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Long shrouded in mystery, wood refinishing is still subject to conjecture and myth, even in this age of the Internet. Here’s how to tell the seductive lies from the less-appealing truth.

ing trades have colorful imaginations, to put it politely. Provide a topic (nail guns, for example), a victim (itinerate non-English-speaking worker from a far-off land), add a social lubri- cant (beer!), then stand back and listen—the lies will fly faster than fasteners from an out-of-control Senco nailer. As many a prophet has learned, it’s hard to compete against the bright and shining lie, especially when it’s being colorful- ly told by a dusty guy in a hardhat. Nevertheless, like Moses in the wilderness, I offer this list of the top five wood whoppers.



When your house was born, they graded roads, they graded report cards, they even graded wood, but they didn’t designate one species “stain grade” and an- other “paint grade.” With very few exceptions, all houses built before 1940 were trimmed—in every room—with what we would today call “stain grade” wood. Pre-World War I and II housing was built with clear, old-growth heartwood, meaning the lumber was free of knots and came from the center of the tree, which is dry and dense and hundreds of years old. In the early days of logging, the sapwood, cambium layer and bark were discarded, leaving the heartwood for baseboards, casings, doors, china cabinets, bookcases, mantels and so on. The wood used in framing was usually also heartwood, though it may have had some knots.

The popular misconception about the quality of wood used in painted trim, and therefore the advisability of stripping it, or even keeping it, comes from the assumption that Douglas fir is not worth staining. In San Diego, Douglas fir was the principal trim material in most formal rooms built between 1900 and 1915. It is the quintessential arts-and-crafts


working in the build-

HouseCalls Michael Good

wood trim. Fir fell out of fashion because of fashion, not because of

anything intrinsically wrong with the wood. Once hardwoods became popular for clear trim in the 1920s, builders continued to use finish- quality Douglas fir in the back of the house. There were practical as well as financial reasons for this: Fir was softer and easier on tools (and most trim carpentry was done with hand tools, including chisels). It was readily available. Lumber- yards in San Diego were always stocked with it, so work delays because someone hadn’t ordered enough trim weren’t a problem. Builders put up houses quickly (in three weeks) and built several at a time, so using the most plentiful wood just made sense. Today, Old Growth Douglas fir

is more expensive than tropical hardwood. If you have it, maintain

San Diego Uptown News | Feb. 4-17, 2011 The five fallacies of wood refinishing


Highly-figured Red Gum from a house in Mission Hills. (Michael Good/SDUN)

it. Like an antique, it’s getting more valuable every day.


n addition to the five fallacies, here are some smaller sins to consider: “We do it just like they did in the old days.” Well, if you do, then you’re an idiot. Finishes today are superior to those of 100 years ago. Why not use them? (The exception is shellac made from flakes, which is authentic and performs well in most situations.) “We make this stuff up in our


shop.” And you, sir, are a nincom- poop. Unless you’re a chemist, with a well-outfitted lab, then you’re still a little strange. “I have this trick I learned.”

There isn’t one trick to wood refinishing. There aren’t even 10 tricks. There are an endless variety of problems to solve based on knowledge, skill and a willingness to keep trying. “I learned this in the old coun-

try.” There are no handed-down- through-the-ages trade secrets in wood refinishing. All that’s required is the ability to read.

Again, you can’t go wrong with Bob Flexner’s “Understanding Wood Refinishing.” When your project doesn’t turn out the way you planned, it’s usually some- thing you’ve done, not something to do with your ancestry. “We’re very economical.”

There’s nothing cheap, fast or reasonable about restoring your woodwork—not if you do it right, that is. It takes time. And time is money. The alterna- tive—doing it on the cheap— isn’t very economical either, because you risk destroying your valuable investment. “This will last the life of the

house.” Nothing lasts the life of a Redwood house, certainly not varnish. The life of a clear fin- ish should be measured in dog years, not tree years. If your finish has lasted more than a decade, throw it a birthday party, then clean it and recoat. After all these years, it de- serves it.

2. DON’T WORRY: WE ONLY USE THAT SAFE STRIPPER You won’t find safe stripper at Home Depot for the same reason you won’t find a “safe” hammer. In order to be effective, strip- pers (and hammers) have to be strong enough to hurt people. Both methyl chloride and N- methyl pyrrolidone, the two active ingredients in most paint strip- pers, pose health risks. Products using pyrrolidone can claim to be safer because methyl chloride has been found to cause cancer in one particular strain of lab mice (but not in people). Stripper—like most adhesives, finishes, solvents and, well, just about everything used in construction—is bad for you. Wear protection!

3. GUMWOOD IS EUCALYPTUS Though we’ve covered this subject before, apparently not enough of the 30,000 or so peo-

ple who faithfully read Uptown News got the message, told their friends, jumped on the Internet and created the sort of viral sensation necessary to squash this widely held myth. The fact that Eucalyptus had been planted for lumber in Southern California, plus the fact that in Australia they are called “gum trees,” combined long ago in the popular mind to form the now ubiquitous assumption that there is some connection between the trees that grow in our canyons and the wood that graces our china cabinets. Actu- ally, the source for gumwood can be found even closer to home. It is Liquidambar styraciflua, a popular San Diego street tree that often grows right in front of gumwood-trimmed houses. Although much loved in San

see Wood, page 24

Refinished Douglas fir pocket doors, circa 1910. (Michael Good/SDUN)

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