countersinking the nails requires a small tool called a nail set, or you can also use a larger nail or a screw, like I am using here. Anything with a small tip and a head that you can whack with a hammer will sink the nails. 

Tap the nail set or nail or screw with a hammer, driving in the nail until it looks like the next photo. This leaves a small depression that you can fill with stainable wood putty, or caulk if you plan to paint the board. 

After the book cases were finished, we started on the cabinet doors. The left and right cabinets needed doors, and we worked around the nailed-down bench seat by building doors for the front side of the window seat. In this photo, the doors are only set into place and held there with shims. This just gave us an idea of how it would look once the doors were hung.

The doors were another very simple design. I cut 1 x 4s with 45-degree mitered corners, forming a frame that fit each opening. Then I covered the back side with plywood. It’s wise to measure each opening separately and build each door to fit those measurements. Measuring one opening and building the doors the same will invariably result in one door that doesn’t fit. After cutting the frame boards, I set them on a very sturdy and very flat surface, pre-drilled through the corners of the frame and nailed the assemblies together. You can use wood glue for a tighter fit at the joints, if you like, but it wasn’t necessary with ours. This is basic joinery; a butt joint. Butt joints are where two pieces of wood are butted together and fastened. If you have mad woodworking skills, you’ll probably want a fancier, sturdier joint. 

Covering the back side of the door frames was fairly easy. I cut the plywood approximately 1 inch smaller on each side, making a piece that fit the opening, and with a generous amount of excess past the edges of the frame opening on the back side. After laying the plywood on the back side of the frame and nailing it down, I secured each edge of the plywood to the frame with very plain, narrow, lipped molding. The small lip slips over the edge of the plywood and fits flush for a clean, tidy look on the back side of the doors. 

At this stage of the game, we were really starting to see major improvement. The whole room took on a more finished look, which is saying a lot. The living room has been one of the biggest challenges in the renovation. It’s a little over 12 feet wide, but almost 30 feet long. The window seat and book cases helped balance the room tremendously, making it feel less like a shotgun and more like a living space. 

My next and last installment will be staining the book case, and a special treatment that I am still applying to the back wall inside each of the book shelves.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Once Upon a Window Seat, Part II

Other installments of this project are found at these links: Part I , Part III and Part IV.


After the first day of construction on the window seat and book cases, we realized that we were in for a lot more work than we’d planned for. That’s ok, because my vision was spurring me on. Mr. Vagabond was spurred on by copious amounts of tequila. 

We had planned to build a hinged lid for the window seat, which would allow us to use the space underneath for storage. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a single 1 x 12 at Lowe’s that wasn’t twisted or bowed or otherwise skewed. This was a problem. We stabilized the underside of the 1 x 12 boards by framing them out with 2 x 4s, but that didn’t help. One end of the bench top remained determined to stand proud of the base by at least 1 1/2 inches. We had to nail the boards to the frame, and we didn’t get a hinged lid. But we worked around that later. 

That's Pepsi in the water bottle. I do weird things like that. 

After we nailed down the boards for the seat, we started building the book cases on top of the two cabinets. This was a very simple design. Each book case consisted of two 1 x 12s for the sides of the cabinets, two 2 x 2s mounted to the ceiling across the top (mounted furniture-grade plywood on the 2 x 2s later), and then a series of 2 x 2s nailed to the back wall and interior sides of the book cases. The 2 x 2s were cleats, which we used to support the shelves. The book case on the left has shelves that are about 20 inches apart. The book case on the right has shelves that are closer together. 

The bottom and top of each book case was fashioned from supports and furniture-grade plywood. The plywood had a much nicer grain than the 1 x 12s, so I wanted as much of the plywood to show as possible. 

I fastened the plywood to the supporting boards with finishing nails. As you can see, I marked off where I wanted the bottom shelf to stop, and I cut my supporting boards and plywood to fit. After everything was installed, I countersunk all of the finishing nails because I planned to stain the whole built-in instead of painting it. 

This is how I take measurements around here -- on anything that is handy! A scrap of 2 x 4...

Or on the back side of an old boarding pass! 

I wish I were heading to Utah again right now. *sigh*

And this is the circular saw that I use when I absolutely, positively need my cut to be straight as an arrow. I use the old Black & Decker that my dad gave to me. I have several other circular saws, but this one is Old Reliable. 

And this is what happens when I use my dad’s saw. A perfect cut for a perfect fit  :-)

Finally we started to make the kind of progress that lets you stand back and smile for a minute. The shelves were in, the bottom of the book case was mounted and the trim around the front was turning out beautifully.

Just look at those beautiful mitered cuts. Those were courtesy of our basic Delta miter saw. 

We did have a slight issue with the plywood on the sides of the book cases. I’m not naming names, but someone installed it with the grain running left-to-right instead of up and down. I found this scene when I woke on one of the numerous mornings of the project. It wasn’t easy to pry off, lemme tell ya. And I was running out of plywood, so I had to cut the replacements perfectly. 

At the end of the first week, this is what we’d accomplished. 

We had some weird configurations here and there, due mostly to being sick and tired of running to Lowe’s, but it was turning out just great. We figure that the next time tornado season rolls though east Tennessee, we’re camping out inside one of these cabinets. The house might fall, but this thing isn’t going anywhere. 

Next week, my idea of “premium lumber” is really challenged. 

P.S.  I really need to start keeping my work spaces tidier!