this shouldn't take long
November 22, 2008 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Got any advice for removing a gazillion layers of (probably lead) paint from a hundred-year-old banister, complete with an abundance of balusters? Oh, and a pocket door.

So I own this house that was built in 1910. The previous owners have pretty much torn out most all of the original architectural details--no built-ins, no original moldings, etc. The two things they left intact are the banister and a pocket door. The paint is dirty and cracked and globbed on, and visibly coming off on a few areas. I have a cat and am thinking about kids in the next few years, so I know the lead paint issue needs to be addressed. I really want to strip all the paint off and have a nice dark stain. I've read all the questions I can find on here regarding different chemical strippers and heat gun options. The consensus seems to be that it's a hellish job, especially considering the ornate woodwork on the (20!) balusters. Plus I am messy and don't have much confidence in my ability to safely contain the lead--it's pretty intimidating.

I'd really like to hire this out to a pro, but the first estimate is about $5,000 to do it onsite, both the banister and pocket door. It would be much cheaper to take the items out and have them dipped and stripped elsewhere, which is easy with the pocket door (I was quoted $450 for the door if I take it to the dipping guy). But...the banister. How would I even take it apart? Would I need to literally have it in pieces? Balusters, hand rail, etc? Or can I keep it intact but just detach it from the staircase? From googling around I see that sending out architectural elements like this to have them cold- or hot-tank dipped is definitely something people do, I just can't figure out how to take this thing off without damaging it.. or without guaranteeing I'll never be able to put it back right.

Any ideas? Pictures are here. I'm in the SF Bay Area if you've got any specific recommendations for someone I can hire it out to.
posted by apostrophe to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
Ask this Old House, It can't hurt to ask, maybe they will come and help you do it. (It's a PBS show where they go to homes and do smallish jobs with homeowners that have written in)
posted by lee at 1:56 PM on November 22, 2008

You'll probably find your answers in this previous AskMe.
posted by beagle at 2:13 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why not hire someone to take it out and re-install it? I t seems like that would still be cheaper than having the job done at home.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:39 PM on November 22, 2008

If all the paint were off the thing it might be semi-obvious where the nails were (though they had some great tricks for hiding them) and some craftsmen put things together the way roofers put down shingles - so that each piece covers the previous pieces nails.

That being said, my wife and I tried to remove some woodwork of a similar vintage, and after that, I'd tend to advise against it. We found that we were splitting boards left and right no matter what we did. I'm pretty sure that this was due to the fact that the studs (some were yellow pine and some were oak) held the nails much more vigorously than I was used to.

If you decide to bit the bullet and DIY this, I'm not sure how bad it would be. Your balusters are complex, but at any point they're really just an octagon. The tulipy part at the top and the vasey part at the bottom would be annoying to strip, but not as bad as replacing one if it gets ruined.

The strip in place protocol that I kind of like is to take strips of newspaper and dip them into your chemical stripper (there are a number on not-hellishly-toxic paint strippers on the market these days), then wrap the area you just cocooned in plastic wrap and go about your business. After a few hours you unwrap, peel the paper and paint off, and repeat. When you get close to the finish line, just take off the last bits of paint with a scraper. Sand lightly and stain. You'd definitely want to mask off anything that might get dripped on, of course.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:06 PM on November 22, 2008

Banisters can definitely be taken apart, stripped, and put back together. The trick, as you note, is how to do it properly so that nothing is damaged. You could have a pro help you with just that part of it, or take advantage of the learning experience and lower cost of DIY. It is a big project, though.

The first thing to do is removing extraneous "cover-up" moldings, such as the one along the bottom of the balusters. It's very possible that once you do this taking the rest apart will be a simple step-by-step process, whereby you can loosen the lower connection of a baluser and remove if from the railing.

You'll want to be familiar with basic woodworking skills such as how nails are used (especially nailing at angles and setting nails for a flush look), as well as joinery techniques (for connecting wood pieces without nails), as you may encounter both. You may encounter wood glue that needs to be melted (e.g. with boiling water). A short prybar is a must, and you'll often need something like a wide putty knife to get into a crack and apply pressure evenly, and probably a bunch of shims too.

As you take everything apart, label it inconspicuously using a chisel, nail, or other means of physically marking the wood (and connect this to a diagram). You want to be able to put it back afterward.

When you reassemble, you should be prepared to replace any parts that were broken. Try to swap around what you have to conceal problems, first, though. (Some of your balusters will probably break where they have top or bottom protrusions to mate with the stairway or handrail. Try to avoid having to replace an entire baluster, obviously.) You may need to use some modern materials and if you plan on using a stain or varnish instead of paint you may want to match wood beforehand.

Good luck!
posted by dhartung at 4:13 PM on November 22, 2008

I did this once, but my balisters were simpler. Banister was almost identical in profile. I had about 60-80 of them to do, and did them in place with a heat gun. House was an 1898 Victorian, and had the requisite 100 years worth of paint jobs, most of which were lead, I am sure. (I had already learned to read by then, so I figured I was safe!) Worse than the lead paint, IMO, is the Orkin pesticide I am sure was sprayed all over the structure for decades. Ick.

A heat gun is surprisingly fast for this sort of thing. Coupled with a gentle hand, patience, a detail sander, and some dental picks, it works wonders. (On this particular house, I also custom made some scrapers, matching the profile of bead board to my scraper under a stereo microscope at about 3-5x. ) Beadboard (at a level up to a chair rail) took me about an hour per linear foot... perhaps 4 square feet. After initial removal, several sandings were required. Eventually, it was clean enough to stain and shellac.

About the only warning... you can burn the wood if you dwell too long, but you must dwell long enough to soften the paint and get down to the base layer and the wood.

I'd estimate a few man weeks of work on the balusters. The banister is surprisingly faster.

On that house, I did a number of doors and windows using lye dip. It works, but removes the wood glue, necessitating reassembly. It's not gentle on the wood.

You will damage the balusters removing them.

Worth considering is the possibility that it's uninteresting wood, deserving only of paint. The house I am in now had a bunch of poplar molding that had been stripped and polyurethaned (blond!) when I bought it and I wish in retrospect I had just painted over it. Instead, I had a millwright mill me a bunch of quarter-sawn oak molding at an astronomical price. It's lovely, but the difference in cost would have been $100 versus $6,000. Check your wood type before you undertake this. (Really, a heat gun is very fast way to strip one or two.)

Good luck.
posted by FauxScot at 5:21 PM on November 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Here is the EPA guide to lead testing. You should understand what you're up against first - test the paint and see what comes up. If you have lead, hire a lead abatement service. Do it right.

If you've read up on stripping methods, you know it's a fair amount of work. I've found that chemicals work pretty well, but they're not kidding when they say you need good ventilation for the work. We took an old door down to bare wood in a day.

If you're going to stain it, know the wood first. If it's pine, fir, or another other conifer or if it's maple or alder or other hard to stain woods, you need to know what you're doing. Also consider the next person along the line in the house who wants to re-refinish it. How much harder are you making it for them?

Example, my mom bought our family a player piano when I was in high school as a family restoration project. One previous owner had painted it a lighter shade of goat vomit green with oil based paint and hadn't sealed the wood first. The end result was that all the gorgeous mahogany veneer on the piano had a green tinge to it. There was nothing we could do to get that color out without damaging the wood (believe me, we tried a lot of things).
posted by plinth at 5:36 PM on November 22, 2008

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