Q: We live in a townhouse that has shutters on the front window, which faces south and is six feet wide. The sun has dried out and bleached the lower shutters, which are about four feet tall. The top shutters, about the same size, are not so bad, as they are usually open and escape the full sunlight. The finish on the inside is fine. Can the shutters be restored? They fit properly, and I would hate to have to buy new ones for this old house. Painting is not an option, as we have the original wood finish in the house.
A: Architectural features made of real wood can almost always be restored. That said, it’s a lot of work to refinish shutters, especially ones with movable louvers. Whoever does the work will need to remove the shutters, take off the hardware, strip the old finish, then sand the wood, stain it and coat it with a clear finish — ideally two coats. The final step is putting it all back together and making sure the parts fit as well as they do now.
It’s tempting to skip the stripping step, which is the most onerous, but it won’t work to try to create a good base for a new finish by brushing on a product such as Zinsser Peel Stop Clear Binding Sealer, which works well for peeling paint outdoors. “On interior varnishes, think of cracking and chipping, not peeling like a finish does outside,” said Jennifer Newell, brand manager for Varathane and Watco products at Rust-Oleum (rustoleum.com), which is also the parent company of Zinsser. “You can’t level it off to a smooth finish without removing it.”
If you want to tackle the restoration job yourself, the first step will be getting the shutters at a comfortable height where there is good air circulation. Number the parts as you remove them so you will be able to reinstall hinges in the same locations. That way, if anything bent over the years, it should still go back together as it is now.
If you do the work yourself, you might be able to treat only the damaged areas. Newell said it might be possible to strip the finish from only the weathered side of the lower shutters if you’re careful. She recommended using Watco Paint & Poly Remover ($7.63 per quart on walmart.com). This stripper (or a similar product from another brand) has a semi-paste consistency that helps keep it from dripping through the slats onto the good side of the shutters and ruining the finish there. Test it on a small area: Brush it on, wait about 10 minutes, then remove the gunk with a plastic scraper.
If this proves too messy, Newell suggested using Watco Furniture Refinisher ($16.99 for a one-quart container at menards.com). This is a less powerful stripper marketed mostly for use on fine furniture with turned legs and carved details. It’s difficult to scrape residue from regular stripper out of nooks and crannies, but refinisher products avoid creating piles of goo because they are formulated to soften finish gradually. As you rub on the refinisher with a cloth or steel wool, you also remove the softening finish. But you’ll probably have to go over each area more than once. With either type of product, follow all safety precautions on the label.
Finish the stripping phase by wiping off any remaining bits. Use denatured alcohol to clean after the paint-and-poly remover, or mineral spirits after the furniture refinisher. Then it’s time to sand with sanding pads or sanding blocks. Go from coarse (80 grit) to medium (120) to fine (220) if you used the remover or just use the medium and fine grits if you used the refinisher. You don’t need to get all the gray wood off, Newell said; it’s sufficient to get just enough off that you can begin to see brighter wood. Vacuum off the dust, and the wood will be ready for staining with a product such as Varathane Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain ($8.21 for a half-pint on amazon.com). Darker colors stand up best to ultraviolet rays from the sun, but in your case, the most important issue is to match the color of the top shutters on the side facing the window.
Once the stain dries, apply one or two coats of a clear finish that has UV inhibitors. Newell recommended Varathane Ultimate Spar Urethane Water Based ($25.17 a quart on amazon.com). The label says exterior use, but that just means it’s fortified to stand up to harsh sunlight — just what you need.
Of course, the alternative is to skip the work and hire someone to do it for you. Jim Irvine, owner of James R. Irvine Construction in Thurmont, Md. (301-271-3272; irvineconstruction.com), said his crew does this work. But to make sure everything matches, his crew would take down all the pieces, strip the finish from everything, sand and make any necessary repairs, then spray on stain plus two coats of clear finish. After looking at the pictures you sent, he estimated the job at about $3,000.