Refinishing the mahogany walls of an Eichler home may be easier than you think and this is an excellent example of a sweat equity project that pays huge dividends. I’m sure if you do some research you will find a lot of different opinions but this is what I did to get some fantastic results.
Preparation is the key to any project and it’s imperative to have the right tools and work space. Most of us are living in our homes so you may have to move some furniture to create an ample work space. You are going to be working with a hand sander and there’s going to be quite a bit of dust. When I did our walls I quarantined the area with plastic sheeting and sealed it with contractor’s tape to create what looked like an “alien autopsy room from Area 51” (see photo).
The mahogany wood used to make the walls for Eichler homes and many other mid-century and ranch homes is from the Philippines. During the development of the Greenridge Eichler community in Castro Valley from 1960 to 1963, this wood actually became more scarce and expensive as the resources were depleted. Because of this, it’s my understanding that Eichler used less paneling and more sheet rock as the area was developed from1960 to 1963. This is evident in our neighborhood where the homes built earlier in the development have mahogany paneling throughout the home, while the later homes like ours has paneling only in the kitchen, utility room and great room with sheet rock in the hallways and bedrooms. Makes sense given that one of the basic philosophies of Eichler was making great homes affordable.
So, let’s get down to business. Here is the list of things you are going to need to get the job done.
- Power hand sander: if you don’t already have one, this will be your biggest investment for this project and they are still very reasonable. Get a quality brand at any box store – look for a quarter-sheet sander rather than belt or rotary.
- Dust mask or respirator: spend a little extra and get the best you can find – the dust generated from these walls is very fine. They are available at the box stores but you can find better ones online or at woodworking stores.
- Eye protection: look for something that is going to be more like goggles to seal your face.
- Work clothes: long sleeves and head wear help keep the dust out.
- Finish: use WATCO Danish oil for the best finish - there are different shades available. You will need about a pint per 150 square feet and you are going to do it twice.
- Old t-shirts or rags for application of oil.
- Plastic sheeting to create the work space.
- Drop cloth to protect the floor
- Contractor’s tape to seal the room and cover electrical outlets and switches.
- Sandpaper: I used only 150 grit and higher.
- Wood putty, to fill any old nail holes AFTER FINISHING - I will explain later.
- Putty knife to remove baseboard and molding as well as fill holes after finishing.
- Screwdriver to remove outlet and switch plates.
- Scissors to cut plastic sheeting.
- Hammer and finishing nails to replace the baseboards and molding.
- Ladder and taller step stool for sanding and sealing area.
PREPARATION & SETUP
The first thing I did was move furniture and remove the baseboards and moldings carefully with the putty knife. Remove the finishing nails and put the moldings aside for sanding and finishing later.
Remove the outlet and switch plates and carefully cover the switches and outlets with the contractor’s tape. Turn off the power if needed.
Next, create the work space by cutting sheets of the plastic and tape them to the floor and ceiling and any seams from where they connect to other sheets with contractor’s tape. You will need to leave one of the seams semi-sealed for access because you are most likely going to need at least one break – it can get very hot in the alien autopsy room. If the walls are dusty, wipe them down with a cotton cloth/rag. If you have carpet, be sure to use a drop cloth to make it easier to clean up afterwards.
Cut sheets of sandpaper into ¼ sheets to fit your sander in advance, and have about a dozen on hand because you are going to change them during the job. Get dressed into your work clothes including mask and eyewear and it’s time to get sanding.
SANDING THE WALLS
When you begin any project, it is best to start in a test area just in case things go awry. Something that will be covered by furniture or a lower corner is a good suggestion. If you like the results of the test space then you can proceed. Keep in mind that when you are sanding YOU ONLY SAND IN THE DIRECTION OF THE GRAIN and the fact that the panels are ONLY ¼ OF AN INCH THICK. This doesn’t seem like a lot but it is ample. Take a look at a ruler and you will see that it’s a lot thicker than you think, especially when you are sanding a large flat surface. Just don’t get too fixated on an area because you don’t want divots. Our walls were flaking and in direct sunlight, so be confident that you have enough depth.
I recommend working systematically from top to bottom (to better manage the falling dust), and from left to right or vice versa. Once you start sanding you will be surprised and motivated because you see immediate results. When sanding, be smooth, keep the tool moving and don’t push too hard on the sander, and in just a manner of minutes you will have a “feeling” for the tool. Once you’ve finished the walls, you will want to sand the trim and may want to consider doing that by hand if you don’t have a long workbench to keep the trim flat and stable.
Once you’ve finished sanding take a break and don’t consider cleaning at least for a couple of hours to allow the dust to settle. I actually cleaned the area twice before I removed the plastic sheeting. I also wiped down the walls with a damp cotton cloth in between the cleanings and after the second cleaning because I know I’m going to be disturbing dust on the walls. Don’t forget to wear your mask when cleaning and eyewear too if needed. When you remove the plastic sheeting, do it carefully because it will be coated with dust - and you still may have to clean once more after removing.
Before I finish the walls I put a drop cloth down so the floors don’t get oil on them. I take a quick look and dust the walls one more time with a dry cotton cloth if needed. When applying the finish, use an old t-shirt or cotton cloth and follow the directions on the container. Like sanding, you are going to be applying the oil in the direction of the grain. I only had to put on 2 liberal coats to get a fantastic finish (see photo). I’d also recommend waiting at least a few hours if not overnight before applying the second coat. Don’t forget to oil and finish the trim that you’ve put aside and follow the same instructions.
Once dry you can replace the outlet covers and switches as well as the trim. Use the original holes in the baseboards and trim and attach them with new finishing nails. If you want to be really detail oriented you can use a nailset to tap the nail heads in after installation so they are subset and can be covered with putty to match the finish. The reason you don’t fill holes first is because the tint/color of the wood could be different than what you expected when dry, and since you are working with oil and not a stain, it behooves you to do this last to make a better match.
You are now finished! This is what I did to refinish the mahogany walls in our home and I hope this experience helps you do your own and add value and character to your home. Good luck with your project and thanks for asking GCVEichler.com!