A wood conservation project.
Several months ago, I purchased a home in Maryland, mostly sight-unseen (I’d been there, but hadn’t really walked around and taken a close look, and there was no home inspection). After moving in, I immediately discovered some issues with the building envelope. While some minor termite damage in the bottom right corner (from the perspective of someone inside the home) of the front door surround had been disclosed (the termites had been treated, but the wood was left in a damaged state), it was hard to ascertain the full extent. It was obvious that there had been subsequent water infiltration that had caused a small area of paint to bubble, but it didn’t sound like it had been an ongoing issue, or that it would be more than a small pinhole to patch and repaint.
Through sounding near the area of visible paint failure, it became apparent that the damage was more extensive than the prior owners had thought. Additionally, thanks to the errant removal of a snow boot in the winter that hit a piece of trim harder than expected, it was discovered that there was additional damage on the left side of the door surround as well. The moulding, which has what I can only describe as a scalloped profile, was completely hollow behind the paint in many places as was the plinth block immediately below it.
Slightly overwhelmed that the extent of the damage was greater than was initially apparent, and concerned about the continued potential for water infiltration (not to mention the potential energy loss) through the building envelope only destroying more sound material, I knew that something had to be done, sooner than later. Inspired both by the opportunity to apply my conservation knowledge to a new area of practice (while I have been educated about wood conservation, I had not had the opportunity to perform any prior to this project) and by a lack of funding available to hire someone else to do the work, I began to plan the restoration project myself. I researched materials (and called in some help from folks at the National Park Service and the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust for their sage opinions on epoxy products), created a budget, and found a weekend where I would be home alone and free to make an enormous mess. In the end, I decided that this largely looked like a job that could be handled by consolidating as much existing historic material as possible, and replacing what could not be conserved in-kind. Fortunately for me, I was able to procure historic in-kind replacement moulding from my basement, which is unfinished, but had matching trim installed around the stairwell opening.
The first step in the project was to remove the spare trim from the basement. I cut along the edge of the moulding with a razor to break the paint bond and then used a rigid metal putty knife to begin to create a thin gap between the trim and the wall beneath. Once there was a large enough gap, I followed this up with a small pry bar, and within a few minutes the trim was removed, revealing a few different paint colors that had been hidden from view on one of the two pieces of trim. This gave me the thinnest excuse I needed to attempt to remove the paint down to the wood with a stripping agent (Back to Nature’s Multi-Strip product).
With the trim down, I left the stripper to do its work and began to open up the door surround, starting on the left side. First, I used a small screwdriver and the prybar to probe the plinth block to see if I could determine the extent of the damage, hopeful that enough healthy wood remained to consolidate and repair it. Unfortunately it almost immediately became clear that this was not the case as more and more “dirt” (the remains of termite-digested wood) came pouring out of the opening. Within a few minutes, the plinth had become a pile of dirt and paint chips on the floor. Disappointed, I continued removing damaged material by cutting and prying away the trim. Once I had removed the moulding up to the top of the adjacent decorative panel, I could see that the termite grooves on the back continued past my cut. The damage was far worse near the bottom where the moudling met the plinth, but I decided it was better to remove the existing trim up to the mitre as a historic, in-kind replacement was readily available. Once this piece of trim was removed, I took it aside to be conserved and stored for later potential use if a shorter piece of this trim is ever needed.
After cleaning up the resulting mess from the left side excavation stage, it was epoxy-time—the main event. I had read the manufacturer directions, watched their videos, and learned all about epoxies as a material conservation method in grad school, but was that going to be enough? I put a small piece of plastic down on the floor where I would be working, threw on (or rather, desperately tried to cram my hands into) some disposable nitrile gloves and a pair of safety glasses (I know it should have been goggles, but I was far too sweaty for that to have ever worked without them instantly fogging up) and got down to business mixing the two-part epoxy resin to consolidate, seal, and prime what was left of the termite-damaged wood. I used System Three’s RotFix for this, and it was fairly straightforward. First I used the nozzle on the cap to pour the resin into every crevice I could, and then I used a small, inexpensive brush to apply it directly to every exposed damaged wood surface.
Next, I readied the two-part epoxy putty to fill in the voids. For this I used System Three’s SculpWood product, which was remarkably easy to work with (at least in the mixing and application phase). Equal parts of the epoxy and hardener kneaded together into a tan putty that I then packed in as deeply as possible to make sure that every void was filled. The directions that I reviewed were unclear about this, with the video on System Three’s website indicating that one should wait for the RotFix to fully cure before applying SculpWood, while various other written directions from the manufacturer indicated a better bond would result if the SculpWood was applied while the consolidant was still wet. I decided to follow the latter as it seemed to make more sense. If the resin was just a more diluted version of the same epoxy found in the putty, then applying the putty onto wood that is wet with the uncured resin would mean that both products would have the chemical reactions that lead to their curing happening simultaneously, creating a stronger bond than having those reactions take place separately, thereby creating two adjacent but distinct hard surfaces. When I was done packing the putty in, I used my gloved hands and a putty knife to roughly shape it to just a fraction of an inch above being flush with the surface of the wood. Then, I left the epoxy to cure for 4-8 hours.
Unable to do any further conservation work on the left side of the door surround until the epoxy cured, I went to remove the stripping agent (and several layers of paint) from the replacement trim that had been retrieved from the unfinished basement. The stripping agent had coagulated on the surface nicely, and I was pleasantly surprised that despite not waiting nearly as long as the product instructs, the paint came off fairly easily in a few steps. Don’t get me wrong, it was messy, and a lot of work, but I would have never gotten as much paint off as I did in the short period of time that I spent on it if I had used nothing but sandpaper and elbow grease.
With the replacement trim stripped and drying, and the epoxy curing, I could either stop working for the night, or open up the right side of the door surround. Riding high on the “everything-is-going-to-plan!” endorphins, I decided to go for it, and get as much done as I could that day, so that with any luck, I could sand everything down and install the in-kind replacement material on Sunday. You may recall from earlier that the right side looked like this, before the project began:
It may be unclear from the photograph, but it became very clear at the time that this was much much worse than I had thought, and that not only was a great deal of the moulding and baseboard missing on the right side, but also a significant portion of the top rail and right lock style of the panel. In a project with a larger budget, replacing the panel in-kind might have been preferable at this point, but it seemed like a very expensive proposition to have a panel custom built by a carpenter just for this project, so it became an absolute last resort in my mind. If this repair could be done via consolidating and rebuilding the damaged wood with epoxies, then it would be, no matter how much it strained credulity.
I used some painter’s tape in an attempt to create a barrier over the hole through the top rail of the panel on the outside of the house, so that I could apply the epoxy resin and putty without it all being pushed / leaking out from that side. Shockingly, this worked. Following the same mixing and application steps as before, I then used all of the epoxy putty that I had left in an attempt to rebuild the panel. And boy did I pack a lot of putty in there. Unfortunately, I ran out with a large area of the panel, the baseboard, and the board that anchors the trim to the plaster totally unfilled, and it was nearly 1am, so getting more putty to continue with was off the table. I’d have to wait until the morning to try to finish.
The paint store that I found that carried SculpWood didn’t open until 10am, and was across town, so I decided to use the hours of the early morning to install the in-kind replacement trim and plinth block on the left side of the door surround. Fortunately, I had found a nice piece of oak that was perfect for replacing the plinth block (if a little high-end). It had been left behind as scrap at the nearby big box home improvement store and I found it when I went there to get some finish nails and they let me have it for free (budget!). I took it home, cut it to size, and then took the replacement trim and made the 45° mitre cut necessary to install it and nailed both pieces snugly in place. I also had the opportunity to check and see how the curing had gone on the epoxy, and was delighted to find that it was hard as a rock (or, perhaps more apropos, hard as a nice piece of undamaged, rot-free wood).
Then it was time. I rushed across town to the excellent Monarch Paint in Chevy Chase, D.C., grabbed another quart of putty, and rushed back to complete the job, stuffing more putty into the remaining voids of the panel and baseboard (which was almost another half-quart).
Eight hours later, I was finally able to start to scrape and sand down the enormous amount of epoxy down to be flush with the wood, install the replacement trim, and cover it all up with a coat of primer, followed up by a second coat the following day.
Miraculously, in the right light, even without a finish coat of semi-gloss white paint, everything looks, feels, and sounds like a door surround that was never damaged. For an increasingly improbable project, it feels incredibly good that it all came together and I was able to preserve the architectural details of the main entryway of this historic house, and fix a compromised building envelope, without breaking the bank or losing my hair. Thanks for reading!