Wood You Rather Preserving Valuable Woodwork in Your Home

Wood You Rather

In any home or apartment, urban or suburban, woodwork plays an important role in construction, but in areas such as doors, floors, cabinets and decorative elements. With plenty of synthetic alternatives and wood veneers available to do-it-yourselfers and decorating professionals, having solid, often ornate wood elements in your building or apartment is considered a luxury nowadays, as many boards and supers opt for cheaper solutions to fix deteriorating wood, rather than using the real McCoy.

Of course, this makes the preservation of old wood a very worthwhile project, and the preservation and restoration industries have seen a boom in recent years as buildings and apartment owners try to maintain their woodwork to cultivate a traditional, antique look. Well cared-for wood features can help enhance the value of a property, while giving apartment owners and shareholders the cozy charm that only real wood can impart.  

Real Versus Not-So-Real

When the woodwork in your apartment or common areas needs serious attention, and you’re offered the option to use synthetics or veneers over the more authentic—and more expensive—solid wood, what might help make up your mind in favor of one over the other?

“Beauty, for one,” says John DeRosso, a contractor and cabinetmaker with DeRosso Finishing Co., Inc. in Chester. “You’re never going to get the same appearance [with an imitation] that you would from real wood.”

While some people opt for more cost-efficient pine or cedar woods, many still prefer to use the hardwoods that better match what’s already in their home or building and can readily withstand the test of time.  

“Depending on what’s in the building to begin with, a lot of time we will use chestnut—which is very difficult to find now—or find ash or oak to match it,” DeRosso says. “It depends on what type of period you’re looking to reproduce.”

As one might expect, the more rare or popular the wood is, the more expensive it is as a building material. With rising costs, more and more people are turning to the veneers, which many buyers and designers feel are more environmentally conscious—in addition to being less expensive than solid wood.

“One tree can yield many, many pieces of veneer, but very few pieces of solid lumber,” says Al Shurtleff of A.C. Shurtleff Woodworking, a design and cabinetry fabrication business in Chestnut Ridge. “As the number of trees [declines], it becomes a lot more cost effective to use architectural-grade cabinet veneers. It’s the solid wood you’re looking at, but it’s mounted on a substrate of some other species that’s not such an exotic material.”

Shurtleff does recommend still using solid wood for the faces of hard-use surfaces, like shelf edges or doorframes, and on certain cabinets if necessary. “You can use mahogany, walnut—really any type of hardwood,” he says. “It saves a few trees for the next generation.”

DeRosso agrees, adding, “The best lumber is always saved for veneer.”

Peter Triestman of Olek Lejbzon & Co., a Manhattan-based company that specializes in preserving historic, mostly wooden buildings and furniture, believes that wood processed today isn’t as good a quality as much of the old lumber found in prewar buildings. He feels that it’s necessary to use new wood only “if wood is missing, or if the wood that is there is totally rotten.”

Extending the Life of Wood

There aren’t any quick-and-easy solutions for managers or supers to take to help preserve the longevity of wood, but there are a few things they can do to help keep the valuable wood in their buildings from being irreparably damaged in the long run.

“You should try not to let the finish deteriorate to the point that you allow moisture through,” says Shurtleff, “That’s wood’s worst enemy. If you have a hardwood floor and the varnish starts to wear, or gets chipped, or even if it just gets damp-mopped, the fibers of the wood could be aggravated, and you’ll start [having] problems. It’s good to keep it sealed—try not to let water lie on it, and have it re-coated periodically.”

When wood gets wet, it becomes an ideal breeding ground for mildew and mold, which in turn make the wood dark and discolored. These problems are often difficult to remedy and can’t be done with some quick-fix oil advertised on television.

“Make sure not to put inappropriate oils on the wood,” says Triestman. They will eventually penetrate and oxidize and it will be difficult to restore the color of a piece. Supers should try to retain finishes to make sure they don’t wear out and don’t get wet frequently.”

While synthetic faux-wood—or real-wood veneers over synthetic substrates—may work well for cabinetry and low-traffic applications, they’re probably not the best option for flooring. Once the wood overlay is worn out, it’s practically worthless. “A floor can be re-sanded if it’s solid wood; a synthetic surface can’t,” Shurtleff says, “and high pressure laminate floors can’t. Synthetics are really just a photograph the wood itself. They’ll last a period of time, and they seem durable, but the main drawback is that you can’t sand them to refinish them. You have to completely replace them.”

A common problem on wooden doors is bacterial discoloration along the bottom edge, usually caused by moisture, or from the finish being compromised by kicks, scuffs, and scratches from heavy use. There is something that can be done to remedy this, however. “Often refinishers don’t realize they can fix something like black staining in wood, but there are in fact particular ways of killing the bacteria—even if it’s deep,” says Triestman. “You can restore the color and save the wood.”

Weather influences also cause problems on front doors. When repairing a damaged front door, Triestman recommends using the same species of wood that is already in use in the door for replacements and patches. “Doors are usually white oak or walnut, which are extremely durable,” he says.

Making the Old…Old Again

Preserving wood has become something of an art form as specialists and designers are called upon to keep things looking like antiques. As wood ages, it tends to take on a pleasing luster, particularly if it’s been well cared for with polish over the years.

“What you try to do is preserve [the original] and match the new stuff as close to that as you can,” says Triestman. “We have ways of imitating an antique look and replicating the wood, which can make it very difficult to tell new from old. If we have to do inlay work, we’ll match the graining of the wood so that the grain will be consistent from one piece to another. Sometimes an artist will help the process along by applying an artificial grain that blends the transition between the old and new pieces to make it less noticeable.”

“With antique restoration, we try and get a piece of wood that is the basic tone and texture of the wood we’re [working on],” adds Shurtleff. “That makes it easier to blend. You try to blend the piece in diagonally instead of squared-off, and if we can, we try to blend into the grain of the wood.”

Matching the color is the most important part of blending. “It’s impossible to make new wood look exactly like old wood, so it’s all about color,” says DeRosso. “Often, people will use glazes to give something a more ‘antiquey’ look. That’s been very popular in the past 10 years.”

The most often used method are called Japan colors, which are super-finely ground pigments that can be diluted with paint thinner and tinted towards the color you are trying to match.

“If you use a dye to get the average color of the wood, after you get the background color of the wood, you can apply a Japan color or a pigmented color,” says Triestman. “These sit on top of the wood and imitate the semi-oxidized finish where the finish begins to get translucent.”

A Question of Value

Sophisticated as refinishing and repairing methods are these days, it’s important to exercise some restraint and remember that you don’t want to go overboard with replacing wood in your home. Throwing out old, mellowed woodwork in the name of “newer is better” can actually have a negative impact on your home’s value. Trying to make things too perfect is a mistake that a lot of people make. “Antiques can lose a lot of their value if you start fixing them too much,” DeRosso says. “Some things are better left untouched.”

Triestman adds that people lucky enough to have original white oak floors should try to keep them intact as best they can. “It’s far preferable to stay with solid oak floors and restore an old floor like that than to go with a veneer. Even under heavy wear in a residential environment, white oak can last for more than a hundred years if it’s well maintained. Old wood floors have terrific appeal.”

If you do replace a wooden element such as cabinets or door lintels with a synthetic or veneer, save as much of the old wood you can—it can often be recycled elsewhere in your apartment or condo. “You can use old wood for moldings and other stuff in the space,” Shurtleff says. “Anytime you have old wood, it’s always a good idea to save it.”

As more and more less-expensive, easily produced building materials come onto the market, the value and charm of real hardwood can only increase. If you’re lucky enough to live in an older building or an apartment that has well preserved, real wood elements, it’s to your benefit—and the benefit of your investment—to keep those moldings, trims, doors, and cabinets looking their best. Anything can be replicated from the past, but the real thing is often worth its weight in gold.

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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