How to strip and restore hardwood trim

stripping wood intro

Have you ever wondered how to go about restoring blah-looking, paint-covered hardwood trim? Strap in, because I’ve got a lot of words to spill on the topic.

hallway before 2013

Here’s the setting: our hallway. It needed help.

We did an initial update on it, just like in the rest of the house: we removed the carpet and refinished the floorboards, and then repaired cracks in the plaster and painted the walls and ceiling, in Beige Royal Half and Grand Piano Quarter. And then I ignored it for over six months. Forgive me, this is one of those jobs I’d rather do in cold, dreary weather.

frames before

Here’s how it was looking last month. The cream gloss enamel trims were from the previous owners, but the black picture rails were my doing. (I thought they’d look awesome and I was wrong.)

Jamie and I knew early on that we wanted to strip and restore the door frames, because the doors themselves are natural timber, and so are the majority of trims in this house. It makes sense. Hardwood trims are one of the character-defining traits of our house; they’re era-appropriate, and we knew they’d add something special if they were restored.

Replacing the trim altogether was a non-starter, because 1. that’s a lot of pricey hardwood to replace, and 2. we looked everywhere and never found pre-made architraves that fit this profile, so we’d have to order a custom job or spend a ton of time planing them and then installing them ourselves. Nope nope nope. Ours also don’t have any fancy millwork, just flat planes, which thankfully made refinishing a pretty straightforward task.

It was worth it, but I’ll tell you, stripping paint = 50x more time-intensive than painting. Not that I cut corners on other projects, mind you, but I knew I could not half-ass this job. Still, it’s not complicated — anyone can do this!

paint stripping tools

Here’s all the gear I used to strip and refinish the door frames, arranged by stages.

These methods – heat gun, stripping, sanding – will work individually, but each one will take forever on its own. I didn’t weigh up the pros-and-cons of each method, I kind of just jumped into all of them, and it worked out really well.

scrape heat gun

Stage 1: Heat Gun

  • Heat gun
  • Fabric dropcloth
  • 3” scraper
  • Trash bag, brush and dustpan
  • Time spent: 1½ hours per frame

Kylie recommended a heat gun, and even loaned me hers. (Thank you!!) She was pretty keen to play with it again one night, when she stopped in for a cup of tea and I showed her that I’d begun to strip the door frames. They’re fun! It’s simple, satisfying work.

Now, before you raise the alarm, know that these door frames were painted too recently (80s-90s) for the paint to contain lead. I don’t know what I’d have done if these paints were full of lead. Paint over them in white and feel grumpy about it, I guess. (This manual provides guidelines on removing lead paint, if you want to read more.)

I used this gun on close to the hottest setting, so, let’s say 500° C. You have to work quickly with a heat gun, so that your paint (or timber!) won’t smoulder. I had the heat gun in one hand, scraper in the other. As soon as the paint began to bubble, I gave it a couple of seconds (literally: one one thousand, two one thousand) and then scraped it off. You don’t want to leave the heat gun on one spot for too long, but you also need to leave it in place long enough to get through all the layers of gunky old paint.

(Another safety note: Stick around in your house for at least an hour afterwards to make sure nothing is actually smouldering away inside the wall. Also, I know it’s obvious, but don’t set that red-hot gun directly on the floor afterwards!)

One nice thing about this method is that it’s easy to clean up afterwards on a hardwood floor. The peeled paint cools down very quickly, so, once everything was done and I had a job-well-done beverage, I shook out the dropcloths and swept up all the paint debris.

scrape citristrip

Stage 2: Citrus Stripper

  • Citrus stripper of choice (I like Citristrip)
  • 3” scraper
  • Plastic dropcloth
  • Painter’s tape
  • Rubber gloves
  • Time spent: 1 hour per frame (including 30min wait time)

The heat gun couldn’t get the edges without bubbling the painted plaster as well, so I carried this out as a separate job. It also got all the various dings and nail holes that still had paint stuck in them, as well as the residue of the existing varnish under the paint (pictured). Since the bulk of the stripping was already done, this didn’t take long.

Citrus chemical stripper is awesome when you have to strip paint indoors, since it’s non-toxic. I used it to strip the texture off two ceilings before we moved in, which made me thoroughly sick of the stuff, but it’s almost been a year now so the smell didn’t give me full-body shudders anymore. The only downside is that it’s messy. Don’t skimp on the painter’s tape and dropcloths.

bubbled patch

I taped off the walls, but word to the wise, layer up on the tape. There were a few areas where the stripper had soaked through the tape and bubbled the paint a little bit. Nothing a scraper, skim coat and touch-up paint couldn’t fix, but still. (I also learned that this hallway used to be painted avocado green! Far out.)

stripping door frames - progress
Progress being made.

Stage 3: Residue Wash

With some steel wool or a rough nylon scourer, rub down the stripped frames with something that will clean up citrus stripper, like mineral spirits. This stage is fast, but it’s an important one: the stripper can leave gummy, oily residue behind, and you really don’t want to sand that stuff when it’s dry.

I used the branded Citristrip wash, which is meant to be specially formulated for their own gel stripper. It might just be expensive, orange-scented mineral spirits for all I know, but it did work nicely.

Stage 4: Sand and Prep

So the surface should be well stripped now, down to bare, dry timber. This is when you want to give the whole door a sanding. Nothing heavy-duty, just a hand-sand with 240 paper will do, since all that scraping leaves the timber fairly smooth. I mean, the main reason why I went with all these varied methods is so I wouldn’t have to make a big, nasty mess with a power sander.

This is also when you want to fix any imperfections in the door frame itself – punch down any protruding nails, fill in holes with wood putty, et cetera.

Stage 5: Stain and Varnish

Finally, time to make those trims shine!

I used oil-based stain (Cabots Walnut) and an oil-based satin poly varnish on top. Oil-based stains are by far the easiest to work with, at least in my opinion. I always have a hard time getting an even coat with combined stain/varnish, which is multiplied tenfold with the water-based kind. Follow the directions on the tin and you’re set. I went two coats on the clear varnish, with a quick 400 grit sanding in between — it makes all the difference.

Yeah, it seems ridiculous that I used the smelly oil-based stuff when I deliberately used non-toxic citrus stripper for this small space, but at least the stain and varnish won’t tear up my hands and lungs like a conventional paint stripper will. I opened up most of the windows and the smell dissipated after a day.

Now, time for some glamour shots.

restored trims
refinished door frames 3

They’re so handsome! Feeling pretty proud of my work right now. I did also repaint the picture rails, in white satin enamel.

hallway doors before after

Before and after. I know, one’s in natural light and one isn’t. Days are short, and I’d love a skylight for our dark hallway.

hallway before may 2014

refinished door frames 2

One more before-and-after, but big.

This process took me about a month. I worked on them for a couple hours each evening for two weeks straight, got them sanded and ready to varnish, and then I walked away for another two weeks and only finished up the job a couple days ago. Great job, team.

As always, I have a laundry list of things I want to do next, most importantly changing the lighting and moving the phone jack into the study. But mostly I’m excited about laying down a runner and hanging up prints. It’s on its way to greatness!

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