A Faux Story

The dining room of the Cross House. All the DARK wood, and the DARK Lincrustra, is not how things looked in 1894. Many layers of later finishes have darkened over time.


You can still see, sorta, the 1894 faux wood finish. Most of the trim and doors throughout the house have a faux finish.


In the lower left you can actual wood where the 1894 dining room faux finish has been lost.


This is the back of a trim piece in the dining room. It is wholly plain, with no grain pattern. Quite unlike…




Again, more bare wood revealed.


And more. The actual wood is featureless. This is typical throughout the house, save the foyer and stairhall, which is oak, and never had a faux finish.


The original faux finishes are particularly damaged on all the window sills. I have been scraping these down to bare wood, and plan to retain a faux artist to recreate the lost 1894 finishes.


Today, the parlor trim is glorious. It was SO not like this when I purchased the house, the trim then being very dark and looking quite abused.


In the library, you can see the restored “cherry” trim and an unrestored corner block. The difference is…impressive.


Under the library windows the faux graining is evident again.


When I removed the over-mantel of the round bedroom, a pristine area was revealed showing the 1894 finish (upper right). Compare this with the top of the DARK mantel top


After removing the later layers of time-darkened shellac, you can see how closely this matches the untouched 1894 area. Thanks, Kenny!


The mantel before, and…


…after. Thanks, Kenny!



My experience with the Cross House reminds me of the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was dark. And everybody assumed it has always been so.


But, about twenty years ago, all the later layers of varnish and shellac were removed, revealing an astonishing difference.


Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1902 Huertley House had very dark trim throughout. Everybody assumed this is what Wright had specified. And this dark trim was normal for all his houses of the era. Note also the dead white plaster.


But, a careful analysis revealed that Wright had specified MUCH lighter trim. And the plaster was actually a multi-toned finish. Stunning. Today, many Wright houses of the era have been similarly restored.


It has become quite the trend to paint over “depressing” dark trim in houses. This is tragic as simply removing non-original layers of varnish/shellac can reveal…


…hidden beauty.




  1. Tony Bianchini on January 22, 2018 at 8:12 pm

    Mesmerizing! Loved this post.

  2. Jonathan W on January 22, 2018 at 8:39 pm

    Something about that mantle that Kenny so beautifully restored, unsettles me. While I do love the restored wood in the rest of the house, and I’m all for restoring the wood.

    The mantle seems off… It might be that the wood in other rooms, such as the Parlor, seems to have a slight pink hue, almost like a cherry wood. But the Mantle is missing this, it’s just oak, and the contrast between the yellowish oak, and that blue cover doesn’t appeal to me. Though other factors could contribute, such as your lovely paint choice, and the damaged plain walls behind the Mantle, but other than that, I don’t see or get why it gets at me. Any ideas?

    • Ross on January 22, 2018 at 8:53 pm

      As I mentioned, and showed, the mantel had an untouched section revealing the original finish. What Kenny did closely matches this.

      The cast-iron fireplace grate was originally copper-electroplate. This will be restored, and will impact how things things look. So, too, the walls being painted, the floor being restored, etc.

  3. Asterlina on January 23, 2018 at 12:08 am

    Hi Ross,

    Thank you for your interesting and detailed blog.

    What happened to the tiles and the cast-iron piece in your ‘after’ picture?

    Thank you,

  4. Dodi on January 23, 2018 at 6:47 am

    Ross my dear, over at Archives.org, there are several libraries available including many rare books that have been scanned into the archive.

    I found this one from 1849.

    Perhaps the answers you are seeking is in that book.

  5. Jenine on January 23, 2018 at 9:05 am

    There are various tools for doing faux wood grain available on Amazon if you would like to try your hand at it before paying for someone else to do it. Like most things, there’s a learning curve but the results can be really nice, especially since your woodwork has a fairly subtle grain. I found that using the tools on small sections, then using a small brush to “connect the dots” made for a more natural finish without obvious repeat in the pattern.

  6. Alison on January 23, 2018 at 9:40 am

    I just have to interject here that some people legitimately prefer the look of white trim. I am one of them.

    Not to say what you’re doing is wrong at all! Quite the opposite. I am enjoying seeing the original finish come back to life in your house 🙂

    Just that it’s personal preference and painting wood is not actually a grave sin if it’s what THAT person wants lol

    • Ross on January 23, 2018 at 10:13 am

      Hi, Alison.

      Sorry, but painting trim white IS a sin!

      I have passed on many houses where the trim was painted white. It’s just too hard to remove it. And I am not alone with this thought.

      Also, I cringe when people say: “It’s MY house! I can do what I want!” Yes, but we are actually only short-term caretakers. I am but one person in a very long line of people who have cared for the 123-year-old Cross House. And I am forever grateful that these many people have done what they could to protect the house. While many many many alterations have taken place to adapt the house to changing conditions, almost all these alterations have been done with respect to the house, and most were reversible. This is why I purchased the house; it was not ruined.

      While painting trim IS reversible, it is a mountain of work to do so. Indeed, I think it ruins a house. Here is an example of a ruined house.

      If a person seeks a “brighter” look, then paint the walls in vivid colors, and purchase brightly-colored furnishings. BUT LEAVE THE TRIM ALONE!

      • Alison on January 23, 2018 at 10:24 am

        I’m sorry, but I respectfully disagree with you on this point whole-heartedly.

        In my personal opinion, white trim looks cleaner, brighter and fresher.

        And the simple fact is that it’s true that if you own the house, you can do what you want with it. Sure, sometimes it could ruin the original aesthetic of a house. But to be perfectly honest, it’s no one’s business but the owners what happens to it. (I actually agree that many people ruin homes but again, that’s their prerogative).

        And not to poo further on your opinion (because you are absolutely entitled to it!) but that house you just linked to did not prove your point for me because I think that house is very charming with the trim the way it is.

        As I said earlier, I do not think that you going to the trouble of restoring the trim in your house is a bad thing. I think it is wonderful! I love seeing the change that you are making to it and breathing new life into it. And I’m not trying to change your own opinion on white trim vs stained trim either.

        My main point is that white trim is not actually the devil lmao

      • Jenine on January 25, 2018 at 9:53 am

        I recently read part of a blog about “restoring” a Victorian house… and one of the first things the owner mentioned was painting the woodwork white. I cringed and closed the blog. I define “restoring” as returning a house to original (or as close as possible) condition. If you’re going to paint everything don’t call it “restoring”, be honest about it.

      • Allison (with two L's) on January 26, 2018 at 9:20 pm

        Ahhhh, that house IS ruined! The beauty of the entryway, especially, is destroyed by the white paint. Why would you buy an old house if you don’t appreciate finished wood? It baffles me.

        All the trim in our house was painted by previous owners sadly, but thankfully, not the staircase, so we can see what the beautiful original wood looked like.

        Even worse: people who BLEACH their hard wood floors!!

    • Stewart McLean on January 23, 2018 at 10:44 am

      I think that all of the people who like their trim painted have a perfect right to do so in their own houses, although there are those who feel that they are seriously damaging the house’s integrity. The question comes in when one wants to RESTORE a house to the original finishes. When one restores, one tries to make the woodwork look as close to that of the first finish and also match grains and woods when doing repairs. In your case, your choices on your decor are based purely on your taste. A restorer does not have that option. Restorers do their best to identify all aspects of the original finishes and recreates them.

      I am in the process of redoing a townhouse that was built between 1801 and 1810. I am trying to be sensitive to the original design. After preserving samples of the layers of wallpaper that I am removing, I have been taking the walls down to the plaster. It is now clear that very few of the rooms were painted at all. This is my residence, and I like painted walls more than those with wallpaper. When the walls are stripped to the plaster, there are so many places where the history of the changes made to the house over the years are revealed. To prepare and paint these walls will erase the visibility of these changes. The fact that they are now visible makes it so much easier for visitors to “get” what has been added over the years than it will be if I paint them. I can take photos galore and still not be able to make others feel the way it was in the manner that the marks in the plaster do.

      Every decision that I make as far as the decorative treatment of the walls is loaded with conflicts between my taste, my desire to experiment, and preservation of the original. Once I do make these decisions, I won’t feel guilty exactly, but I will always be aware that that room has not really been restored.

      Woodwork finishes carry all of the same dilemmas.

      From what i have gathered through following Ross’s adventures, he is treating the woodwork as a restoration project, whereas, unless the original wallpaper is identifiable and available within his budget, he will be using his creative decorative eye for the wall finishes.

      • Alison on January 23, 2018 at 10:53 am

        I totally agree with you!

        Side note: Amy from vivaciousvictorian.com had that same dilemma in one of their room restorations. How to get the look she wanted, while preserving the history on the walls. She ended up wallpapering the room in a paintable wallpaper and then painting that! A pretty decent compromise if you are concerned with preservation.

  7. Amanda Dahlin on January 23, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    Love this post! Love the original color!! Ross are you ready to start your advice column?? I am currently trying to strip 3 layers of white paint off of my 1923 craftsman built-ins. (The layers are so thick I can barely shut the doors!) some areas of paint came off beautifully, other areas the paint remains thick and turns into tacky/gluey horror. What am I missing?? 2 coats of stripper and I’m still not down to bare wood. Any advice???

    • Jonathan W on January 27, 2018 at 12:33 am

      While I’m no expert, nor do I have an old house…nor have I restored anything yet…I would say try a heat gun.

      In a few months I’m hoping to travel to California, two states away; to “restore” the west facing windows at my family friend’s 1890 home. I know nothing of what to do, other than videos I’ve seen. I am quite terrified to do this. But c’mon! There’s paint missing from the window sashes! Glaze missing! Cracking! I am only 20, and my friend’s family are a bit lazy and don’t like spending money, so I figure….I fix their house, I’m practicing for my own, and I’m saving/preserving theirs.

      But yes, an advice column would be SO loved!

      • Ross on January 27, 2018 at 10:07 pm

        People burn houses down using heat guns.

        Indeed, the Cross House burst into flames in 1999 because somebody was using a heat gun on something.



    • Ross on January 27, 2018 at 10:11 pm

      Amanda, you have my sympathies.

      Most importantly, make sure you use a really powerful paint stripper. I use this.

  8. Jaime on January 23, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    My husband and I bought a 1907 Free Classic Queen Anne and the trim is white with the doors, sills, railing and mantle shelves stained wood. I think this might have been the original treatment of the woodwork but that white trim in over 5,400 square feet of house drives me bonkers! I am constantly having to touch up chips and scrub it with Mr. Clean erasers. The first year we lived there I spent one entire summer painting trim that had been damaged by pets, furniture, etc. I wish it had always been stained wood. Stripping it all and refinishing it at this point in my life is out of the question!

  9. Adam on January 24, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    I got into an argument once online over a house for sale near me, where the seller/realtor had painted every stick of woodwork inside a uniform blinding white. The problem for me was that the house was in the Tudor style, and the entry hall had beautiful carved linenfold paneling in the English style. Painting wood like that is not only wrong for the style, but carved paneling like that is almost certainly in a finish-quality wood that could not be replaced without great expense. I feel that it is fine to paint wood if it is paint-grade, but painting walnut or oak or old-growth redwood is like painting a precious metal- nobody would ever intentionally do the latter. It is a shame that refinishing is often portrayed as an impossible task, when it usually results in something so much richer.

  10. Wesley Peters on January 24, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    Frank Lloyd Wright was an amazing architect and I love his work. The trim in your house is astonishing and I had to stare at it for awhile taking it all in.

  11. Dawn Rocco on February 22, 2018 at 1:39 am

    Oh I hate it, hate it, hate it when people paint the woodwork. Sad part, I redid the woodwork in my house when I first moved in. It wasn’t painted but had turned black from age. It was beautiful when it was done however it didn’t take long before it started to get darker. Ten years later it wasn’t as pretty. How does a person stop that from happening? Also my son had used ammonia to clean up a mess on the wood floor it took the old varnish right off down to the bare wood. Needless to say I stripped the entire livingroom floor with ammonia, done.

  12. Dawn Rocco on February 22, 2018 at 2:28 am

    Ross if you do decide to try the ammonia trick be careful. Do small sections at a time, rinse well with clean water, change your water constantly and don’t let the dirty water drip and dry on the stripped areas, it will stain and is hard to get out of the wood.

  13. John on January 24, 2019 at 10:17 pm

    You should be able to slap anyone who thinks you should be able to paint the woodwork in your own home. But you can’t so I don’t think you should be able to paint woodwork in your home either.

  14. Carl on January 24, 2019 at 10:29 pm

    The previous owners of my historic home painstakingly chipped away at the White painted doors and trim with Walnut picks so they wouldn’t loose the original finish underneath. I am extremely grateful to them. Sad that because some owners whim of the moment of what they saw on HGTV (painting everything white, knocking down walls for an open concept “I like clean lines & mid-century modern” becomes the headache for the next owner. Everytime someone changes a homes original design, that home takes one step closer to the grave. America is littered with muddled homes.

  15. Sandra Lee on March 31, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    I love love love Kenny’s work! It is so beautiful when the original wood & finishes are restored! It looks very fresh!

    Artisanal woodwork looks best when carvings and wood are finished as originally intended. When these woods are painted white or light colors the carving and thus artistic flourishes are obscured.

    Regarding painted wood trim I think it is lovely when woods are restored to their intended state for the period such as. 19th C & early 20th C homes —-usually had beautiful and artisanal woodwork.

    Modern homes of various eras had usually cheap woods for woodwork and were intended to be painted. Exceptions were during various eras like Colonial times when woodwork frequently was painted white and walls were in very bright colors. Painted walls at Mount Vernon were determined to be very bright colors like teal & vivid blues according to analysis and recent restorations.

    As always owners purchase homes for various reasons.

    Restoration of an old home may be the intent but not all aspects are appreciated—like painting woodwork and modernizing some aspects. Sometimes folks don’t like all aspects of the older house and prefer a mix of old and new. I think that is at play when the preference is for painted woodwork rather than restoration to original wood.

    It seems restorers prefer to keep most things according to original vision and othe homeowners prefer to redecorate and update various features when the original aesthetic doesn’t appeal—restoring original artisanal woodwork and finishes versus redecorating & modernizing by painting woods and brightening painted or wallpapered walls.

    Apples & oranges—-restoration of the old versus just redecorating or modernizing the old features.

    To each his own…but call a spade a spade— restoration of woodwork does not include painting wood white— more of a remoderization and update of decor. They have nothing to do with each other…..

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