With the porch floor completed, the next big job was restoring the balusters (the little columns in the porch railing). I expected the job to take six weeks, two months at most; but as the calendar drifted into the tenth week, I began to realize that I had greatly underestimated the project. It ultimately took over five months to prepare the posts for installation.

My first mistake was jumping into the project without a clear idea of what actually was to be done, a misstep dissected in part four of this series. Regarding the balusters, I didn't even know how many I had; on the porch that was just demolished, there were 6 on the east corner and 4 on the south side. Another five were in the garage, still attached to part of the sawed-off railing. That added up to fifteen -- but I planned to restore only 13 of them because two had badly damaged corners. Then during demolition, two more balusters turned up hidden inside the corner post (see part I). Now our little family had grown to 17.

The difficulty in removing the paint was also an unexpected problem. I knew that serious work would be required; in the past I've stripped furniture, doors, and windows using both a heat gun and chemical goo. The latter is messy and dangerous, requiring a respirator, rubber gloves, and goggles -- an uncomfortable way to sweat off a few pounds on a hot summer day -- but it's what you have to do if the wood beneath is irreplaceable. As Candice says, "stripping is an act of love." (Methinks our Google search hits just jumped a thousandfold...)

To strip the balusters, I used a plastic mortar mixing tray -- essentially, a big cat litterbox. Because the balusters are narrower in the middle, I wrapped two paper towel rolls in heavy aluminum foil, then covered the tray and rolls with more foil. (Two sheets had to be crimped together to make the foil wide enough.) This gave me a perfect form to hold a baluster. Over that I poured enough Jalisco stripper to cover about one side of the wood and let it cook away for about 40 minutes, turning it over at the midpoint to coat the other half.

To remove the paint, use a putty knife with a thin, semi-flexible aluminum blade (plastic knives will start to melt after a few minutes). Gently scrape off the stripper/paint gunk, wiping the residue on the blade with newspaper. Try not to let the stuff fall back into the tray -- even though the stripper gel is now the same color as the paint, you can store it for reuse if it's clean enough. Typically half of my "pour" was stripper from the last batch.

After scraping, I used a stiff wire brush over the curvy details at the top and bottom of each column. Then the entire piece was scrubbed down with heavily-diluted paint thinner using coarse steel wool.

All that work removed only about half the paint; repeat everything the next day. A few balusters required a third trip to the dip.

Coarse sanding followed, always using #60 grit. I used an orbital sander for the cylindrical columns, beltless sander for the flat surfaces, and those wonderful 3M sanding sponges on the details. A final rubdown with a well-worn sanding sponge finished it up.

Last came patching cracks and holes from pulled nails. An exterior-grade wood putty or glue was needed, but it was important that the color of it blend perfectly. Earlier in the year, I had experimented with mixing vintage redwood sawdust with four products: Durham's "Rock Hard" Water Putty, ZAR wood patch (neutral color), Elmer's Wood Filler, and Elmer's Stainable Wood Glue. After thoroughly dried, I applied a coat of linseed oil, followed by the turpentine-linseed mix that would be used on the balusters. All products worked reasonably well. I chose to use Elmer's Stainable Wood Glue, mixing it with sawdust until it has the consistency of toothpaste. Cracks were filled with the mix on tips of toothpicks, larger holes smeared up with Popsicle sticks. (I swear, more repair work on this large house is done under a magnifying glass than I would ever have believed.) After thoroughly drying, the glued area was sanded again. Although the patch appeared darker on the unfinished wood, it was almost invisible once the piece was oiled.

The total time required: About 40 minutes for each session in the dip, then another 40 minutes of labor; 40-50 minutes of sanding, and then often another 20 minutes of patch and resanding. Figure on 3+ hours work, spread over five days. For every baluster.

The lastest step was dousing each column in linseed oil (because this is old wood, I applied two coats) before it was installed on the railing. Below is a before-and-after picture of the girls.

A footnote, regarding Comstock House archeology: The balusters that were hidden in the column or in the garage had a coat of lead paint in a redwood-y color, and the 10 that were on the demolished railing had an additional coat of sickly mocha-colored latex. But in his specifications, architect Brainerd Jones had insisted that the exterior wood should never be painted. Was there any evidence that the balusters were originally just oiled, as he specified?

Although that old lead paint stuck like glue, there were a very few sections where a small section could be lifted off intact. And sure enough, that century-old heart redwood underneath had just about the same rich color as predicted from tests of the turpentine-oil treatment.


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