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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Winter/Spring 2003 > Painting the Exterior of Your Historic House

Painting the Exterior of Your Historic House


ABOVE Painter applies a finish coat to the eighteenth-century Stetson House in Hanover, Massachusetts.

BELOW Peeling and blistering paint on sidewall shingles, caused by roof water running down side of building.

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ABOVE Peeling paint on wooden gutter and trim caused by clogged gutter and downspout system.

For Further Information
Paint in America ($29.95) may be ordered by calling (617) 227-3957, ext. 237 or online at SPNEA's Museum Shop at Another aid in choosing colors is SPNEA's historically accurate color chart, "Historic Colors of America" ($6), which features one hundred and forty-nine colors, along with a guide to architectural styles and a list of colors appropriate to six periods between 1670 and 1940. The color chart is available online at SPNEA's website or by calling (617) 227-3957, ext. 237. SPNEA members receive a ten percent discount.

Protecting the surfaces of exterior wooden features of historic buildings from the effects of weather is essential for ensuring their long-term preservation. Since the early eighteenth century paint has been applied to the exteriors of buildings in New England both to protect them and to enhance their appearance by defining their architectural features. Surviving evidence from First Period buildings indicates that exterior painting was at first limited to trim and window elements; however, by the end of the eighteenth century paint was commonly applied to all exterior wooden surfaces, including siding, trim, windows, doors, and even roof shingles.

When selecting colors for a privately-owned historic house, there is no wrong choice. Even within period-appropriate palettes, there is a variety of color schemes from which to choose. One book with helpful advice on historic colors is Paint in America, Roger W. Moss, Editor, Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994 (see green box in left column).Without visual or written documentation, the only way to know for certain what earlier colors were on your house is through scientific analysis by a paint conservator. Because it involves chemically analyzing paint chip samples from several locations of a building and determining the pigment and binder composition of previous paint layers, which can be expensive, paint analysis is rarely undertaken by homeowners.Before repainting, it is important to assess the building's condition, evaluate existing paint surface conditions, and identify deteriorated features. Damage should be repaired, and the conditions that caused the deterioration should be corrected prior to repainting. Most buildings will exhibit a variety of paint failure at different locations, which must be identified and corrected before planning surface preparation.Generally, scraping loose paint by hand and sanding until the edges are smooth is the first step of paint preparation. Removing firmly adhered existing paint is not recommended, as that can damage the underlying wood. Mechanical palm sanders may be used by experienced craftspeople, but disc sanders should be avoided because they can damage historic siding and trim. Heat plates are potential fire hazards and should never be used. Before painting, clean surfaces with commercially available housewashing products or detergents. Following product manufacturer's specifications, wearing eye protection, and working from bottom to top, scrub an area and immediately rinse with a hose. Allow the wood to dry thoroughly (usually forty-eight hours is sufficient) before painting.Paint materials should be applied only in dry weather (when the relative humidity is below eighty-five percent) and when the air and surface temperature is between fifty and eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Prime necessary areas, taking care to prime the end grains of wood. When the primer coat is dry, caulk joints and gaps around doors, windows, and siding with polysulfide caulking, which is watertight, paintable, and long lasting. Before applying the finish coat, lightly sand rough or fuzzed areas (do not expose substrate or the area will require re-priming). Choose a good quality, mildew-resistant paint for the finish coat (mildewcide can also be added to paint separately) and follow the manufacturer's recommendations.You can prolong the life of a paint job through systematic house maintenance. This includes regular cleaning and maintenance of the gutter and downspout systems to prevent roof water from running down the side walls and damaging painted surfaces. In addition, cut back all vegetation, including tree limbs, shrubs, and vines, at least three feet from all elevations to prevent trapping moisture against wooden features. Between major paint jobs, small areas of blistering and peeling paint can be touched up, extending the life of the paint while still protecting the siding of the building. One way to keep the cost of repainting affordable is to paint one elevation per year and touch up failing paint on other elevations at that time.

-Joseph Cornish
Stewardship Manager

Common Problems and How to Correct Them

Mildew grows on buildings in damp and shaded locations-below window sills, around gutters and downspouts, under overhangs, on the north elevation of a building, and in shaded areas near shrubbery. Taking steps to reduce moisture, by installing or maintaining gutter and downspout systems and keeping them in good condition, and by pruning trees and other vegetation, will eliminate the conditions conducive to mildew growth. Mildew can be removed by cleaning surfaces with commercially available housewashing products, detergents such as Simple Green, or a mixture of one cup of non-ammoniated detergent, one quart of household bleach, and one gallon of water.

Peeling paint at the topmost layer of a painted surface can be caused by painting over an unclean surface or by incompatibility between paint types, usually when oil paint has been applied over latex. When several layers of paint peel to bare wood, excessive interior and/or exterior moisture is usually to blame, and the sources of moisture must be eliminated before repainting. This includes installing exhaust fans and vents at kitchens and bathrooms to remove moisture from indoors, and on the outside, repairing faulty flashing, leaking gutters and downspouts, defective roof shingles, and any openings in the siding. If you do not know whether the existing painted surface is oil or latex, apply a high-quality oil exterior primer, which will provide a surface suitable for either an oil or latex topcoat.

Crazing describes the condition of hairline cracks in the top layers of paint. It occurs when the surface layer of paint becomes hard with age and is unable to expand and contract with the movement of the underlying wood substrate. If not corrected, moisture can enter the wood substrate, causing it to swell and resulting in the deep cracking and alligatoring of paint layers. Crazing should be treated by hand sanding the surface and then repainting. If crazing advances to cracking and alligatoring, it should be scraped and sanded to the next sound layer of paint. In extreme cases, when paint has cracked to bare wood and begun to flake, complete removal by hand scraping or using non caustic chemical strippers is necessary.

Blisters. When paint blisters to bare wood, excessive moisture is usually to blame and should be eliminated prior to repainting. When only the topmost layer of paint blisters, leaving the lower layers of paint intact, it is likely that the most recently painted surface dried too quickly. This is common when dark-colored paint is applied in direct sunlight, so that the top surface dries and traps solvents beneath it. The solvents later vaporize, forcing their way through the dried film and causing blisters. The condition can be corrected by sanding to the next sound layer of paint.

Painting the Exterior of Your Historic House