The Cross House

Kenny. Ross. Frustrated.

When Kenny was at the Cross House last week he refinished the Round Bedroom mantel.


And the mantel back in place! MUCH better! (I have the missing blue tiles.). The cast-iron cover plate needs to be restored now! It needs stripping, and then re-plated in its original copper electroplate.


Kenny was also curious about the finish in the dining room, which is a very dark brown.


As with most of the house, all the wood retains its original faux wood finish, under many layers of later shellac. Over time, shellac turns brown. Kenny and Ross were curious: WHAT is under all the brown?


So, Kenny went to work on a section of Lincrusta. We both held our breath, waiting for the miraculous transformation as happens when denatured alcohol instantly dissolves old shellac. But, as I previously experienced with a single piece of dining room trim…nothing happened. No miracle. The brown Lincrusta stayed…brown.


Kenny then shifted to the wood panel under the window. After much ado, something happened. But this looks…poorly.


This all reconfirmed my previous experience: the dining room is going to be a problem.

In the parlor and library, it was effortless (relatively speaking) to restore the wood in each room. Ditto, so far, with the oak in the stairhall niche. Ditto ditto with the round bedroom mantel.

But the finish on the original faux wood finish of the dining room is a mystery. WHAT is is? It is not shellac. I even tried paint stripper on it but that proved no easier a solution than alcohol.

Quite vexing!

So, maybe I will just paint all the wood in the room white.

(Just kidding.)


13 Responses to Kenny. Ross. Frustrated.

  1. Oh bummer. I wonder why. You need a lincrusta expert. It’s so gorgeous it surely must have been lighter when it was new.

    The mantel piece from the round bedroom looks amazing. Can’t wait to see it all finished. Good job Kenny.

  2. Perhaps if you were to put a darker varnish over the woodwork it would disguise any inconsistencies? Dining rooms were often treated with darker finishes anyways. That is if all else fails.

  3. So help me, I’ll drive my happy ass to Kansas for the sole purpose of kicking your ass if you so much as buy a can of white paint, Mr. Ross!

    Am I kidding? Try me and find out 😉

  4. When I read the part about white paint, I actually thought you were serious! So sorry! I should have known better. It’s so strange that the shellac is so hard to remove. I remembered that there used to be wood paneling in the dining room. I thought that maybe, whoever added the paneling, might have put some sort of stain on your woodwork to match the dark paneling. Maybe it’s not shellac, but something else? I was curious so I tried to look up possibilities and ran across this sentence… “Shellac can be removed with denatured alcohol. If that doesn’t work, try lacquer thinner,” It might be worth a try.

  5. Have you been able to ascertain the original finish in the dining room? Perhaps there is an area that was originally finished, but later covered that might give some clues?

  6. If you can believe it, I have kept my mouth shut until now about the woodwork in the dining room because I have only seen pictures. It is really hard to tell what the finish is from pictures that are not taken professionally and sometimes even if they are.

    That said, I have to say that I have seen no indication that the dining room, or any of the woods that you have removed the shellac, have a faux wood grain finish on their woodwork. You have been so accustomed to having quarter sawn oak with its very straight grain and fantastic rays that you might not realize that plain sawn wood looks like the wood in the pictures. This means that when the wood was cut, the surface crosses the rings of the tree as opposed to being perpendicular to them.

    I think that your wood in the dining room could be maple, cherry, or any number of good hardwoods that are light in color. Dark stains were often applied to lighter woods to bring out the depth in the wood. One of the things that so often creates confusion is that marketing people have been using oxymoronic descriptions such as “Cherry Finish” to describe finished furniture and wood items. Cherry is a wood, it is not a finish at all, however, the color of natural aged old cherry with a good original finish seems to be what they are describing. The finishes vary, but the color is from a staining process. Pigment/stain is applied to the bare wood to make wood have the look that they are seeking. After applying stain, the color of the wood when the finish is applied will be the color seen while the stain is still wet. To achieve that color, pigment is applied and allowed to dry thoroughly between coats of stain. A coat of finish or stain applied over a coat of stain that has not thoroughly dried will pull some or all of the color out of the original stain coat.

    I have questioned the recent declarations that the Victorians liking for dark woods was a myth. I believe that dark woods were the fashion, but the processes to remove the finish are removing the color of the stain as well. All of my experience and instincts, which are certainly not infallible, tell me that what I have concluded above is the case. If a good piece of antique furniture has its original finish, usually hiding all of the grain of the wood, it is considerably more valuable. Removing the finish and bringing out the wood grains and color has always been considered an unpardonable sin by the high end dealers, collectors, and period furniture experts.

    If you can find a local expert on wood identification to look at your woodwork, I think that you will find that the dining room woodwork is a fine hardwood that was stained dark originally.

    If I am wrong, as Emily Litella played by Gilda Radnor on the original Saturday Night Live, NEVER MIND.

    • Dear Stewart,

      The Cross House does, indeed, have mostly an original faux wood finish throughout. Only the foyer and stairhall are without a faux finish, and all the mantels. However, all the wood in the house has many later layers of shellac over, and shellac DOES darken with age.

      This is easily confirmed in person because all the woodwork in the house is damaged/chipped. These areas reveal the actual, very plain, very blond, wood under the faux finish. Even in the dining room, which is a featureless blond wood under the “walnut” faux finish.

      Moroever, I have repeatedly discovered that all the finishes WERE much lighter originally. Just recently, when I removed the over-mantel to the mantel of the round bedroom, a large section of never-exposed finish was revealed. It was MUCH lighter. I showed an image of this, and you can see how the renewed finish is a close match.

      In another example, is the small laundry chute door on the second floor. The outer surface is very dark. The inner surface, which has obviously never been repeatedly shellacked, is notably lighter. I keep finding such evidence all the time.

      During the 1950s and 1960s, early Frank Lloyd Wright houses ALL had very dark interior trim. And everybody thought this is what Wright specified.

      About 15 years ago, several high-quality restorations revealed MUCH lighter original finishes than everybody had assumed. Today? Many many Wright houses have been restored and in each case careful analysis has revealed very light woodwork.

      I also think of the Sistine Chapel ceiling which was restored, to immense controversy, a while back. The ceiling was VERY dark and people across the globe were shocked at the VIVID colors exposed under countless layers of varnish and shellac.

      So, yes, I do think the idea of people in the Victorian era all liking dark wood is a myth.

      • I fully concede that there is a good possibility that your view is the correct one. Myths become the general perception if repeated often enough. Every American, and most other people in the World as well, have been seeing this in the political arena. History was mostly written by those who won the wars.

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