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A Painstaking Transformation: Removing the Paint from the Music Room

When the Ford family moved into Fair Lane more than 100 years ago, the sizable Music Room was a gathering space to listen to everything from classic music to dramatic singers to Henry’s collectible violins.

The Music Room boasted warm, walnut walls and a tall ceiling with amazing acoustics, providing a sublime atmosphere.

Sometime circa 1941, however, Clara Ford made a change. Either upon the advice of a decorator or to follow the trends of the time, she had the rich woodwork painted over. The dull putty-colored paint that “modernized” the Music Room hid much of its character, cloaking the ornate details with a monotone finish.

Since then, many more paint layers have been added. One of the first action items for the Henry Ford Estate's historians and preservationists was to find a way to remove all that paint from the wood walls, trim and ornate decorative molding.

A team of experts from Historic Surfaces LLC of Milwaukee, Wisc., came in to assist. Led by founder Anthony Kartsonas, the Music Room is undergoing a painstaking, vivid transformation. Stripping such a substantial room of paint of many layers of paint is both a physical and mental exercise that requires a hefty dose of art, science and, of course, patience.

Start with science

Kartsonas always begins such projects with a scientific approach: every paint has a secret combination that will remove it gently, safely and respectfully, he says. In the case of the Music Room, Kartsonas had to determine the kinds of wood in the room, how the moldings and decorative additions were created, as well as how they would react to paint-removal products.

The greatest challenge proved to be the ornamentation along the top of the Music Room’s walls. While some of the trim was wood, it turned out that a portion was made from compo, which is a mix of paper pulp or sawdust and glue. This mixture is pressed into molds to create lovely and ornate trims. Compo adores paint, Kartsonas says. It’s like a married couple that’s been together for 50 years and refuses to separate.

“It wants to hold the paint, so you cannot be aggressive,” Kartsonas explained. “Removing it is a slow process, and there’s no magic solution. It’s a matter of trial and error.”

Kartsonas went with a water-based paint stripper. The patient conservators applied the product to the walls and did exactly what you’d think they have to do with it – watched it work.

“You have to test different strengths to determine which is going to be the most effective and have what we call the most ‘dwell time,’” Kartsonas says. “You want the stripper to do the work for you. It takes the layers off because it is continuously working.”

The process is something like icing a cake, Kartsonas says. He and his crew applied the stripper, left it on overnight with a layer of paper or lightweight plastic to keep it activated, then meticulously removed the paint bit by bit.


Custom tools

The Music Room project required a steady hand and specialized tools. Scrapers are a painter’s best friends, Kartsonas says, but his crew had to take care not to gouge the wood or damage the decorative aspects.

“The work is not in softening the paint; the work is in cleaning it off,” Kartsonas says.

To help, volunteer conservator Mose Nowland, a former Ford Motor Co. employee who aids the conservation team, designed a tool that honored the curves of the trim and molding. This handy little tool got into each nook and cranny so that the team could remove a substantial amount of the paint in one move. They then went back in with what looks like dental tools to take out any remaining specks.

Once most of the paint was removed, Kartsonas and his team painstakingly cleaned the surface. They use nylon pads to lift any residue, lightly sand to make the surface level and clean the walls with a mild solvent. A completed section is smooth to the touch, revealing both the wood’s golden hues as well as its delicate pattern.

The right team

The devil is in the details from start to finish, Kartsonas says. That is why having the right team in place is so important.

After months of work, give or two a couple breaks to attend to other projects, the end is in sight for the crew, which included the skilled conservators Susie Bucholz, Austin Eighmey and Lindsay McCaw. Some of them prefer taking on large sections of wall and applying the stripper; others like to work on the ornamental sections and getting in close to the work.

Together, they have taken what looked like a blank slate and are returning it to its former glory – a Music Room where the natural warmth of wood lends an easy elegance to Henry and Clara’s grand entertaining space.

“It pays off to do your homework before you attack a project like this,” Kartsonas says. “This room is going to be a showstopper!”

By Karen Dybis for the Henry Ford Estate

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Austin Eighmey of Historic Services LLC removes paint from the window frames in the Music Room.

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A detail of the Music Room trim paint removal, before and after.

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The Historic Surfaces LLC team at work.