A Continuing Niche

Yesterday. The door is done!!!!!!!!


Several readers have asked about how I do this.

NOTE: My method will only work if the old finish is shellac. 

I pour denatured alcohol into a bowl.

I use a cheap, small brush.

Liberally apply to wood. Over and over and over.

Rub the brush against the wood. The old shellac will dissolve before your very eyes.

Dip a small piece of 0000 steel wool into alcohol, and then rub wood.

Take another piece of steel wool, do NOT dip, and rub wood.

Keep rubbing the wood with new bits of wool. Do not rub hard.

Alcohol dries quickly. Once it does, the old shellac will “freeze”. So, just keep rubbing with wool dipped in alcohol, immediately followed by dry wool.

I use a small brass wire brush for corners, and a small sharp pry bar to gently knock off alligator bumps.

The end point is when you take a piece of dry wool and it runs across the wood freely. If the wool meets friction, you still have shellac to remove.

Move your head back/forth to look for streaks.

Be liberal with the alcohol. You want it do do the work for you.


The work is not difficult but it takes a certain “hand” to achieve good results. I have such a hand, and Kenny does, too.

I have noticed that many people don’t complete the last bit of work, and the wood will look streaked, smudgy, and with dark build-up in the corners. In short, they do 90% of the work but the unfinished 10% makes all the difference.


Ideally, the process does not remove all the old shellac. In the above image, you are not looking at bare wood. The wood retains its original layer of shellac, soaked into the wood. The wood looks old and rich.

Sometimes, I rub too hard and the wood ends up looking kinda white-ish. I go over such areas with amber shellac. The rest of the wood I leave alone as there is no need to shellac it.

By NOT re-shellacing all the wood, somebody, a century from now, will bless you because they will not have to repeat all this work in 2118.




  1. Annette on April 6, 2018 at 10:45 am

    The door looks absolutely spectacular. I love it.

  2. Dan Goodall-Williams on April 6, 2018 at 10:57 am

    That is fantastic. I have old doors in my house that I sanded to the wood and restained/polyurethaned. They were painted many times. I hate wood painted, especially old and that is beautiful such as yours. Great job.

  3. Jen on April 6, 2018 at 11:58 am

    I have to say my favorite things you do are 1. Paint the exterior, 2. Repair the stained glass and 3. Restore the wood! Keep up the good work!

    Ps, not that you need another protect but this house is just drool worthy…

  4. RobynMe on April 6, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    So, are you drinking the alcohol or are you giving the bowl to the cats to get them to lick off the old bug goo?

    All my trim is protected under many layers of latex and oil. The top coat, white, of course. After seeing the Red Room pictures, my 1907 home might have actually had white enamel painted trim. Much as I would love to spare myself from the decades of work stripping it, I’ve read your posts about sanding down your shingles and exterior and the pics tell the tale. I could settle for the white, but I won’t be happy. OMG, how much is an IR stripper?!

    Curse your diligence and eye for beauty! I am condemned to a future as a stripper.

    • Seth Hoffman on April 6, 2018 at 1:33 pm

      Are there any areas of your trim obscured behind hardware (door backplates, doorstops, etc) that may have been installed after the original finish? These would be easy to remove and might reveal the original finish. As with Ross’s house, and our last house, however, even the stained work wasn’t done until AFTER the hardware was installed. In our current house, however, the millwork, doors, etc were finished before hardware installation.

      Other places to look for clues are behind radiators, heat registers, or any other places that may have been finished when the house was built, but difficult to reach later. Our current house has stained millwork most areas downstairs, and painted upstairs, and I have confirmed most of what’s currently painted was originally. The baseboards behind the radiators still have only their original coat of oil-based enamel, which is an off-white ivory color.

      Finally, stripping a small inconspicuous area with a heat gun (carefully!), and then wiping it with alcohol can reveal if it was originally stained, or always painted. If it was originally stained and shellacked, it will dissolve in the alcohol and turn the rag brown, but if it was always painted, you wont’ get much off at all.

    • Mike on April 6, 2018 at 5:31 pm

      Robyn, I have been working weekends (and some week nights) as a stripper for several months now, and I am getting really, really good at it! You just have to practice, and keep an objective eye on your work. You may surprise yourself…
      Santa brought me an IR for Christmas, and I am thrilled with it. It is called a Speedheater Cobra, by Eco Strip; here is a link to it: https://eco-strip.com/product/speedheater-cobra/ Yes, it was $500, but it is so worth it if you have a lot to do like me. I chose this model over the larger unit because all of my work is on trim like window facings/sashes, doors, base and crown, etc. It is almost impossible to scorch your wood if you follow the directions, and my finished projects look like they were installed last week instead of 130 years ago. The biggest surprise for me was finding that my trim (under 10 coats of paint) was originally dark, almost a hickory color. I was hoping that it was lighter like Ross’ trim, but it was dark in the beginning and dark it is again. So, life as a stripper can be very rewarding, as long as you have the right equipment and know how to use it…

      • Ross on April 6, 2018 at 9:57 pm

        Thanks, Mike.

        I will need to strip the acres of painted wood on the huge third floor, and have been thinking an infrared stripper will be the obvious tool.

        • Mike on April 7, 2018 at 2:28 pm

          I’ve used chemical, gel, heat gun, and infrared; IR is no doubt the easiest and safest. The only thing is that it sort of ” boils” the finish off, so you are left with pretty much bare wood. I could see the original finish, but I couldn’t save it.

          • RobynMe on April 9, 2018 at 12:27 pm

            Scraped off some paint and there was a transparent finish on the wood. Damn.
            I mean yay!

            I can’t wait to tell all my new neighbors what I do. 😀

  5. Seth Hoffman on April 6, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the details on your technique. I’ll have to try it with a brush and then straight to steel wool. I’ve been doing it with a rag, and always fighting with it getting sticky.

    • David F. on April 6, 2018 at 3:36 pm

      Being a skinflint (the more I can save, the more I can spend on the house, right?) I always try removing the initial sludge with rags that I can toss before moving to steel wool.

      • Ross on April 6, 2018 at 9:55 pm

        Make sure you BURN such rags (or steel wool).

        DO NOT TOSS THEM IN A GARBAGE CAN! They will ignite and burn a house down!

    • Ross on April 6, 2018 at 9:56 pm

      It gets sticky when you are not using enough alcohol, and not frequently enough.

  6. Kim on April 6, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    I’ve used a similar process on a few shellac finished furniture pieces and results never cease to amaze. I enjoy the process much more than paint stripping.

    All woodwork in my house was shellac sealed, except kitchen & bathroom trims. Most just needs some clean-up and a few water damaged places (window sills) need some reconditioning.
    I’m at the point where I might strip the bathroom paint. Might.

    It is fairly obvious the bathroom & kitchen trims were origionally painted and I’m ok with that. Of course, it is a thick oil based paint and most likely lead. So yep, I’m doomed.

    Actually, my only dread has been at some point long ago, someone stained the woodwork of one room with a “cherry” stain. It is clearly darker than all the wood in the rest of the house and it wasnt a well done job. I’m getting my guts up to take it all down with a hand sander a few feet at a time. Then, it’ll get a light coat of amber to match the rest.

    I adore that pillar 💗 you’ve brought it back to life, Ross!

  7. Mike on April 6, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    Have you thought about painting all of your trim white? It would certainly lighten up your interior…BWAAAHAAAHAAA!!! I couldn’t even type that with a straight face! The niche is looking awesome! I wish I had columns like that.

  8. Sandra Lee on April 6, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    Mike you are such a hoot!

    Ross the results are mesmerizing!

    • Ross on April 6, 2018 at 9:53 pm

      A hoot? Or a caution?


      • Sandra Lee on April 7, 2018 at 1:06 pm

        Freaked me out but he was being funny!

        Painted artisal carved woodwork is a travesty & he was being so funny!

        No—a hoot & not caution

        • Mike on April 8, 2018 at 10:39 am

          Sorry I freaked you out, Sandra. The people who owned my house 30 years ago say that they painted 90% of the wood white to make the house brighter. They also seemed to love pink…but at the time they bought the house it was going down quickly, so I just remind myself that they likely saved it…

          • Sandra Lee on April 8, 2018 at 12:13 pm

            Oh my! 90%— whew! Daunting😱& sounds a horror!
            However u said they perhaps saved in spite of oddities.

      • Sandra Lee on April 7, 2018 at 1:11 pm

        Really really reaked me out but he was being funny!

        Painted artisal carved woodwork is a travesty & he was being so funny!

        No—a hoot & not caution

  9. Ken on April 6, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    Thank you, for the nice compliment.

    • Ross on April 6, 2018 at 9:52 pm

      Thank you, for the nice work, Kenny!

  10. Anne L Taylor on April 6, 2018 at 8:31 pm

    Help me understand. This implies that at some point, or many points over the years, someone thought it a good idea to RE-shellac over and over? And hence it is the EXTRA shellac layers that you are removing, yet leaving the original one?

    • Ross on April 6, 2018 at 9:51 pm

      Hi, Anne,

      It was common to re-shellac. This would give the wood an instant freshening, and remove all scratches and bruises.

      But over the years shellac turns dark brown. The more layers, the more years, and the darker the look.

      And many layers also alligator over time.

      • David F. on April 7, 2018 at 5:30 pm

        Part of my grandmother’s annual spring cleaning was shellacking the window sills and any other spot that needed it.

      • Anne L Taylor on April 8, 2018 at 1:45 pm

        thanks – i get it. like waxing a floor OVER and over. i’m about to become ONE with denatured alcohol and i’ll let you know how it goes. i fear that i’m dealing with something other than shellac, e.g. varnish. we’ll see.

  11. Jennifer on April 7, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    So beautiful. Can’t wait to see the fixture you mentioned in place. Feel like some goldish,greenish wallpaper would look amazing in the niche.

  12. Architectural Observer on April 7, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    The door looks proud and regal again! I forget… do you have the extra ornament which completes the window heads or will you have to re-create that? An idea as to how the radiator was originally finished? Everything is looking fantastic!

    • Ross on April 7, 2018 at 4:41 pm

      The missing window trim is on a table. It was easier to refinish down.

      It appears that the radiators were finished in two-tone gold. I plan to recreate that.

  13. Michael Bazikos on April 7, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    Years ago the Old House Journal magazine had a tip for removing old shellac. The tip was to use a mixture of alcohol and lacquer thinner. It works well.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will NEVER be made public or shared, and you may use a screen name if you wish.