Restoring Original Oak Beams

Wednesday, 1st March 2023

Original oak beams are a stunning feature of many historic properties, but have you got the skills and the patience to restore them to their former glory?

Original Oak Beams – for most of us, the words conjure up an idyllic image of comfy cottages, full of character and charm.   It seems almost sacrilege to even consider getting rid of perhaps a one-hundred-year old feature.  It is, of course, possible for oak beams to be stripped of unwanted paint and for them to be returned to their natural patina.  This will highlight their warmth and natural appearance, with original carpenter tool marks and, if you’re lucky, hidden carvings being exposed under the old paint.  The room will be fresher, cleaner, lighter and feel less oppressive.

But restoration is not for the feint-hearted.  The beams may be painted in thick, dark, gloss paint, riddled with tell-tale holes of woodworm, or half rotten away.  Not to mention damage caused by damp. It needs a structural engineer to assess the extent of the damage and to advise you on the feasibility of restoration.  Planning permission will also be required if your home is a listed building. If you decide to take on the work yourself then the first consideration is:

Worm and Beetle Attack –  it is unlikely that there will be active infestation.  Evidence of  live activity will be little pyramids of fine dust on the floor below which is created as the beetles eat their way to the surface of the timber.  Beams can be successfully treated with insecticide to eliminate any active woodworm.

Black Painted Beams  — Old paint on the beams can be removed but great care should be taken, as the surface and patina of old timber is easily destroyed by aggressive treatments such as blow lamps, grit blasting or grinding.  The gentlest option is sanding by hand.  However, it’s messy and time-consuming, and be aware that lead could be present in the paint if any of the layers are pre mid-1960s.

Other points to bear in mind –
Using chemicals – chemicals are corrosive, they can cause breathing problems and skin irritation.  Not surprising, then, that many are recommended for outdoor use only.  All the necessary precautions should be taken when using any chemicals, especially indoors.

Soda Blasting – (Bicarbonate of Soda). There are pressure-wash experts out there who strip black paint from oak beams without using chemicals at all.  As the pressures used are controlled and so low, they claim that original features are not harmed and no abrasion is caused to the surface or surrounding area.

After spending a lot of time and energy, or money, on getting rid of unwanted paint, you may find that wood stain has penetrated deep into the timber. Whilst wood lighteners or bleaches will lighten the wood, it is almost impossible to get rid of all the effects of wood stain.

It is also possible that, after all that hard work, you will be disappointed with the result.  Inferior wood may have been used in the original construction, the surface you have uncovered may be unattractive due to the exposure of unsightly flaws or damage over time, as well as possible worm and beetle holes.

On the other hand, after all that hard work, by you or a specialist, you may have returned your oak beams to their former magnificent glory and by so doing, transformed your room into a living space to be desired, admired and cherished.  Good for you.