Painting a historical home is about more than just going to the big box home improvement store and browsing the array of color choices available, picking a few you like, trying each of them out in test spots, and then making a final decision.
While seemingly harmless, painting a historical home carries with it a surprisingly significant risk of damaging your home.
The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #10: Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork notes:
“Because paint removal is a difficult and painstaking process, a number of costly, regrettable experiences have occurred – and continue to occur – for both the historic building and the building owner. Historic buildings have been set on fire with blow torches; wood irreversibly scarred by sandblasting or by harsh mechanical devices such as rotary sanders and rotary wire strippers; and layers of historic paint inadvertently and unnecessarily removed. In addition, property owners, using techniques that substitute speed for safety, have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove or by misuse of the paint removers themselves.”
There are several factors to consider when choosing an appropriate paint for your historical home:
Quality Paint for Historic Buildings
The temptation to save money by using cheap paint can be alluring. Many contractors, and even homeowners, mistakenly think that paint choices need only match historical but this is not so and the old adage “you get what you pay for” is particularly true for your paint. Investing in quality paint will save you money in the long run.
Paint Preparation for Historic Buildings
The key to successful paint application is in knowing what preparation is required for the different types of paint that may already be on your building – they each have their own preparation requirements. If you are not sure of what type of paint is on your building, you can consult a qualified contractor to obtain a paint analysis to provide you with both the chemical and color makeup of your existing paint.
Lead Paint Handling on Historic Buildings
The health risks of lead exposure are well known – brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development of children… But did you know that lead in dust (such as the dust created while sanding and prepping surfaces for new paint) is the most common way people are exposed to lead? To avoid these risks, choose a contractor who is “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling.
A few questions for evaluating the paint on your historical home and to ask before beginning any painting project:
Does my paint exhibit any peeling, cracking, chalking (powdering), crazing (small, interconnected cracks), mold or mildew, staining, blistering, or wrinkling?
Does my building have an existing paint application that is inappropriate for its historical fabric?
Do I know what type of paint is currently on my building and what preparation is required before painting over that type of paint?
If I am using a contractor, are they “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling?
Does that contractor understand which methods, tools, materials, and chemicals are appropriate for paint removal on my historical building?
Resources for Painting Historic Buildings
Victorian Exterior Decoration: How to Paint Your Nineteenth-Century American House Historically by Roger W. Moss and Gail Caskey Winkler (May 1987)
Paint in America: The Colors of Historic Buildings by Roger W. Moss (Oct 1, 1994)