When we think of what finish carpenters do, we think mostly of what it takes to create beautiful woodwork. But carpenters working on existing homes spend a lot of time taking things apart. If we intend to restore the woodwork—often a desirable option in an old house full of exquisite old-growth woods and deep, well-proportioned profiles—we need to surgically remove the pieces, inflicting as little damage as possible so they can be reassembled and refinished.
That was the case in the 1867 house photographed for this article. In a room built over a low crawlspace, the main task was to take up a beautiful vertical-grain fir floor and cut out sections of subfloor so the crawlspace walls could be insulated with spray foam. The operation depended on removing the baseboard and flooring without damage. Elsewhere in the house, the painted woodwork on walls that were being removed had to come down. But the original woodwork was all chestnut - a wood that hardly exists in the U.S. anymore, and the owners wanted to salvage it even though a lot of it had been painted. The photos here show some of the key tools and techniques needed to pull off this work.
Here are some principles to keep in mind for precision demo work:
Reverse order. A big part of removing woodwork is knowing how it was assembled in the first place. You need to remove it in the reverse order it was installed. Nothing here will suffice for experience in knowing how to trim a room.
Look at the joints first. Miters can usually be taken apart from either side. Look at both ends of each piece of trim before you act. The ends of baseboard that butt each other in the corners have to be taken apart in order: overlapping piece first. With crown molding or other moldings that have been coped at corners, it's often hard to decipher which piece was installed first. You may have to skip ahead to the next principle: "Loosen up everything" (below). Once the seams are loose and you have gaps, you can see which piece overlaps the other.
It’s a lot easier to determine the installation order of clear-finished woodwork than that of painted woodwork. Think in layers. Peel off the cap trims first. This will often reveal how corner joints were put together.
Loosen up everything along the entire length of a run of trim before you start trying to pull a piece off.
The first step is to use a utility knife to slice through paint or varnish along seams to break the bond of the finish. (Don't underestimate the strength of a finish. Varnish is especially tenacious and can sometimes pull apart wood grain, destroying the crisp edges that will be instrumental when you put the work back together.) Slicing through the finish will allow you to remove the more delicate cap trims, back bands, cove molds and other decorative bands on built-up moldings.
To loosen trim, disable finish nails by driving them clear through the wood with a pin punch. (I use one from Baltimore Tool Works that has served remarkably for years without mushrooming at the end. If you can find one on eBay or a yard sale, grab it. The Mayhew 21500 is an acceptable alternative.) You may not get all the nails in a run, but the more nails you disable, the less hold the board will have.
After breaking the hold of the finish, begin to pry things apart. Go slow. Think at first of just loosening the parts, not ripping pieces off. I like to work with two pry bars in tandem.
I like the Japanese wide-blade pry bars by Yamaguchi (shown in this article; I can no longer find a U.S. source), Dogyu, or Shark Corp. The wide blade on these is quite sharp (and can be tuned up with a file) to slip into the seams between trim pieces without denting the wood. Stanley and Stilletto also have wide-blade molding bars, but the blades aren't as fine ... Both can be ground to a sharper blade, which I would recommend. The Stanley is a good choice if you don't mind grinding the blade, as it's the most reasonably priced of all (around $13 for the 10-inch model). The Stilletto is completely the opposite: way overpriced (around $68 for an 8 1/2-inch model), especially for a tool you have to modify for fine finish work.
The wide blade on a Japanese pry bar is bent at the end so you can get plenty of leverage. Be sure to insert the blade first, and tap the bar with a hammer to drive the blade into the seam between the molding pieces, then gently leverage up.
Pry close to each nail so the force of the pry bar is transferred directly to the fastener. If you pry between fasteners, you often will only bend the molding, which will stay pinned by the nails, and you risk breaking the molding.
When using any pry bar, be sure to pry against walls at studs to avoid punching through wall surfaces.
Avoid prying against finished boards, but when you can’t, use a wide, flat trowel under the fulcrum point of your pry bar to protect the finish surface. As the board becomes looser, it will be easier to identify fasteners that are still holding a piece in place.
With painted woodwork, it's often more difficult to find the nails. But if you break the paint-hold at the seams and work the pry bars to loosen the boards just a little, the nails will usually reveal themselves.
The goal is to remove trim without excessively bending the trim pieces. We tend to think in terms of using pry bars to pull material apart, but when you want to preserve the materials, it's all about disabling fasteners.
Driving nails through the board is not the only option. Cutting the fastener is a faster option if you have a gap to slip a recip saw or multitool blade into.
Floors are a different animal than trimwork, but many of the same principles apply.
Think in terms of how the floor was laid and reverse that. Strip flooring is joined with a tongue-and-groove joint. When it was installed the first time, it was "blind nailed" with nails through the tongue side of each board. But the last few boards are too close to the wall to allow angling the nail to drive it through the tongue, so these last few boards are usually face-nailed. You need to identify and disable those nails to begin disassembly.
The last board installed will be the first board to come out, but it's often hard to get it out intact. Once the fasteners are disabled, try to loosen the board by driving it away from the tongue on the next board, as shown below.
Depending on the gap between the last board and the wall, you may not have enough space to clear the tongue. That was the case I faced on this project, and I had to sacrifice the tongue, splitting it off with a chisel. After that, I was able to pry the board out.
Vacuum at every step. A good industrial vac is an indispensable demolition tool. This is coming at the end of the article, but it's something you should use every time you take a board off. I vacuum after each piece of wood is removed to make it easier to see my next step and to protect the woodwork. Paint and varnish chips, and especially drywall and plaster dust, are abrasive. In the end, you want clean, unmarred woodwork.