Adventures in Stripping: Tackling the Trim

Stripping Wood Trim in Our American System Built Home

We’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern for the past five years, paralyzed by the question of whether to strip the interior trim in our house or repaint it. In the early days of ownership, when we were full of the exuberance that’s common to new homeownership, we stripped some small test sections of the trim and discovered that wood had been replaced in some areas. That discovery provided the excuse to put off the decision until a later date. And now here we are five years on and we’ve made a decision … sort of.

Now that the old kitchen cabinets – which are in the process of becoming new built-ins for the fireplace – have been stripped and prepped, we need to make a decision on what to do with the trim. If we’re going to paint the woodwork in the living room, we’ll paint the cabinets. If, however, we’re going to strip the trim and stain it, we will also stain the cabinets. Finally, I decided to let safety make the decision for us. We would test the trim for lead paint and if any was found, we would paint over it.

I picked up a DIY lead paint test kit and followed the easy instructions. And I do mean easy! I scratched off a little paint from the trim and then swabbed it with the testing pen. If the tip of the pin turned red, that would indicate lead paint. If the trip didn’t turn red, we’re free to proceed.

A lead paint test kit indicated that there is NO lead paint

Good news! The test kit did not indicate the presence of lead paint. Well, I guess that’s good news if you’re looking forward to months of labor. Which, oddly, I am looking forward to stripping paint. OK, maybe I’m not looking forward to the work, but I am excited to see how the living room is transformed when the trim is no longer painted white.

Satisfied that I wasn’t go to release lead molecules into the air, I started stripping paint in a corner of the living room. This is a corner where I had performed a strip test five years ago so it seemed like the perfect spot to return now that we’re going to strip all the trim. The plan is to complete this entire corner – the baseboard, door frame, wall trim and window frame – before moving on to the rest of the room.

I’m happy to report that progress has been fairly quick. Although some areas of trim are stripping easier than others, it’s all coming off fairly quickly. Stepping back and surveying the progress, the stripped trim looks so much better. When it’s covered in white paint, the trim gets lost. Now that it’s back to the dark color of the natural wood, one really notices the intended affect of the classic Prairie style lines.

We are still noticing that some of the wood trim has been replaced and thus doesn’t match the original trim. This seems to be most prevalent around windows, where there may have been leakage that damaged the wood and required replacement. We’ll likely need to stain this replacement trim to match. But of course that’s putting the cart before the horse. First, of course, we have foot after foot of trim to strip. Like all other house decisions, we’re taking it step by step … or, in this case, strip by strip.

Original Elements: The Carriage House & the Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper growing over the slate roof of an old garageWith all the changes that have been made to the Meier House in its 100+ year history, we cherish the features that are original to its construction. We do our best to restore and maintain the entire house, but we give special attention to extant original elements. One of those original features is also the largest: the carriage house. Well, that’s what we call it. It’s actually the garage that was built when the house was constructed in 1917. It was built for an automobile so it never really housed a carriage per se. Still, this vine covered little structure begs to be called carriage house, doesn’t it? Continue reading

Repurposing the Kitchen Cabinetry Step 2: Cutting the Cabinets Down to Size

Now that we have a plan to upcycle the upper half of the original kitchen cabinetry, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The first step in refashioning the cabinets as new fireplace built-ins is cutting this one cabinet into thirds. Continue reading

Upcycling the Original Kitchen Cabinets
Or, Making Lemons into Lemonade

We’ve been thinking about what to do with the original kitchen cabinets since we first discovered them in the garage back in the spring of 2014. Back then, the cabinets were sitting in a corner of the garage covered in layers of dust and grime. The base unit, facing backwards, was resting on the concrete floor and the upper cabinet was mounted on the wall above. The doors, drawers and shelves were stacked on the top and inside the base unit. We turned the base unit around and tested to see if the drawers and doors fit it and the upper cabinet. We were delighted not only to see that everything fit but that none of the glass in the doors had been broken over the years.

Satisfied that we had the complete cabinetry, we start mulling how we would reuse them in the house. In those early days of house ownership, when we were wide eyed and filled with outrageous ambition, we dreamed of retrofitting the kitchen and re-placing the original cabinets back in their rightful spot. But to make the footprint of the kitchen look as it would have back in 1917, we would need to completely reconfigure the kitchen. We would need to relocate the refrigerator and dishwasher as part of a complete kitchen remodel. Ambitious, right? Well when we decided to give the kitchen a facelift instead of an overhaul, that nixed that idea.

And so we left the cabinets sitting there in the garage. For. Five. Years.

Now that we had jettisoned the plan to move the cabinets back into the kitchen, I started thinking about another way that I could upcycle them. About a year ago I hit on the idea of dismantling the top cabinets to reuse them elsewhere in the house. I think I was sweeping the garage when I ran excitedly into the house and beckoned The Mister to share my new plan with him. Picture it, I said as I stood with him in front of the cabinets in the garage, I’ll cut the upper cabinetry apart to create two built-in cabinets for the fireplace. There had once been shelving flanking the fireplace but that had been removed years ago. So let’s take something that had been removed from the elsewhere in the house, I explained, to create something new for it. What a great idea! we both agreed.

And then I choked. I could hear the purists in the back of my wind. “Why would you ever cut those cabinets apart! They’re one of the only remaining original features of your home! You should preserve them!”

But today I’m here to tell you that I’ve decided to let the purists squawk all they want; we still think this is a good idea.

Because, you see, here’s the thing: the Delbert Meier House is not a museum. And we have not set out to turn back the hands of time and recreate the home that the Meier family first inhabited in 1917. This house is an ever-evolving family home in a small rural town. Over the years it has been owned by woodworkers, DIYers and co-creators who have made changes to the house that they deemed appropriate at the time. We’re following the example set by those previous owners and creating something that will be useful, beautiful and enhance the livability of the house for future owners.

We don’t know exactly how long the original kitchen cabinets have been stored in the garage. Judging by the layers of dirt and dust on them, I’d say at least a couple of decades. Some of the shelves were imprinted with what looked like oil can rings and other automotive stains so we suspect that the cabinets were used for storage in the garage at some point. The cabinets have been enduring the damage of temperature change and wear and tear of being in the garage for decades. By repurposing one of the cabinets for a new use, we’re saving them from further neglect.

And so it’s official. The upper cabinetry will be cut down to size and repurposed as built-in cabinets on either side of the fireplace. Stay tuned to see the progress of this project!

A Visit to the Elizabeth Murphy House

The Owners of the Elizabeth Murphy House in Milwaukee, WI

As we’ve written about in the past, one of the wonderful advantages of owning one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes is becoming part of a network of stewards who are interested not only in their own home but in the ASBH project as a whole. Over the past five years of ownership of the Meier house, we’ve had the privilege of spending time with many ASBH stewards in their homes. We meet to share stories and compare notes, to break bread and break down history and, of course, to give tours of our homes.

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