Friday, June 19, 2015

Woodstripper's Ball [and Chain]

Jazz Age musician Bix Beiderbecke, patron saint of woodshedders and woodstrippers (Cliff Wirth / Chicago Sun-Times)

At the Chicago Sun-Times, I talked myself into taking over the remodeling column. After coming into the office every Monday morning with stories about hanging doors and patching concrete, my boss thought I should put my research to better use.

I followed the great Les Hausner's first-person format, plus the frequent dashes and paragraph breaks. This Around the House installment is a sentimental favorite. It's for serious rehabbers: An out-of-town friend read the piece and asked me, "What was that all about?" But I still giggle over Cliff Wirth's illustration.

It's back to Sundays with Bix.

Bix Beiderbecke, the young man with a horn, on the radio. Bix woodstripper slowly melting the plastic tuning knob.

Like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra cornetist, this stuff could just about cut through brass.

On and off for a year, I would get fidgety feet long before the first downbeat of Dick Buckley's Sunday afternoon as program on WBEZ (91.5 FM). I'd be off the davenport and scraping paint off the woodwork in our pre-Beiderbecke rowhouse.

The stripper calls again this summer, like the trumpet trio in "San." A clothes chute that we liberated from behind a wall needs to go naked. Same for the white sheets of paint behind our bedroom doors, and the weathered green window frames that look like an alligator's backside.

Woodstripping takes all the methodical routine of rehearsing a piece of music – repeating key passages, picking at details, burnishing the rough spots. Here's where I blow some cautionary notes, based on my own dates at the woodstripper's ball.

First, it's slow going – after a week of scraping chemical-softened paint with chisels, knives and that pick we never used to shell nuts, I was begging my boss for more time off.

The work takes frequent breaks &ndash when my ex-rehabber boss called on that week off, he suspected I was high from fumes. And it flirts with flesh-eating chemicals – his call left my toxic thumbprints permanently affixed to the phone.

A neighbor, who does this work for a living, gets a significant part of his business from couples who try their hands at stripping together and must hire him to save the job and/or their marriage.

My spouse, with less tolerance for tedium, left this job to me after gamely pitching in the first few days. But the experience made her a supportive coach. She gently suggested I end my day's work when I began cursing and throwing my tools across the room.

And she understood why finishing would require nearly a year – my taking on other tasks until I had forgotten why I abandoned my stripping post the last time.

Safety is a greater concern. A nearby rehabber's work wen tup in flames when the chemical fumes caught fire. Sparks from heat guns, flames from pilot light and ash from cigarettes all could put a tragic coda on a stripping performance.

That's one reason to limit any work with heat guns to early in the project, before bringing out the stripping chemicals. In our case the heat revealed a layer of varnish that would simply gum up the chisels and only chemical agents could dissolve.

The work also takes a healthy set of lungs – and precautions to keep them that way. If lead paint is being stripped, with lead dust flying, an auto-body spraypaint mask and wraparound goggles are standard equipment.

Also, most strippers contain the effective but carcinogenic methylene chloride – so ventilation is a must. Fellow rehabbers have had some success with the so-called safe strippers by wrapping items inelastic and leaving them to soak overnight.

Nothing works for me but the high-test grades – either the Bix Manufacturing brand or other paste brands such as Savoagran's Strypeeze, Klean-Strip's Strip-X, Star Bronze's Zip-Strip or Reliable's locally made 1776.

My contractor neighbor has sworn me to secrecy on the stuff he uses.

Protect your skin with rubbery cloth gloves – expect to go through several pair – and long-sleeved shirts and pants even on hot days. Cover the surroundings with sheets or thick drop cloths. Even the paint shavings can burn – watch where you sit.

Remember, chemical abuse was death to Beiderbecke.

There is some joy in this dangerous drudgery, particularly if you let the stripper do the work. Brush it in one direction and wait for the paint to bubble up, then scrape it off with a chisel – easy, or you'll mar the wood.

You'll still be removing layers in succession, giving your work the anticipation of an archeological dig. There's the medium of the dig as well – the hardest slogging was through a layer of milk paint, a limestone-and-whey mix found in King Tut's tomb.

Each layer unveils the color tastes of a different age. In one room we were gratified to find the same blue-green shade we had chosen by chance as historically correct for another room.

Often the mystery is merely learning what wood lies underneath. In our house it was oak on the first floor but cheaper pine in the private quarters upstairs.

More mysterious was why the home's first owners would actually paint it wood yellow. Or metallic gray. Or black.

Or why it was painted at all, once the wood revealed itself. A pocket door scrubbed of its single coat of paint became the first floor's centerpiece. It still tool solvent, steel wool and stain &ndash. maybe a bit more to cover some wood filler &ndashl to prepare the door for its polyurethane coat.

This woodshedding leaves rooms with the warm tones of a jazz ballad. The look lingers in memory far longer than the work involved – the only reason do-it-yourelfers would possibly keep at it.

Clean-up time: This Old House magazine, which is affiliated with the PBS fix-it series, this month includes a short primer on which rubber gloves withstand chemical attack.

"Some of these gloves are expensive," the text notes, "but all are cheaper than skin grafts." Several varieties can be ordered from Lab Safety Supply in Janesville, Wis., (800) 356-0783.

Former trombone player Stephen Rynkiewicz blows his horn weekly as Sun-Times real estate editor [published June 2, 1996].

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