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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.