New Life for Old Finishes: A case history on approaches to conserving interior woodwork

January 1, 2003

Lenox, MA (January 1, 2003) —

By James Boorstein

The expression “An architect needs a good client to make a good building” applies equally well to restoration work. For a restoration project to rise above the average, it requires a good client – one knowledgeable and focused on the long- and short-term future of the house. The stewards of Edith Wharton’s 1906 home, The Mount, have gone out of their way to find craftspeople who not only know their disciplines and understand how to work with old materials, but also care about preserving them.

People who routinely come up with creative solutions to the unusual conditions and challenges of old houses are generally not the same ones who dismiss every task they see on their first walk through saying “No problem!” With old houses, no two projects are exactly alike, and in our work of conserving and restoring historic interiors, we find each repair or conservation job must be addressed on its own terms. A recent project at The Mount illustrates some of the approaches and methods we use can be applied to other old houses in the careful work of conserving historic finishes.


Starting Steps to Finishes


Old finishes on woodwork are worth preserving because they give interiors character, depth, and a sense of place in time that most new finishes can’t match. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of existing finishes on historic American woodwork can be cleaned and saved. Unfortunately, most of them are destroyed by sanding or stripping – usually due to a lack of understanding about what is possible.

When we were contacted about restoring the existing finishes in Edith Wharton’s library, my first step was to ask a lot of questions. The site, Lenox, Massachusetts, is nearly six hours round trip form our office in New York City, so I wanted to be sure that the project was right for us, and we would be the right people for them. Thought we have worked on jobs as distant as Los Angeles, traveling much beyond an hour to a job seems, if nothing else, environmentally inappropriate. Hiring contractors local to the job is often best, though sometimes you must look to another area for people with the necessary skills and expertise.

Studying photographs is a conservative way to begin. The custodians of The Mount sent good photos, which were helpful and indicated their seriousness. After a review and discussion the next step was to visit the building, have a look, and perform tests.

Senior staff finisher Kathy Weinberg and I drove up early one winter morning with a kit of soaps and solvents. With historic finishers, there is no way to know what will work and what will not until you test on site. Wharton’s library is situated in the southeast corner of The Mount, off a grand entry hallway. While painted wall finishes decorate the rest of the house, the library is paneled in oak from the floor nearly to the ceiling. The quarter-sawn white oak had a medium-brown color typical of the period. The wood-work was dirty, but not as filthy as it would be in a big city or in a smoking room after 100 years. Even better, it didn’t suffer from multiple layers of finish – a common problem. The entire room had been protected by gentle neglect. Testing solvents with cotton swabs in an inconspicuous area revealed the original finish was alcohol-soluble – a traditional shellac coating that, though firmly intact, was very thin. For the same era building, we could also expect to find another spirit-type, alcohol-based finish or an oil varnish (not alcohol soluble).

We surveyed the condition of all the walls, which helped us determine the best places to test. The ideal choice is an out of the way area, yet one with conditions typical of the rest of the room. By applying a number of different cleansers – some water based, some solvent based – we began to see what worked. Trial and error is the only way to determine what methods and materials will produce the desired results without harming the finish. Ideally one needs to come to each project with fresh eyes and an open mind, yet educated by past experiences. Rarely is the same recipe right for different buildings. Some mixtures are too strong; others surprisingly do not even lighten the dirt layer. The choice of tools, cloths, or abrasives presents another variable. At The Mount we worked with a narrow range of abrasives from cheesecloth to very fine steel wool. At the same time we experimented with the carvings. Since they had more remaining finish that the flat paneling, they cleaned up easily. Nearly all we had to do was remove a thin layer of very fine dust.

It is not necessary (or even appropriate) on the first visit to figure out the exact cleaning mix for a project, only to determine what is possible to achieve with the finish, and what types of products would be effective. The next step is to look for the problematic areas – some always exist. True to form, in the library we discovered a section of carving that was far darker than anything else. Though the carving was partially coated with a thin finish, there appeared to be no obvious explanation why it turned almost completely black over time. Soaps and basic solvents wouldn’t touch it. From past experience, we decided that a chemical paint remover would be effective to remove the dark patch. Surfaces near doors and areas exposed to sunlight or moisture always require more attention. Each case is different, but generally you cannot expect to bring a lightened area back to match unbleached surrounding wood by cleaning or otherwise “revealing” its original color. Dye or other pigmentation have to be added.

Historic photographs can help answer questions and fill in details regarding the original appearance of a room, and luckily these were available. For example, the cornice above the paneling had been painted to look like wood, but photographs indicated that originally the area was white.

By afternoon we had developed a sense of the room and selected one area with a range of typical conditions and elements to bring up to a finished look. Applying a thin coat of orange shellac over the cleaned woodwork brought it all together and back to life. We reviewed this preliminary sample with David Andersen, the hands-on project manager, who thought it looked good and right. Since David wanted the library finishes to be completed by May 2002, we decided to wait until daylight-saving time to schedule the work and take advantage of the maximum amount of natural light. Good light is essential for getting the appearance of clear finishes correct.

Logistics and Numbers

It is impossible to know exactly how long conservation work like this will take until client and contractor can establish a firm standard for the final product – one that everyone is happy with. With a solid sense of the end results desired for the room and a plan for how to get there, we took and inventory of the different areas – carved garlands, hanging carvings, paneled sections, doors, and bookcases – to better estimate the scope of the work. We investigated nearby housing and addressed the question of a crew: Who could we spare from other work, and who would be willing and able to be away from home (and the Internet) for a week or two? Kathy suggested an all-female team, which seemed perfect for the library of the first female Pulitzer Prize winner.

Back in New York, with a few days to think over the tests and visit, we prepared a proposal that included not one but several time/cost scenarios. The client understood that this kind of work is not figured by the square foot, and they knew that a single fixed price is often based on a worst-case scenario, which can end up being more expensive than simply paying for the actual hours worked. We were awarded the project. A few months later we returned to The Mount to tackle the entire library. Well prepared and with the right crew we managed to finish the work in one week, meeting the lowest of the three prices we estimated.

In the world of historic architecture, we are continually working to educate people about the importance of original finishes. The have come to be valued on antique furniture, but not yet in most architectural settings. Historic finishes are regularly obliterated based on the notion that conservation is more expensive than replacement. However, preserving an existing finish can be the more economical option. Rehabilitating existing finishes and letting some imperfections remain preserves the character of a room in a way that new finishes cannot. Sometimes it is the smallest details that touch our imaginations and bring us back to time of our grandparents and before.


James Boorstein is a principal at Traditional Line, Ltd., specialists in interior woodwork restoration (143 W.21st Street, New York, NY 10011; 212-627-3555;