We have some old dark staind wainscoating in one of our bathrooms.
I would like to clean it up and put on a protective coat of poly.
I'm not sure what the old finish is, but I was thinking of doing the
1. Cleaning it with alcahol or mineral spirits?
(I know if the old finish was shellac, then alcahol would tend to
2. Cover it with a couple of applications of oil-based wipe-on satin
Is this a good idea?
If so, anything to add to my approach?
If not, any suggestions on a better approach?
If possible, I would like to avoid a major project of stripping off the
old finish and staining and starting from scratch...
How big is this bathroom? If you are trying to improve the looks, then
there really is no substitute for doing it right. Might be even easier
and faster to simply replace the wainscoting with new.
What you are presently proposing could end up with something worse
than what you have now.
I would prefer not to replace the wainscoting for 2 reasons:
1. I assume that the quality of old wood is almost always better than
2. Ultimately, we are likely to remodel the entire bathroom, so I would
prefer not to invest in new materials that may be ripped out in 5
Other than ripping out and replacing, how would you go about
it... (and can it be done without stripping off all the old finish and stain)
The finish on the wainscot is probably shot. It most likely has
little bits of soap here and there, hairspray, a splash of this and
that, and no telling how much cleaner has been used on it.
You didn't say what the pattern was on the wainscot, but I will assume
that it is at least wood since it was stained.
If it is a good factory finish, your coating will flake off after a
period of use, depending on how long, hot and steamy the showers are
You didn't say how old the finish was, either.
If it is a shellac based finish in a smaller bathroom, you will almost
always be able to tell the degredation of the finish as you get closer
to the shower. Shellac in the bathroom: bad.
If there is no or little degredation of the finish and it looks very
smooth and uniform when viewed at an obtuse angle in the light
(flashlight), it is probably factory finished. Look for telltale
signs of hand finishing behind toilets, in corners, behind doors in
tight spots, etc. If it is all *perfect*, then it will be a factory
cured finish made to repel things that want to stick to it.
When folks were still remodeling bathrooms (boy.... that seems like a
long time ago!) we ran into the prefinished panels from the 70s and
80s when dark colors were the rage. I found no way to refinish them
satisfactorily, so if the client insisted, we replaced them with other
If it was a bead board pattern, we hooked up a ROS to the shop vac and
sanded anything that was to be painted down to bare wood. The grooves
in trims and panels were sanded as good as reasonably possible by
As a sidebar, in the old pine bead board patterns, it wasn't unusual
for the beads and grooves to be rough from the mill. Not so much of a
big deal when you are staining or clear coating. When painting... it
looks ugly. So the solution there is to sand the beads, and fill the
length of the grooves with a tiny bead of caulk. Each one. Makes it
look brand new.
After surface prep, we put on two/three coats of BIN (primer/stain
kill) depending on how dark the stain actually was when we got to it.
Then two coats of a good oil based enamel. Change out the cap rail,
and you are in business.
When I look at anything that is stained dark, I don't give any
options. Most of the time the question is "can you take off part of
the color? We like it overall, but it is about two shades too dark".
The answer? No.
You can strip, sand, and restain, but that is exactly what you are
trying to avoid.
I would replace it or paint it. There is no simple solution to a
clear coat refinish job other than to leave it alone.
If the old finish was shellac, you probably would have had water spots
(white) on it by now. I would clean it first with cool water and
detergent - I do the same with good furniture - which will not harm the
wood if you don't saturate it and leave it wet. Bathrooms don't get
greasy like a kitchen, so I would not be inclined to use m.s. I do use
m.s. to remove wax and greasy dirt. Let it dry well. If the finish is
glossy, rub it down with fine steel wool prior to clear coat. Vacuum
dust very well.
I assume m.s = mineral spirits.
I agree about the lack of grease but was thinking that there must be
50+ years of grime there.
What would be the disadvantage of using mineral spirits?
Also what about TSP, would that be helpful or necessary?
Finally, if surface is cleaned and the gloss (if any) is knocked down,
can I assume that a standard poly would stick well and not start flaking
off (assuming I apply it properly)
Don't sell the grime short on screwing up your finish. If it has been
cleaned with soap, there is left over oils and other remnants from
different types of cleaners that remain after cleaning. What do you
think provides the glue that forms dust and dirt into grime? If the
remnants weren't left behind, the grime would simply be dust.
Sounds like you are willing to take a chance. Unlike a homeowner that
will hopefully be garnering the praise of a wife for a good effort, I
have to provide a warranty for my work.
Since a job done halfway is often its own punishment, I don't take
chances with the extra effort it takes to do the job right.
However, you will be much less hard on your results than you would if
you paid someone to do the job for you.
You shouldn't assume that because a surface is clean that you will get
a good bond for a dissimilar finish that will sitting on top of an
improperly prepared surface.
BUT, if you just want a quick job use whatever you have on hand to
clean it, scuff up the surface and slather on the poly. Even in a
steamy, wet environment you may get some good service time out of it.
Since you don't have a warranty to worry about, your options are
Yes, mineral spirits. Grime should come off with good scrub with
household cleaner, just taking care not to let water puddle into joints
or moldings. Wring out rag and scrub well. I do the same with good
furniture that gets fingerprints, like the backs of dining chairs and
have never had negative effects.
I haven't used TSP in many, many years. Don't know of disadvantages of
m.s. other than fumes and disposal. I use a lot of it when stripping
wood. Also used it to get old, gummy grease off kitchen cabinets, in
which case the grease can soften varnish and you lose some finish along
with the dirt. I have used m.s. also to take of built-up furniture wax
- it is the solvent in paste wax.
Certainly seems so. Only thing I know that would allow flaking would be
wet surface, high gloss or greasy dirt. Fine steel wool is good for
taking down gloss, IMO, because it dulls finish more gently than sand
paper. Gotta be sure to clean up fine particles of steel wool, esp.
with water-based final coat because it can rust. Green 3M pads work
I ended up doing the following:
1. Cleaned the old beadboard with fantastic.
2. Rubbed with 0-4 steel wool and scraped away any (old) paint
3. Filled holes with stained-to-match mix of West epoxy and low
4. Wiped down with alcahol
5. Rubbed in some Minwax matching dark stain
6. Applied 4 coats of Minwax semi-gloss oil-based poly with a cloth
Looks great now -- only time will tell how long it holds up...
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