Removing Woodwork to Strip or Salvage - Restoration & Design for the Vintage House | Old House Online

Removing Woodwork to Strip or Salvage

The task of removing woodwork without splintering the pieces—and then reassembling all of it correctly—is sobering. Here are methods developed by OHJ readers and salvagers.
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removing molding

Putty knives or a painter’s 5-in-1 tool plus small pry bars help remove wood trim.

You may find removing woodwork necessary—baseboard, window casings, crown moulding—for several reasons. Many people prefer to have layers of paint stripped off-site, to avoid health hazards in the home. Trim has to come off during the repair of windows and when walls need replastering. Trim is removed when insulation or new systems (wiring, ducts) have to go into the walls. And you might have cause to remove trim that is going to be salvaged for a different use.

Forget big demolition tools. Your main go-to is a short, flat pry bar (or cat’s paw). Often used in pairs, they’re designed for deft removal. Miniature pry bars include Stanley’s Wonder Bar II and the Shark Grip pry bar. You’ll also need a claw hammer, nail puller, nippers and/or pliers, and a couple of putty knives with 2"–4" blades. Sometimes you will resort to a 12" pry bar, and a keyhole hacksaw may come in handy. Use work gloves and eye protection.

Except perhaps as a lever between two putty knives, do not use a screwdriver to pry woodwork loose. Too narrow to distribute force over a wide area, a screwdriver will leave chewed-up edges on the wood. A “patina” has undoubtedly built up after years of banging by vacuum cleaners, furniture, and toys. But the slip of a crowbar can do a lot of damage, so you’ll want to work carefully. Softer woods, including cedar and fir, dent and scratch more easily.

Before you remove anything, make a rough sketch of the room, giving each elevation (side) a number, then a number to each top (head) and stile (side) piece around each window and door, etc. This is your a map of the woodwork.

Removal
Trim may be virtually glued to the wall by excessive paint buildup or even wallpaper overlapping the woodwork. Cut through the “seam” with a knife or a scraper before pulling away the trim, so you don’t flake paint or rip wallpaper during trim removal. Also, repair any splits or defects in the trim itself before it’s removed. Mending the wood at this stage is easier than trying to reassemble splintered pieces once the trim is off.

remove coped moulding

The coped piece—installed in the corner after its mate—must be removed first.

Coped Moulding Near Ceiling
Note the construction of a corner before you work on it. (Always a good idea to take some quick close-up photos.) Generally, outside trim corners are mitered (both pieces cut at 45 degrees to meet). Inside corners are coped (one board cut with a coping saw so that it fits the contour of its mate at 90 degrees). The coped board was installed after its mate, so remove it first. Then you can cover any evidence of your initial prying when the trim is nailed back into place. Pry each board at the edge or joint exposed by the board you just removed.

To remove moulding, gently hammer the bent edge of the pry bar between the wall and the wood at one end of the trim. The tops or bottoms of windows and doors are good places to begin prying. If you’re removing baseboards or ceiling mouldings, begin at the corners. Start in an inconspicuous place as you may gouge or dent the wood or the wall with your first effort.

prying molding

After an end is freed, hold gap open with a pry bar and move on to pry at the next nail.

Prying and Leverage
Start by using a putty knife to separate the trim from the wall. (A painter’s 5-in-1 putty knife is ideal.) Slip the knife behind trim at one end (you can tap its handle with the hammer) and wiggle the knife until the gap is wide enough to insert a small pry bar. Position a tapered wood shingle or a wide-blade putty knife to protect the wall from the pry bar, and lift the end of the bar carefully, using the wall as a fulcrum. Work the wood away from the wall until you see a nail. Hold open the space between the wood and the wall with another pry bar or a shingle, and then pry at the exposed nail until a second nail is visible.

long pry bar

A longer pry bar offers more leverage. Protect plaster, as here with a shim (shingle).

Length of Board
Continue prying in this manner down the length of the board, working at the nailed spots only, until the trim is free of the wall. Once the whole board has been pried out and is suspended by a few nails, you can usually tug it away from the wall by hand.

Very soft trim woods may show marks from the pry bar even if you’re careful. Use two wide putty knives, one to protect the wall and the other to protect the trim. Insert them at the edge of a board and tap them in until a gap is opened. Then slide the pry bar between them and continue prying as before.

In most cases, the nails holding the woodwork will be small-head finishing nails. They’ll either pull through the trim and remain in the wall, or come away with the trim. To remove any finishing nails still in the wood, take a nail puller or pliers and pull them out from the back—never hammer them through the front of the board. The nail heads were originally set below the surface and filled with putty; knocking them through the front can dislodge the putty and splinter the surrounding wood.

Pull Nails from Back
Occasionally, trim was secured with large-head common nails. Pry the moulding about ¼" away from the wall, as described above. Then, with a wood block, tap the moulding back against the wall. The offending nail heads will protrude enough for you to either (a) remove the nails with your pry bar, using a wood shingle or putty knife under the pry bar to protect the moulding, or (b) cut the heads off the nails with your wire cutters. If nails are thin enough, use the second method and avoid further prying.

You might just find a manufacturer’s or dealer’s marking on the back side of trim. Maybe yours will be identified as a “kit house” from Sears, Aladdin, or similar!

Common nails can’t be pulled through from the back of the board, so if any remain in the wood after its removal, cut them with heavy wire cutters close to the back of the board. Then file down any protrusions of the nails, so they don’t scratch other pieces when you’re bundling the trim pieces.

removing nails from molding

The best way to remove nails is by pulling them out from the back of the board or trim piece, using a nail puller 

Prep for Transit
After you remove all the trim, prepare the pieces for temporary storage. Number each piece on the back side, and note its location on your detailed sketch (map) of the room. With a set of numeral dies, stamp identifying numbers into the wood. Anything in chalk or pencil, even ink, will disappear during stripping or sanding.

Once a complete set of trim and mouldings for, say, a window has been removed and numbered, it can be tied in a bundle and labeled according the map: “living room, north wall, left window.”

Deliver any small, miscellaneous pieces in a labeled shoebox. Tie together long pieces so they don’t flap (while carried in a pickup bed). Pad everything before tying.

After stripping or fumigation or cleaning, woodwork must dry out for several weeks, preferably in the environment where it will be re-installed. Steam or chemical paint removal will have raised the grain, especially on pieces that had been exposed to a lot of sunlight. Use wood filler and steel wool to polish. Sanding will take care of any splintered edges.

(Thanks to Gordon Bock, Larry Jones, and Bruce Berney for developing the methods described.)

opposing prybars

Opposing prybar method.

Opposing Prybars

Sometimes you have to separate two mouldings from each other—for example, when you’re removing the stop moulding from a window. Use two prybars next to each other and work them in opposite directions. (The handles can face the same way or opposite—whichever works better.) Opposing prybars exert a lot of force, so work carefully. The inside windowsill, or stool, is the first board the carpenter installed. Therefore it can’t be removed until you’ve pried off the casings around it and the apron below it. 

saw through molding

Saw through method.

Saw Through

Another method works well for wood that tends to split, like redwood. Once the trim piece has been parted using the techniques above, by as little as the thickness of a hacksaw blade, then you may insert a blade to cut off the nails behind the trim. This saves strain on the wood. A thick sheet of tin or a wood shingle may be used to protect walls or nearby woodwork.

Stanley and others make a handy handle-gadget for use with hacksaw blades, but in a pinch you can make a handle by wrapping friction tape around the hacksaw. In this situation, a hacksaw blade works best if inserted so that cutting takes place on the pull stroke.

Note: Be aware that, prior to 1978, the paint used may have contained lead. Take due precautions.

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