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Design Dilemma
Design Dilemma

Refinishing fir to match existing finished trim from 1929

Gillian HickieJanuary 19, 2013
We recently renovated the basement of our 1929 home. We now have a staircase and beam (see first two photos) to refinish. We would like them to match the finish of the fir on the main level of the house (see next two photos). Does anyone know if fir was finished in those days by simply varnishing, or would there have been a stain used as well, to bring out the rich red tones?
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Jayme H.
Is the original trim fir? Asking because different types of wood take stains differently...this can result in a completely different look than what u were expecting...I am not an expert by any means. Have some experience finishing woods and found this out.
    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 8:25AM
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Gillian Hickie
Yes it is original!
    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 8:28AM
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I have fir in my 1912 house with the same type basement stairs. I sanded them down (hard work) and got two stains to mix/match the color of the upstairs stain. It's hard to buy a stain off the shelf and get a perfect match. I would opt for stain and then polyurethane in an appropriate sheen to match upstairs (it worked for me.) You might want to put some type of tread or carpet on each step to avoid slippery steps. You can always do a small test area to see what the outcome will be.
1 Like    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 8:59AM
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See how much of the grime you can wipe off with alcohol. if you don't see the natural fir finish, then sand. Watco oil may result in a close match to the last photos and it's really easy to use.
    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 9:14AM
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Eco Options Hardwood
The red is actually the finish that is old and has patina?
The newly sanded wood would need stain to match. Fir doesn't stain well. You can try poly shades from minwax. Another zero voc option would be Rubio Monocoat. Any color can be achieved with rmc.
And it does not blotch up like traditional stains.
It will take an accomplished refinisher to get you what you want.
    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 9:36AM
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Cancork Floor Inc.
Old wood always looks like it has "darkened" with time. Technically, it hasn't. It is the oil-based finishes they used to treat the wood that has darkened. When you "strip" the finish you will find that the wood underneath is lighter than the finish. The wood colour underneath is the real colour of the wood.

Today's water based finishes will not darken. Only products that are "oil based" or "oil modified" will darken wood. This will be the same as your fir. Once you find the original colour underneath, you will need to decide if you will introduce an oil product (usually solvent based, bad smell, etc) or try for an "oil modified" water based product like Minwax.

If you like the original colour, then use a water based polyurethane. That way you will be guaranteed the colour will always remain true to the wood and not the "patina" of the oil/solvent based finish.

As to "matching" the upstairs, I'm not sure why you would need to do this. The spaces are separate (physically and visually) and the "theme" of reddish wood will "mentally" work well as you move from one space to the other.

I actually find the transition of the darker red wood trim upstairs does well as you move down the stairs and enter into the "light bamboo" finished floors in the basement! The complimentary tones live very nicely together!!

Is that cork in the basement I see?
2 Likes    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 10:35AM
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Ironwood Builders
Generally the basement utility area of a house built in 1912 would have use very rough material for the access stair...the coal man went down there after all. Your framing is heavy, probably full 2" an your treads are at least 1 1/2". The stair is very steep and not to current codes, meaning that fall hazards exist and care needs to be taken in going down the stair. Current code requires a minimum 11 1/4" tread and a 7 1/4" rise to comply. Headroom probably won't allow a change of staircase...old houses! In any event, the wood will not match your existing clear vertical grain Douglas for trim upstairs, no matter how hard you sand it. Paint would be the transition between the bamboo downstairs and the fir upstairs. Tread paint is available from most manufacturers, have fun with the colors available, they are limited....gray, barn red, a few others.
    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 1:03PM
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Eco Options Hardwood
Technically, water based finishes do darken over time. And wood does a bit as well.
I have had Bona water based on my oak for 8 yrs and it has darkened. Not nearly as much as OMU but it has darkened. The best part is it doesnt turn amber.
We have refinished maple floors that had darkened so much that they now look like red birch!
    Bookmark   January 20, 2013 at 4:09AM
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Gillian Hickie
A lot of good food for thought here- thanks everyone. And yes. The flooring in the basement is cork. It can be a tad slippery at times but is also soft and warm underfoot, and the colour/texture we choose doesn't show dirt.
1 Like    Bookmark   January 20, 2013 at 6:45AM
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Jayme H.
I have had two old homes with older woodwork and know there is a trick to this so I would stick to the advise of those with the know-how...I didn't restain or match it, so I am no help! ha ha! But sounds like some good feedback already has happened. "Cancork" has some good info. Good luck, show us the results!!
    Bookmark   January 20, 2013 at 9:13AM
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Given the age of the house, I wonder if the main floor has a shellac finish, either alone or under varnish. I used to have an early 20s bungalow with that color of finish and it is beautiful but old finishes are difficult to match.

I would suggest first cleaning the stairs as much as possible. You may want to try several different cleaners, just make sure to do that one at a time and don't mix them. You can get the wood wet, but don't leave it with water sitting on it. If it is an oil based finish, you can clean it with a denatured alcohol while denatured alcohol will remove a shellac finish. So, for shellac, use mineral spirits. Ammonia will also damage shellac but still remove dirt.

After cleaning, sand lightly before staining. I would suggest using a sanding sealer or prestain conditioner to help keep the fir from getting blotchy. Be aware that dark stain will accentuate the "character marks" in your stairs. To best match the main floor finish, I would try a red mahogany stain finished with an amber shellac.
    Bookmark   January 20, 2013 at 10:15AM
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Gillian Hickie
Hello everyone,

Thanks for all your comments. When someone here mentioned that it didn't seem to be as important to match the staircase red in the basement as it was separate from the upper floor and also not visible from there, we stopped worrying as much about a perfect match. In the end, we got one that is near perfect anyhow!

Here are the photos showing the "in progress" stage after we sanded it all down (used combination belt sander, orbital sander and a bit of paint stripper for tough to reach areas), and then the stained and varnished wood. The wood, being quite dinged up from years of use, has the quality of the other wood in the house and it looks like the stair case always looked this way. We added some inexpensive indoor-outdoor carpeting that we cut down to size and stapeled at the bottom.
    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 12:24PM
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