The Cross House

A Lighter Adventure

When I purchased the Cross House in 2014, all the interior wood was dark. Dark. Depressing dark.

In 2015, I accidentally discovered that most of the wood in the house had a faux wood finish, buried under later layers of shellac (shellac darkens over time). By removing the shellac, MUCH lighter surfaces were revealed.

Since 2105, I have consistently discovered the same throughout the house: original pale faux wood finishes obscured by old shellac.

Some readers, also consistently, decry my stripping off the later shellac, as they do not believe that any of the wood in the house was ever so light.

But the physical evidence consistently confirms my approach.


Yesterday, I posted this image. It was evident that the push plate was upside-down. Well, this had to be corrected, STAT! Today, I removed the plate and was…startled. Scroll way down…
























Under the plate was a pristine sample of the 1894 faux wood finish! Golly! In every other case where I have removed hardware bare wood was revealed, confirming that the faux finish was applied AFTER the hardware was installed (as idiotic as this is).


An 1894 finish, revealed after 124-years!!!!!!!!


The dramatic difference between the original finish and the current finish is obvious.


I knew that some readers would doubt this discovery (Stewart!), so I scratched off a small section of the faux finish, revealing the pale, featureless wood under.


Oh, and I righted the push plate! All is now better in the world.


In the Hexagon Bedroom, the huge pocket door to the Sewing Room largely retains its original pale faux wood finish. Why? I have no idea. This is the ONLY door in the house which retains its original pale finish.


But even this door has a single later layer of shellac. You can also see the faux graining.



20 Responses to A Lighter Adventure

  1. The pocket doors were probably rarely closed, so not exposed to sunlight. My pocket doors are also lighter than the faux finish elsewhere, even though mine is not as darkened as yours is. I suspect mine had fewer additional coats of shellac to darken.

  2. I really really wish we could get the word out in bold letters that Victorians didn’t live in dark hallows with no light and super dark finishes.

    Our place is the same, it isn’t extravagant like yours by any means but when you strip down the layers of dark on the trim…it shows you that all the pine was light and only finished with amber shellac. It gives it a gorgeous glow.

    In those days things were lite by 15watt or lower light bulbs, kerosene lamps, gas and/or candles. Things needed to be light n bright so the light wouldn’t get swallowed up.

  3. Who? Me? So you removed the push plate to expose finish that has never been seen since the house was built, yet you judged that the push plate had been removed and flipped???????

    I know, I am a big jerk! Maybe it was originally installed up side down.

    I must say that whoever did the grain painting on the pocket door made it look remarkably like unstained chestnut. I am not doubting that it is grain painted.

    • You wrote: “yet you judged that the push plate had been removed and flipped?”

      Huh? I make no such judgement! I assume the plate was installed upside-down in 1894.

  4. Ah, for people anal about little details, the correctly-oriented wreath looks so much better!

    The lighter finish does indeed look great! It’s similar to the faux-grained wood in my parents simple 1895 Folk Victorian, which does not appear to have been overcoated with shellac. (BTW, the faux-graining in their house was also done in-situ with all hardware installed, as the hinges are painted in the same basecoats for the graining).

    I wonder if the darker colors were partially intentional, partially accidental? Although shellac does darken with time, in the teens and twenties, darker woods like mahogany-stained red oak became fashionable, so the light-colored finishes in “dated” Victorians would have been prime targets for “updating”. Adding a few layers of new shellac, cut heavily with flakes, or perhaps additional tint or dye would have been an easy way to do this. People are still doing this today, overcoating the “dated” golden oak from the 90s with dark walnut and ebony stains or tinted polyurethane varnishes.

    Finally, wow, that is an awesome pocket door! I’ve seen a few pop up at salvage stores (for bukoo bucks), but never one in person. I agree with the theory that it was probably left open so consistently that whoever was adding new shellac either missed it entirely, or didn’t feel it was worth the trouble (like the back of furniture that’s never seen).

  5. Ross, you mentioned several times that the paint used for the base coloring of some of your wood is unknown, but that it is very hard and difficult to remove. This piqued my curiosity, and today’s mention of the faux wood graining led me on yet another search through elderly books. I came across this book, “Graining, Ancient and Modern By William Edmund Wall”, that is a detailed manual of faux wood finishing. It is a free e-book, but what fascinates me is that(besides the recipes for the work with lead and dry pigment)there is mentioned several times…stale beer! It seems that one of the substances used to produce wood finishes is beer. Given that much of the detail paint was hand mixed from raw materials, this odd addition gave me pause. We know that milk paint was freely used during this time, but beer?

    Perhaps this addition to your library might be useful. Here’s the link.

  6. It’s amazing to me that apparently paying an artist or specialist painter to create woodgrain was either cheaper than using wood with real woodgrain, or it was a status thing to have faux?

    • It was a status thing. You could afford to hire an artist. Just like all the fancy woodwork was a status thing- you could afford the milled woodwork. The stained glass was also done by artists, so the more you had, the more money you had. Victorian was all about status.

    • I believe that the polite word you are looking for when you say status thing is fashionable for the wealthy, and popular for the middle class, and don’t all Americans who aren’t wealthy think of ourselves as middle class.
      The drive to be fashionable appears to me to be a reason that styles change. Once the new fashion is less expensive because it’s been around for a while and no longer unattainable, the wealthy want something new. It is likely to me that the Cross’s had more money than they could ever want or need, but just in case, keep making more. The thing that a house like this shows is that they have more than they need.
      -Without their having to say an immodest word, their peers will know that the Cross family is at least their peers when they see the expensive grain painting. Of course, while their peers are profusely admiring it verbally, the Cross’s will be modestly denying it. The Cross’s would feel respected and admired and their peers could go home and think, “our painter did a better job”. The catty ones, or the ones who were afraid deep down that they were wrong, might let all of their “friends” know their superior thoughts.
      – The same thing is happening today in the hunt for the latest electronics. This is not necessarily even a conscious thing, its just “what is done”. It is what many will think that I am doing when writing responses like this, showing off. They could easily be right.

  7. What type of wood is used for the doors and trim in the Cross house? Was it a cheaper wood, hence the need for the faux finish? Is the faux finish trying to look like expensive wood? Just curious as to why they did it.

  8. I do not own a house, and therefore spend a lot of time daydreaming about renovating the house I am closest to owning: my in-laws’. It is a 1930s 2-story bungalow that would have been affordable at the time, so it’s sort of half-assedly Craftsman in style. It too has grain-painted woodwork throughout, which would be lovely if the builders hadn’t hired a mediocre grain-painter! At every tricky spot where two pieces of wood meet the “wood grain” trails off into sad brush marks, and the darker grain colour pools at the bottom of every vertical. It’s depressing. And orange.

    I have no idea what I’ll do with it when the time comes. The finish is too beat up in the most visible places to leave as is; the underlying wood is poplar which does not stain well and naturally varies in colour from purple to brown to white and green; spirits across the land will howl if I paint it white, no matter how many times I insist that the original finish is paint and bad paint to boot!

    Ross, your grain-painted wood is lovely and I’m glad the ugly shellac comes off with elbow-grease. Some ugly just doesn’t scrub out!

  9. I have always been on your level, regarding your school of thought on the original finish of the wood, Ross. In other houses from the 1890’s comparable size and scale to that of the cross house, (at least those that haven’t ever been chopped into a million units), you just DONT see that incredibly dark wood. Not throughout an entire house. Lighter, blonde finishes were popular choices just before the turn of the century. It has always been my option that shellac, while quite useful in some applications, is the lazy mans remedy for old wood trim that needs maintenance. Once the house started changing hands, the subsequent owners probably wanted to refresh the wood and make it look good on the cheap (much like the “fake” tile in the later bathrooms).

    Shellac covers up nicks and scratches, and instantly restores a uniform color to the wood. This would have been a great solution, between tenants. In houses that didn’t feel the wrath of the depression or a lazy landlord, those houses whose maintenance was well kept up, the woodwork didn’t need “refreshing”, as regular cleaning probably kept it looking great. And as a result of regular maintenance, today you see the original, lighter finishes, rather than that horrible, depressing, alligatored, red mahogany hue that is synonymous with excessive shellac use.

  10. The tiles in the sewing room have those same upside down (bows on top) wreaths so that must have been the way they wanted them or thought they were supposed to go. I agree they look off that way too.

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