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Circa 1850 Polymerized Tung Oil Varnish

Circa 1850 Polymerized Tung Oil Varnish

The original door on the house is a Queen Anne style that was unfortunately painted with the cheapest grade latex paint. This style of door can be found on many late Victorian Queen Anne styled Bay-and-Gable homes in Toronto.

After some research, Tung oil seemed like the the best possible finish.

Stripping layers of paint off the door revealed a honey pine stain on the exterior and a dark reddish stain that is the base coat on all of the interior wood work. This dark stain was used as the base for the interior Victorian tromp l’oeil faux oak finish. Paint stripping was time and I am loath to even recall the ordeal. I discovered too late that a carpenter in the area would have been able to  do the work at a reasonable rate, which I would suggest. Otherwise, you will be working with methyl chloride which is a very harsh chemical that is a VOC solvent and not terribly “green”.

First coat of stain applied

First coat of stain applied

Of course, follow usual guidelines when you suspect lead paint (see post on refinishing hardware). More environmentally friendly chemicals should be used if you are lucky enough not too have too may layers to remove.

First coat of Tung oil varnish

First coat of Tung oil varnish

I wanted as period a finish that I could achieve and that meant was very reluctant to use a polyurethane. The plastic coated look of polyurethane finishes are not very attractive to my eye.

After some research, Tung oil seemed like the the best possible finish.  Tung oil, the oil from a Chinese nut producing tree, has been used for centuries to water protect wood on Chinese sailing junks. The oil naturally polymerizes itself by linking up the molecules into chains creating a beautiful finish that repels water and allows the wood to breath. The finish is not “oily” in the least, is dry to touch and hardens to protect the wood. Best of all, with a light sanding, the finish can be touched up and renewed at any time.

I used Circa 1850 polymerized Tung oil varnish. Polermerized tung oil has been heated to encourage even more molecular cross linking during the curing process and has been traditionally used a Marine Spar varnish on beautiful wood hulled power boats.

Paint was removed using a few specialized scrapers for the moulding. Plenty of steal wool was used to remove paint and old varnish from the grain. This raised the grain of the wood which allows stain to be taken up. The door was sanded with 80 grit paper, then 120 grit paper, then 150 grit paper and finally 220 grit paper.

Entrance, The Frick Collection, NYC

Entrance, The Frick Collection, NYC

The 120 year old door had an amazing heart pine grain. Since it was a soft wood, a coat of wood conditioner was applied prior to stain to ensure the stain was soaked up within the wood in an even manner. Three coats of stain were applied allowing 24 hours of drying between coats. Then three coats of Tung oil varnish were applied scuffing the finish with fine steel wool between coats. A visit to the Frick Collection in New York provided the inspiration for our choice of stain colour. Of course, I had to make this enterprize more difficult than it needed to be, but the hue of the stain was perfect, very warm and complemented the golden hues of the aged heart pine of my far more modest door.

The result was better than anticipated and the stain and tung oil really brought out the antique patina of the aged wood.

Three coats of Tung oil varnish

Three coats of Tung oil varnish

Antique front doors are a bargain at most architectural reclamation stores. Partly because, many home owners are not willing to take the trouble to either refinish the original door or have  a carpenter fit in a suitable antique period door. Nonetheless, the very minor additional effort is worth the results. A big box steel door on a period home is an act that frees space in hell for lost souls. While I had the original door to work with, it can be great fun picking out the perfect door at your local salvage shop.

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The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach.

Faux finishes are not limited to late 1980s interior decor or to low budget “trading rooms” television programming. The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach. I found some original Victorian wood graining under layers of paint that easily peeled off. The art of trompe l’oeil, “to trick the eye”, used an elaborate painting technique to simulate quality hard wood grain on softwood or marble on plaster. More elaborate applications would apply decorative frieze or even painted simulated scarves over doors or birds on ceilings (Guild, 2008). As I expected, there is very little new in post-modern aesthetics… Apparently, trompe l’oeil applications were most popular near the lat 19th c. and used in small and grand houses alike. Skilled artists gained prominence and were sought after for their work in the best homes.

Original Oak Painted Finish

Original Oak Painted Finish

The oak appearing on my door would have first been painted with a deep beige base colour that would then have been glazed with burnt umber and ocher to give it light and dark highlights. The artist would then pull a multi-toothed brush through the glaze to produce the grain by revealing the base coat, then finish by flogging with the brush to break up some lines (Guild, 2008).

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Many homes will still have these finishes preserved under layers of paint. These finishes can actually be restored by using solvents to rub down to the trompe l’oeil finish that is protected by glaze (Nigel, 1997). Paint stripping will destroy these original features. Leaving the finish under paint is an accepted preservationist approach.


Guild, R. (2008). The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decorating. Firefly Books.

Hutchins, Nigel. (1997). Restoring Old Houses. Firefly Books.

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It is always exciting finding old hardware in your house that has been forgotten under layers of paint. Intricate Victorian designs in cast iron, brass and bronze give a house an incredible sense of character and it takes very little effort to refinish these antique pieces of your home.

Paint strippers can be used to quickly remove layers of paint. Make sure that you are familiar with the recommended precautions when removing old paint with a high likelihood of containing lead. Consult Health Canada and the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Company (CHMC) for recommended ways to remove lead paint in your home. Trisodium phosphate (TSP) dissolved in water can also be used to soften paint on larger items, such as heating grates, if left to soak overnight. Heating hardware in a utility pot of hot water to loosen paint is, perhaps, the safest, and most environmentally friendly, way to remove paint. Small tools can be used to remove paint from intricate detail.

Choosing the right antique or reproduction hardware will depend on the style and era of your home.

Strippers will not alter the aged patina on the metal and, in keeping with an old house look, items should not be highly polished when remounted. Some people may choose to highly polish items and lacquer them to maintain a bright finish. Lacquer may also be useful to prevent oxidization on cast iron items that are subject to a great deal of moisture, such as hinges on bathroom doors.

Antique hardware is often not any more expensive than good quality Victorian reproductions. Lost-wax cast reproductions of original designs can faithfully reproduce the intricate details and designs of Victorian hardware. Reproductions, however, lack the patina and soft finish of hardware that has been in service throughout the life of a century home. Reproductions can be matched with antique hardware that may have been damaged or has unfortunately been removed.

Choosing the right antique or reproduction hardware will depend on the style and era of your home. The final look will be far preferable to what passes for house hardware at the big box stores…

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