Painting Historic Interiors


Painting Historic Interiors

Sara B. Chase

U.S. Department of the Interior
National Park Service
National Center for Cultural Stewardship and Partnerships
Heritage Preservation Services Division
Technical Preservation Services

Table of Contents

The paint Americans used in the past is undeniably part of a technological and commercial record. But beyond that, the colors we have chosen and continue to select for our interior living and working spaces--bright and exuberant, purposefully somber, or a combination of hues--reflect our nation's cultural influences and our individual and collective spirit (see Figures 1, 2). Paint color is a simple, direct expression of the time, and of taste, values, and mood. To consider paint only as a protective coating is to misunderstand its meaning as an important aspect of America's heritage.

This Brief is about historic interior paints and choosing new paints for historic interiors if repainting is necessary or desirable. It addresses a variety of materials and features: plaster walls and ceilings; wooden doors, molding, and trim; and metal items such as radiators and railings. It provides background information about some of the types of paint which were used in the past, discusses the more common causes and effects of interior paint failure, and explains the principal factors guiding decisions about repainting, including what level of paint investigation may be appropriate. Careful thought should be given to each interior paint project, depending on the history of the building and its painted surfaces. Treatments may range from protecting extant decorative surfaces, to ordering custommade paint that replicates the original paint color, to using today's paint straight off the shelf and out of the can.

Finally, stripping old paints or applying new oil/alkyd paints poses serious health and safety concerns; the State Historic Preservation Officer should be contacted for current legal and technical information on removal, disposal, and health and safety precautions.

Constituents of Historic Paint: Pigment, Binder, and Vehicle

Paint is a dispersion of small solid particles, usually crystalline, in a liquid medium. Applied to a surface, this liquid has the special quality of becoming a solid, protective film when it dries. Paint also enhances the appearance of surfaces. A late Victorian writer observed that the coming of a painter to a house was cause for celebration. Indeed, these statements not only indicate the chemical and physical complexity of paint, but also its emotional impact.

Pigment. Pigment made the paint opaque, thus preventing deterioration of the substrate caused by ultraviolet light, and added color, thus making the paint attractive. White lead, a whitish corrosion product of lead, was most often used to provide opacity. The white pigment in a colored paint is often called the "hiding" pigment. In addition to preventing the sun's damaging rays from hitting the surface of the substrate, the white lead also helped prevent the growth of mold and mildew. Not until early in the 20th century was a successful substitute, titanium dioxide (TiO2), patented, and even then, it did not come into prevalent use by itself until the mid20th century (earlier in the century, titanium oxide and white lead were often mixed). Zinc oxide was used briefly as a hiding pigment after 1850 (see Figure 3).

Early tinting pigments for house paints consisted of the earth pigments--ochres, siennas, umbers made from iron-oxidecontaining clay--and a few synthesized colorants such as Prussian blue, or mercuric sulfide (crimson). From the early 1800s on more pigments were developed and used to offer a wider and brighter variety of hues.

Binder. The most common binder in interior paints was, and still is, oil. Chalk was sometimes added to waterbased paints to help bind the pigment particles together. Other common binders included hide glue and gelatin.

Vehicle. The fluid component was termed the vehicle, or medium, because it carried the pigment. Historically, vehicles included turpentine in oil paints and water in waterbased paints, but other vehicles were sometimes used, such as milk in casein paints.

Oil-Based and Water-Based Paints

The two major types of paint are termed oilbased and waterbased. For oilbased paints, linseed oil was frequently chosen because it is a drying oil. When thinned with an organic solvent such as turpentine for easier spreading, its drying speed was enhanced. To make the drying even faster, drying agents such as cobalt compounds were frequently added. Because the addition of driers was most successfully done in hot or boiling oil, boiled linseed oil was preferable. The drying rate of linseed oil paints was relatively rapid at first, for several days immediately after application, and paint soon felt dry to the touch; it is important to remember, however, that linseed oil paint continues to dry--or more precisely, to crosslink--over decades and thus continues to a point of brittleness as the paint ages. Strong and durable with a surface sheen, oil-based paints were mainly used for wood trim and metal.

Whitewashes and distemper paints differed from oil paints in appearance primarily because the vehicle was water. Waterbased paints were always flat, having no gloss of their own. Because the paint film dried to the touch as soon as the water evaporated, driers were not needed. Waterbase paints were fairly strong, with the pigments well bound as in hide glue distempers, but they did not hold up to abrasion. Wood trim, therefore, was rarely painted with these types of paint historically, though interior plaster surfaces were frequently coated with whitewash and calcimine. Distemper paints were commonly used for decorative work.

Recent Changes to Paint Constituents. Until the mid20th century, almost all paints used in America could be divided according to the type of binder each had. Chemists sought to improve paints, especially when the two world wars made traditional paint components scarce and expensive. Modern paints are far more complex chemically and physically than early paints. More ingredients have been added to the simple threepart system of pigment, binder, and vehicle. Fillers or extenders such as clay and chalk were put in to make oil paints flow better and to make them cheaper as well. Mildewcides and fungicides were prevalent and popular until their environmental hazards were seen to outweigh their benefits. New formulations which retard the growth of the mildew and fungi are being used. As noted, lead was eliminated after 1950. Most recently, volatile organic solvents in oil paint and thinners have been categorized as environmentally hazardous.

A major difference in modern paints is the change in binder from the use of natural boiled linseed oil to an alkyd oil which is generally derived from soybean or safflower oil. Use of synthetic resins, such as acrylics and epoxies, has become prevalent in paint manufacture in the last 30 years or so. Acrylic resin emulsions in latex paints, with water thinners, have also become common.


Types of Historic Paints

Historic paints were often made with what was available, rather than adhering to strict formulas. Recipes for successful formulas can be found in historic documents, such as newspapers, illustrating the combinations of ingredients which could be used to produce a paint.

Oilbased paints: Linseed oil, a volatile thinner such as turpentine; a hiding pigment (usually white lead) and coloring pigments.

Enamels: natural resin varnish was added to oil-based paint to provide a hard, more glossy surface.

Glaze: a translucent layer applied to protect the paint and to impart a more uniform gloss surface. Usually made from linseed oil with natural resin varnish added. Some glazes have small quantities of tinting pigments such as verdigris or Prussian blue; some had no pigments added.

Waterbased paints: Water, pigment, and a binder, such as hide glue, other natural glues, or gums. Usually used on interior plaster surfaces.

Whitewash: often used on interior plaster surfaces in utilitarian spaces and, at times, used on interior beams; consisted of water, slaked lime, salt, and a variety of other materials. Occasionally a pigment (usually an ochre or other earth pigment) was added to provide tint or color.

Distemper: used for interior applications, were made from water, glues (one or more different natural glues, gelatine, and gums) with whiting as the basic white pigment to which other tinting pigments were added.

Calcimine, or kalsomine: often used on interior surfaces and is another common name for distemper.

Tempera: paint prepared with pigment, egg yolk or white and water; used almost exclusively for decorative treatments.

Gouache: a waterbased paint made of whiting, pigment, water, and gum arabic as the binder; used almost exclusively for decorative treatments.

Milkbased paint:

Casein: also called milk paint, was made with hydrated (slaked) lime, pigment, and milk. Most often oil was added, making a strong emulsion paint. Various recipes call for a large variety of additives to increase durability. Casein paints were also used for exterior surfaces.


Pre1875 Paints

Production and Appearance. How were paints made prior to the widespread use of factorymade paint after 1875? How did they look? The answers to these questions are provided more to underscore the differences between early paints and today's paints than for practical purposes. Duplicating the composition and appearance of historic paints, including the unevenness of color, the irregularity of surface texture, the depth provided by a glaze topcoat, and the directional lines of application, can be extremely challenging to a contemporary painter who is using modern materials.

The pigments used in early paints were coarsely and unevenly ground, and they were dispersed in the paint medium by hand; thus, there is a subtle unevenness of color across the surface of many pre1875 paints (see Figure 4). The dry pigments had to be ground in oil to form a paste and the paste had to be successively thinned with more oil and turpentine before the paint was ready for application. The thickness of the oil medium produced the shiny surface desired in the 18th century. In combination with the cylindrical (or round) shaped brushes with wood handles and boar bristles, it also produced a paint film with a surface texture of brush strokes.

Geographical Variation. The early churches and missions built by the French in Canada and the Spanish in the southwestern United States often had painted decoration on whitewashed plaster walls, done with early waterbased paints. By the mid17th century oil paint was applied to wood trim in many New England houses, and whitewash was applied to walls. These two types of paint, one capable of highly decorative effects such as imitating marble or expensive wood and the other cheap to make and relatively easy to apply, brightened and enhanced American interiors. In cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and later, Washington, painters and stainers who were trained guildsmen from England practiced their craft and instructed apprentices. The painter's palette of colors included black and white and grays, buffs and tans, ochre yellows and iron oxide reds, and greens (from copper compounds) as well as Prussian blue. That such painting was valued and that a glossy appearance on wood was important are substantiated by evidence of clear and tinted glazes which may be found by microscopic examination.

Brush Marks. Early paints did not dry out to a flat level surface. Leveling, in fact, was a property of paint that was much sought after later, but until well into the 19th century, oil paints and whitewashes showed the signs of brush marks. Application therefore was a matter of stroking the brush in the right direction for the best appearance. The rule of thumb was to draw the brush in its final stokes in the direction of the grain of the wood. Raisedfield paneling, then, required that the painter first cover the surface with paint and afterward draw the brush carefully along the vertical areas from bottom to top and along the top and bottom bevels of the panel horizontally from one side to the other.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for very fine finishes, several coats were applied with each coat being rubbed down with rotten stone or pumice after drying. A four to five coat application was typical; however nine coats were not uncommon at the end of the century for finishes in some of the grand mansions. Generally, they were given a final glaze finish. Though expensive, this type of finish would last for decades and give a rich, smooth appearance.

Color. Color matching is complicated by the fact that all early paints were made by hand. Each batch of paint, made by painters using books of paint "recipes" or using their own experience and instincts, might well have slight variations in color--a little darker or lighter, a little bluer and so on. The earliest known book of paint formulations by an American painter is the 1812 guide by Hezekiah Reynolds. It gives instructions for the relative

quantities of tinting pigments to be added to a base, but even with proportions held constant, the amount of mixing, or dispersion, varied from workman to workman and resulted in color variations.

Knowing all of the facts about early paints can aid in microscopic paint study. For example, finding very finely and evenly ground pigments, equally dispersed throughout the ground or vehicle, is an immediate clue that the paint was not made by hand but, rather, in a factory.

By the first decades of the 19th century more synthetic pigments were available--chrome yellow, chrome green, and shades of red. Discoveries of light, bright, clear colors in the plaster and mosaic decoration of dwellings at Pompeii caught the fancy of many Americans and came together with the technology of paint to make for a new palette of choice, with more delicacy than many of the somewhat greyeddown colors of the 18th century. Of course, the blues which could be produced with Prussian blue in the 18th and 19th centuries were originally often strong in hue. That pigment--as were a number of others-- is fugitive, that is, it faded fairly quickly and thus softened in appearance. It should be remembered that high style houses from the mid17th to late 19th centuries often had wallpaper rather than paint on the walls of the important rooms and hallways.

Glossy/Flat. Another paint innovation of the early 19th century was the use of flatter oil paints achieved by adding more turpentine to the oil, which thus both thinned and flatted them. By the 1830s the velvety look of flat paint was popular. Wherever decorative plaster was present, as it

frequently was during the height of the Federal period, distemper paints were the coating of choice. Being both thin and readily removable with hot water, they permitted the delicate plaster moldings and elaborate floral or botanical elements to be protected and tinted but not obscured by the buildup of many paint layers. (The use of waterbased paints on ceilings continued through the Victorian years for the same reasons.)

Unfortunately, flat paints attract dirt, which is less likely to adhere to high gloss surfaces, and are thus harder to wash. Victorians tended to use high gloss clear (or tinted) finishes such as varnish or shellac on much of their wood trim and to use flat or oil paints on walls and ceilings.

Decorative Painting. In interiors, paint could be used creatively and imaginatively, most often to decorate rather than to protect. Decorative forms included stencilling, graining and marbleizing, and trompe l'oeil (see Figures 5, 6). Stencilling. Stencilled designs on walls were often used in the first half of the 19th century in place of wallpaper. Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts, has paintings showing the interiors of a (c. 18151820) farmhouse which has both stencilled walls--imitating wallpaper--and painted floors or oiled and painted floor cloths, imitating fine carpets. By 1850 and for the next 60 years thereafter, stencilled and freehandpainted decoration for walls and ceilings became a high as well as a humble art. Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament, published in 1859, provided the source for painted decoration from Portland to Peoria, Savannah to San Francisco.

Graining and marbleizing. If floors, walls, and ceilings were decorated by paint in a variety of styles, the wood and stone trim of rooms was not omitted. The use of faux bois, that is, painting a plain or common wood such as pine to look like mahogany or some finer wood, or faux marbre, painting a wood or plaster surface to look like marble--realistically or fantastically--was common in larger homes of the 18th century. By the early 19th century, both stylized graining and marbleizing adorned the simple rural or small town houses as well. Often baseboards and stair risers were marbleized as were fireplace surrounds. Plain slate was painted to look like fine Italian marble. In many simple buildings, and, later, in the Victorian period, many prominent buildings such as town halls and churches, the wood trim was given a realistic graining to resemble quarter sawn oak, walnut, or a host of other exotic woods.

Trompe L'oeil. Churches, courthouses, and state capitols frequently received yet another remarkable use of paint: trompe l'oeil decoration. Applied by skilled artists and artisans, painted designs--most often using distemper paints or oils--could replicate threedimensional architectural detailing such as ornate molded plaster moldings, medallions, panels, and more.

FactoryMade Paints after 1875

An enormous growth of the paint industry began in the 1860s, stimulated by the invention of a suitable marketing container--the paint can. The first factorymade paints in cans consisted of more finely ground pigments in an oil base; after purchase, additional oil was added to the contents of the can to make up the paint. Such paints saved the time of handgrinding pigments, and were discussed at length by John Masury in his numerous books. After 1875, factorymade paints were available at a reasonable cost and, as a result, greater numbers of people painted and decorated more of their buildings, and more frequently. The new commercial market created by readymixed paint became the cornerstone of our modern paint industry (see Figure 7).

20th Century Paints

By the early decades of the 20th century, popular taste turned away from exuberant colors and decoration. Until the late 1920s both the Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts styles tended toward more subdued colors and, in the case of Colonial Revival, a more limited palette. The use of faux finishes, however, continued. Residential architecture often featured stencilling, such as painted borders above wainscoting or at ceiling and wall edges to imitate decorative wallpaper. Institutional buildings in both cities and small towns used wood graining on metalclad doors, door and window frames, and staircases, and had stencilled ceilings as well. Many high style public buildings of the 1920s had painted ceilings which imitated the Spanish and Italian late medieval and Renaissance styles.

Although stenciling, gilding, and faux finishes can be found, they did not express the modern style of the time. On the other hand, glaze treatments were often used in the early 20th century to "antique" walls and trim that had been painted with neutral colors, especially in Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission architecture. The glazes were applied by ragging, sponging, and other techniques which gave an interesting and uneven surface appearance. Colored plasters were sometimes used, and air brushing employed to give a craftsman-like appearance to walls, trim, and ceilings. During the same period, Williamsburg paint colors were produced and sold to people who wanted their houses to have a "historic Georgian look." Churches, country clubs, and many private buildings adopted the Williamsburg style from the late 20s onward.

Often decorated with simple molded plaster designs of the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles, interiors of the 1930s and 1940s were frequently accented with metal flake paints in a full range of metallic colors, from copper to bronze (see Figure 8). And enamels, deep but subdued hues, became popular. Paint technology had progressed and varying degrees of gloss were also available, including the mid-range enamels, variously called satin, semigloss, or eggshell. In contrast to Victorian paint treatments, this period was characterized by simplicity. To some extent, the Bauhaus aesthetic influenced taste in the 1950s; interior paints were frequently chosen from a palette limited to a few "earth" colors and a "nearly neutral" palette of off-whites and pale greys.

While the trend in colors and decorative treatments was defined by its simplicity, paint chemists were developing paints of increasing complexity. Experimentation had started early in the 20th century and accelerated greatly after World War II. Of greatest significance was the manufacture of the latex paints for consumer use. Synthetic resin emulsions carried in water offered advantages over the traditional oil paints, and even over the oil/alkyd paints: they did not yellow; they permitted water cleanup until dried; and they emitted no toxic or hazardous fumes from solvent evaporation.

Paint Investigation

Understanding each project's historic preservation goal and knowing what level of information needs to be collected to achieve that goal is an important responsibility of the purchaser of the service. Before someone is hired, the owner or manager needs to decide if a thorough investigation of painted surfaces is actually needed, and how to use the results when one is done.

Specialists with both training and field experience conduct paint investigations. These experts use sophisticated instruments and procedures such as field sampling, cross-section analysis, and fluorescent and chemical staining to learn about the components and behaviors of historic paints (see Figure 9). In addition, they utilize written documentation, verbal research, and visual information about past painting in the building in conjunction with findings in the field (Figure 10).

Paint investigation can make several contributions to a project. A complete analysis of the paint layers on surfaces within a structure can tell a great deal about the sequence of alterations that have occurred within a building, as well as potentially providing ranges of dates for some of these changes. By establishing a full sequence of paint layers (termed a chromochronology ), together with other research, alterations of various building spaces and features can be associated with specific paint layers. It is by establishing this association that the correct layer is identified; when the correct layer has been identified, the color may be matched.

In addition to its archeological value, paint analysis can determine the types and colors of paint on a given surface (identification of thin glazes, decorative paint schemes, binders and pigments). Beyond color identification, then, paint analysis is also recommended to diagnose causes of paint failure. Knowing a paint binder can often explain causes as well as guide appropriate preservation or conservation treatments.

Owners and managers should identify all of these needs before deciding on the extent of analysis. For example, a complete paint investigation is usually recommended as part of an historic structure report. For buildings with little documentation, additions and alterations can often be identified, and possibly dated, through analysis. Often the use of such seemingly expensive techniques can save money in the long run when determining the history of building change.

It is possible to do some analysis on site; this is a much simpler process that can be undertaken for less cost than the complex laboratory procedures described above. However, the usefulness of onsite analysis is limited and the results will not be as precise as results from samples that are analyzed in a laboratory with a good microscope. Any shortcut approaches to paint analysis that do not follow scientific procedures are generally not worth the expense. In summary, if preservation and restoration treatments are being undertaken, a complete investigation is recommended; for a rehabilitation project, onsite analysis and color matching may provide an adequate palette.

Choosing a Treatment

Most projects involve repainting. It is the historic appearance of the interior and the visual impression that will be created by new paint treatments that must be considered before choosing a particular course of action. The type and colors of paint obviously depend on the type of building and the use and interpretation of its interior spaces (see Figure 11). A consistent approach is best.

Preservation. When the treatment goal is preservation, a building's existing historic features and finishes are maintained and repaired, saving as much of the historic paint as possible. Sometimes, cleaning and washing of painted surfaces is all that is needed. Or a coating may be applied to protect important examples of history or art (see Figure 12). If repainting is

required, the new paint is matched to existing paint colors using the safer, modern formulations. Recreating earlier surface colors and treatments is not an objective.

Rehabilitation. In a typical rehabilitation, more latitude exists in choosing both the kind of new paint as well as color because the goal is the efficient reuse of interior spaces. Decisions about new paint often weigh factors such as economy and durability--use of a high quality standard paint from a local or national company and application by a qualified contractor. Color choices may be based on paint research reports prepared for interior rooms of comparable date and style. More often, though, current color values and taste are taken into account. Again, the safer paint formulations are used (see Figure 13).

Interiors of institutional buildings, such as university buildings, city halls, libraries, and churches often contain rich decorative detailing (Figure 14). During rehabilitation, careful choices should be made to retain or restore selected portions of the decorative work as well as match some of the earlier colors to evoke the historic sense of time and place. At the least, it is important to use periodtypical paint color and paint placement.

Restoration. In a restoration project, the goal is to depict the property as it appeared during its period of greatest significance. This may or may not be the time of its original construction. For example, if a building dated from 1900 but historians deemed its significance to be the 1920s, the appropriate paint color match would be the 1920s layer, not the original 1900 layer.

Based on historical research, onsite collection of paint samples, and laboratory analysis, surface colors and treatments can be recreated to reflect the property at a particular period of time. It should be noted that scholarly findings may yield a color scheme that is not suited to the taste of the contemporary owner, but is nonetheless historically accurate. In restoration, personal taste in color is not at issue; the evidence should be strictly followed.

In the restoration process, colors are custommatched by professionals to give an accurate representation. If an artist or artisan can be found, the historically replicated paint may be applied using techniques appropriate to the period of the restoration (see Figure 15). Although custom paint manufacture is seldom undertaken, color and glazing are capable of being customized. In some projects, paint may be custommade using linseed oil and, if building code variances allow it, white lead. For example, the repainting of a number of rooms at Mount Vernon demonstrates that it is possible to replicate historic paints and applications in all aspects; however, as noted, replication of historic paint formulation is not practical for the majority of projects.

Identifying Deteriorated and Damaged Paint Surfaces

Because painted surfaces are subject to abrasion, soiling, water damage, sunlight, and application of incompatible paints they generally need to be repainted or at least reglazed appropriately from time to time.

Abrasion. From the baseboards up to a level of about six feet off the floor, wood trim is constantly subjected

Back to Tips & Techniques