Painting a historical home can be quite a challenge. Proper preparation, risk of damage, quality and cost, safety, color choices, and maintaining it all must be considered. Read on for tips to navigate this process.
TIPS FOR PAINTING YOUR HISTORICAL HOME
- Preparation. One of the key elements to a successful, long-lasting project is the surface preparation. For the different types of paint that may already be on your building, each has its own preparation requirements. If you are not sure what type of paint is on your building, you can consult a qualified contractor to obtain a paint analysis, providing you with both the chemical and color makeup of your existing paint. Determine if paint is failing, and possible causes – moisture is usually the reason paint is failing. Once you have addressed the underlying cause, you can move on to preparing the surface for the paint. Make sure that the surface is clean and free of loose paint (you can remove the paint completely, but this is not always necessary to get to a sound surface). Never use abrasive methods (see next bullet regarding damage avoidance below) to remove paint. Listen to one of our previous podcasts for tips on one option to safely strip paint. After the paint is removed and the surface is cleaned, make sure that the wood has a chance to dry out before the prime coat is added. If the wood is very dry (e.g., the paint has peeled off and it has been allowed to weather with no coating) you can pre-treat with 50% boiled linseed oil and 50% turpentine prior to the oil-based prime coat. Using good lead-safe habits is important for any building pre-1978 (we assume it has lead paint unless it has been abated)
- Avoiding Damage. 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 the misuse of the paint removers themselves.“
Being too aggressive with paint removal can damage the historical materials. Never use abrasive methods, mostly because of the public safety and lead paint, but also the potential to damage the wood. Using heat can also be dangerous. Open flame torches and even heat guns can cause a fire to start. There are infrared systems that do not get as hot as heat guns, if you wanted an option beyond chemical strippers.
- Quality and Cost. 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 colors, but this is not so. 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. For a limited time, The Real Milk Paint Co. is offering a “3 FOR FREE” deal; Buy 3 samples of product of your choice for $3.50 each, and they get shipped to you for free.
- Safety and Handling Lead Paint. The health risks of lead exposure are well known – brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development of children, etc. 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 route of exposure to lead? To avoid these risks, choose a contractor who is “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling. There is also general information from EPA for homeowners.
- Historical Paint Color Choices. You can read a case example of one of our full restorations which also highlights paint color choices. For the paint we used the Benjamin Moore Historical Colors line from Grauers Paint & Decorating in Lancaster. You might also consider paints, wood finish, and waxes from The Real Milk Paint Co.
- Maintenance. The National Park Service’s Preservation Briefs No. 47 on Maintaining the Exterior of Small and Medium Size Historic Buildings indicates that exteriors of the home should be inspected at least annually to determine if paint should be repaired, otherwise corrected, or exteriors need re-painted. You can also view our video on general maintenance plans and paint maintenance.
Ask yourself these questions before beginning any painting project:
- Does my paint exhibit any peeling, crackling, chalking (powdering), crazing (small, interconnected cracks), mold, mildew, staining, blistering or wrinkling?
- Does my building have an existing paint application that is inappropriate for its historic 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?
FURTHER RESOURCES FOR PAINTING HISTORICAL 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)
- Century of Color: Exterior Decoration for American Buildings, 1820-1920 by Roger W. Moss (Dec 1981)
- The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #10: Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork
- The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #28: Painting Historic Interiors