Restoring a 1915 Colonial Revival house


# of doors completed: 3

# of doors to go: 27

The doors in our house were beautiful at one time. Now, 95 years later, they need a lot of help. The badly worn finish on most of them is masked by layers of built up grime made up of dirt, oil from peoples’ hands pushing against them, and old furniture wax. We first tried cleaning a couple of them with some naphtha and #000 steel wool. After much rubbing and tired arms, we found that most of what was on the doors was grime and the original finish was totally shot (less than 50% of the original finish remained in most cases) and was badly alligatored. A little bit of alligatoring is fine and is even considered desirable by many, but this was totally unattractive. We have decided in order to have a relatively uniform appearance, we’ll just go ahead and refinish them all. Of course, we will be using a historically accurate finish.

Most of the doors in the house are made of oak. They were then finished in shellac that had dye added to it to make them look like they were made of mahogany. This was a common practice that started around the 1860s when mahogany became expensive and oak became the wood of choice for millwork, furniture, and other applications. It continued through the 1920s, when lacquer finishes began replacing shellac finishes due to advancements in commercial spray equipment. Lacquer could be sprayed on in a few minutes and was dry to the touch in less than an hour, while shellac finishes had to be applied by hand. By 1930, lacquer had become the finish of choice for all but a handful of millwork and furniture manufacturers.

How does one tell what kind of finish they have? The easiest step is to take a rag dampened with denatured alcohol to a small area of the finish. If it dissolves, it’s shellac. If not, it’s probably lacquer. If you plan on saving the finish you are testing, be sure to perform this test in a very small area in an inconspicuous location. In the area pictured above, a rag dampened in denatured alcohol was rubbed on the door. You can see the mahogany shellac has dissolved, revealing the oak underneath. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with removing an old shellac finish since that's what we're faced with.

Start by taking the door off its hinges and setting it across two sawhorses. Make sure you have the tops of the sawhorses wrapped in something that will prevent the side of the door laying on it from being gouged or scratched. We used old packing materials from shipping cartons. Remove all hardware from the door, including the mortise lock, and place it in a safe location.

You’re going to need a lot of rags - preferably white rags with no lint. We just get them by the box full in the paint department at Lowes or Home Depot. A good pair of chemical resistant gloves is also recommended. Make sure you open the window for some ventilation if you don’t work outside.

Dampen the rag with denatured alcohol and just start rubbing. After a few seconds, you will notice the shellac dissolving and coming off onto your rag. Switch to a clean area of the rag often, otherwise, you’ll just be re-spreading the old finish. For stubborn areas, you might have to use some #000 steel wool dampened in denatured alcohol and a little elbow grease. When you get down to the bare wood, move to another spot. Stripping shellac from a standard size door should take 30 minutes to an hour per side.

Once the door is stripped, go over it again with a clean rag soaked in denatured alcohol. This will remove any residue left behind. Let it dry for 24 hours.


The New Finish

Since shellac is the historically correct finish for doors of this vintage, the new finish will be shellac. Unfortunately, very few hardware stores today carry shellac and those that do usually only have it pre-mixed, which I personally do not like (I’ll tell you why later). Dry shellac flakes are available at most woodworking supply stores and online from Constantine’s, Wood Finishing Enterprises, and a number of other places. Figure on using about 3/4 pound per door, give or take. Below is a picture of a bowl of dry orange shellac flakes.

In 1915, commercially prepared wood finishing products that we know today did not exist. Actually, very few of the prepared stains, varnishes, urethanes, and other products you see in hardware stores and home centers today existed before the 1940s. They would therefore be historically inaccurate, not to mention most of these products are very unforgiving in terms of mistakes and take days, sometimes weeks, to fully dry. Also, virtually all of these products contain harsh chemicals that can potentially cause damage your skin and your nervous system. Shellac, on the other hand, is a natural substance. Shellac flakes are produced a number of species of lac insects, which are native to India and Thailand. The only chemical used in a shellac finish is the alcohol it is dissolved in. Shellac is also very forgiving. If you put it on and you don’t like it, simply wipe it off with a denatured alcohol dampened rag and start over.

We finished these doors in a two-pound cut orange shellac mixture. The “pound cut” refers to how many pounds of shellac flakes are dissolved in a gallon of denatured alcohol.  In a two-pound cut, there are two pounds of dry orange shellac flakes dissolved per gallon of alcohol. You can adjust the amounts of the shellac and alcohol depending on how much you need at the time. For example, for a quart of denatured alcohol, you would need a half pound, or 8 ounces, of shellac flakes to achieve a two-pound cut. We use a letter scale to measure out exact quantities of shellac flakes.

Once shellac flakes are mixed with alcohol, the mixture has a limited shelf life. After about six months, the mixture starts to thicken and becomes impossible to use, so it is important to only mix as much as you need. This is why I am not a fan of the commercially prepared shellac mixtures. The clock is ticking on them the minute they are mixed and you never know how long they have been sitting on the shelf.

We like to use glass jars to mix shellac in. Once you’ve weighed out the amount of flakes you need, add them to the jar. Then pour in the alcohol and place the lid on tightly. Allow the flakes to completely dissolve, which typically takes 24 to 48 hours. After the flakes have dissolved, we add the dye.

We used Trans-Tint dyes, which are highly concentrated. When using Trans-Tint dyes, add only a couple of drops at a time and stir in between. Have a piece of scrap wood and a small disposable paint brush handy to test the color of the mixture. Continue adding drops of dye and stirring until the desired color is achieved. For our finishes, it took about 30 drops per quart. We actually used two colors to achieve the finish on our doors – red mahogany and reddish brown. Each color was mixed in its own quart of shellac. We applied two coats of the red mahogany shellac and three coats of reddish brown shellac, letting each coat dry for a couple of hours in between. When a new coat of shellac goes on, it partially dissolves the coat underneath. The result is a thicker, harder coat. As with paint, it is much better to apply multiple thin coats of shellac than one or two thick coats. Once the shellac has dried for at least 24 hours, lightly buff it with #000 steel wool and follow with #0000. Below is one of the completed doors.


The Hardware

Other than the hinges and the mortise locks, much of the original hardware of our doors was missing when we bought the house.  Originally, most of the doors had a crystal doorknob with brass escutcheons around the knob shaft and the key hole. This arrangement was common in many Colonial Revivals of the 1910s and 1920s. Many of the doorknobs had been replaced with cheap cut glass "starburst" doorknobs from the 1930s and 1940s and many of the escutcheons had disappeared.

To solve this problem, we found a lot of original crystal doorknobs on E-bay. I think we paid around $50 for the lot, which consisted of about ten knobs. We were still faced with needing to find about twenty missing escutcheons. We visited a local salvage yard and happened to find a large group of Yale and Towne plates produced around 1910 that we thought would provide an accent to the doors. Plus they had a combined Colonial Revival and Art Nouveau style to them, which would perfectly fit the house. We were able to get a decent deal on the plates since we bought all they had. We would later find out that hiding underneath all the layers of paint on the plates was a nice japanned copper finish.

The hinges and our salvaged plates were all covered with countless layers of paint. To remove the paint, we gave each piece an overnight soaking on a crock pot filled with soapy water on low heat.

This is when we discovered the detail and the beautiful original finish on the door plates. Why anyone would slop layers of paint on them is beyond us, but for some reason it was the "in" thing to do starting around the 1930s and continuing for the next 50 or more years. We also found that many of the hinges from the doors had a similar finish on them.

The mortise locks were completely disassembled and the parts cleaned with naphtha.  After cleaning, they were oiled and re-assembled. They now operate as smoothly as they did when they were new.

The finished product.

Restored original door hardware with original crystal doorknob.

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