May 152016
 May 15, 2016  Uncategorized 21 Responses »

When it comes to renovating old houses, some people work tirelessly to restore a house to its original state. They relish getting all of the historical details just right – stripping layer after layer of paint from original moldings, finding period-appropriate paint colors, seeking out reclaimed lumber to seamlessly patch antique floors. Others take the opposite approach, altering the architecture to create a modern home with modern conveniences – removing walls to open up the  layout, installing wall-sized windows to flood the interior with light, or adding a sleek, contemporary kitchen. And then there are those who split the difference, finding ways to add modern conveniences while preserving as much of the original architecture as possible.

Depending on the circumstances, I think each of these approaches can be appropriate, but as I’ve renovated my condo over the past three years, I’ve stuck to the third approach, doing my best to respect the building’s original architecture while adding some modern functionality. And when my neighbors and I decided to renovate the building’s entrance hall and stairwell, we decided to take this same approach.

Our first priority was improving the safety of the stairs. We decided to rebuild the staircase, replacing all of the worn treads and risers and making sure each step was even and level in the process. We chose red oak replacement treads for their durability even though the originals were pine. We also raised the handrail a few inches to bring it to a more usable height (I’m not sure why 19th century handrails are always so low – I guess people were just shorter back then?). But even as we made these major changes, we did our best to retain the spirit of the stairwell’s original architecture. We maintained the sweeping, curved shape of the staircase, and reinstalled the original newel post and handrail. We found plain balusters that approximated the originals, and we uncovered and refinished the original pine floors. Newel Post Progress As the project progressed, and the major (re)building work drew to a close, I began to focus more on the finishing details.  I had spent far more time in the stairwell after working on it for a few months than I had in the previous two years combined, and I had gained a new appreciation for the quirky “coffin corner” nook, the monolithic newel post, and the rest of the space’s original architecture. A few weeks ago, when I finished stripping the paint from the baseboard, exposing the raw pine molding for the first time in 170 years, I started thinking more and more about what the stairwell looked like all those years ago. And now that work on the entry level of the stairwell is almost complete, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of restoring as much of that original appearance as possible. Coffin Corner Progress Of course I’m only willing to take this idea so far. Several doorways in the stairwell were walled up when the building was divided into apartments, and reopening these doorways wouldn’t make much sense, since the building is no longer a single family residence. Other architectural elements, like a ceiling medallion, have been lost, if they ever existed at all, and recreating them will be somewhat speculative. And I’m not opposed to using modern materials that didn’t exist in the 1840s to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the entrance hall as it was originally designed.

Luckily, the major ornamental features of the entryway and stairwell – the original molding, the “coffin corner”, the newel posts and handrail, the plaster cornice – are mostly intact. All that remains is for me to figure out how best to present these features.

As you might have noticed in the pictures above, I’ve spent the past few weeks priming and painting the risers, the balusters, and the rest of the trim. The color is BM “Simply White.” I had planned to paint the trim white all along, but after stripping dozens of layers of paint from the baseboard, I confirmed that the final and original coat of paint was white. White trim was common in Greek Revival buildings like mine – it was meant to evoke the marble columns and facades of ancient Greek temples. But unlike the “Simply White” I chose, the original coat of paint was a creamy, yellowish white (from what I understand, true, bright white paint didn’t really exist in the mid-19th century). Even so, since the stairwell is so dark, I decided to take some interpretive license – the brighter white paint will look cleaner, and well, brighter. Here’s the freshly painted, original parlor entrance (now the front door to the parlor level apartment).

Parlor Door

But I quickly found that bright, white paint can have its downsides. The stairs are a high traffic area, and within a few days of priming and painting the risers, dark scuffs began to appear.

Scuffed Risers

This was a problem that required a modern solution in the form of crystal clear, hard-wearing, water-based polyurethane. After scrubbing off the scuffs, I added two coats of Minwax Ultimate Water-Based Floor Finish, the same poly that I used to seal the stair treads, on top of the riser’s white paint. The poly didn’t noticeably change the color of the risers, and unlike oil-based poly, it won’t yellow over time. Just as I had hoped, the new finish seems to repel scuff marks, and when it does get smudged, a quick wipe with a dry rag leaves it looking like new.

The plaster cornice, another original feature of the stairwell, is in decent shape, but needs to be patched and cleaned up. It’s a simple profile that follows the curve of the staircase. Most of it is intact, but a few small sections are cracked, or were poorly patched years ago, leaving them looking slightly lumpy, without the crisp detail of the rest of the cornice. These sections don’t look so bad from a distance, but up close, they look a little off.

Plaster Cornice

I’m planning to clean the cornice and patch it with plaster of paris where needed before caulking and painting it to match the rest of the trim.

Maybe the biggest decision left to make, in terms of how it will affect the look and feel of the entrance hall, is what color to paint the walls. I’ve been agonizing over this decision for months. I’ve been thinking about painting the walls green, or gray, or greenish gray. Last week, after priming the skim-coated walls to seal the raw joint compound, I painted patches of four sample colors on the walls in different parts of the stairwell to see how the colors looked in different lighting.

Paint Samples Landing

Paint Samples Entrance

The colors, from left to right, are Nantucket Gray, Horizon Gray, Revere Pewter, and Edgecomb Gray, all Benjamin Moore. Since the stairwell walls have been plastered over many times, it’s impossible to know what color they were originally painted. But earth tone paints were gaining in popularity around when my building was constructed, so it seems like a brown, gray, or green color would complement the architecture. And since the space is so dark, and the ceilings are so high, I’m hoping that a mid-tone wall color will make the space feel more welcoming. Of the four colors I’ve tried so far, I think Nantucket Gray is too dark, and Edgecomb Gray is too yellow, but I’m torn between Revere Pewter, which is a warm gray, and Horizon Gray, which has green undertones. My neighbors are more or less indifferent about the paint color, so it falls to me to make the final decision, but I’m open to advice!

Apr 202016
 April 20, 2016  Living Room 8 Responses »

living room doorway view 2This past weekend I took a break from working on the stairwell to put the finishing touches on the built-in hutch in the living room. I thought the built-in was finished months ago, but a few weeks after it was installed, resin from the pine casing and drawer fronts began to leach into the white painted finish, discoloring it. It was just a faint yellow streak here and there at first, but after 9 months, the discoloration had spread and darkened. I finally primed the built-in with stain-blocking B-I-N shellac primer and repainted the whole thing last weekend. While I was painting, I realized that the last time I wrote a post about the living room, it was a mostly-empty space filled with left-over materials from the kitchen renovation. A lot has changed since then, and a living room update is long overdue.

Living Room Under Construction

Living Room Under Construction

Just a quick reminder before we get started – this room was a complete disaster when I first moved in. Here it is just a few weeks before I bought the place. Chunks of plaster were missing from the wall, some of the walls were covered in textured wall paper, and the maple floors were beat up beyond recognition. My contractor, Gregg, patched and skim coated the walls, and cleaned up and painted the molding, and brought this room back from the dead.

Three years later, the living room has turned out to be my favorite room in the condo. It’s a huge space (by Boston apartment standards, anyway) and it’s chock full of stately Greek Revival architectural details – chunky, column-like casing around the windows and doors, 10-foot ceilings, a monumental marble mantel with a cast iron fireback depicting pastoral scenes, and original, sweeping bow-front windows. Back in the 1840s when the building was completed as a single family townhouse, this would have been one of the most formal rooms in the house. And lucky for me, a lot of this formal architecture was preserved. Furnishing and decorating this room was  pretty easy – the room’s architecture does most of the heavy lifting here. Even so, it’s come a long way over the past three years.

living room doorway view

This is the view of the living room as you enter from the dining room. When I first moved in, the pair of closets  flanking the mini hallway that connects these two rooms had unfinished louvered doors, which looked completely out of place (and collected a shocking amount of dust). I replaced the louvered doors with two pairs of solid, single panel doors. Now this little hallway fits right in with the living room’s elegant casing and trim.

living room builtin

The new built-in is immediately to the left when you walk into the room. The built-in brought some balance to what was an awkward, empty corner of the room, and at the same time added some much-needed storage and functionality to the space. We hung the tv on an articulated wall mount, which allows us to angle it into the room when we’re using it, and to leave it hidden away in the corner when it’s not in use. I found a set of antique drawer pulls from the 1870s on eBay for the unit’s four lower drawers. The style of the pulls is a little more extravagant than the rest of the room’s austere architecture, but they add some interest to the otherwise boxy built-in.

drawer pull

living room stairwell door

There’s a door to the common stairwell directly opposite the built-in. The size, shape, and style of the built-in reflect this doorway, bringing another line of symmetry to the space. We bought the barrister bookcase on the last day of the Brimfield Antique Show last fall.

living room corner

Working our way around the room, we come to the marble fireplace. This is the focal point of the entire room — even though the fireplace is non-functional (the chimney masonry is degraded), it’s hard to miss this giant chunk of carved marble in the center of the room.

living room mantel

We arranged the seating area around the fireplace, with the sofa facing the mantel. We didn’t want to hang the tv over the fireplace, but clearly something needed to go there. We eventually settled on this print of a seascape collage by Matthew Cussick. The entire image is made of cut-out pieces of old maps and charts. It seemed appropriate since we live right next to the harbor.

living room print closeup

living room seating

For a while we thought about creating an L-shaped seating area with the sofa and a love seat. This is a big room – the carpet in the center is 9×7 feet to give you a sense of scale – and it could easily accommodate a love seat/sofa set up. But after years of living in cramped apartments, we really enjoyed  all of the open space. So instead, we decided to get a small armchair and an end table to fill in the short side of the L-shaped seating area, leaving plenty of empty space around the furniture. We also chose an arm chair and sofa with low backs that wouldn’t block the bow-front windows at the back of the room.

living room bow frontAnd speaking of the bow-front, we also decided to leave it mostly open. The small drop-leaf table is from an antique mall in Worcester. It looks like it was hand-made and probably dates from the mid-19th century. It’s the only piece of furniture in the room that’s close to the same age as the building, and it looks right at home between the two bow-front windows.

living room door

So that’s it, the current state of the living room. It feels like the most put-together room in the condo, and it’s become one of our favorite places to spend time at home. I’ll be back next time with an update on progress in the stairwell, where things are finally starting to come together.

Mar 252016
 March 25, 2016  Uncategorized 10 Responses »

In just under two months it will have been one year since we began renovating the stairwell, and I’ve decided that this renovation anniversary will be the unofficial deadline for finishing all major work in the stairwell. The end is in sight, and I’m hoping that setting an arbitrary deadline will help motivate me to plow through the remaining work rather than dragging things out for months and months. The problem is that the stairwell is separated from my main living space, so I haven’t viewed this renovation with the same sense of urgency that I’ve felt when renovating the interior of my condo. I only spend a few minutes in the stairwell each day, walking to and from the front door, and it’s been all too easy to live with the stairwell in a semi-finished state. Even though my neighbors and I have more or less ignored the stairwell as we’ve come and gone from our condos over the past year, I know that restoring the building’s entryway to its former grandeur will make coming home and walking through the front door immensely more enjoyable. So I’ve given myself just under two months to finish skim coating, sanding, priming, and painting just about every surface in the stairwell.

For the past few weeks I’ve been slogging through all of the prep work that needs to happen before painting can begin. It’s a hodgepodge of unsatisfying work that hasn’t made a noticeable impact on the appearance of the stairwell, which is partly why I’ve been putting off writing this update for so long. A few weeks ago, I thought I was almost finished skim coating the walls and ceilings, but then I reached the ceiling between the second and third floors and things slowed down considerably. This ceiling originally followed the gentle curve of the stairs, but a series of renovations on the third floor have left it looking like an M.C. Escher print. It’s composed of a series of seemingly disjointed bump-outs and sloped sections, all of which add up to a lot of awkward surface area to skim coat.

stairwell ceiling

After working on it off and on for two weeks, I managed to cover this section of ceiling in two smooth coats of joint compound. Some fairly serious cracks had formed in the ceiling over the years, so I covered them in fiberglass mesh tape before skim coating. The corners where the ceiling meets the walls (or in some cases where the ceiling meets another section of ceiling) had never been taped, and were defined by jagged, cracked plaster. I used paper drywall tape to make the corners look clean and sharp.

Only a few small sections of the old textured plaster remain on the walls and ceiling between the second and third floors, but a few weeks ago, I became so bored with skim coating that I decided to move on to painting the trim on the first flight of stairs. I’ll eventually finish skim coating, but freshly painted trim will make a huge difference in the appearance of the stairwell, and it’ll be nice to mark my progress with a visible improvement.

But before I could start painting, I needed to patch, caulk, and prime the trim. You might remember that I uncovered some large cracks in the curved section of the baseboard after removing dozens of layers of old paint.

split baseboard 2

I used WoodEpox, an epoxy-based wood filler to fill these cracks. WoodEpox isn’t the cheapest wood filler out there, but I decided to use it here since I was filling fairly large cracks, and it’s supposedly one of the most durable wood fillers available. It’s a two-part epoxy, and it’s straightforward to use. While wearing gloves, I grabbed a handful of each component and mashed them together until the mixture reached a uniform, dough-like consistency. Then I pressed the filler into the cracks and smoothed it out. 24 hours later, the filler had dried, and I sanded it until it was flush with the surrounding baseboard.

patched baseboard

Next, I caulked around the baseboard, the risers, and the edges of the stair treads. Since the treads are stained and sealed, I used blue painters’ tape to get a sharp caulk line. Putting a strip of painters’ tape along the edge of the tread before applying caulk, and then removing the tape before the caulk dries, prevents caulk from getting smeared all over the new tread. The process looked like this:

caulking tread 1

caulking tread 2

caulking tread 3

caulking tread 4

Here’s the first flight of stairs with all of the trim caulked – check out the sharp lines between the treads and the baseboard.

caulked stair treads

All of the trim on the first flight of stairs – the baseboard, the risers, and the balusters – are now ready for paint. Next time I’ll actually finishing painting the trim, and a small section of the stairwell will actually be finished.

stairwell trim primed

Feb 052016
 February 5, 2016  Uncategorized 15 Responses »

stripping the baseboard

When we left off last time, I had just covered the most visible baseboard in the stairwell – the one that curves along the wall, following the first flight of stairs – in a thick layer of a pH-based paint stripping paste called Peel Away. Two days later, I was scraping the paste off the baseboard, and at first, everything seemed to be going according to plan. The stripping paste had started out with a frosting-like consistency, but after sitting on the baseboard for 48 hours, it had absorbed some of the old paint and begun to dry out and was now the consistency of damp cardboard. When I slid a plastic scraper under the edge of the wax-paper-covered paste, it came away easily, pulling multiple layers of old, softened paint with it. As the first sheet of stripping paste fell away, I peeked behind it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the raw wood baseboard for the first time in nearly 170 years. But instead, I saw a pitted, mottled patch of green-brown paint.

For a moment I wondered whether the baseboard was composed entirely of layer upon layer of old, crusty paint. Maybe I’d never reach the underlying wood. I pushed the thought aside and went back to scraping away the stripping paste. The paste slid off the baseboard easily, but it left behind a slimy, brown residue that needed to be cleaned off. As I rinsed the residue away with clean water and blotted it with paper towels, I noticed a little patch of wood grain, and then another, and another. There was an archipelago of tiny wood grain islands spread across the cleaned section of baseboard where, for whatever reason, the stripper had managed to eat through all of the old paint.

It was reassuring to have broken through to the underlying wood, even if only in a few spots, but it didn’t change the fact that most of the baseboard was still covered in three coats of paint – the same tenacious three coats of paint that I was left with last time, after testing the Peel Away stripper on a small section of baseboard. The Peel Away instructions specified that the stripping paste shouldn’t be left for more than 48 hours, otherwise it might dry out completely, making it nearly impossible to remove. Since I was about to exceed the 48 hour limit, there was only one thing to do: scrape all of the Peel Away paste off the baseboard, and figure out what to do about the left over layers of paint later. A few hours later, all of the stripping paste was gone, and the baseboard looked terrible. From a distance it had a shaggy, almost mossy appearance thanks to the layers of olive green and dark brown paint I’d exposed. It was unappealing to say the least.

partially stripped baseboard

I thought about giving up and just painting over those final three coats of old paint, but the surface of the baseboard was pitted and uneven, and after everything it wouldn’t look much different than when I started. No, I’d come this far, I told myself, and I owed it to myself and this baseboard to remove those last few layers of paint and restore the baseboard to its former splendor. I left the baseboard to dry out overnight, and the next day, I covered it in a fresh layer of Peel Away stripping paste.

Coating the baseboard in stripper went faster this time. I precut trapezoids of wax paper to fit over each section of baseboard, which sped up the entire process once I began spreading the Peel Away paste. As I worked my way up the stairs, I fell into a rhythm: slather stripping paste over a section of baseboard, smooth a sheet of wax paper over the top, move up a step, and repeat.

baseboard peel away

24 hours later, I went back and once again scraped a spongy, homogeneous layer of wax paper, stripping paste, and old paint off the baseboard. This time, I uncovered big expanses of raw wood with just a few stubborn patches of paint left behind. Like the rest of the wood originally used in the building, it was tight-grained yellow pine. And as I uncovered more and more of this antique pine, I thought about how amazing it is that no one had seen the baseboard in this raw, unfinished state since it was installed sometime in the 1840s. I began to imagine the stairwell as it must have been when construction drew to a close almost 170 years ago, with plasterers putting the finishing touches on the walls and crown moulding, and painters adding the first coat of white paint to the trim.

stripped baseboard 2

stripped baseboard

These thoughts were interrupted as I began to notice that the second-to-last coat of paint, a thick dark brown layer, had made a huge mess. Unlike the other layers of paint, it had completely liquefied under the stripping paste, and some of this dark brown liquid had dribbled down the baseboard and pooled along the edge of the stair treads. I’d guess that this dark brown layer was a faux bois, or fake wood grain, treatment dating from the late 1800s when the entire building was renovated and an addition was added off the back. Dark wood trim was in at the time, and those who couldn’t afford hardwood trim often used layers of paint and varnish to create a faux wood finish to cover inexpensive pine trim.

But this faux finish was now a pool of dark brown liquid slowly seeping into my newly finished stair treads. I wished I had stripped the baseboard before finishing the treads, but since I had to coordinate with the neighbors to finish the treads, the timing hadn’t worked out. And now, even though I had taped off the treads with plastic sheets and painters’ tape, some of the dissolved finish had worked its way under the plastic. I wiped it up with paper towels, and most of it came up without any trouble, but in a few spots, it left behind dark brown stains on the treads. The stains are small and aren’t very noticeable, so for now, I’m planning to leave them alone. Here’s a close-up of the biggest stain.

stained tread

Once all of the stripping paste and paint was gone, I could see that the curved section of the baseboard had split in several places. This part of the baseboard is made up of 1/4-inch thick boards bent into place. These boards may have been installed when the wood was still green, or they may have been steamed before they were installed to make them more flexible. But either way, this wood has been under constant tension ever since, and as it dried out over time, it split and cracked. But these cracks should be easy to hide with some wood filler and paint.

split baseboard

split baseboard 2

Since Peel Away relies on very high pH to eat through old paint, the stripped baseboard needed to be neutralized before it could be repainted. The next day I dissolved the packet of citric acid that came with the bucket of Peel Away in a water spray bottle and soaked the baseboard with the resulting acidic solution. I waited for the baseboard to dry out and then sprayed it with the citric acid solution a second time for good measure. The Peel Away also came with some handy pH paper, which showed that the baseboard had reached pH 8 – close enough to neutral according to the instructions.

After letting the baseboard dry out overnight, I primed it with Zinnser B-I-N, a shellac primer. Shellac is great at stopping stains and raw wood resin from seeping through a top coat of paint. I’m not sure that there’s much resin left in the pine baseboard after 165 years, but better safe than sorry. (Fun fact: shellac is made of lac bug secretions that  are scraped off the tree branches where the bugs live and dissolved in ethanol to make primer, which helps to explain why shellac primer costs twice as much as other primers.) Next up, wood filler, caulk, and finally, paint.

primed baseboard

The experience of stripping paint was messy and frustrating, but at the same time it was some of the most satisfying work I’ve done in the stairwell. I’m left with mixed feelings. I simultaneously never want to strip paint again, and want to strip all of the trim in the entire building.

Jan 272016
 January 27, 2016  Uncategorized 14 Responses »

The day after Mara and I finished putting the last coat of polyurethane on the new stair treads, I walked through the front door and paused to admire our work. The treads looked great – smooth and flat with a subtle glowing sheen. But my attention was inevitably drawn to the baseboard that runs along the wall adjacent to the stairs. Now that the treads were clean and new, the baseboard looked like a pile of crap in comparison. Over the past 160 years, it had been slathered in coat after coat of thick, drippy paint, and now the top few layers of paint were cracked, chipped, and bubbling. Here’s a picture of the baseboard taken last year, before we began renovating the stairwell. Unfortunately, it still looked like this at the beginning of last week.

stair trim

I’d been putting off dealing with the baseboard for months. Even setting aside the obvious aesthetic issues, I knew that the existing paint on the baseboard was too degraded to simply paint over it. If it weren’t covered in countless layers of lead paint, I could scrape off the old, loose paint and add a coat of fresh paint. But since lead paint is poisonous, scraping or sanding it isn’t a good idea, particularly with a toddler living in the building. On the other hand, doing nothing wasn’t a great option either since lead paint chips were flaking off the baseboard at an alarming rate. The only real solution was to remove all of the old paint using a wet, chemical stripping method, which would avoid spreading lead dust and paint chips all over the stairwell.

If you’ve ever tried to strip paint from old trim or doors, you know it’s a long, messy slog. There are a few different ways to go about stripping paint, each with advantages and disadvantages, but they all come down to finding a way to dissolve multiple layers of old paint. And since paint is specifically designed not to dissolve under normal conditions – if you could remove dried paint with soap and water it wouldn’t be very good paint – this is no easy task. I’m a chemist by profession, so I thought a lot about the chemistry of paint strippers as I researched different ways to remove the old paint from the baseboard. (A word of warning before we go on, if you’d rather watch paint dry than read about paint stripper chemistry, you might want to skip down a few paragraphs.)

The most obvious way to dissolve something is to find the right solvent, and for paint, that usually means methylene chloride. Methylene chloride-based paint strippers work really well – I’ve successfully used them to strip furniture in the past – but unfortunately, methylene chloride boils around 100 ºF (40 ºC), which means it releases a lot of fumes, even at room temperature. It also has a nasty habit of eating through latex and nitrile gloves; you need special PVA-coated gloves, which aren’t readily available at most stores. Even worse, the EPA classifies methylene chloride as a probable carcinogen. And even worse still, it’s also acutely toxic – without good ventilation, it’s possible to inhale a dangerous amount of methylene chloride vapor without realizing it (most construction masks don’t block solvent vapor). There have been a number of terrible, tragic cases of people dying while using methylene chloride based paint stripper indoors. (Seriously, don’t use methylene chloride strippers indoors.) For this reason alone, I ruled out using methylene chloride to strip the baseboard.

Another common way to dissolve something is to heat it up. If you’ve ever made simple syrup, you know that you can dissolve a lot of sugar in a small amount of water if you boil the water first. The same goes for paint. Heat guns, which are sort of like really high-powered hair dryers, are commonly used to heat old paint until it begins to melt and bubble away from the underlying wood, at which point it can be scraped away before it cools and re-solidifies. Heat guns make it easier to scrape off old paint, but, in the end, you still have to manually scrape off all of the paint. Plus, heat guns are apparently something of a fire hazard. They get hot enough that they can ignite embers, which sometimes smolder unseen in the crevices of wood trim or clapboards for hours before sparking a full blown house fire.

heat gun

I actually own a heat gun – I used it to remove old window glazing putty – and I thought about using it to strip the baseboard, but in the end, I found a safer, easier method: a pH-based stripper. When you brush water at a neutral pH on old paint, nothing happens. But if you up the pH of the water a lot, making it highly basic/alkaline, it begins to eat away at the paint. The alkaline water actually reacts with the paint on a molecular level, liquefying it by breaking it down into smaller bits that dissolve in water.

One of the few commercially available pH-based strippers is a product called Peel Away 1. It’s essentially a water-based sodium hydroxide paste, so it doesn’t produce any fumes and shouldn’t have much of an odor. It has the consistency of butter cream frosting, which means it sticks to vertical surfaces, unlike most chemical strippers – a definite plus given that the baseboard is decidedly vertical. And at $34 a gallon it doesn’t break the bank. I decided to give it a try.

peel away

I cracked open the bucket and read through the instruction pamphlet inside. Slather a thick layer of stripping paste on the painted surface using a plastic spatula, cover it with the included wax paper, wait 24 to 48 hours, and scrape off the wax paper, stripping paste, and old paint in one easy sheet. Wash off the residue with water, let everything dry out overnight, and neutralize the stripped wood with the included citric acid. Seemed easy enough. I started with a test patch on the baseboard at the bottom of the stairs.

As I started spreading the paste on the baseboard, it seemed to have a thinner, drippier consistency than I expected. It was hard to apply a thick layer of paste without it beginning to dribble down toward the floor. Eventually I realized what was going on. I had bought the bucket of Peel Away about six months earlier and was only now getting around to using it. The Peel Away paste is mostly sodium hydroxide, and sodium hydroxide is hydroscopic, meaning it has a habit of pulling water vapor out of the air. In fact, it’s so hydroscopic that it deliquesces, pulling so much water from the air that it begins to dissolve into a soupy mixture. In the 6 months since I bought it, it seemed that the Peel Away paste had absorbed enough water that it had thinned itself out. I did my best to apply the now soupy paste to the baseboard, covered it with wax paper and left it for 24 hours.

The next day, I slid a plastic spatula behind the wax paper and paste, which had dried out and firmed up, and the whole mess sloughed off in one piece, as advertised. I was left with this.

peel away test

Unfortunately, there were at least three layers of old paint left behind. The soupy Peel Away must have been too thin to eat through the last of the paint. But these three layers of paint were interesting in their own right. Who knew that the stairwell trim was olive green at one point, and dark brown (faux wood finish?) before that? Since I’ve already begun painting the stairwell trim white, I was relieved to find that the original paint color was also white. It would be disappointing to go through all of the trouble of removing a century-and-a-half’s worth of paint and restoring the baseboard to it’s original splendor only to find that the building’s architect had originally intended for the trim to be painted green or dark brown.

Since my old, thinned-out Peel Away didn’t seem to be cutting it, I went back to the paint store and picked up a fresh bucket. The consistency of the fresh paste was much pastier, similar to joint compound. Rather than re-testing the fresh stripper on a small patch of baseboard, I just decided to go for it and coated the entire thing in a thick layer of paste.

peel away paste

Will the original wood surface of the baseboard see the light of day for the first time in 160 years? Or will I be left with a mess of old, splotchy, half-stripped paint? Tune in next time to find out what happens when I scrape off the Peel Away.

stripping the baseboard

Jan 152016
 January 15, 2016  Uncategorized 13 Responses »

My upstairs neighbor and I spent the first Saturday night of 2016 staining stair treads. For the past few weeks, the stairs had been covered in red rosin paper and painters’ tape to protect the newly-installed, raw-wood treads. Since our contractor, Gregg, covered up each tread after installing it, neither my neighbor or I had actually seen the rebuilt staircase in its entirety. As we tore away the paper to prepare the treads for stain, the finished staircase emerged, step by step, for the first time. It was like unwrapping one last belated Christmas present.

new stair treads revealed

Standing there looking at a whole flight of clean, flat, uniform treads, it suddenly felt like we had reached the beginning of the end of this stairwell renovation. After taking a minute to admire the new treads, we got to work staining them.

Finding a time to stain and seal the stairs took more planning than you might expect. The stairs provide primary access to my second-floor condo as well as my neighbor’s condo on the top floor, so we wanted to find a way to finish the treads without leaving the stairs impassable for days on end. My first thought was to finish every other step, which would allow us to use the stairs, taking two steps at a time, while the stain and polyurethane dried. Once the first set of treads were dry, we could go back and finish the remaining treads. It seemed like a good idea until we remembered that one of my upstairs neighbors is two years old and probably won’t be taking stairs two at a time anytime soon.

If we couldn’t finish the stair treads gradually, in phases, maybe we could finish them all at once, as quickly as possible. I started looking for fast-drying stain and polyurethane and found Varathane stain and Minwax Ultimate Polyurethane for floors. Both products are well-reviewed with dry times of 1 hour for the stain and 2 hours for the polyurethane – fast enough that we could apply a coat of stain or poly in the evening after everyone is home for the night and safely walk on the stairs in socks the following morning.

Once the rosin paper was out of the way, my neighbor and I sanded each tread with extra fine, 180-grit sanding sponges. (The treads came pre-sanded, but the stain instructions recommended sanding with extra fine grit paper before staining to help the wood absorb the stain evenly.) Thirty minutes later we were left with sore arms and two flights of silky smooth stair treads.

Finally, after wiping away the sawdust with tack cloths, we actually started applying the stain. We worked quickly and didn’t worry too much about getting excess stain on the risers, balusters, and baseboard, since all of these surfaces will be primed and painted later. The Varathane stain soaked into the wood faster than the Minwax stains I’ve used in the past – we only had to leave the stain on for three minutes before wiping away the excess.

stair staining in progress

Before we started staining the treads, I spent a few days testing stain colors on some of the scrap cut-offs that were left over from the tread installation. At first I wanted to stain the treads to match the handrail and newel post, which, as far as I can tell, are made from American black walnut. I tried Minwax “dark walnut” stain, but it ended up looking too dark and lacked the warm red undertones of the real walnut.

Eventually I came across Varathane “American walnut” stain, which was a much warmer dark brown. I sanded and stained a section of scrap wood, and brought it upstairs from the cellar to compare it to the handrail. The stain left the wood slightly lighter than the walnut handrail, although the color was about right. But then I noticed that the stained scrap wood was a pretty close match for the stairwell’s original pine flooring, which is a medium amber color. I decided that matching the treads to the floors actually makes a lot of sense, so we went ahead with “American walnut.”

It took about an hour and a half for my neighbor and I to each work our way down a flight of stairs, applying stain to each tread and wiping off the excess as we went. But when we were done, the staircase was transformed.

Freshly stained treads

Stained Treads

After looking at dusty, paper-covered stairs for so long, the freshly stained treads were an enormous improvement.

The next morning, the stain seemed to be fully cured. As we walked downstairs in our socks, carrying our shoes, our feet didn’t stick to the treads, and we didn’t leave a trail of linty footprints behind; so mission accomplished.

Finished Stair Treads 2

Mara and I spent the next three evenings sealing the treads with polyurethane. Each night we worked our way down the two flights of stairs, wiping away dust with tack cloths and applying poly with foam brushes. The Minwax Ultimate floor polyurethane that we used is water-based, so it dried faster and didn’t smell as much as oil-based poly. And it’s supposed to be just as durable. Hopefully three coats of poly will hold up for a while, but the stairs are a high-traffic area, so realistically, we’ll probably need to sand and put another coat of poly on the treads every year or two. And since the original floors are already scuffed and scarred, a little wear and tear on the stair treads will only help them blend in.

Finished Stair Treads

With the treads done, the stairwell is finally coming together. I’m excited to get this project done – I’m looking forward to coming home and walking upstairs through a clean, finished space.

Dec 222015
 December 22, 2015  Uncategorized 1 Response »

When I set out to skim coat the stairwell walls, it seemed like a massive undertaking. I figured I’d be working at it for the rest of the winter. But now, a mere 4 weeks and 5 buckets of joint compound later, I’ve finished skim coating the walls and have moved on to the ceiling.

skim coated stairwell

I’d like to think that the skim coating went faster than expected because I’ve gotten so much better at it over the course of this project – I can now cover a large area with a fairly smooth coat of joint compound without fussing over it too much. Or maybe things went faster just because I used a larger drywall knife (14″)  than I’ve used in the past. Either way, skim coating is tedious, messy work, so I’m glad the finish line is within sight. All that remains on the entryway floor is the ceiling, which, given the narrowness of the stairwell, covers much less surface area than the walls. Of course, the walls downstairs in the laundry area also need to be skim coated. But I’ve decided to take this project one floor at a time.

skim coating in progress

A week or two ago I took a break from skim coating the walls to finish patching the gaps along the sides of the stair treads (I, essentially, took a break from skim coating walls to skim coat the side of the staircase). If you’ve been following along, you might remember that shimming and leveling the new stair treads left some substantial gaps below the edges of the treads.

Stairwell Cove Mouldling

I used high density spray foam – the same stuff that’s used to insulate windows and doors – to fill these gaps. After spraying foam into each gap, the stairs looked like this:

spray foam stairs

Spray foam expands quite a bit as it dries, so I was left with a lot of excess foam stuck to the sides of the stairs. I used an oscillating saw to trim the excess foam, leaving the remaining foam flush with the side of the staircase.

spray foam trimmed

Now that the gaps were filled with foam and flush with the surrounding woodwork, I covered over the whole mess with a coat of joint compound to smooth everything out and hide the patched areas.

stairs patched gaps

After another coat of joint compound, some sanding, priming, and painting, no one will ever know that the edges of the new treads are two or three inches higher than the original treads. The entire process took me an hour or two, much faster than the time it would have taken to patch in the gaps with thin pieces of wood to match the surrounding trim.

This past weekend, after putting the final coat of joint compound on the wall, I decided to replace the wall sconces in the stairwell. The existing sconces weren’t anything special – they were really just glass cylinders mounted  on a steel back plate – and they didn’t fit with the rest of the stairwell’s mid-19th century look. I’d guess the sconces were installed around the same time that the textured plaster treatment was added to the walls, probably in the 50s or 60s.

I picked up a pair of new sconces at Home Depot. They’re not showstoppers, but they’ll get the job done. And at $17 apiece, the price was right. Installation was pretty straightforward once I found the circuit breaker in the cellar that controls the stairwell lights.

new sconce

Next up, skim coating the ceiling! Then I’ll go back and sand and touch up the walls and ceilings. And then it’s on to some actual finishing details like staining and sealing the stair treads and painting everything else.

Nov 162015
 November 16, 2015  Uncategorized 10 Responses »

Skim Coating Progress

The stairwell walls, I think, are the single worst feature of my building’s common space. It took me a while to reach this conclusion. The first time I walked through the front door and into the  stairwell, I noticed that the space looked kind of dumpy, but I didn’t really take note of the walls. It wasn’t until after I’d lived here for a while, walking up and down the stairs, day in and day out, that I began to notice just how depressing the walls are.

The current textured plaster

They’re coated in a thick layer of lumpy, textured plaster that resembles the interior of a mineshaft crudely hacked through solid bedrock (the narrow space and lack of natural light only add to the effect). Whether this plaster treatment was applied as a conscious aesthetic choice, or as a short-cut to avoid the work of smoothing out a new coat of plaster, I’ll never know. All of the lumps and ridges along the walls create little shelves, some as deep as a quarter-inch, where dust collects, darkening the horizontal surfaces and further highlighting the wall’s random chunkiness. Even after cleaning the walls, they never really look clean. And as a backdrop to the stairwell’s architecture – the graceful, curved banister, the stately newel post, the high ceilings and plaster crown molding – the textured walls look completely out of place.

Clearly something needed to be done. And that something, I eventually realized, would involve skim coating all of the stairwell walls. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of plaster repair, skim coating is the process of applying a thin finish coat of plaster (or in my case, joint compound) to a wall or ceiling. Fixing cracked and damaged plaster and skim coating over the repair seems to be a never-ending endeavor in a lot of old houses – as soon as you’ve patched a section of plaster, you notice another little crack somewhere else, and you have to go through the whole process all over again.

Needless to say, I’ve done my fair share of skim coating since buying the condo. My first experience with the technique came after I repaired the falling-down plaster walls in the bedroom. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it took me months to finish the walls. Since then, I’ve also skim coated sections of the dining room walls, including the entire fireplace surround, and, more recently, I repaired and skim coated the ceiling in the common laundry area on the ground floor. With each new project, I’ve become a little more confident, and a little faster.

Even so, I’ve been dreading skim coating the stairwell walls. It’s such a huge area that it seemed like an insurmountable task. To try to speed things up, I bought the biggest drywall taping knife I could find (14 inches), which I hoped would allow me to cover more area with each swipe of the knife.

The one redeeming quality of the stairwell walls is that they’re really solid and don’t have any cracks, which meant I didn’t have to do any repair or prep work, aside from cleaning the walls,  before jumping into skim coating. So last weekend, I downloaded a bunch of podcasts on my phone, lugged a bucket of joint compound upstairs from the cellar, and got down to business.

Skim coating is one of those DIY projects that sounds more intimidating than it actually is. It takes some practice to really get the hang of it, but it’s also very forgiving – if you mess up, you can always fix your mistake by sanding or adding another coat once the joint compound is dry. Here are the tools I use to skim coat:

Skim Coating Tools

A large drywall taping knife, a small drywall taping knife (used to load the larger knife with joint compound), and a squeegee “Magic” trowel. There are different tools and techniques that can be used for skim coating, but here’s what’s worked for me: once I load up the large drywall knife with joint compound, I smear it across the wall, and then make a second pass with the drywall knife, holding it at a steeper angle to smooth out and evenly distribute the joint compound. Once I’ve covered a section of wall with joint compound, I use the squeegee trowel to smooth it out before the joint compound starts to dry.

I was surprised at how quickly this work went. I covered the stairwell’s largest wall with the first coat of joint compound over the course of a few hours spread over two days. Here’s the wall partway through the first coat.

Skim Coat First Coat

After the first coat, the wall still looked pretty lumpy, so I went back over with a second coat the following weekend. After a second coat, the lumpiness had pretty much disappeared, and the entire stairwell has started to look better. Even the color of the raw joint compound is an improvement over the old, dirty-looking paint.

After the second coat

With this wall done, I’ve probably covered about half of the total wall surface area in the stairwell. So I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to finish all of the skim coating work, including the ceilings, within a few weeks.

Finished Wall

Finished skim coat

One wall down, two to go.

Oct 212015
 October 21, 2015  Uncategorized 15 Responses »


Work on the stairwell has reached a point where it’s possible to imagine the finished space. Gregg is almost done with major construction work, and I’ve started to think about finishing details. Should we hang a mirror by the front door? Do we need an umbrella stand? What kind of runner should we get? And especially, what color should we paint the walls? Of course, there’s still a ton of work left to do (not least skim coating all of the walls in the stairwell) and thinking about this kind of stuff is really just a form of procrastination. But with that said, let’s indulge in some procrastination, shall we?

As you may have noticed after looking at countless poorly-lit photos of the stairwell, the space doesn’t get much natural light, which makes choosing a paint color for the stairwell walls tricky. Ideally, the wall color would look good in artificial light and strong shadows. Since the space is so dark, my first impulse was to brighten it up by painting the walls white. But I’ve since noticed that white walls can look cold and dingy in low light. So my next choice was to paint the walls gray. A warm gray would probably look best, but the question is, how dark? Should we fully embrace the shadows and go with a medium or dark gray, or should we stick with something lighter? I can’t decide if a dark gray stairwell would feel warm and inviting or scary and imposing.

I was still undecided on this question when I went to an open house in the Eagle Hill section of East Boston a few weeks ago. We’re not actually in the market for a new house, but checking out other people’s houses is always fun. This particular house was a wood-frame, Second-Empire-style, detached, single family town house built in 1870. Here’s the house’s front stairwell, just inside the front door.

Green Victorian Stairwell

After you’ve taken a good look at that amazing hybrid newel/lamp-post, the alternating fir/pine pin-striped floorboards, and the giant crown molding decorated with intricate, plaster acanthus leaves, you might notice that the walls are green. Here’s a few more shots of the stairwell:

1870 Front Stairwell

Second Empire Stairwell

The stairwell wasn’t quite as dark as ours, but it wasn’t far off. The walls were a medium green, and although this particular shade of green might not have been my first choice, it looked good. The green set off the white trim and complemented the dark wood staircase. By the way, the rest of this house was as incredible as the stairwell – Mara had to talk me back from making an offer on the place (but don’t get too excited, it sold the day after the open house).

Since I saw this stairwell a few weeks ago, I’ve started thinking of our imaginary finished stairwell as green also, which is a little strange for me since I put so much work into removing every trace of pea-green paint from my bedroom and kitchen. But a more subdued shade of green in the stairwell would actually be in keeping with the building’s mid-19th-century roots – earth tones, like grays, greens, and browns, were in vogue at the time. I’d look for a grayish green for the stairwell. Maybe something like Benjamin Moore’s “Bassett Hall Green” from their Colonial Williamsburg collection, or even something a little darker.

I think green walls would look good against the white trim, dark pine floors, and walnut woodwork of the stairs. And green just seems like a welcoming color for an entryway. But even though I’ve been thinking a lot about green, I still haven’t ruled out gray. And of course before I make a final decision I’ll need to consult with the neighbors.

Even after thinking about this off and on for a few weeks, I’m still not sure what to do. Is green a crazy choice for a common area stairwell? Does gray make more sense? Or maybe some other color I haven’t even considered? Luckily, I have plenty of time to make a decision since it’s going to take me quite some time to finish the stairs and skim coat the walls.

Oct 102015
 October 10, 2015  Uncategorized 6 Responses »

The interior side of my building’s front door is surrounded by a lot of woodwork – side lights, inset paneling, a large transom window. This vertical expanse of wood stretches nearly ten feet tall, looming over the foot of the staircase. And every last bit of it is painted fire engine red.

Red Trim

I’m sure you have a lot of questions right now, like why would anyone paint this section of trim red while leaving all of the trim in the rest of the building white? And why would red trim exist anywhere outside of a 1990s-era McDonalds, let alone in a Greek-Revival row house? Trust me, I’ve asked myself these and other similar questions many times over the past three years, and unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll ever learn the answers.

But here’s what we do know. Judging by the number of chips and gouges and scuff marks in the red paint, this trim has been red for quite some time, maybe decades. And, if you look closely at the areas where the red paint has chipped away, you can see that before it was red, the trim was painted teal. Maybe the red was an improvement after all?

If you look at this woodwork for long enough, you’ll also realize that none of it is original to the building. In fact, it looks like the side lights, the transom, and the surrounding trim were pieced together somewhat haphazardly. The whole thing is actually asymmetrical with everything smooshed over toward the right. There’s even a gap along the left corner where you can see part of the original trim underneath the newer trim. But as long as you don’t look at it too closely, it looks fine, so we’re not planning to replace the side lights and transom any time soon.

But after seeing this red trim day in and day out for the past three years, I’d finally had enough this past weekend. So I broke out the primer. Before I got started, I cleaned the trim with a sponge and soapy water since everything in the stairwell is still pretty dusty from sanding and refinishing the floors a few weeks ago. Then I patched all of the chips and gouges with Ready Patch spackle, and caulked some of the biggest gaps. Incidentally, while I was cleaning the trim, I noticed that most of the glass in the side lights isn’t glass at all; it’s textured plastic. Someday it’d be nice to replace the plastic with actual glass, but that’s another project for another time.

Patched Trim

After one coat of primer, everything looked streaky and terrible, but also somehow better than when I started. Even with streaks of red showing through the white primer, the whole stairwell had begun to feel brighter, which makes a huge difference in a space that gets almost no natural light. I now realize that I didn’t take any progress photos at this stage because I was so intently focused on painting over every last bit of red before the end of the weekend.

The next day, I added a second coat of primer since I wanted to minimize the number of paint coats I would need (primer is cheaper than paint). After a second coat, the red had all but disappeared, and later that afternoon I added a coat of paint – Benjamin Moore simply white in semi-gloss, which I’m planning to use for all of the trim in the stairwell.

White Door Trim

With the red gone, and bright white trim in it’s place, the entire stairwell felt much less depressing. The rest of the trim in the stairwell is currently painted the same dull mayonnaisey white as the walls, so it’s pretty well camouflaged. But there’s so much elegant detail in the trim, from the tall baseboards to the chunky crown molding, that it’s a shame that it’s so easy to overlook. But with the side lights and transom painted, I could begin to visualize what the stairwell would look like with all of the trim painted bright white.

Painted Trim

As you can see in this picture, Gregg started installing the balusters this past week. We chose simple, tapered balusters that more or less match the original balusters.

New Balusters

Gregg finished installing balusters most of the way up the first flight of stairs. He’s about to start adding balusters along the curved section of handrail at the top of the stairs, which will be more challenging than the straight section. Here’s the current state of the stairwell – it’s finally starting to come together.

Current Stairwell