Old Trimwork: Strip and Refinish, or Replace?

Trim pros discuss whether it's worth the labor to preserve existing woodwork in an old house. August 22, 2007

I have a client that is interested in either stripping the original woodwork or replacing it with new. The original woodwork has been painted numerous times and will require a lot of labor to remove. Cost wise it would most likely be about the same just to replace with new. This house is a typical mid-western home built around 1900. The original trim is southern yellow pine. Are the labor costs worth keeping the original trim and the integrity of the originality of the home, or should we just replace it all with new? One issue to consider is that the dining room floor is of the same wood and matching color with new could be a problem.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor D:
I think that replacing with new would be easier and cheaper than stripping and refinishing - you will never get all the paint out of the nooks and crannies, and it will look bad. The only way to strip it efficiently is to remove it and use a flow-through stripping system, which would give you a good result. A good finisher/painter should be able to match the color of old to new, but maybe you could remove and strip enough of the old to re-do the dining room with the original trim, and replace the rest. One advantage of replacing the trim is that it could be made slightly wider to cover the edge where the old stuff met the wall, which is always really hard to clean and level.

From contributor G:
You also might want to remember that there is likely about 70 years of lead paint in that trim, which carries some unpleasant prospects if you're considering stripping, sanding, chipping, etc.

From contributor J:
Another factor may be how ornate or unusual the trim and house are. If it's simple casings and trim which can be easily replaced with an off-the-shelf twin, then I wouldn't even consider stripping it.

Around here, though, we can run into some unusual and ornate trim which is very costly to replace. In those situations it's a bit tougher to decide. Though, personally, I think it's much easier to just replace. You'll just need to do a little stain work to get the colors right. Your best bet is to put the numbers together for both scenarios and let the homeowner decide.

From contributor B:
Once original material is removed, it is gone forever. National Register of Historic Places nomination of properties is highly dependant upon percentage of original material still present.

I come from an historically sympathetic background and always give the highest consideration to saving original material. It's been there a hundred years in this case and could be there 100 more if left in place. The current property owner is the steward of this house for only a short time. While it is "his" house and he can bloody well do with it as he chooses, the truly responsible thing is to look at this in the long run. There will be many more owners (stewards) of this house in years to come. Again, once historic material is removed, it cannot be replaced.

Now, the more controversial aspect of this perspective is that some would say the layers of paint are part of the history of the house and as such should be left. Depending upon the situation (and it would have to be a very historical situation to sway me), I tend to not be so rigid. My feeling is to remove the paint and save the wood. Lots of work and cost to be done safely and properly, but in my opinion, the right thing to do.

From contributor G:
I couldn't agree more that if the house is in very original condition, saving the trim is the right thing to do, bearing in mind the safety concerns of stripping it. Where I work (eastern NY), most of the old homes are post and beam (at least originally); the base trim was applied directly to the beams, then the lath and plaster was run down to the base trim. Removing/replacing that base trim can be a costly endeavor due to the damage that usually results to the plaster. If you go that route, let your clients know what they are in for regarding new plaster work.

From contributor Z:
I used a product called Peel Away 7 on the trim in my 1920 bungalow. Worked amazing, even did crown in place. The stuff is thick, like pudding - you cake it on as thick as possible and put this paper on top. 24 hours later you pull it off. Almost everything comes with it. Lots of work, yes. Worth it? Definitely. New wood will never look like 100 year old. Talk them into it; they'll be happy you did.

From contributor C:
I believe it will cost considerably more to strip than rip. However, like many of those above, though it is a messy, nasty job, I would try to talk the owners into it as well. I stripped years of paint off my 1917 cape to find gorgeous chestnut well preserved beneath the original coat, which was shellac. It was well worth the effort, as the ex discovered when she sold it.

Even if everything is not stripped perfectly, it will still look clean, it will look like it belongs, and it will be full of character instead of clean and sterile like the new stuff. If a few more people chime in for stripping, send your customers a line to this thread to help them decide. Biased? What? Me?

From contributor V:
I agree with everyone that is recommending saving the original trim work. A Midwestern home from 1900, in my opinion, has historical integrity worth saving. Keep in mind that the wood that is already in place is well acclimated to the home, and any new growth wood you may install as new moldings may or may not hold those perfect trim joints you make, depending on the quality and type of wood you use and how much attention you pay to moisture content and seasonal conditions. I say this assuming that the original woodwork is exceeding these standards.

As far as stripping the wood goes, I would stay away from any of the chemical strippers and look into the infrared paint stripping technology. Look up the silent pain remover or the speedheater (www.eco-strip.com - supposedly a better made tool). This way you avoid neutralizing the chemicals in the wood before painting, you don't have to worry about caustic chemicals, and the issue of lead (which should always be of the highest concern) is lessened as the tool never heats the paint above the point where the lead would turn to gas.

From contributor T:
Tough call. Restoration is one thing and remodel is another. Saving it is the nice thing to do, but as a rule of thumb, not the easiest or cheapest. Perhaps suggest the sweat equity aspect and let them do the stripping labor. Peel away is great stuff, and the price reflects it (at least as I remember from a few years back).