The Cross House

Doing Battle with the Dining Room. Still.

A little over a year ago I did a post about the difficulty of restoring the trim in the dining room.

In all the other rooms of the house the many layers of shellac come off easily via denatured alcohol, revealing the original faux wood finishes.

But not in the dining room.

The trim in the room has at least two non-original layers of…something. It ain’t shellac. It ain’t varnish.


After several HOURS of work I was able to get the later finishes off one piece of trim.


As I wrote:

I still do not know what the later finishes are, and how to easily remove them. They do not really dissolve. Just constant, tedious rubbing with 0000 steel wool and denatured alcohol has, so far, been able to reveal the original finish. The later finishes do not dissolve but rather just gum up. So, rub rub rub rub rub rub ugh ugh ugh. But this is WAY too laborious and I cringe in thinking of doing the many miles of trim in the room.

There has got to be an easier way.

I have since tried numerous other solvents and nothing works. And, even with the ONE piece of trim I was able to do, the results do not look, well, good. This proved the opposite in the parlor and library, where the removal of the later shellac revealed stunning faux wood finishes which only required some minor touching up.


In the dining room, I was also able to get the later finishes off this panel, revealing the 1894 faux wood finish. But, you can see how tired and NOT wonderful the results are. Compare this to…


…the parlor trim. This was the results after removing the old, dark brown shellac. Nothing more was required. 


In the dining room, the door in the china cabinet, when open, reveals the original faux wood finish. This is lovely!


But THIS is how everything else looks. Sooooooooo depressing. I did apply some amber shellac to the vertical trim to the left, and two panels of the adjacent Lincrusta. See? This improved things…marginally.



I am so frustrated.

At the moment I have three thoughts:

  • Hire a faux artist to recreate the original nutmeg-like wood finish.
  • Just go ahead with several coats of amber shellac, after first touching up all the dings and gouges.
  • Just go ahead with several coats of tinted shellac.
  • Paint it all black!

The first will be expensive but would largely recreate the original look.

The second would be inexpensive and would improve things. Sorta.

The third is…intriguing. Shellac can also be tinted using aniline dye or alcohol-based stain. I have never done this before but think I will experiment some.

The fourth is shocking! Shocking! But it would not be hard or expensive. It could also be reversed. And it would look fabulous.


The walls and curtains will be sorta like this in the dining room, so black trim would look great.


I lean towards #3 and #4.

The former could be more easily removed than the latter, so I am eager to see how this works out.

As dramatic as the parlor is, my plans for the dining room envision it as THE most dramatic room in the house. I want people to gasp when they step into the room.

However, none of this is a priority so there is plenty of time for pondering, crazy new ideas, and more experiments.



19 Responses to Doing Battle with the Dining Room. Still.

  1. Could the finish be some sort of tinted wax? My father in law tried and tried to remove the finish on an old table he picked up somewhere, and no matter what he threw at it, it just gummed up. One day in a fit of anger he used the heat gun to “burn the damned finish off!”. And it melted clean away… Have you tried a heat gun on a very small area to see if heating it eases the agony of removal?

        • Jason, you beat me to it!!

          Ross, I had some weird finish on some trim in our kitchen that I thought was lead plating; it was SO tough, and it laughed it’s ass off at my chemical and gel strippers…but my Cobra turned it into a quivering mess that practically fell off the wood, revealing the beautifully grained wood beneath.

  2. Hi Ross,
    -In my arrogant opinion, from my experience after years of using shellac to restore antique furniture, the tinted shellac idea is a no go. In my view, tinting shellac is a method used to darken the wood when the finish is too light or slightly off on matching the color elsewhere on a piece of furniture. For example, tinted shellac might be a good solution when a part of a piece of furniture is sun-bleached. This could darken the color when a piece is being cleaned and (French) polished rather than stripped and stained anew.
    -As I have mentioned before, you might try wet sanding the surface with 320 grit wet or dry sandpaper using paint thinner as the liquid medium. Put a bit of thinner in a tuna or CAT food can. take your sandpaper and fold it in half, grit to grit, and tear. take the half and do it again, take that size and do it once more. The remaining pieces get folded in thirds, like when folding a letter. This small folded piece of sandpaper is dipped into the thinner and and thinner is spread on the surface as well. You sand until you have reached the original finish without going through it. As you work, you regularly dip the sandpaper into the thinner. The old finish that has come off floats into the thinner in the can, preventing the paper from clogging. The grit wears down pretty quickly, but the paper doesn’t clog. The look that you get when it is wet is the look that you should get when you apply shellac to the cleaned surface. You can start with 220 grit if this is too slow, but I would follow that with the 320 for the smooth surface it produces.
    – Another possibility is to paint the trim the base nutmeg color that would be used when doing a restored grain painted finish. If the trim is properly prepped it could be an effective stop gap that a grain painting artist could use, saving her, (or him), a lot of time, while saving you a lot of money. I saved a customer a bundle by consulting with the artist that was going to repaint the artistic design on a black dining set that I was repairing professionally. She told me what brand and type of paint that I needed to use. This was years ago, but I clearly remember that she advised me to do many coats of her favorite brand of oil based paint, which I needed to thin to the consistency of milk.
    -I hope that this is helpful.

  3. Ross, If I could suggest the scientific approach- I would carefully remove a small section of wood and send it off for chemical analysis. You may have made some acquaintances in the State Historic Preservation Office through the course of obtaining your grants- perhaps someone there would be willing to work with you or could point you in the right direction. Knowing what is on the wood will certainly point you in the direction of exactly what to use to remove it without damaging the faux grain below.

  4. I think Adam has a really good idea. If you could somehow get it back to the original, it would look amazing. If not, would it be out of the question to just live with the dark color? Obviously I don’t know what it looks like in person, but I don’t hate it. Perhaps just a coat of clear shellac to brighten it up a little.

  5. Having the chemical analysis is a good idea. Is it possible to just sand it and re-stain; the wood at least. Is it possible to use a liquid stripper?
    Also, please don’t paint it…any color.

  6. Could it be a Linseed Oil finish (either raw or boiled) ? Have you tried using acetone on it? The fact that the finish gummed up may be a hint to what might have been used.

    Love your blog. I’m living vicariously through you as I sit in my new build.

  7. Maybe continue to experiment with figuring out how to get down to the origional finish, even if you decide to not go that way. Simply understanding it may come in handy elsewhere in the house and then, you’ll be a step ahead. 😉
    Seeing the bit of lincrusta & trim with the amber shelac at least looks clean and a few of the high points of the detail are pulled out. That may be a better way to proceed unless the experiments produce favorable results.
    One might accept that this may have been the “origional look” for the 1890s formal dining room. Maybe this was as “dramatic” as it got, at that time. Though not exactly austere, it is dark so, the white/gray plaster, dull floor, & general dustiness does nothing to champion the complex detail. Deeply saturated color (the eggplant hue in the photo) will definitely pull out more of the trim & lincrusta highlights. And of course, the lighting will further enhance all the surfaces.
    No matter what, I have a feeling all will be yummy in the dining room. 😉

  8. I like the idea of getting an analysis done, see if they can tell you what the stuff is!

    As for a heat gun, take a piece outside, far away from anything combustible. Keep a bucket of water right next to you in case something gets too toasty. Maybe the stuff will just melt right off.

    No black paint!!!!

  9. I really hope you don’t paint it black. I think it will clash badly with the adjoining rooms finished in wood tones, and be a drastic departure from the rest of your careful millwork restoration efforts. Given the choice of black or as it currently is, I’d much prefer the dark brown current finish.

    If you are considering doing something with the current finish, but with thoughts of future restoration or re-creation of the faux-grain finish, perhaps it would be worthwhile to consult with a graining artist? They may be able to guide you towards intermediate steps or finishes that would make a better base for possible future graining work.

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