Hatton House Diaries

One day, we decided to buy a 125 year old Victorian House in Des Moines, Iowa…….

The Front Door Finishing December 13, 2013

The doors, after sanding to even out the finish, no shellac yet.

The doors, after sanding to even out the finish, no shellac yet.

When we bought the Hatton House, there was a gorgeous door already in place, however it was painted on the exterior, but in a horrifying state of unfinished on the interior. Someone had stained the door with a single layer of stain, but they’d done in haphazardly, so that parts of the door had no stain at all, and parts of the door had stain pooled into corners and left to permanently damage the color of the wood. I stared at this door for two years, trying to sort out how I was going to attack it. I have tried to avoid using heavy duty strippers, and I couldn’t sand away the spots where stain had collected. I decided to try to finesse the coloring in the wood in combination with removing the dark spots where I could.

I started with a light sanding of 200 grit paper to take the dirt and hopefully even out some of the variation in color from the stain job. It didn’t take out all the color variation, especially in the window muntin corners, but it helped, and I hoped would be enough once I blended it with the shellac. Several people I’ve talked to use colorants in their shellac, but I opted for pure shellac and a stain coat from General Finishes Gel Stain in color Java.

This is what we were up against: stain on the face of the muntins, but not the sides, except where it pooled to almost black in the corners.

This is what we were up against: stain on the face of the muntins, but not the sides, except where it pooled to almost black in the corners.

I coated the doors with a thin coat of shellac, followed by a coat of stain in areas that needed to be darkened. It was a bit tricky, feathering in the stain over the areas that got too dark in the previous owner’s coating. Each coat took about 90-120 minutes per door, as it took so much time to coat all the surfaces around the window panes without completely trashing the stained glass. Once I was happy that the color was as balanced as it could be, I alternated coats of shellac with extra fine steel wool until I’d built up a nice sheen. I think there were three cycles of shellac by the end of it.

The end result is pretty great. I love how the shellac pulls out the grain in the wood, and I think the variations in stain are to the point where they look like aging more than mistakes (that’s what I’ll tell myself at least). I used denatured alcohol to lift some of the wax from the trim around the door, and I’m pretty confident that with a little work in the spring, the trim can be brought to look just as great as the door does. Stay tuned….now that I’m getting more confident with wood working projects, it may be time to tear into the endless supply of those projects.

The finished product. Completed doors that look amazing (but don't photograph well) in the daylight.

The finished product. Completed doors that look amazing (but don’t photograph well) in the daylight.


Refinishing Wood…the David Sweet Way February 8, 2013

This week (month?), I’m continuing the first floor woodwork refinishing, using the David Sweet method. David uses historically appropriate strippers and finishes (read: no poly) and creates finishes that look like they belong in a 125 year old house. The process takes longer than dip stripping and smacking on poly based finish, but the color is so deep and finish so rich, I can’t really argue with it. It’s my forever house, right?

I’m using a heat gun to remove paint when I have to, but my first choice is to find pieces without paint. My least favorite is pieces that have paint over bare wood, because you have to work extremely fast with the heat gun in order to avoid scorching the wood. Wood that’s been stained then painted is easy to work with a heat gun, working from the details out to the flat surfaces. After the heat gun, my biggest expense was the very nice respirator I purchased after working for an hour without one and feeling like I’d just taken a year off my life.

Best case, you start with a piece that looks like the one on the left, and you can scrape off what little paint is on it and not even involve paint removers. Be careful with strippers, as many can permanently damage some wood species. We used a mixture of denatured alcohol and old shellac from previous projects (this reminded me of something like sourdough starter) to remove the shellac and 100 years of wax and dirt buildup. I felt like I was flipping back through stories of maids who were too lazy to strip the previous year’s wax as I was removing all the layers by alternating my denatured alcohol starter and ragging off. That will leave you at the piece that looks like the left center plinth block.

The right center plinth has been coated with shellac. A few more coats of shellac would give it a true historic finish that is deep and rich. We were trying to match the color of our aged wood, as shellac will age into a darker reddish tone from it’s dark golden start with wax and years. You can pigment shellac, or add a stain layer for color. It takes some experimentation to get the exact color, but as you can see, the end result is gorgeous! Now, on to the miles of board I have left!