Recycled Redwood Wainscoting
A cabinetmaker re-creates period detail with redwood salvaged from wine vats.
Synopsis: A Berkeley, California, cabinetmaker uses redwood reclaimed from old wine vats to make wainscoting with a Victorian flavor. His time-saving approach uses thin panels nailed directly to wall framing and overlying redwood frame work joined with biscuits. He covers both layout and installation.
Over the 30 years that my wife and I have lived in our home, I have redone almost every room. Being a cabinetmaker, I started with the kitchen, then the bedrooms, putting back windows that had been covered over, replacing inappropriate ones, replacing cracked and loose plaster with drywall, and so on. When we bought this house, I knew it was going to be a lifetime project, and so it has been. Although the house is not an architectural masterpiece, it does have character. Its brown-shingle exterior gives it an affinity with the Craftsman houses of the area, but actually, it is a little older and has details that are distinctly Victorian.
Although I liked the character of the house, I felt no preservationist obligation to return it an “original” state. My criterion for change was to be appropriateness. Nothing was sacred or indispensable — except the redwood. The doors, casings, trim and baseboards are all redwood, as are the eight columns that surround the porch and the open staircase in the front hall.
Built when the forests would last forever
When the house was built in 1896, they were still logging the redwoods in the East Bay Hills above Berkeley and Oakland. These redwoods were huge from the evidence of the stumps that have been discovered in recent years — some the biggest anywhere. Redwood was abundant and cheap, and its widespread use established a tradition that many architects today are understandably loath to give up. Some architects in the past, notably Bernard Maybeck, used redwood with taste, sensitivity and an awareness of its structural qualities as well as its beauty, but much of it was treated merely as a readily available wood and even cut into 2x4s for framing. There were mills that worked nothing but redwood, producing doors, sash and water tanks.
The popular taste of the time favored dark wood, and even though redwood is naturally dark, it was often painted or, as in the case of our house, finished with a dark, lusterless shellac, apparently to look like mahogany. When tastes changed in the 1940s and ’50s, it was painted over in varying shades of white. Upstairs, we stayed with paint, and downstairs, I selected my projects carefully.
I refinished the living-room trim, the staircase and the porch columns, but the dining room presented me with a quandary. The low chair railing and the tongue-and-groove paneling below it never appealed to me. I didn’t want to put a lot of effort into stripping the paint and still have something I didn’t like. Various ideas were dismissed as too ambitious or inappropriate, so we continued to live with the room exactly as it was when we moved in, bland wallpaper and all. Finally, I decided to copy the coffered paneling in the front hall. Extend it, so to speak, into the dining room.
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