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PLANNING FOR SUCCESS FOR THE ON-SITE
ARCHITECTURAL WOOD STRIPPING AND REFINISHING PROJECT

First appeared in PROFESSIONAL REFINISHING MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1998



BY DEAN CAMENARES

The devil is truly in the details when it comes to on-site restoration projects. From the moment you begin to formulate an approach, you need to have firmly in mind the scope of the project the materials you'll be using and how many people you'll have working on each part of the project You also have to know how you'll spend each of the hours you and those workers will be there, which room or element you'll start with, where you'll end up and every phase of the operation in between. Although it would be comforting to think of it as an "organizing challenge," what you're really getting yourself into is an amazing juggling act in which keeping all of the balls in the air at one time spells the difference between smooth execution and job-site chaos. The juggling can be done, of course, often without a hitch. In this article, we'll take a took at how to get all the balls up in the air in the first place, starting with site preparation and carrying the job through the stripping phase.

HOME BASE

The first thing to do when you arrive at the address on the work order is establish a center of operations: a place to keep your tools, chemicals and equipment and a spot where you can change clothes and stash personal items. This location should be easily accessible, but you want to set it up so it never gets in the way of the work you're doing. Every job site is different of course, but it's always a good idea to talk over selection of your operations center with your customers. They have to understand that they will be giving the space over to you and your crew for the duration of the work and that children, pets and visitors should be kept out when your gear and chemicals are on hand. This is also a good time to discuss where you'll park your trucks and position your compressor. While you're at it, you should also review your work plan with them exactly what you'll be doing, in which rooms, during fairly specific time frames. Communication with the customer is obviously critical at this point: You're establishing expectations for the level of level of intrusion they will endure and setting up useful ground rules for you and your crew.

It a boils down to this: customers, business operators and work crews all hate surprises, and the more of them you can eliminate with clear, up-front communication, the better for all concerned. And besides, the sooner you've gotten these details out of the way, the more quickly you can focus on preparing the work site.

In our jobs, we tackle one area at a time, pretty much start to finish, even with multiroom or multi-floor projects. It might seem logical to get all of the masking done, then do all of the stripping, then all of the repairs and then of the refinishing. But we start in one spot and proceed methodically in a room-by-room, complete-as-we-go approach because we find that it makes managing the work easier, confines fumes to one area at a time, and inconveniences the customers less. (That approach also has the added benefit of letting customers see systematic progress a key to both short-term patience and long-term satisfaction.)

Once we've settled on a starting place, we get furniture and other obstacles out of the way, preferably in another room. If you don't have that option (and that's often the case), consolidate everything in the center of the room and cover the pile with cloth drops or sheets and then with 2-mil plastic sheeting. (We use cloth first, because plastic sheeting sometimes sticks to certain finishes.)

And don't forget to tape down the edges of the protective sheeting to form a tight seal with the floor. This way, you won't have the problem of every breeze lifting the sheeting and exposing surfaces that you're trying to protect.

MASK AWAY

Once you've cleared the work area of obstacles, it's time to do all that is necessary to make certain that what you're doing for the benefit of the woodwork doesn't end up destroying the flooring or floor coverings.

As you arrange things in any given room, it's a good idea to make certain you're creating pathways that give you easy access to all work areas and, as important, to your ops center, a water source and a washroom. Outside the immediate work area (in hallways and stairways, for example), lay down construction or building paper in long sheets right up to the area in which you need access. This will keep the floors clean as you travel back and forth.

That sort of minimal protection is fine outside the room you're tackling first, but in the workspace itself you need to get serious. We do so by laying down 4-mil polypropylene sheeting over the entire floor area, cutting it to conform to the layout of the room. (Nothing less than 4-mil sheeting will hold up for the duration of the job.) Once the floor is completely covered, we tape the sheeting to secure it to the floor.

To make our taping last, we use four types of tape: regular masking tape, blue long-life tape, duct tape and aluminum tape to take advantage of their individual stacking abilities as well as their materials and costs.

We start by bordering the room in 2-inch blue tape, then attach the plastic sheeting to the blue tape using duct tape, which does a better job of gripping the plastic. (if you apply the duct tape directly to wood flooring, it's likely you'll pull up the floor finish when you remove the tape; this rarely happens with a sublayer of blue tape.) If the room you're working in has wall-to-wall carpet, skip the blue tape and use the duct tape to secure the plastic directly to the carpet.

With the floor completely covered, it's time to put down a layer of building paper over the plastic. The plastic sheeting prevents liquids from contacting the floor surface; the paper provides a nonslip work surface and will help absorb any spills. (When you're dealing with paint removers, you can't be too careful!) This paper comes in rolls that are 3 or 4 feet wide. Just unroll the paper in long sheets and tape them together using masking tape for an effective, inexpensive hold.

Finally, we secure the paper at the room's perimeter using the aluminum tape. Here, where the woodwork meets the floor, is the most likely spot where chemicals might seep through to the flooring or carpet below. With aluminum tape, you protect all of the underlying taped edges and prevent penetration as well as possible.

OFF THE WALLS

After a quick inspection of all of your handiwork to this point, you now can turn your attention to the walls and to protecting surfaces adjacent to the woodwork you'll be stripping, repairing and refinishing. These areas don't require as heavy a layer of protection as the floors. You may get some flecks of paint or remover on a wall, but you don't have to worry about the spills and puddles that can assault flat areas.

We cover wall areas with light plastic sheeting usually a 1/2-mil product known as painter's plastic that comes in big rolls. The lightness makes it easy to tape up; heavier plastics will tend to sag and pull off the walls, no matter how well you tape them.

Begin by outlining the contours of the woodwork (window and door casings, mantels) with blue tape. Again, this will keep you from lifting paint off the wall later when you pull off the tape. Over this tape, attach the plastic sheeting using aluminum tape. And cover the entire wall, even though you may be working on only one section. This way, you don't have to worry about flicking globs of paint and remover across the room onto an unprotected surface. And believe me, it happens!

You also need to work carefully with woodwork details, such as chair and picture rails or other ornamental features including crown moldings. If you're going to be stripping and finishing these features, you need to isolate them as described above. Ceilings usually don't need full coverage, but certainly mask out about two feet if the woodwork reaches that high.

If your project involves stripping many layers of paint from the wood meaning you'll spend lots of time in one spot, you should take the precaution of adding another layer of protection. We use 3M's masking plastic, which is 3 mils thick and comes in 24-footwide sheets, to border the woodwork. All we use is regular masking tape to affix it.

Your aim in masking off a room prior to stripping and refinishing is to protect all of the surfaces you are not touching from the chance of damage. The more thorough a masking job you do, the less concern you will have and thus more freedom when you get down to work. Besides, the cost of masking materials is low relative to the job (or the cost of errors), so it makes no sense at a to cut corners here.

DUST, ODORS AND SAFETY

So far, we've looked at the methods used to mask and protect surfaces. The one site preparation chore now remaining is the sealing off of entire rooms from the rest of a house so that odors and dust won't find their way into places they don't belong. This is done by sealing off doorways or hallways with duct tape (for maximum hold) and swatches of 4 mil plastic sheeting.

Begin by cutting the sheeting to roughly the size of the opening you wish to seal, then secure it with duct tape to the sides of the doorway or wall. With a little care, you can easily make airtight seals, but if you or others need to travel through the opening, you need to make I-shaped slits.

To do so, apply a strip of duct tape to the center of the plastic starting about two feet down from the top of the opening to about one foot from the bottom about four or five feet long. Next, ran a strip of tape across the top and bottom of the first strip, each about two or three fed wide, thus creating an I slit. Now use a razor or retractable knife and slit the plastic through the duct tape, opening the I slit. The plastic will flop somewhat where you cut it; this is normal.

Now cut two more pieces of plastic sheeting, this time a little smaller than the original opening, and duct tape them to each side of the first sheet but affixed only across the top, letting them hang down in front of the cutout. You've now formed a good barrier that offers access in and out of the work area.

As you think about keeping fumes and dust under control, it's also a good time to think about personal safety. We tell ourselves and those who work with us to take the proper precautions when stripping and refinishing, yet I so often see people on job sites taking bare-minimum steps to protect themselves, if they do anything at all.

Perhaps the fact that most chemical removers don't present an immediate health hazard lulls many of us into a false sense of security. Nonetheless, when working in a partially sealed room it is imperative that you maintain some sort of air exchange to minimize airborne concentrations of chemical fumes.

The easiest way to do this is to keep a fan going, blowing air out of the area you're in, ideally through a window to the outdoors. (If you've set up I-slit doorways, you can introduce fresh air by having a flap only on the work side of the opening to provide positive air intake.)

READY TO WORK

In my own company, we get very serious when it comes to personal protection on the job. Each person working on the stripping phase, for example, wears a tyvek suit with booties and hood. These lightweight, disposable coveralls go over the workers' regular garments and can be used up to two days before they should be discarded. (They cost a couple of bucks each, so we get as much w out of them as possible.) Tyvek is resistant to liquids and is fairly dustproof, once you put on the booties and hood, everything but your hands and face are protected. To take care of those gaps, we wear latex kitchen gloves under a slightly heavier pair of chemical resistant, black or blue neoprene gloves. This combination gives you the dexterity you need along with adequate protection. (And depending on the stage of the stripping process, you sometimes can get away with wearing no more a couple of pairs of the latex gloves.)

Now it's time to think about faces and protecting your eyes and lungs. Splashing chemicals definitely pose a serious hazard, and no matter how well you vent the room, working at close proximity to strippers means you'll breathe the stuff or get it in your eyes if you are not protected.

For the eyes, you should at the very least wear clear goggles that attach firmly with a thick rubber band. Goggles do tend to fog up, however, and they never are comfortable, so I'd suggest investing in full-face shields, which usually cost under $15 and are generally comfortable. As far as protecting your lungs is concerned accept the fact that dust-filtering masks may be fine for most common kinds of dust but offer no protection at all from chemical vapors and fumes. For fumes, you need a half-face, cartridge-type respirator rated for organic chemical vapors.

As important, make sure your respirators fit properly. If they don't, they're completely useless. Two sets of straps usually adjust the fit, but it's not sufficient just to make them "snag": In fact, you can establish the proper fit only by donning the mask and using the palms of your hands to cover the cartridges.

With a proper fit, drawing air in this test should be difficult. You'll feel slight inward pressure along the seal of the mask. In addition, you should have difficulty exhaling and feel pressure in the sides of the mask when you cover the exhale hole. With a poor fit you'll feel the gaps around the edges of the mask when you either inhale or exhale.

There are other, more formal ways to test the fit of a mask, including tests that involve smoke or strong odors, but the simple test just described can usually tell you if the mask fits properly. If the respirator fails the simple test, adjust the straps and try again. If you want greater assurance that nothing will get to your lungs, you might want to try a full-face shield with respirator cartridges. These work well, but they cost in the neighborhood of $150 to $200.

JUST THE BEGINNING

With all of this prep work under your belt, it's time at last to get down to any stripping you need to do as part of the project. In everything you do up to this point (and beyond), protecting yourself, your co-workers and your clients' property are the essence of any architectural restoration project. Of course, there's much more to do, and you have to be just as conscientious about job-site precautions straight through to the day you clean up and present your final bill.

We'll explore the other steps in the process in upcoming articles, first covering repair work and then focusing on finishing to complete the picture. For now, whether you're new at this juggling game or an old pro, be sure to take your time to cover up and protect yourself before you open a single container of chemicals and remember to think the whole project through and make it right from the start!

(Dean Camenares is a pioneer and technical authority on interior architectural wood stripping, refinishing and general restoration. He is the principal of East End Woodstrippers.)





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