Learning About Learning: Varnishing

We have a collection of five-panel doors

So what does refinishing three old doors teach me about teaching and learning?

This is one of those projects that we put off. For years. When we renovated our old house (built ca 1860) in 2000, we didn’t use crappy new doors or expensive, authentic new doors – we used all the lovely old raised five panel doors that were in the house. However, the lovely old doors mostly had old dark varnish on them. The woodwork that we replicated was the honeyed pine that was also appropriate to the house. So that meant the doors needed to be refinished. It was low on the punch list then, and we knew we could do that project (where building a set of stairs might be outside our wheelhouse).

So the doors were hung and they waited. Because life goes on and varnishing can wait.

This summer we had a stretch of nice days in the forecast, so we pulled three of the doors down and set them up in the shade on the driveway.

Shade of the garage, varnish removal in process

First process – take off the old varnish. Really more like four steps.

Teaching strategies: Prior knowledge, repetition, compare and contrast, different approached for different problems

I relied on prior knowledge and began with a standard chemical stripper. This worked well on the long and wide boards. It took multiple passes on each board because that old varnish turned to glue. Black glue. Another strategy was to use a belt sander. The belt sander was gummed up by the black varnish as well. The paint-on chemical was not working for the raised panels. Sure, it worked on the wide flat surfaces, but on the edges it was just not cutting it. So we tried another method – the dissolving chemical. I used steel wool and a different refinishing product to remove the black varnish. This worked really well but was too time consuming for the long boards. So we used all three at different parts of the process. Start with the paint-on and the flat surfaces, wipe with mineral spirits, use the dissolve and wipe off for the panels, finish with the belt sander.

Radial sander leaves striations that need to be removed

Repeat on six sides of three doors. One door is pine and the other two are ash. You can smell the difference as you sand.

Second process – hang the doors

Teaching strategies – use existing models as examples, operated individual parts separately (hinges, mortise locks)

We used examples that were hanging in other parts of the house to be certain that the swing was correct, that the locks were facing the right way, and that the doors closed. This was not as simple as it looked.

Third process – varnish the doors

Teaching strategies – prior knowledge, (also letting go of prior knowledge), repetition

Doors hung, waiting to varnish

We hung the doors to make it easier to access both sides to varnish. I have varnished a few things in my life, and I felt like I had this one. And then the product that I was given (water clean up, low odor) did not behave AT ALL like the varnish that I am used to working with. First step, and all over sanding with 00 steel wool. Wipe the door down and start the varnishing. It was hard to get the latex product to go on smoothly, it spattered and dripped, but the end product was lovely. The first door, both sides, took over an hour. The last two doors went significantly faster. I discovered a process that worked  – first all the horizontal flat surfaces, then the recessed borders of the panels, then the long verticals.

Two hours in between coats, 00 steel wool pass between coats – and the doors are lovely.

Varnished, lovely, in need of escutcheons  – note how well they match the trim.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Liz says:

    An interesting parallel to teaching. My takeaway is that patience and fortitude are needed in both for success.

  2. Kate Tabor says:

    Also, don’t be afraid to try something different if what you are doing is NOT working. It’s true that you need patience and a sense of humor.

  3. Sharon Janesick says:

    This is a gorgeous door!

    1. Kate Tabor says:

      Thanks, Sharon! This was a PROJECT, and my hands ached for days afterward. But the old five panel doors are worth the effort, I think.

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