Chemicals for Better Preservation, Part I

One thing that I have had to learn the hard way – what works on newer homes does not necessarily work on an historic building.       Rules change completely and if the incorrect product is used, pain and misery comes from needless elbow grease.      You can be foolish in your exasperation and hear the siren song of demolition and replacing.      As one local contractor was telling me, his number one source of work is replacing new stuff that is so cheap it breaks down in a short time or simply does not do the job it claims and putting in quality materials.      I don’t want to get sued so I won’t name major chains but you all know them sitting over the border in New Hampshire.      

It is better to locate the right product rather than start from new and no matter what someone tells you, it is much more expensive and takes a longer time to recoup financially when doing total replacement.

So the answer to the dilemma is to find the right product.

Let’s talk about the touchy subject of ‘stripping’.       It is one thing to use some standard paint or varnish stripper on a recent chair.     It is quite another thing to use it on ancient floors, molding, walls, furniture or exterior siding.      One, the colonials often used ‘whitewash’ rather than what we think of paint.      Skilled painters were craftsman and expensive.    To avoid the cost, those determined to protect the wood would use whitewash* coatings.   These can either crumble like sand or be as hard and yellowed as tar.     Then, later, lead was introduced into the paint as a stabilizer.     Often as not, the ratio of paint and lead was very high making the paint practically ‘liquid metal’.     Then comes varnishes that literally transform chemically into something else entirely making traditional strippers ineffective.

The old varnish can be dealt with by using a product called lacquer thinner.     Kleen-Strip is a highly recommended thinner. (      As for the ‘iron’ surfaces of paint, professionals will often burn all the layers that have accumulated.     When the Lord Timothy Dexter House caught fire during the late 80’s renovation, it was a burning torch that set the blaze after the workmen had gone.       It is not perfect but Peel Away 1 is a lot safer and doesn’t involve dangerous fumes from burning or sanding.       It is applied as a thick ‘cake frosting’ and then covered over by wax paper or the company’s own recommended sheeting.    Within a few short hours, the paint is removed often down to the original wood.      An astringent is applied to stop the process eating into the wood itself.      Common vinegar can do the same.      The wood must be allowed to dry completely and checked if any Peel Away is leaching out of the wood.     Instructions need to be followed implicitly.

Only then do you make a decision.    Do you leave the wood exposed and natural or do you paint it?     It is usually assumed that painting will occur when Peel Away has been used.    If natural wood is desired, then the burning IS the best way.       Don’t get cheap and try to ‘sand’ off the paint.    Lead particles can be inhaled leading to illness and even temporary or permanent blindness!

In Part II, I will discuss how to treat wood that will be left natural.      Usually, the biggest challenge is the floor.      Again, products that are designed for floors may not necessarily be the right choice for ancient flooring like soft pine or wood that is dense coming from primal, first growth forests.

Part of that discussion will be introducing the Wonder Chemical that has a hundred uses in the home.

-P. Preservationist

* lime (calcium hydroxide) and chalk (whiting) suspended in water, often with glue or sizing, and used like paint for whitening walls.    Whitewash tends to be soft and has a bad habit of rubbing off.   The tougher materials come when whitewash is mixed with other additives which can wreak havoc on removal.


About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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