Wood Toning 101
Can I change the color of my trim & cabinets? Toning, shading, wood makeover, colored lacquer, re-staining; whatever it’s called, it’s a great way to get where you want to go in your renovation without spending lots of coin to get there. Here in Denver, homes have a lot of architectural millwork, and in the homes we work, much of it dates back to the frontier days. Because Denver is semi-arid, this wood is often in excellent condition despite its age. Wood finish colors however, are trendy and change like paint colors, sometimes even loop back like classics, and so refinishing wood is preferred to replacing it – especially given the quality of the old-growth wood, milled and finished by craftsmen – it is well worth the effort to restore it.
Adjusting the color of architectural millwork is pretty simple once you understand the basics. The process is simple: in a nutshell what you’re doing is cleaning the surface of the existing finish, then lightly sanding it, then cleaning it again, and finally applying very thin, uniform coats of lightly tinted clear finish base. Viola! New looking cabinets, doors, windows and trim! And BONUS: you’re practicing sustainable renovation too! A tree gave life and was transformed into something beautiful and lasting – you chose to restore it and in so doing you honor and sustain that life cycle. Good on you!
Details – how it’s done in steps:
First: cleaning. If you want to change the color of new or lightly used millwork, often just a simple cleaning will be sufficient, something like denatured alcohol will work . A note of caution- cleaning with solvents may soften or even melt existing finish, so test in an obscure location and not the most-used cabinet next to the refrigerator! For cabinets or trim that has been in use for some time, use xylene to clean, it’s smelly and you’ll need to wear safety equipment (solvent gloves, eye protection, and a good respirator with vapor cartridges, or the cheap but effective 3M model N95) but xylene is effective at removing oils, residue from cleaners and most other foreign matter on the finish. For really soiled surfaces, begin with a cleanser such as tsp substitute, then after overnight dry, use xylene or other appropriate solvent.
Next you’ll want to scuff the finish. This step is necessary to provide a “profile”, or “tooth” to the surface – it may help to think of the goal of this step in more common circumstances; for example, imaging dripping paint on the windshield of your car vs. dripping the same paint on your driveway – which will be easier to remove? The glass of course, you could probably do it with your thumbnail, whereas the driveway may never come completely clean – no matter how much elbow grease and implement you employ. Anyway, scuff the finish so the new material has something to bond to. But be careful here – you do not want to rub through the stain layer under the finish, just scuff the finish. If you do rub through the stain you will need to touch up any such areas to bring them back to the base color of the adjacent areas. At this stage you will also want to check the putty and fill areas for soundness, remove and replace any deteriorated or missing fill with wood putty that is sand-able, stain-able and of high quality without suspended solvents that can release and “halo” around nail holes after you apply finish coats.
After scuffing, clean again with a clean cloth moistened with thinner, xylene or use tack cloth- available at your local paint store. Once cleaned, scuffed, and wiped clean again, you’re ready to start toning. A note on toning products: a good pedestrian (beginner) product is Minwax Polyshades: this product comes in both water-based and solvent-based (both polyurethanes) colors, and is easy to use – especially on standing & running trim like baseboards, chair rail, picture rail, crown, trim & casing. It’s a little more difficult to use on broad surfaces like doors and cabinetry for the simple reason of uniform coats – easy to achieve by brush on 4 ¼ inch trim, but you’ll probably want to spray broad surfaces to achieve a uniform color & sheen. Test your color choice in an obscure location or on a piece of scrap – remember the test area must first be the same color and finish as the areas you intend to treat. With practice, great results can be achieved, but remember – it’s sometimes better to get there in steps, not a single application but several in succession – thin to win – as the old timers say.
Toning products on a more professional level are urethanes, lacquers and conversion varnish finishes. You won’t find these products in your big box home improvement warehouse; and if you do, you certainly will not find anyone who can advise you on mixing ratios and limits, catalyzing, etc. Find a real, old-school paint store, go in there and look for gray hair in an apron- that’s your man. Depending on what you use, you will tint/shade them with different materials. These products are best sprayed, and have a somewhat steeper learning curve. Not recommended for beginners or even intermediate skilled applicators – these finishes dry fast, hard and resist removal (should you make an application error, or a color mixing error), but are as easy as cleaning pudding if you catalyze incorrectly (move along, no fun here either).
With spraying comes additional site preparation: covering floors, walls, ceilings, pets, spouse and offspring – and anything else you do not want to tone, with plastic, rosin paper, masking film, etc. And, you’ll need a plan for vapor management: moving overspray and vapors from the room. Fans work, but remember to allow fresh supply and sufficient output for the most effective and fastest results. On a professional level air-movers are used, these machines come in various sizes and cfm capacities – but essentially they suck in air and push it out a flexible duct that is routed outside and open door or window – and they are safe to use in suspended solvent-vapor environments. You’ll still need to supply makeup air with these.
Finally, and most importantly, you must cover return air vents so the vapors and overspray do not enter your HVAC system and ignite to blow up your house. Shutting the system off is smart too. Safety measures for handling solvents and rags are also important – they will combust, and you’ll have a really bad day or a lousy night’s sleep if that happens.
Carry on then – some things cannot be undone; like ringing a bell, restoring architectural millwork has risks, foremost among them is that you cannot go back to the way it was. Be certain, be inquisitive and be informed. Hire a professional if there’s much at stake. And practice. On anything about the house you can practice: old stereo cabinet, chairs or kitschy plaques from the thrift store, scrap lumber, the dash board of your ’84 Fleetwood Brougham D’Elegant, but check with your spouse first though, make certain the item which is of little value to you is of similar worth to him or her.