Q: We have a Storybook-style house built in 1929. It has beautiful interior mahogany window casings and sills, doors and door casings, and baseboards. The window muntins are also stained wood (although not mahogany). This wood has not been well cared for and, although not rotten, is dried out. What is the proper way to care for this wonderful interior accent to bring out the natural beauty of the mahogany and keep it from deteriorating?
A: Your home sounds like one of the thousands of gems built in the first third of the 20th century.
Seventy-five years ago, fine woodworking was more prevalent in what were then more modest homes. Ordinary people could afford to live in homes characterized by elegant woodwork and fine craftsmanship.
Congratulations for putting in the time and effort to preserve your gem. Your work will provide great pleasure for yourself and for future generations.
How you go about restoring your wood will depend on what you have to work with. You are miles ahead because your woodwork has not been painted. Stripping painted woodwork is a laborious task and, more often than not, the results are not all that great. It’s tough to get the old paint out of all the nooks and crannies, and even a little bit of paint residue stands out like a sore thumb.
The mahogany trim in your home is probably finished in one of two ways. Originally, either the wood was stained and then varnished, or no stain was used and the varnish was pigmented. It’s easy to figure out which technique was used. Find a spot where the varnish has been chipped (usually around doorways) and look at the color of the wood. If it’s close to the color of adjacent varnished areas, it’s stained.
The colors won’t match exactly because varnish yellows with age. If you have pigmented varnish, you’ll have to either strip all the woodwork – a daunting task – or match the color of the varnish. This is fairly painless, thanks to computer matching available in paint stores.
Dried-out window muntins should be restored by moisturizing the wood. Apply a few coats of boiled linseed oil, Danish oil or tung oil to the dried-out wood. All of these products are available at paint stores and hardware stores.
Scrub the areas to be treated with some “0000” steel wool dipped in paint thinner to remove dirt and grease. Then apply several coats (three or more) of the oil, allowing it to dry between coats.
To refurbish the varnished wood, follow these steps. Clean the surface with “0000” steel wool soaked in mineral spirits. Sand the cleaned surface with No. 150 grit sandpaper. This gives the surface “tooth,” allowing the new finish to adhere to the old. Make sure to feather the edges of any chips in the varnish to get a smooth surface when finished. Use a vacuum cleaner to vacuum the sanding dust from the wood. Then wipe the entire surface with a tack cloth to remove any remaining residue.
With a clean paintbrush apply a coat of sanding sealer. Let it dry and lightly sand the surface. Wipe the surface with a tack cloth to remove any residue.
Finally, apply two coats of varnish, lightly sanding and tacking between coats. We prefer varnish to polyurethane because we find it easier to work with and the softer finish seems to be less susceptible to chips and dings.
When you complete this project, step back and savor the fruits of your labor and know that you have restored a little bit of the beauty of a bygone era.
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