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Painted vs. stripped trim…. the facts?


All winter, I’ve been gazing at our lovely interior wood trim and moldings, debating whether I should start stripping them. It seems that all the cool kids have done it, and it looks absolutely beautiful. But it does take immense, heaping amounts of time and patience. Two things we’re usually pretty short on.

Teague and I debate back and forth. Sure, it would look pretty, but the off-white paint that’s there now looks crisp and fresh against our wall colors. And I am not someone who can piece a task like this out slowly but surely in my “free time”. I get consumed. Obsessed. I know I would turn into a paint-stripping monster the minute we brought out the heatgun. I’ve been known to skip showers and meals in order to continue peeling wallpaper. Which is why I haven’t dared start stripping our woodwork yet… but still, I waffle.

Then tonight, I came across this little tidbit from The UK Victorian Society’s website:

Is stripped pine an authentic Victorian finish?

The stripped pine look is a late twentieth-century fad: before the 1960s, joinery was painted (or, occasionally, stained to resemble expensive and exotic woods and then varnished). The only exposed pine in a Victorian house was the well-scrubbed top of the kitchen dresser or table.

Expensive timber such as solid oak or mahogany was polished or varnished, to enhance its natural beauty and to make it easier to clean.

Are we off the hook? Is painted woodwork actually more historically accurate than stripped? Or is this just a UK thing? I’m dying to know, because most of the beautiful historic homes I’ve been in have stripped woodwork, so I always assumed this was the “right” look.

If you’ve got time, poke around The Victorian Society’s site:

They have some interesting information, and they’re in on the house blogging too!

Comments, Thoughts, and Feedback

marg. had this to say on 03.08.06:

Actually, exposed stained and varnished wood trim came in, in the US, with the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the last century. The same movement in the UK tended to prefer white-painted woodwork.

HOWEVER, that’s all moot, as your house is earlier. What was fashionable for Victorian homes, on both sides of the Atlantic, was painted and carefully woodgrained woodwork. I’ve seen period examples so artfully done that they are indistinguishable from actual clear varnished woods.

All kinds of faux finishes were fashionable throughout the 19th century, as well, both for their protective and decorative qualities. My mother’s house is a late Federal-style (1857, but a copy of earlier houses in Virginia) and the original woodgrained floors that remain are actually much more attractive than the four rooms with completely modern refinished floors (we got it like this from its previous rehabber).

So, I’d stick with what you have, and if you really want woody woodwork, woodgrain it – eventually :)

Jay S had this to say on 03.09.06:

I know that in Utah, at the Tabernacle, all the benches are faux painted to resemble more expensive woods. The craftsmen were from sweden and england primarily, and had come from england. So you could always go that route and be totally authentic.

Steve had this to say on 03.09.06:

If your going for “historically accurate”, pine was painted here during the mid to late 18oo’s, since it was considered an inferior wood, due mostly to its abundance. First priority of the pioneers to Upper Canada were to clear the land of the trees for farming which was mostly pine.
Oak and imported mahogany would not have been painted.
Under the layers of paint on my 1870 italianate’s trim is a layer of stain and shellac making the pine resemble a dark mahogany.
Pine in England during the late 1700’s and 1800’s was valued as much as the exotics since it had to be imported from North America, because they used up pretty much everything that they had in the way of forests.
Now on my main floor ,Parlor, foyer, kitchen, dining room, the floor is 1 in. white oak over 2in. pine t/groove. The oak was installed before 1930, since it runs under a wall I removed that had drywall installed. The date on the back, 1931. My second floor bedrooms, under the pulled carpeting when I bought is the original 2in. pine, never painted (130 years). It sanded to a beautiful dark gold once a clear poly was applied.

MY trim is WHITE.

John had this to say on 03.09.06:

Your quote from the UK sounds right on tract to me. Most of the pine in our house was painted (including the floors). Depending on condition and location, about 50% of our trim will be stripped and the remainder will be painted. I think you could safely go either way on this one.

jm had this to say on 03.09.06:

I can’t remember where I read/saw this, but I think it was more common to paint in the Victorian era. Or, at the very least, either painted or stained was okay. When I look at traditional paint colors of that era, I think most of them would look more attractive with white or cream trim. The problem with our Craftsman era stained trim is the limited palette of paint colors that look nice with it. Which is why I was so happy to discover that our bathrooms and kitchen had painted trim…I could go for more blues and greys there. :)

Sean had this to say on 03.09.06:

You need to read Victorian Interior Decoration: American Interiors : 1830-1900: By
Roger W. Moss and Gail Caskey Winkler. It is an amazing resource that will answer a lot of your questions, one of which, is the types of finishes used on Trim…

Michelle Horman had this to say on 03.09.06:

From what I understand and see in my town, Italianate homes like yours had painted trim alot of the time. The wood used as the trim is not as ornate and expensive as wood used later in the century as trim, so the wood was just painted.

Heidi had this to say on 03.09.06:

Well, our 1927 house is late Craftsman rather than Victorian, but I’m fairly certain that our woodwork was always painted (and adhered with some sort of chemical bond or demonic spells or some such thing ;-). Much of it was even pieced in some places, which means it was never meant to be shown off. We’ve been going through the same agony–when to find time to do it all at once, at least a room at a time. The original trim is Douglas Fir, and we’re replacing much of it with stained pine to save money. I hope we’re not completely ruining the place! Most of the Victorians still standing in Southern California have stained woodwork, whether it’s original or rejuvenated. But I’ve seen a lot of painted woodwork in San Francisco Victorians, so maybe it’s a regional thing?
Thanks for the lovely link!

Derek had this to say on 03.09.06:

If the wood is easy to strip, and the first coat is shellac, it was probably the original shellac. If it’s hard to strip, and the first coat is paint or primer, then it’s much more difficult. I’d start with a small test area, and then a small room, before tackling something big.

Kristin had this to say on 03.09.06:

That’s weird. Around here, houses had pine woodwork that was faux-finished or shellaced to give the appearance of more expensive wood. There’s only one fairly recent coat of white paint on much of our woodwork, with burgundy-looking shellac underneath. Two of the Victorian houses across the street have tons of shellaced, never-painted woodwork. So I don’t know about other places, but at least in Eutaw unpainted pine woodwork was the norm.

And I feel the same as you about whether to strip woodwork. I started the project in the entry hall. It looks great – or at least, I can tell it WILL look great – but it’s such a pain in the butt. I don’t think I’ll strip any of the other rooms in the house for a loooong time, and I waffle on whether I should. I do like white painted woodwork, too. *sigh* Who knows?

mindy had this to say on 03.09.06:

GREAT information, everyone! I thought it was too good to be true. I’ve stripped two interior doors thus far (they had flaking, bubbling paint), and neither had a shellac layer so I figured they were always white. But I thought maybe they’d been added or replaced at some point in time.

As Michelle noted, our house isn’t really “drippy” victorian. It’s clean and simple, more like a farmhouse. So it would make sense that the trim/molding was cheapish and therefore painted.

We lived in an italianate house-turned-two-family prior to moving here, and the woodwork was a beautiful dark stain – almost japaned. I loved it. It was Teague’s grandparents house, so I’ll have to ask his father if he thinks that was the original finish.

Thanks for all your input – I truly appreciate it – and Sean, I’ll put that book on my list for sure!

sarah had this to say on 03.17.06:

Well, it seems like everyting British is IN these days, so I say “Do as the English do” and keep your trims the way they are. You wouldn’t want to do all that work just to find out it was a FAD… :). Good luck whatever you decide. I’ll be excited to look back in and see.

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