American Paint History IV

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

In American Paint History, we considered the ingredients of early, historic interior paints including the pigment, binder, and vehicle, as well as lead, oil and water based products. In the 2nd installment, American Paint History II, we featured information on Early American paints produced prior to 1875.  We considered some details of historic interior paints and provided background information about some of the types of paint, which were used in the past. Part III of American Paint History discussed factory-made paints after 1875, paint coating investigation, preservation and restoration.

This installment, Part IV, is focused on what causes damage to historical interior paints, appropriate surface preparation and priming for professional restoration.

Identifying deteriorated and damaged paint surfaces

Water, the usual source of deterioration for many kinds of material, is also a prime cause of interior paint failure Photo: The Old House Web.


From the baseboards up to a level of about six feet off the floor, wood trim is constantly subjected to wear from being touched and inadvertently kicked, and from having furniture pushed against it. Chair rails were in fact intended to take the wear of having chairs pushed back against them instead of against the more delicate plaster wall or expensive wallpaper.

Doors in particular, sometimes beautifully grained, receive extensive handling. Baseboards get scraped by various cleaning devices, and the lower rails of windows, as well as window seats, take abuse. The paint in all of these areas tends to become abraded.

Two things are important to bear in mind about areas of abraded paint.

  • Samples taken to determine original paint colors. Layer sequences will not be accurate except at undamaged edges.
  • Dirt and oil or grease need to be removed before applying any new paint because new paint will not adhere to dirty, greasy surfaces.


Soiling is another problem of interior paint. Fireplaces smoked; early coal-fired furnaces put out oily black soot; gas lights and candles left dark smudges. Sometimes the dirt got deposited on plaster walls or ceilings in a way that makes the pattern of the lath behind the plaster quite clear. Another source of dirt was polluted outside air, from factories or other industries, infiltrating houses and other nearby buildings. Until smokestacks became very high, most air pollution was caused by nearby sources.

In paint investigation, dirt on the surface of paint layers; as seen under the microscope, can be very useful in suggesting the length of time a given paint layer remained exposed, and in distinguishing a finish layer from a prime or undercoat layer. This kind of soiling can happen on any painted surface in a room, but may be slightly heavier in the recesses of moldings and on upward facing horizontal edges. Using dirt as a sole measure, however, may be misleading if the surfaces have been cleaned.

The fracture or bonding between paint layers is often used by professionals as a better means of indicating time differences between layers as well as indicating those layers that are part of a single decoration or painting.


Water, the usual source of deterioration for many kinds of material, is also a prime cause of interior paint failure. As a liquid, it can come from roof leaks, from faulty plumbing or steam heating systems, or from fire suppression systems that have misfired. As a vapor, it may come from such human activities as breathing, showering, or cooking.

Plaster walls sealed with un-pigmented hide glue are notably susceptible to water damage because it forms a water soluble layer between the plaster and the paint. This can cause the paint to lose adhesion when even small amounts of moisture come into contact with the water soluble sealer.


Finally, in historic interiors, especially where there is heavy paint buildup, paint can weaken and fail due to chemical or mechanical reasons. For example, the older linseed oil is, the more brittle it is. It also darkens when it is covered and gets no ultraviolet exposure. In rooms where there is more sunlight on one area than on others, the oil or even oil/alkyd paint will get discernibly darker in the less exposed areas in as short a time as six months. Painted over, the oil medium in older paints gets quite yellow brown, thus changing the color of the paint. Prussian blue is one of several tinting pigments that is particularly vulnerable to fading.

A dark layer can be seen beneath the flaking paint on these raised field panels. Depending on the project work goal and the period of the building's history being interpreted, any one of the paint layers could be duplicated in repainting. Photo: NPS files.

Incompatible Paints

Understanding some basic differences in the strength of various paints helps to explain certain paint problems. Paints that dry to a stronger film are incompatible with those which are weaker. Acrylic latex paints are stronger than oil/alkyd paints. Oil or oil/alkyd paint is stronger than water based paint such as calcimine.

When a stronger paint is applied over a weaker paint, it will tend to pull off any weaker paint which may have begun to lose its bond with its substrate. Thus, on many ceilings of older buildings where oil/alkyd paints have been applied over old calcimine, large strips of paint may be peeling.

Oil or varnish glazes over older paints become brittle with age, and can make removal of later paints rather easy. Sometimes it is possible to take advantage of this characteristic to reveal an earlier decorative treatment such as graining or marbleizing. Getting under the edge of the glaze with a scalpel blade can make the removal of later paints relatively simple and relatively harmless to the fancier paint treatment. Sometimes, paints separate from each other simply due to poor surface preparation in the past or the hardening of the earlier surface paint.

Use of alkaline paint strippers can cause paint to lose adhesion. When insufficiently neutralized, they leave salts in wood which cause oil or oil/alkyd paints to fail to adhere to the surface. If dirt or oily residues are not cleaned from the surfaces to be painted, new paint will not remain well adhered.

Photo: Paint Quality Institute

Surface Preparation

First, it is important to note that the earlier, linseed oil-based paints were penetrating type paints, forming a bond by absorption into the substrate. Often these thin oil coatings were slightly tinted with an iron oxide pigment so coverage could be seen; the next coating applied would adhere to this first oil layer.

Modern paints, on the other hand, are primarily bonding paints with little ability to penetrate a substrate. For this reason, surface preparation is extremely important for today’s paints.

Before preparing the interior for repainting, all moisture penetration from failing roofs or gutters or from faulty plumbing or interior heating elements should be identified and corrected. A paint job is only as good as the preparation that goes before it. The surface to be painted, old or new, wood, plaster, masonry, or metal must be made sound and capable of taking the paint to be applied.

Scraping and Sanding

The first step in preparing interior wood and plaster surfaces which are coherent and sound is to remove any loose paint. Careful hand scraping is always advisable for historic surfaces. Use of mechanical sanders usually leaves traces of the sander’s edges, visible through the new paint film. Hand sanding is also necessary to feather the edges of the firmly adhering layers down to the bare areas so that shadow lines are avoided.

Preparing previously painted interior masonry for new paint is basically similar to preparing plaster. Metals elements, such as radiators, valences, or firebacks are somewhat different. In order to get a sound paint job on metal items, the work is primarily that of sanding to remove any rust before repainting. If the existing paint is well adhered over the entire metal surface, then it may be necessary only to sand lightly to roughen the existing paint, thus providing some “tooth” for the primer and new paint layer.

On wood, garnet sanding papers work well. Aluminum oxide and silicon carbide sandpapers are effective on other surfaces as well as wood; emery papers should be used on metals.

Paint Removal

When should surfaces be completely stripped? Obviously, new paint is wasted when applied on old paint which is loose, that is, extensively damaged and deteriorated. Sometimes paint on an architectural feature needs to be removed if it obscures delicate detailing. For the most part, however, if the surface is intact–and the presence of lead paint has been shown to present no health dangers to building occupants–the existing paint can be over painted.

Well-adhered, intact paint layers (in at least one area of each room) should be covered with a sturdy protective tape, then painted over with the new paint and left in place to inform future research. The next owner may be interested in the building’s past history, and methods of gleaning information from old paints grow more sophisticated all the time.


Propane torches should never be used because they can damage historic wood features. Also, charred areas of wood will not hold the new paint. Use of a heat gun or heat plate may be relatively fast, but has both health and safety drawbacks. Heat oxidizes lead paint, causing poisonous fumes. And old walls may contain fine debris which acts like tinder and smolders when heated, bursting into flame hours after the stripping. (Heat methods are best limited to those interior elements that can be safely removed from the building for stripping and reinstalled). Finally, scraping to remove heat loosened paint may gouge and scar the wood or plaster substrate if not done carefully. Rotary wire brushes cut into wood and should be avoided altogether.

Chemical stripping

Removing paint from wood and plaster features can be done with either caustic strippers (potassium or sodium hydroxide) or solvent strippers (organic compounds such as methylene chloride, methanol, or toluol). Caustic strippers are fairly fast acting, but can weaken wood fibers if left on too long, causing them to raise and separate. They also leave alkaline residues which must be neutralized by an acidic wash (usually white vinegar which contains 4% acetic acid).

It is difficult to make the neutralizing 100% effective and, when it is not, chemical reactions between the alkaline residues and the new paint may cause the paint to lose adhesion.

Methylene chloride and other organic compounds are as effective as caustic strippers, but their fumes may be both flammable and toxic. While they may leave wood and plaster surfaces free from harmful residue, the newly cleaned surface must be washed down with mineral spirits or denatured alcohol before priming in order to remove additives, such as wax, that were put in the stripper to retard its drying. All hazard warnings on the labels of chemical strippers should be heeded.

Detergent or vinegar and water

Water-based paints can usually be scrubbed off with hot water with a detergent added. Calcimine and whitewash are difficult to remove; because of the lime or whiting content (calcium carbonate), however, they can be broken down with acids. While strong acids may work quickly, they are very dangerous. Acetic acid in its most common form, vinegar, (4% acetic acid) is often used instead. In areas where any calcimine remains and is evident as chalk, the area can be coated with white shellac, which provides a stable surface for the new paint.

Air pressure

Air pressure of 200-500 psi is effective for flat surfaces if there is a weak substrate surface bond. A flat nozzle is inserted between the paint layer and substrate, and the air pressure simply lifts the loose paint up for easy removal. When used carefully, this method is fast and causes little damage.

Patching and Repair

Once the substrate and its surface are sound and clean, free from crumbling, loose material or dust, the next step is to undercut and fill any cracks in plaster surfaces. Plaster which has lost its key and is sagging should be reattached or replaced. Friable plaster and punky wood need to be consolidated. Wood surfaces should be made as smooth as they were historically so that the paint film will cover a relatively uniform surface. Rotted wood must be removed and new wood carefully spliced in.

Finally, gypsum plaster finishes can be painted as soon as the water has evaporated; a lime putty coat or traditional finish plaster can be primed almost immediately after drying as well, using alkali resistant primers such as acrylic latex.

Photo: NPS Department of Historic Furnishings


The importance of a primer can hardly be overstated. It is the intermediary material between the immediate substrate, which may be an old paint layer or may be bare wood, plaster, or metal (rarely stone, as around a fireplace opening), and the fresh paint itself. The primer must be capable of being absorbed to some extent by the material underneath while being compatible and cohesive with the paint to be applied on top. Most paint manufacturers will provide explicit instructions about which primers are most compatible with their paints. Those instructions should be followed.

The question of a primer for latex paint continues to be debated. Traditionalists recommend that the primer between an old oil paint and a new latex paint be an oil primer, but the improvements to latex paint in recent years have led many experts to the conclusion that today’s top grade latex primers are best for latex finish paints. If a latex primer is selected, the label on the can should specify clearly that it is one which can bond to an older oil or oil/alkyd paint.

The most important general rule to remember is that softer or weaker paints should always go over harder and stronger paints. For instance, because latex is stronger than oil, an oil or oil/alkyd paint can go over a well adhered latex, but the reverse will run the risk of failure. Using primer and finish paints by a single company is a good way to guarantee compatibility.

The Origins of Craftsmanship – American Paint History will continue with Part V, which is a discussion about restoration paint types and application equipment.


The Old House Web

Preservation Brief 28
By Sara B. Chase

By Cynthia Paul and  Mike Clancy
Originally published as part of AGC of America’s
Business Development Best Practices Series

Cynthia & Mike are both principals at FMI, the leading management consulting, investment banking and people development firm dedicated exclusively to the engineering and construction industry.

Taking it further

Additional reading

Clark, Victor S. History of Manufacturers in the United States Vol. III. New York: McGrawHill, 1929.

Gettens, Rutherford J. and George L. Stout. Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.

MacDonald, Marylee. Preservation Briefs 21: Repairing Historic Flat Plaster–Walls and Ceilings. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1989.

Masury, John W. A Popular Treatise on the Art of HousePainting: Plain and Decorative. New York: D. Appleton & Co.,. 1868.

Weeks, Kay D. and David W. Look, AIA. Preservation Briefs 10: Exterior Paint Probl