Choose paint wisely when painting historic homes.

Choose paint wisely when painting historic homes.

by Tim Wood

The paint on a building is like the clothes that we wear – it serves many purposes. It protects against the elements. It can highlight interesting features and hide flaws. It provides a way to express an owner’s individuality or connection to a broader community. When deciding whether and how to paint an older building it is important to keep all these aspects in mind, so that you get a paint job that both looks good and protects the building.

A good paint job is not merely cosmetic; it provides a layer of protection from sun, wind, and moisture. If the paint fails, then the underlying building surfaces are exposed to conditions that they were not designed to withstand. Ultimately, this can lead to wood rot, metal corrosion, and even structural failure in the house.

Paint can cover the flaws in a building, but it can’t make them disappear. If the flaws are caused by structural problems, it is best to address them first. If the paint is peeling or blistering, take the time to figure out why and solve this problem (leaky roof, poor drainage, bad gutters, moisture from inside the house, etc.). If wood is rotting or decaying, find the source of the problem and then repair, consolidate, or replace the damaged area. Surface preparation such as removal of peeling or failing paint, cleaning, and priming should also be taken into account. A quick or cheap paint job can make the house look better for a while, but it will just have to be redone sooner, and any deferred repairs can prove to be even more costly.

Just as it is with clothing, fashions in paint color have changed over the years. When choosing what color or colors to paint a house, you should weigh several factors.

First, look at the house as a whole. What is it made of, and what parts will be painted? Particularly with a stone or brick house, you have to work with the color of the materials which will not be painted. A color that looks great on the sample card at the paint store may look terrible next to the brick color of your house.

Next, look at the surroundings of the house. Are there landscape features with which your house should harmonize? What about the colors of nearby buildings – will the colors you choose clash with the neighbors’ houses? This is an especially important consideration for twins and row houses, which were usually given uniform, or at least complementary, paint schemes.

Finally, think about what colors are appropriate to the architectural style and building date of your house. Many paint companies now have historical collections that can guide you toward color combinations that work well with historical styles. There are also a variety of useful books and web sites that can give color advice. A historic preservation specialist can even perform a paint analysis to determine what the original colors were.

With proper preparation and care, a quality paint job can last for many years. Not only will it make your home attractive, but it will also help to preserve its historic character for generations to come.

You can find more information on how to restore your old home at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society’s Resource Center. We have an extensive list of contractors and suppliers specializing in restoration available on our website, as well as a library of how-to information located at the historical society’s headquarters, 8708 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill. Please visit for more information.