Refinishing The Wood Trim. HELP!!!!!

This post is a cry for help.

You see, I started to refinish the trim in the living room of the Cross House.

I have done this many many many times previously over the decades and have never encountered what I did the other day.

All my woodwork has an alligatored finish. And it has been pretty banged up for 120-years.

As all the walls, ceilings, windows, and floors get restored or renewed, the woodwork in the house will only look worse and worse if nothing is done.

The problem? I stripped off the alligatored varnish/shellac and the result is WAY lighter than I expected. I expected something between what WAS and what IS.

The reason that I am freaked out is that I am totally beyond my element. All the issues with the house to date — structural, HAVC, electric, exterior painting, sash restoration, etc — phases me not in the least as I have many decades of experience.

But this? EEK!

So, here is the problem:


The wood trim, to my deep surprise, appears to be cherry. An 1895 newspaper article on the house describes the adjacent library as having cheery trim. So having cherry in the living room should not, perhaps, be a surprise. But I am still surprised. And delighted!

The wood does not appear to be stained. I suspect that the varnish or shellac was.

A friend told me to try some amber shellac and see what that looks like. Even Home Depot carries this.

It may be possible, but seems unlikely, that the wood WAS as light as seen in the image. The historic house across the street has one room with almost blond bird’s eye maple and this is clearly original.

What I had been hoping for was a shade between what WAS and what IS.

There are miles of trim in the house and a zillion doors. All needs to be refinished. What I need is the LEAST time-consuming solution. I mean, if the PERFECT solution take two hours per square inch, and a pretty good solution takes 2 minutes per square inch, I am going for the latter, baby!

Anyway, there are a lot of people out there with a ton of experience regarding this issue.

And I am only too willing to accept the kindness of strangers.


  1. Alan on January 2, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    i recently ran into the same problem on some furniture, when I looked online the message boards all said one of two things. The first is to mix amber shellac with another kind of shellac, such as garnet or ruby shellac. The other way is to mix dyes into the shellac. these were the dyes that seemed to be recommended I think that the mixed shellac is most likely what was used on your woodwork, as it was very common for shops to each mix their own at the time. However I still have yet to do either. good luck

  2. meganmoss82 on January 2, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Happy New Year to you Ross!
    Tinted shellac. Welcome to my pain…
    You can try the various grades of shellac, but none of them were as dark as my original finish (a mix of cherry, qswo and faux bois). I’m playing around with transtint in the shellac, works well, but prone to blotching. Since you’re not stripping paint, try a wipe down with mineral spirits to clean the grime off, then another wipe down with denatured alcohol to re-amalgamate the finish, then one coat of shellac (clear or tinted) to refresh the finish. Remember though, shellac does naturally darken with time, plus the years of grime that are embedded in it, so you’re right, the original color is probably somewhere in between. I’d love to see a close up of your cherry woodwork, I haven’t seen much in the way of cherry trim around here.

  3. Ross on January 4, 2015 at 1:00 am

    Thanks Alan and Megan! Your comments are really helpful. I feel less doomed!!!!!!

  4. Kevin on May 13, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    If you haven’t already come across a method, do you know of the process called French Polish? It’s basically a combination of denatured alcohol and mineral oil….the alcohol dissolves the shellac while the oil keeps everything lubricated. It’s perfect for restoring the finish without removing the color/patina of the old shellac.

    • David on February 20, 2016 at 11:24 am

      I have to agree with Kevin’s method. Since it was not painted I would not strip the finish. You are losing the patina and color of the wood. You seem to be a purest and this is the best way to go.

      • Ross on February 20, 2016 at 6:04 pm

        Hi David!

        In subsequent posts on the subject the perfect answer revealed itself!

  5. Jhofffman on September 14, 2016 at 12:38 am

    Amber shellac is the bomb. When my dad lifted consecutive layers of brown, cream and green paint from his 1897 woodwork via heat gun, the original shellac made that paint bubble up and peel away like butter. The bared wood retained its original stain and all it took to make it gleam and the grain sing was a fresh, new, beautiful coat of sweet-smelling Amber shellac.

  6. christina wagner on November 7, 2016 at 8:23 am
  7. christina wagner on November 7, 2016 at 8:29 am
  8. Stewart McLean on June 16, 2017 at 8:27 am

    I am sure that I am too late to be of help, but if not, sanding with 320 grit wet or dry sandpaper lubricated with paint thinner with as many coats needed to reach the “right” look, followed by very thin coats of orange shellac, now with its name fancied up by marketing people for the plastic generation and called amber. If you want to reach that old color on stripped wood, I find that a tube of artist’s oil paint. Burnt Umber is a pure dark brown earth pigment That accentuates rather than paints the grain. I apply it with a paper towel with thinner on it. Have you made it too dark? wipe it down with plain thinner. Too light?, add more pigment. If that hides the grain, then let it dry and add another coat. If you can’t clearly see the grain, wipe it with a clean towel until you can.
    You can do it even better mixing your own shellac from shellac flakes rather than the canned stuff. Shellac does have a shelf life. There is a place called Shellac Shack,, that can teach you a lot about various types and colors of shellac available and sell it to you too. Finally you paste wax the finish when it is one coat too shiny, applying with 0000 steel and buffing like you spit and polish shoes. The wool removes any last roughness as you wax. If a coat feels rough to the touch at all, you can use the 0000 steel wool between coats. i always dust and go over any surface that I have wooled with a magnet wrapped in paper towel to remove the steel dust which will otherwise get in the finish. You can use a dampened paper towel instead of spitting, and buff with paper towels. When a clean towel slips easily on the waxed surface, you know it is buffed enough.

Leave a Comment

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