15 July 2010

Varnish, varnish, varnish

I'm calling it varnish, but I guess it's called polyurethane in English. Maybe that's just a category of varnish. It's water-based, and it's called « vitrificateur » in French. It gives the wood a "glassy" or vitreous finish. I find mentions of "polyurethane varnishes" in Wikipedia.

Here's the staircase drying after the initial wipe-down
with a wet rag. It took a while to dry.

Now that the weather has cooled down, I've been working every day at putting another coat of varnish on one part or another of the new staircase. First I varnished the railings upstairs with a couple of coats, and then the banisters running down the stairs with one good coat. They'll need another.

Looking down toward the ground floor after applying
the first coat of polyurethane varnish.

But I really wanted to get to work on the steps themselves. They were dirty with plaster dust and foot dirt. Each tread was covered with a sheet of cardboard that was taped to the front edge of the step. There were scuff marks on the risers from the heels of shoes — mostly my sandals, I know.

A closer look at the treads and risers
after one coat of varnish...

The first step was to take off the cardboard and, after vacuuming, to wash the whole staircase down with a damp cloth. I added a small amount of distilled vinegar to the water. The black scuff marks washed right off, but after the stairs had dried I realized the glue holding all that tape onto the front of the steps had left behind a sticky residue.

...and a look down from a different angle

I decided to try removing it with a product called White Spirit, which is a paint thinner and general solvent. I was worried about what that might do to the wood, but it turned out fine. I got off all the sticky residue. In some places, it took a little sanding too.

The building contractor left this portable scaffolding with us
for the summer. It'll help greatly with the painting job.

The actual varnishing was pretty easy. That part of the all-day project took only about 90 minutes. And I'm happy with the result. Now I have to apply at least two more coats of varnish to the parts that will be subjected to the heaviest wear — steps, risers, and handrails — before I can call it finished. And then figure out how to apply varnish to the underside of the stair.


  1. I was thinking the same thing about the underside of the stairs. Do you think a roller with a telescopic handle could do the trick? On the other hand, could you use the portable scaffolding on the travertine stairs below at all?

    Why does it take so long for a post to appear after you posted it. It says it was posted at 7:14. I looked at 7:58 and it wasn't there yet!

  2. Bonjour CHM,

    When I start to draft a post, or just upload the photos, blogger records the time. If I work on the text for an hour or even several hours, that first time stamp remains in effect unless I change in manually. Usually I don't remember to go back and change it.

    We do have a roller on a long pole. Or maybe we can attach a brush to the pole. The portable scaffolding is another possibility, if we can figure out how to adjust the legs.

  3. I think that you have a very nice contractor who will let you have the use of the scaffold. I like CHM's idea of a roller with a long handle, but know the underside job won't be easy. You are having a productive summer to say the least:)

    As Joan Baez says in one of her songs, "carryon".

  4. The attic room really looks great. I also like the water based "varnishes" best; that said, in my experience, they wear faster and I have found that I have to redo them after a couple years.

  5. Hello Diog', now you tell me! You mean I have to do all this again in a couple of years! Yikes!

    Evelyn, yes, what a year we are having. Now we have a leak in the roof. Walt called a roofer today, and we are waiting to hear back from him. It never ends.

  6. Sorry to read about the roof leaking.

  7. Uh oh, roof leaking? Not good news. I had the same reaction as you did to Diogenes' post. Every couple of years? That wasn't in the plan!

  8. Ch., the roof leak is the same one we had before. It happened first in June 2007 during a very heavy rain. We called in a roofer and he cleaned out the valley between the main roof and the roof on the little gable over the kitchen. That seems to work.

    Then again in May 2008 when you were here we had a similar rain. Walt went up into the attic to see if it was leaking but it wasn't. That's when the trap door and folding stair fell down and nearly killed him.

    Now we've had very heavy rains two or three times this summer, including on Bastille Day this past Wednesday. There's a little water stain on the kitchen ceiling, up in the corner over the cabinets and microwave. Rather than have it get worse, we're calling in a roofer.


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?