Never. Never again. It will never work. We’ve all done it; declared that something can NEVER be done. And occasionally we are surprised – or humbled or even chagrinned – by our change of heart when we realize that what we’ve said “never” to might actually be a practical option. When working on the Senate Chamber at the Massachusetts State House in 2018, we were faced with a challenge. We were asked to take on something we had said we would never do.
As part of a larger and very time-consuming restoration, we removed 1544 rusticated panels for stripping and restoration. The panels were individually numbered so that they could be returned to the exact same spot once restoration was finished. The panels needed to be stripped of as much as 20 layers of paint then restored, finished and returned to their original positions. Typically, we have excellent success chemically stripping items like the panels with methylene chloride-based conventional furniture-grade paint strippers.. However, the conservators for the project specified that the panels were to be stripped with steam. We always said we would “never” use steam stripping.
Rich Muckle is the center of M&A’s technical expertise. He has decades of experience and is an acknowledged expert in preservation technology for historic wood work. Rich was particularly hesitant about using the technique. Steam stripping is not a method we had used in the past. Exposing old wood – or any wood – to heat and moisture is usually detrimental to the wood and causes warping as the wood dries. But there we were with 1544 panels that needed our care and attention, and which were required to be steam stripped. So, despite our reservations, we proceeded carefully. To our delight, the steam stripping technique did successfully remove the many layers of old paint from the panels without damaging the wood. The panels have been replaced back in their numbered spots and the Senate Chamber and the Senators have moved back into their newly refurbished chamber.
Going forward, we will not rule out steam stripping in some circumstances, now that we have seen first-hand that it can be an effective method for stripping wood. An additional benefit of the steam stripping was that we found it to be more efficient that the “green chemicals” that are marketed for stripping and, of course using steam is far better for our environment that using any chemicals. While it was not our method of choice and we approached it hesitantly, we learned an important lesson about never saying, “Never”.