Tips for Historic Home Renovations: 108-Year-Old Cabin Restoration Project Proves ‘Green’ Renovation Possible

Reader Contribution by Sjoerd Bos and Vice President Of Sansin
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Historic home renovation on a 108-year-old log cabin.

May is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Preservation Month. Because many historic homes are built with aging and perhaps brittle or discolored wood, Sansin Corporation — a company specializing in eco-friendly, “water-borne” interior and exterior stains — offers five tips for historic home renovators to keep in mind when tackling a DIY historic home renovation project, such as Frank Robinson’s renovation of a 108-year-old cabin in Alberta, Canada.

Preserving Historic Places, Naturally

Wood — our most renewable resource — is often a showcase of historic homes, and something that many renovators, including Robinson, want to protect naturally. Many also want a coating to protect and even reinvigorate the wood, yet not mask the innate beauty of the grain. But homeowners aren’t willing to sacrifice stain quality and longevity in order to “go green.”

Water-Borne vs. Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based paints are traditional coatings for wood surfaces and have a history of great performance and durability. Because of environmental reasons, water-based acrylic latex products have replaced oils in many areas. Oils, however, still have some benefits over water-based products, including penetration and sometimes stain-blocking and durability, as well as water resistance and possibly even flexibility.

Water-based products have low toxicity and low-volatile organic compound benefits (VOC). They also tend to be somewhat more stable with respect to discoloration from ultraviolet light. However, many renovators find them difficult to work with, since they tend to raise the wood grain, create an uneven surface, streak, and dry too fast.

That’s why Sansin developed water-borne alkyd formulas that combine the benefits of both technologies: the low VOCs and environmentally friendly benefits of water, combined with the durability of oils. A water-borne alkyd wood finish uses water as the vehicle to allow oil to penetrate deep into the wood. Water-borne means the formulation comprises pure alkyd and water — and doesn’t use acrylic or synthetic resin.

The water-borne formula leads to long-lasting durability, easier maintenance, and outstanding performance without the toxicity found in conventional stains that contribute to smog and ozone depletion.

108-Year-Old Log Cabin: A Sansin Success Story

Robinson is one of Sansin’s most recent historic home renovation success stories. He is refurbishing a 108-year-old homesteader’s log house near St. Michael, Alberta, which will serve as a vacation retreat. The home is a 1,000-square-foot, two-story cabin that was abandoned in about 1968. Robinson bought the property and decided to preserve its historic significance while creating a more modern, comfortable vacation retreat. Robinson met the Sansin team at a home show, and was immediately convinced that Sansin’s products were the right choice for his project.

“I wanted wood protection that would be climate-appropriate and would last, so I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time on maintenance,” says Robinson, a busy administrator at Alberta University in Canada. “Sansin’s low-VOC stains are not the only way I have ‘gone green.’ I also salvaged old windows, clear fir flooring, and staircase treads from other abandoned homes to use in our cabin. It’s a way to keep the historic significance of the property, while also reducing, reusing and recycling.”

Tips for Historic Home Renovators

Historic home renovators like Robinson should consider the following tips to improve on a historic home without damaging the character and significance of the property.


Determine whether the home is a designated historic structure by checking with the state preservation office. If the home is in a historic district, there could be restrictions on the changes that can be made to the exterior. Also, easements and tax abatement programs could be available. By getting to know what makes the home unique in terms of design, architecture and materials, choices can be made that maintain the character of the home.

Stain, Don’t Paint

Staining — particularly with a low-VOC stain — treats historic wood surfaces with respect. Follow this rule of thumb: If a surface isn’t already painted, it shouldn’t be.

Know Your Wood Species

Maple and pine can be very difficult to apply finishes to, while it is easier to apply stain to hardwoods, such as oak. Also, darker stains are more difficult to work with than lighter ones. Those planning to use a dark stain should consider practicing on a scrap piece of wood before diving into the project.

Select the Right Product

A low-VOC penetrating stain wears gracefully, allowing the restorer to apply maintenance coats to sustain beauty, clarity and protection without excessively increasing the thickness of the finish. This approach allows the wood to breathe. Also, request samples and practice on scrap wood before applying to ensure the color is what you want.

Prepare the Surface, Apply the Stain

Repair any defects with acrylic-based wood filler. Sand the surface, working with the grain. Then clean the surface with a vacuum and a damp cloth, making sure it is clean and dry before applying the coats of stain and topcoat per the manufacturer’s direction.

Finally, selecting a color is important when considering exterior maintenance as the pigment loading will affect the performance of the coating. The more pigment, the longer it will last, as good-quality pigments, particularly iron oxides, provide excellent UV protection.

However, wood on historic buildings has a very attractive and distinctive character that most homeowners wish to retain and not hide. With clear or nearly clear coatings, new technologies use finely ground iron oxides, such as trans-oxides or nano tints, to maintain clarity and enhance UV protection, even in a clearer coating.

Wood is an amazing and strong material that creates unparalleled atmosphere, bestowing on historic homes a timeless aura. With some homework, preparation and the right wood stain, one can enjoy the beauty of a historic home for years to come.

To calculate the amount of stain you’d need for your project, use Sansin’s coverage calculator. For more tips on applying stain and details on where to purchase Sansin’s eco-friendly, low-VOC products, visit Sansin’s website.