Damage to Historic Exterior Woodwork by Aggressive Paint Removal

Center Church, New Haven. Note carved pediment frieze.

Center Church, New Haven. Note carved pediment frieze.

According to NPS Preservation Brief #10, Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork, “Removing paints down to bare wood surfaces using harsh methods can permanently damage those surfaces; therefore such methods are not recommended.” So what is a harsh method? Pretty much anything but a reasonably sharp hand scraper and 80 grit sand paper. Dozens of historic buildings have been burned to the ground by open torch paint removal. Historic woodwork has been scarred by high speed mechanical disk sanders or damaged by chemicals. Quantities of toxic lead dust have been released into the air, needlessly. So why this seemingly irresistible urge on the part of specifiers to remove original, historic paint that is apparently fulfilling its assigned task, faithfully adhering to and protecting the wood surface to which it was applied? If you ask them, they don’t know, they can only repeat Sir Edmund Hillary’s explanation of why he climbed Mr. Everest: “Because it was there.” So it was at the Center Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut, where carved exterior wood frieze work was damaged by an aggressive program of total paint removal. Blackburn Conservation, LLC, was called in to remediate the damage to the carved and milled woodwork and consolidate it. Wouldn’t it have been easier if the church committee had just called them first, for the spec? How are they to know, even trained professionals can be led into error with so much competing and bad information. Still, maintenance of intricate, remote, exterior historic woodwork is a specialized and exacting field. Try to find a qualified technician.

Blackburn Conservation is a Member of the Guild of Building Artisans.

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