The Cross House

The Dining Room. And Why I Love Kymberly.

As y’all know, I have been struggling with the woodwork in the dining room.

In the whole house — save the dining room — the old, dark, depressing shellac is easily removed via denatured alcohol.

The results?


This. This is what is revealed under the old, dark, and depressing shellac. And once the shellac is gone, the original finish (faux-painted wood) is revealed, without requiring any additional treatment.


In the dining room however, the later finishes are not shellac. Nor are they even identifiable. The finishes are a mystery and WILL NOT COME OFF without a fight. On the right is the very dark existing condition. On the left is a piece of trim after a ton of work. WAY too much work.


It’s all been quite vexing!

I have tried all manner of noxious liquids to remove the later finishes and while the mystery finishes do come off, the amount of time involved is terrifying and the results look…blotchy.


I have become so frustrated that I even uttered THE worst words which can be uttered about an old house: Maybe I should just paint all the woodwork.

I know. I know!

A few days ago however, Kymberly suggested this: “Ammonia. Barely diluted or even straight (with caution). Cuts through the mystery layers in our circa-1900 house. Hope this helps!”



Well, what did I have to lose?


After putting on a proper face mask, I dunked some 0000 steel wool into some ammonia, and gently rubbed it along a piece of trim. Very quickly the mystery finish came off. I was gobsmacked!




AFTER. Wow. This is just after a few minutes of work. A few more minutes, and a toothbrush, would increase the wow factor.


I then moved to the Lincrusta. And noticed that the dribbles ate right through the mystery finish on the base. Without my otherwise doing anything!


So, I soaked the base and walked away for a while. When I returned, the mystery finish came off in seconds. And this is when I fell deeply in love with Kymberly.


And now, the dramatic faux graining is finally revealed!!!!!!!!


All excited, I went to work on the center panel on the china cabinet door. You can just barely see the faux graining. Wanna see the results? Scroll way down…





















ZOUNDS!!!!!!!! This is also after a single coat of amber shellac. Click to enlarge.


This was my “experiment” panel where I tried various removal methods over the last year+. After much ado the mystery finishes are now removed but the faux-finish is a bit of mess. However, I think I can repair this.


I just discovered that the faux-graining in the Cross House was done by a Richard Hughes of Topeka. Oh, how I want to time-travel and have a long talk with him!

Well, my sense of doom regarding the dining room has now been replaced by hope and excitement.

Thank you, Kymberly! BIG hug!


38 Responses to The Dining Room. And Why I Love Kymberly.

  1. I am also really glad to know the ammonia trick! I had not heard of using it for cleaning an old finish before. It is amazing how the shellac brings out the painted finish while protecting the paint.

  2. Kudos to Kymberly! I will remember the ammonia trick in case I ever need to refinish woodwork in a 100-year-old house. Which I won’t any time soon, but you never know.

  3. That’s such very good news…so happy for you. You are so blessed to have followers/friends who have the same passion!! Can’t wait for the new Dinning room pics!! Cheers

  4. Oh! This makes me so excited! I was not going to say anything on your last post about the dining room. But when you were considering paining it black I just cringed. I know it would be reversible but at the same time I was hoping you could find a solution. I am so glad Kimberly had a solution.

    Now I need to figure out how to get the paint off of my faux Bois wood throughout my house. Any suggestions?

  5. That really looks great! The faux-graining really is beautiful.

    I’m glad the consideration of black paint was short-lived.

  6. Now I want to go experiment with ammonia on all my wood work and old furniture! I never thought of ammonia for cleaning up woodwork/furniture! I guess it does stand to reason that it would work, I like the idea because I can use old tooth brushes instead of brass brushes plus I don’t have to worry about it evaporating as quickly as denatured alcohol and acetone..

  7. I’m sure you’ve mentioned this Ross, but I haven’t yet read back through the years of your posts, but why was the wood painted with a faux wood finish? I’d have thought that at the time getting wood of a good quality would have been easier than having it all painted. Was this a fashion of the time?

  8. ammonia is great for removing wax… perhaps the finish was an accumulation of way over the years, which was perhaps extra concentrated in the dining room trying to keep it looking its best. Who knows, maybe the folks who created “The Elms” used it exclusively in this room as it was the focus of their renovation efforts, and why the rest of the house didn’t receive this treatment. Thanks for the great read! Nothing more exciting than revealing woodwork!

  9. Fantastic that this worked! It looks great and wont take forever to do. Hurray no painting will take place!

  10. Fantastic to see that something finally worked. A little touching up and some shellac, and that room is going to just glow!

  11. Ammonia, that’s incredible. Glad this worked so well on the woodwork. I’ll have to try this idea. No black paint needed. This will speed things up considerably.

  12. -It may be inappropriate for me to say, (although it never stopped me before), when trying to get back to an original or earlier paint layer or finish, or the use of any other chemical on a highly visible surface, it should first be tried in an inconspicuous spot. Whether it be ammonia, paint thinner, denatured alcohol, or any other chemical it could have a disastrous result if the existing finish reacts badly to it.
    -Ross tried a wide variety of things before finding ammonia did the trick. Never assume that any chemical is the right one until you test it. I have found it to be so disappointing to ruin a finish in a conspicuous spot, which required me to redo the whole piece of (furniture in my case) by thinking that a certain treatment would do it and finding that I had ruined whatever I was working on.

  13. ROSS ROSS ROSS, I TOLD YOU ABOUT AMMONIA ABOUT A YEAR AGO. BUT PLEASE PLEASE BE CAREFUL. Why you ask because if your drips are left on BARE wood it soaks in and will not come off. I had this happen on my wood floors twice.

      • There’s a book by a guy name George Frank, who was a French furniture finisher [alliteration, huh?] It’s called Adventures in Wood Finishing, and is a great read. He used this method almost all the time.

    • Dawn!

      Yes, I just checked, and you did!

      I think what happened is: I wrote the post on 1/22/18. You left your comment a month later. By then though I was focused on something else.

      So, my bad! Absorbing your comment a year ago would have saved me a lot of frustration!

    • Thanks Dawn,
      -Your comment reminded me of a story of my early days of furniture refinishing a little over 25 years ago. Someone had told me that soaking brass hardware in ammonia would make polishing easier. I tried it on some brass overnight and it worked well. Then I started to use that method regularly.
      -I was working on a two dresser set of bedroom furniture with over 30 brass pulls. I put the pulls in ammonia to soak and forgot about them while doing the rest of the refinishing. I mean, I left them in the ammonia for at least a week. The ammonia had irreparably corroded the brass. I had to take a catalog of hardware to the customer’s house and let them select new ones, which I paid for. It cost me as much as the job was paying me. Fortunately the hardware was not antique. I never used ammonia again!

  14. Ammonia works great but it can strip old varnish right down to bare wood and the residue that comes off while your doing this can stain. It doesn’t work on everything just certain types of old varnish.

  15. Ross this is what I would do: Pour two parts ammonia to one part water in a bucket, use a rag (tee shirt type) first and take as much of the mystery crap off as you can then use the steel wool to get the grooves. Keep another bucket of clear water next to you so you can rinse out your rag after each coat. Change your rinse bucket often and wipe everything clean as you go. This will prevent over doing it as the ammonia should work quickly with little effort.

  16. I have never heard of the magic of ammonia. Kimberly rocks! So glad it works, I was rather apprehensive of the black paint direction…
    I so love the faux wood graining- Beautiful !

  17. I know that I am posting too much concerning this, but I have had success with putting dowels in a pencil sharpener for use as a tool to clean or polish detailed work such as the Lincrusta. The dowels can be sharpened to a fine point, just a little bit, leaving a flat end, or anywhere in between. You can also use wood as a scraper. Metal scrapers and steel wool can be, but is not always, too aggressive. a soft wood such as pine works well. yet you can also pound the sharpened end with a hammer to make a sort of fine brush-like scraper. I use this for polishing the detailing on brass hardware without making a scratch. The wood may be soaked in the chemical, whatever you are using, which makes it useful for both application and removal of whatever you are using.

    • Good idea! Thanks, now ya got me thinking about when I redo my rocking chair. Randy C. gave me some great tips, now you. I love this blog.

    • No your not Stewart, if over done Ammonia and steel wool will ruin the faux wood grain finish . I’m sure Ross feels that fear as much as we do.

      • Hi again, Dawn,
        – Thank you for saying that I’m not posting too much. 😀
        – I used toothpicks for years, sometimes, I still do. I also use them with a little glue to fill the hole where a screw’s threads won’t engage. Once the glue is dry, screws usually engage well.
        – I always try to get the round toothpicks because the flat ones are more fragile.
        – One problem with toothpicks is that, when they are manufactured, they are cut from the wood, and not split along the grain. This results in the grain crossing the toothpick, making them fragile enough to snap when scraping gunk out of cracks and along square edges.
        – I find that adjusting the size of the dowel’s tip by sharpening until the end is the size of the crevice makes them more versatile. Dowels can be resharpened quite often to a fresh end or point.
        – I keep sharpened dowels all over the place for other cleaning uses, like in the bath for getting the grime out from under my fingernails.

  18. Toothpicks work great for filling holes in wood to put screws in. I also use saw dust mixed with wood glue, stuff the whole, let it dry, and reuse the whole. I keep a cup of saw dust to use for just that purpose. I fixed my grandsons bedroom door hing like that and the screws are still holding two years later.

    • Yes, that’s often a quick and easy repair. It takes some caution not to introduce too much new material, which may cause splitting.

      I generally like to drill out worn holes and glue in plug made from dowel rod, then re-drill a new pilot hole after the glue has cured. It gives essentially a brand-new hole with full screw grip again.

  19. Oh Wow. I have two 1884 pocket doors I’ve been struggling to get the awful peeling “stuff” off. Excited to try this tomorrow. Thanks Kymberly and Ross.

  20. Imagine my surprise (and thrill) to realize my comment came in handy? So glad it helped.

    Ammonia is one of those old fashioned worker bee cleaning products that comes in handy far more than people give it credit for.

    Beautiful results!

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