How to Dismantle Woodwork

When restoring a room, sometimes it’s best to completely remove all woodwork. Here are tips on how to successfully dismantle a room.

If you face major repairs to plaster walls, or plan to update plumbing or wiring, it’s often easier to remove all the woodwork first. (Photo: Richard Sexton)

When you embark on restoring a room, one of your first challenges is how to carefully remove door and window trim, baseboards, and other woodwork so they can be put back later in their original positions. Perhaps you need to pop off a strategic molding to run new wiring or recover lost window weights. If you’re taking the walls down to bare studs in order to replaster, add plumbing, or insulate, then “taking it all off” may actually save time. Another reason to remove trim is to strip paint in a safe, ventilated space, instead of the rooms you inhabit. Layers of paint come off faster, and your back feels better, when you place the work across sawhorses.

Take care though. Moldings split, even when you approach the job methodically, and you won’t find identical patterns or woods at the local lumberyard. Here’s how we suggest you approach the job of delicate dismantling.

Low-Tech Tools

Forget about screwdrivers! They gouge the wood. Even so, dismantling woodwork is a job well within the reach of a beginner. Hand tools are all you’ll need. Two 16″ pry bars, flat on both ends, are necessities. The other tools include:
• Two 6″ putty knifes
• Claw hammer
• Leather work gloves
• Utility knife with retractable blade
• Hacksaw blade, one end covered in a holder or adhesive tape
• Half a dozen wood shingles
• Nail puller
• Metal file
• Stepladder
• Twine for bundling trim
• Indelible pen (to mark the original location on the back of trim)
After this small investment, sweat equity will take you the rest of the way.

Use a hacksaw blade to cut hidden or stubborn nails. Large power-hacksaw blades (shown here) make ideal tools. (Photo: Gordon Bock)

Where to Start

To free up the woodwork from wallpaper that may be overlapping it or from layers of paint “gluing” it to the wall, put a new blade in your utility knife and score the perimeters of the windows, doors, and baseboards. Cutting through the film of paint does as much to loosen the woodwork as a lot of grunting, so don’t skip this step.

Taking moldings apart is like pressing the rewind button on your VCR. You are reversing the process used to assemble the interior trim from its components. The window and door casings are nailed to the jambs, and additional built-up moldings may be nailed to the outer edges of the flat casing. Two small pieces can make up what looks like a single profile. Score the joints, and these will be far easier to disassemble.

First, choose an inconspicuous door or window, ascend the ladder, and push the putty knife (or tap the handle lightly with a hammer) until the blade slides between the wall and woodwork. Wiggle the putty knife back and forth. Then, gently hammer the bent end of the pry bar into this opening. Use leverage and work the trim away from the wall until you find a nail. If you find that the force you’re exerting is damaging plaster (and you want to save the plaster) slip a wood shingle behind the pry bar.

When you find the first nail, place the notch of the pry bar around that nail and pry until you see a second nail. Use shingles to hold the woodwork away from the wall, or else the trim could snap back into place when you let go, popping the head of the finish nail through the surface of the paint. This is a no-no.

Pry against the second nail with the pry bar, taking care to protect the wall with a putty knife or shingle. There are studs or wood blocks wherever the molding is nailed, so you will have solid support to pry against. Not so if you’re prying between the studs, where there is nothing except lath.

A good way to protect moldings is to slip your pry bar between two wide-blade putty knives. (Photo: Gordon Bock)

Long nails hold the flat casings around doors and windows to the jambs and rough framing. To remove the casings, you may need to use two pry bars working in opposite directions. Starting with the putty knife, widen the opening by working it back and forth, and then insert one pry bar. Work carefully to avoid chewing up edges. When you have room, insert a second pry bar next to it. You can also use this method to remove the window stops, but watch out. Sometimes window stops are screwed, not nailed. Screws, especially round-head brass screws paired with brass finishing washers, allow homeowners to make seasonal adjustments to sticky or rattling window sashes. Screws are also great in case the sash weights need repair. Over time, though, painters cover the screws.

After the pry bar has sprung the trim at each nail, pull gently with your gloved hands. If the nails are stubborn and the molding begins to split, rather than muscling it with the pry bar, use a hacksaw blade. Slip the blade in the crack between the wall and molding.

Wrap one end of the hacksaw blade in adhesive tape to give you something to grip, then cut the nail and the molding will come free. You can also use a hacksaw when you’re freeing up the molding at the first nail. Once that nail is severed, the piece will pull away from the wall, and you can see where the next nail is located.

Always work from corners or ends, especially on moldings that flex. Otherwise, you risk snapping them. An example of this type of molding is the ogee trim used around windows, cornice moldings, picture moldings, and base cap. These fragile pieces require extra care.

Large built-up moldings such as this cornice are composed of smaller, single moldings nail one to the next. They’ll be easier to dismantle if you score the joints between them. (Illustration: Rob Leanna)

Miters and Coped Moldings

Take your time with these babies. Not only are the profiles of moldings hard to duplicate, but the fitting and futzing with corners is time-consuming. Some carpenter spent a long time working on this “kiss fit.” Don’t mess it up. Outside corners are the easiest to take apart. Score the paint with the utility knife, insert the putty knife, and loosen until you find the first nail. Then pry gently against the putty knife with a pry bar. Work your way along the trim, nail by nail, until you’ve loosened it from one end to the other. Now begin pulling gently where the nails are located. Don’t let the trim fall back.

Inside corners are not mitered, they’re coped. This means that one board is cut flat and runs all the way into the corner where it’s cut at 90 degrees. The other board is cut with a coping saw to fit the profile of the installed molding. Score the paint in the corner, then try loosening one board and then the other until you decide which is the most likely to come free. The coped piece must be removed first.

Inside corners are coped, with one piece lapping over the other. Loosen each board until you decide which is on top. (Illustration: Rob Leanna)

You’ll often find lap joints in the middle of long runs of cornice or picture rail. These lap joints are located over studs or, in the case of solid masonry walls, grounds—that is, wooden blocks inserted into the brick or plaster as nailing anchors for the joiners who trimmed out the house. The length of these pieces is critical. Each piece of molding must go back where it came from. So, even if one piece splits when you’re removing it, stop immediately and glue it back together. Hold the broken, freshly glued pieces to a splint with clamps. Molding isn’t fine furniture, but there’s no denying what a squeeze bottle of hide glue can do for a job-site repair. Hide glue has a long open time, allowing you to position the fragmented ends carefully. Hide glue also leaves none of the thick residue of dried, white or yellow carpenter’s glue. Warm water washes hide glue off, unlike the white glue that gums up the pores of wood and really shows up if you apply clear finish.

Because moldings are nailed to studs, you’ll have a solid surface to pry against. (Illustration: Rob Leanna)

Occasionally baseboards can fool you into thinking they have a separate base cap, when they are really one piece with a milled profile on top. Don’t pry too hard until you know for sure. Another component of a baseboard is base shoe, which hides the gap between the baseboard and the floorboards. Score the corners, inside and outside; start from mitered corners, if there are any. Tall baseboards—the 12″ variety—were generally fastened with long nails. These aren’t always easy to extract. The base cap may be toenailed down into the baseboard and straight-nailed into the wall. Nails in two directions hold woodwork very securely in place. Here’s another place where the hacksaw blade comes in handy. Slip it in the gap and sever one or more nails.

A tip for windows: Take off everything except the sill. Sills are tough to remove without splitting them, and of all the trim pieces, they’re the easiest to strip in place.

In masonry or plaster walls, you’ll find grounds, the wooden blocks (at arrows) that provide a place to nail–and pry–the moldings. (Illustration: Rob Leanna)

Removing Nails

My dad always gave me the job of driving the nails back through the lumber. Perhaps he thought I would step on them—or maybe he wanted to keep me out of his hair. While that’s fine for framing lumber, it’s the wrong approach for trim. Trim is installed with finish nails, and the right way to clean up moldings is to pull the nails from the back. Here’s why. After carpenters set nail heads, painters come along and fill the holes with putty. The putty hardens, and if you try to bang the nail out with a hammer, the putty and nailhead erupt through the paint layers, splintering wood. Tiny holes widen to a half-inch, ragged pit.

Pulling finish nails from the back is easy because they have no significant heads. You can do your nail cleanup on the floor or across sawhorses spanned by a sturdy plank. Don’t let molding bend while you’re exerting force, and forget the claws of the hammer. A claw hammer is rough on trim, especially softwoods. Nail pullers were invented for this task and are less likely to leave tracks. With leverage, even cut nails pull through easily. If you find a common nail, pull it as far as you can, then try to induce metal fatigue by bending the nail back and forth with locking pliers until the steel grows warm. Snap the nail off flush (even with the back surface of the molding). If a ragged piece of metal sticks up, grind it flush with a metal file. Otherwise, when you bundle the trim, you’ll risk gouging adjacent pieces.

Label and Store

It’s a good idea to sketch each room and give a number or compass point to every door and window. Come up with a labeling scheme and make a cheat sheet so your helpers also know what they’re supposed to mark down. The labeling scheme can be by room—Parlor, Sitting Room, and Master Bedroom. Moldings, such as cornices and baseboards, are best labeled by compass coordinates within the room NW, SE. Give each door and window a number—Door 1, Window 1.

Keep an indelible pen handy, but test it first with paint stripper so you know it’s truly indelible. If the ink comes off, switch brands or try a woodburning tool. As you take each piece down, mark the location on the back. Don’t wait for Pick-Up-Stix to accumulate in the middle of the floor.

Then bundle and label each unit and key it to your cheat sheet. After you’ve bound a bundle of trim with twine, mark the location on tagboard mailing labels. With baling wire, attach the label through a nail hole in a piece of bundled molding. That way, even if you take the bundle apart for stripping, you won’t lose track of where the molding came from.

When the time comes to reinstall the package, you can return the bundle to the proper location. Nail holes will line up, and you can even drive your new finish nail through specks of old putty.

Tags: Marylee MacDonald OHJ September/October 2001 Old-House Journal

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