Can I restore my pocket doors? Or does this way lie madness?
August 27, 2014 6:16 PM   Subscribe

The doors were painted white a few years ago. I'd like to restore the original wood. Concerns within. And, um, how do I do it?

This sounds like it should be a fairly simple project, but here are my concerns:

1. The doors were painted a few years ago as part of a home restoration (not done by me). It was sort of a medium-level quality restoration. So, for example, the (sub)floors were pine and rather than laying some kind of floor over them, they were just carpeted over. My chief concern is that the doors were painted because of some kind of problem that I can't see or think of. I can't see any problems, and the doors feel solid to me, but I'm a novice so maybe there's something I'm not thinking of.

2. Do the doors have to be removed? I ran across a webpage from someone who had refinished their doors that suggested this was required to do so properly. This would take this project to a new level of requiring outside, possibly professional assistance, which I don't want to take it to. Also, the doors work perfectly fine, so I'd rather not take them off the track and risk messing them up.

3. Can I do this myself in the space of a few days?

4. And finally, how? What kind of stripper? Should I sand them? How do I choose a finish? How can I match the finish of some existing woodwork? Is the process similar to what you would do for a piece of wood furniture?

I have pictures I can post if that would be at all helpful. The house was built around 1900. Any additional resources you can suggest would also be helpful. Thanks.
posted by unannihilated to Home & Garden (18 answers total)
Go tour a stripper [not that kind] and get a reference or two.
posted by Freedomboy at 6:18 PM on August 27, 2014

Trying to get this accomplished without taking the doors down would be false economy.
posted by notsnot at 6:21 PM on August 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

1. It may be that the finish was marred on the original wood. It may also be that there were large gouges filled with something and then painted over. Only one way to find out!

2. Yes, you'll need to remove the doors. You really want to be working with the doors flat, in a location where you don't care about drips. It would also be very difficult to get the back edge of the door without removing it.

3. Yes, this is doable in the space of a few days.

4. Chemical stripper, then a light or heavy sanding as required. Can you bring a piece of the current finished trim to someone knowledgeable who sells finishes (i.e. probably not a big box store) and ask them how to achieve something similar? That would be your best bet.

This is similar to furniture, except that doors are generally finished to a less exacting standard than furniture (and are also probably a lot easier to deal with, unless the door is particularly ornate).
posted by ssg at 6:40 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take the doors off. If you are hinky with chemical strippers, you can get finishing disks and use an angle grinder to take off the paint on the flat surfaces and a drummel tool on any of the "trim" pieces. Chemical strippers will be gentler on the wood though, without any concern of creating gouges during grinding.

This can definitely be done to completion in a few days (I would guess 3-5) but they need to be 8-5 kind of days.

Give yourself 2 days to strip the paint.
1 day to sand and fill and imperfections you may find. There is awesome stuff called "restoration epoxy" which is a goo that fills in wood and acts like wood (can have screws drilled into it etc) that is awesome for significant restoration work.
2 days to stain/dry/stain

Paint accentuates (not hides) flaws on the wood - so if you aren't seeing anything major now, there probably isn't anything too bad in the wood itself. Unless they put fifty coats on the pocket door, wood fill never looks quite right under paint.

Definitely sand and wipe down the doors prior to restaining.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:46 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

My guess is that owing to the age of the pocket doors you are likely going to have a serious lead paint problem. If you have kids in the house (or if you don't want to leave lead dust around) you should take all the necessary precautions.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:46 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

We're in the process of redoing our entry way in a 1920s house - MeMail me if you want to compare notes!
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:48 PM on August 27, 2014

I recommend a wood stripper called Citrastrip that works pretty well and doesn't smell bad (it's safe to use indoors). You have to leave it on longer than other wood strippers, but then you can just easily scrape the paint off.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:50 PM on August 27, 2014

If you're taking them off, you might consider sending them out to a stripping service. The guy around here charges about $150 a door.
posted by octothorpe at 6:52 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with three_red_balloons. I recently stripped a door with Citrastrip. It is much more pleasant than solvent based strippers. Be sure to leave it on for 8 hours or more. Then the paint comes right off. I did need to sand to get the paint out of the wood grain.
posted by H21 at 8:03 PM on August 27, 2014

I highly recommend that you use a heat gun & wide putty knife to remove the paint. Chemical strippers will not work as well as you might think/hope, but with a heat gun you can take it down to bare wood quicker than you might think.
posted by spock at 8:44 PM on August 27, 2014

Try a heat gun before you resort to chemical stripping. If you're lucky, the paint will come off fairly cleanly and you won't have as much of a mess to deal with later. If heat works, you may not need to remove the doors in order to strip the paint. Broad flat surfaces can go pretty fast but for detail work (if there's any trim or molding) you'll want a variety of tools to get paint out of the crevices. The type of spatulas used for clay sculpting are good, as long as they're heatproof (i.e., metal).

It takes a little practice to get the hang of heat-stripping: you have to keep the surface hot enough that the paint stays soft but not hot enough to scorch. This means moving the heat gun around your little work area, sometimes right over your tool and sometimes over the next area you plan to work on. A diffuser fitting for the heat gun can be a real help - you can keep a decently large area hot without as much risk of scorching. You'll probably scorch the first few spots anyway, so start on an inconspicuous area until you get a feel for it.

We've found The Old-House Journal Guide to Restoration to be an excellent all-around source of information for dealing with the, shall we say, charms of an old house, from foundation to roof. I'd suggest you get your hands on a copy of this book before embarking on any project, if you're new to all this. Good luck!
posted by Quietgal at 9:30 PM on August 27, 2014

When was your house built? Pictures would be a big help.
posted by vapidave at 10:30 PM on August 27, 2014

You can do this in a few days, but you need to be working pretty consistently. First, the doors really do need to come off. Next you need to strip the paint (check for lead first). Then you need to sand. Then you need to refinish them. You probably need a few coats and you need to do one side, then flip em and do the other.

If you're thinking that you could do it in a weekend, then no I don't think so a novice could execute that within that time frame. If your definition of a few days is more like a week or two, then yeah.
posted by 26.2 at 11:54 PM on August 27, 2014

We're in the process of stripping some doors and plan to continue on it this weekend. We've also stripped a LOT of woodwork in our 100-year old house. It's not rocket science, you can do this.

The doors need to come down. You'll need someplace to lie them down flat. Take off the hardware - which may or may not be painted over, ergo cemented onto the door.

We're currently using Citristrip, which while (somewhat) gentler to your skin, takes longer than more caustic chemical strippers, like ZipStrip. The procedure is paint the stripper on the door(s), let it sit for a bit: 10 minutes to 1/2 hour, even overnight, and some of the finish will start to bubble up/loosen. You will want to take a putty knife to scrape off the goo and scrape it off into a (non-plastic) container. You will drip stripper on the floor, so doing this on the hardwood floor is a bad idea. Rinse, repeat until you get down to the bare wood. Citristrip will take more applications than the ZipStrip to remove all of the finish.

You may need a little tool - dental or small screwdriver to pick the paint out of the corners, if your door has panels. As you get closer to the bare wood, you can moisten some steel wool with stripper and use that to remove the finish. You probably don't want to do that right off the bat, as the gooey paint will gum up the steel wool pretty quickly. Once you think you are done, wipe down the doors with some mineral spirits and fine steel wool.

Then you are ready for stain/polyurethane/wax - however you want to finish them.

You can use a heat gun, but it's HOT (duh) and can burn you/the wood if you are not careful and is fumey. Also, it will be effective at removing the top layer of paint, but it may or may not get you down to bare wood. You'll probably need to finish up the details with some sort of stripper.

You can take your doors to a professional stripper. If they dip-strip your doors (dip it into their humungous vat of chemicals), you run the risk of loosening the glue that holds your door together.

A quick check on YouTube for furniture stripping, reveals a wealth of videos, if you want to see what you are getting yourself into. Good luck!
posted by sarajane at 5:21 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Were the doors originally stained & varnished, and only recently painted? Or were they always painted?

If they started out varnished, stripping the paint will probably be easier (because it won't have filled the grain) & you are less likely to have serious lead problems. If they've always been painted, then you can be 100% sure that the original paint used lead pigments. More important, if the doors were originally painted, they may not look that great in a natural finish.

In either case, I'd use stripper in preference to sanding to minimize possible exposure to lead dust. We've used Soy-gel successfully on woodwork. A really sharp scraper helps as well.
posted by mr vino at 5:58 AM on August 28, 2014

There's a lot of good advice above. The only things I'd suggest altering:
1. I'd stay away from steel wool or brushes altogether, unless you're 100% sure you going to use a water-free and moisture-impervious finish (read: stinky stains and real polyurethane). Otherwise in a few years you'll develop rust spots under/in the finish when the microscopic broken-off bits of steel wool/bristle start rusting. Brass and stainless brushes are relatively cheap.
2. I dislike Citrastrip not because it doesn't work but because they add the stupid damned limonene scent to it as a gimmick. It's NMP just like almost every other "safe" stripper these days, but the limonene is a pretty serious skin and lung irritant and you can become sensitized to it. Yay. Unscented NMP (many brands) or DBE (3M's "Safest Stripper") are much safer choices.
3. I stay away from the methylene chloride strippers nowadays (because it truly is bad for both the environment and me) UNLESS I'm stripping something old or with inlays/veneers, which NMP/DBE products will often lift (they dissolve some old glues). Don't go leaving the stripper on the doors overnight until you can see how they were built. Regardless, with MC or NMP or DBE, do it outdoors, over something you can drip on, and with lots of fresh air. Don't be afraid to lightly wrap the doors in plastic if you need to let the stuff work and it's dry out, etc.
4. I'm not at all a fan of heat-gun stripping for new refinishers. You will scorch the wood at some point. It will suck. It will invariably happen on something with a sharp point, like a panel edge, and thus will take a lot lot lot of work to get looking right again. Not worth it.
posted by introp at 8:08 AM on August 28, 2014

If the doors slide easily it does not, repeat not, mean that they are light in weight. If you do remove them get a friend to help, no matter how strong you are. Remove doors can be very awkward. Do you have any outdoor space? Both sanding and stripping are very messy.

Are there any similarly painted smaller cabinet doors? If so, try removing paint from one of those first.

Speaking of paint, those pine subfloors might look fine painted with porch paint in the color of your choice. It's weird that it's just a subfloor covered by carpet, that would not have been done in 1900, there must have been another wood floor on top unless it's a very very modest house, in which case it wouldn't have pocket doors. Yes, I understand that the carpet was put in by the most recent renovator, but what was there for 100 years before. Strange!
posted by mareli at 8:55 AM on August 28, 2014

Thanks, introp, the info on unscented MNP is very helpful.

Also, if there is any possibility of lead paint, I wouldn't use a heat gun.
posted by H21 at 5:34 PM on August 30, 2014

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