It Often Makes Sense To Save Old Trim


March 02, 1991|By Karol V. Menzieand Randy Johnson

Almost everyone who's worked on an old house doing demolition, moving or rebuilding walls, replacing windows, or resurfacing old walls with drywall has encountered the problem of old trim: save it or replace it?

A good case can be made for saving it, even if you're not an ardent preservationist. The trim around doors and windows, around stairs or built-ins, around fireplaces, is part of the detail that makes an old house special.

Some trim itself is special, with carving or incised designs that make it impossible, or at least expensive, to reproduce.

On the other hand, while it may look wonderful before you touch it, old wood is often dried out and fragile. When you try to remove it, it cracks, breaks and splinters.

Unless you value it simply because it's old, some trim is not worth saving -- 1-by-7 baseboard, for instance, which is readily reproduced by ripping down a 1-by-8. Even more unusual pieces generally are made up of two or three kinds of trim. Modern equivalents exist for most.

There are even sources of vintage wood -- classified ads may list "old barn wood for sale" or magazines like Fine Homebuilding and The Old House Journal carry ads for firms that specialize in old lumber. Or find the oldest surviving mill in your area and pay a visit. A mill where they actually mold wood smells as good as a bakery (and you don't have to worry about calories).

There's one thing you do have to worry about, however, with old trim -- lead paint. One recommended method of lead abatement is to remove the source -- in this case the trim -- and start over with new unpainted trim. If the trim is just too valuable to throw out, you can remove the paint, with the right precautions. You can also remove the trim and have it stripped commercially.

To remove trim, Baltimore contractor Tom Lohmeyer, who specializes in renovations, suggests using a tool called a wonder bar, which is a small, sharp pry bar. "Dig it in behind the trim," Mr. Lohmeyer says, "so it doesn't damage the wood. You may have to patch the plaster."

It helps to find a loose spot and start working the trim away there.

Once the trim is off, it will still be full of nails. Pounding them out from the back will cause a crater on the surface, Mr. Lohmeyer says, so he tries to pull them out from the back. Since they generally are finishing nails with very little head, this is less destructive.

Sometimes, he says, you can pull them out the back a little way, then cut them off. If you can see on the surface where the nails are, you may be able to drive a new nail on top of the old one to drive it out. Though that will leave a hole, it won't be as big a hole as if you drove it through with a nail set.

Nails on the ends of boards should be cut, Mr. Lohmeyer says, because the ends always crack.

"When you reinstall the trim," he says, "drill pilot holes so you don't split the wood." Holes and cracks in old boards can be filled with wood putty, especially if you plan to paint the wood. While some fillers are tinted and some will take a stain, repairs are likely to show in unpainted trim.

Our rule of thumb is to save everything that can't be readily reproduced, even if it's damaged.

If you're doing a major rehab, start saving everything. Find a place where you can stack it flat and where it will stay dry. Even if you have to cut off some ends, you may be able to save enough wood to do virtually the entire house.

We don't like to mix old and new trim in the same space, because in most cases that will show. But the trim you save from a room where everything is being replaced -- say a back bedroom -- may help complete trim where it really matters -- like the front parlor.

Sometimes contractors want to use all new trim because it's easier and faster. If you're using a contractor and want to save and reuse the old wood, be sure to state that clearly in your job specifications.

Next: Designing closets.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The

Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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