At Indow, we believe in all forms of preservation. That’s why we asked Jennifer Bell of Pizzazz! Painting to cover the topic of restoring & repainting historic homes.

man painting historic home

Unless every bit of paint is literally falling off the walls, you should not replace the paint on a historic home. Instead, you should identify damaged areas and restore them.

And please do not add siding to historic homes! It might look nice, but the wood underneath will slowly rot because of moisture buildup. You will ruin the historic look of the house and cause irreparable damage.

Removing the paint entirely can also damage the old-growth wood that historic homes are made of and should only be done if absolutely necessary. The majority of types of paint damage can be fixed without completely removing the paint.

However, you can’t just paint over damaged walls. The problem will continue to get worse under the new coat. You will need to solve the root problem first. This process is called surface preparation.

Pizzazz! Painting, professional painters in NJ, says, “Surface preparation is a time-consuming task, but skipping it would not benefit you either. Homeowners managing the painting task themselves may find it difficult to go through the lengthy procedure, but professional interior & exterior house painters recommend having surface preparation.”

The first step is to find out what kind of damage you’re dealing with. Different damage requires different treatment. Here are a few of the most common causes of paint damage.

7 Causes of Paint Damage to Historic Homes

  • 1. Organic Buildup
  • 2. Mildew
  • 3. Chalking Streaks
  • 4. Stains
  • 5. Crazing
  • 6. Peeling
  • 7. Cracking

1. Organic Buildup

This includes dirt, pollution, spider webs, insect nests, and soot. Before you start painting, you’ll need to wash any of this organic material off of the walls.

These minor irritants will stop the paint from adhering to the wall properly. You can end up with peeling walls.

Most of this material can be rinsed off with water. However, you might need to scrub with water and detergent. Use a brush with soft bristles so you don’t damage your historic home.

If organic buildup is your only issue, you might not even need to repaint. A good cleaning might be all that is necessary.

painted siding with mold on historic homes

2. Mildew

Fungi likes to eat your paint. It needs moisture and darkness to thrive. Once it has these three things, you will end up with mildew.

If plant life is blocking sunlight from hitting your house, that can also cause mildew. Make sure your house gets as much sun as possible. 

If there are areas that just can’t get sunlight, you’ll need to wash away the mildew with water and bleach every so often. Bleach will immediately tell you if it’s dirt or mildew because bleach turns mildew white.

This damage might also just require cleaning. However, there are mildew-resistant paints available if you want to cut down on maintenance.

3. Chalking Streaks

Excessive chalking of paint can cause streaks and disintegration of paint. Small amounts of chalking are normal. It’s how paint naturally breaks down. However, it can build up over time if the surface isn’t properly cared for. 

Like organic material, chalking can be brushed off with water, detergent, and a brush with soft bristles. Regular rinsing with a garden hose can prevent buildup on your historic home.

4. Stains

Paint stains are most commonly caused by moisture interacting with wood. However, they can also be caused by rusty nails, screws, etc.

Rusty fasteners should be sanded down and coated with a rust-resistant primer. The cause of any water damage should be discovered and remedied. If it’s a problem now, it will be a problem for your new coat of paint.

5. Crazing

Crazing is the early stage of cracking. Paint that has been applied in many layers is more likely to become crazed and eventually cracked.

You’ll need to sand and repaint the surface to prevent it from cracking. Small cracks might still show through the paint, but the wall will be resistant to moisture.

peeling paint on historic home

Photo credit: @thecraftsmanblog 

6. Peeling

If the paint is peeling from the wood, it means there has been a long-standing moisture issue with the surface that has been ignored to the point that the paint is being ripped from the walls. The first thing you should do is solve your moisture problem.

Once you’ve taken care of that problem, you will need to completely scrape off the old coat of paint. Then you can paint the exterior as if you were starting from scratch.

7. Cracking

When crazing is left to get worse, the paint becomes cracked. This is due to moisture entering the cracks and expanding them. Once there’s one crack, it will grow bigger and create more.

Eventually, there will be so many cracks that the paint will begin to flake. If it gets to this stage, you will need to completely remove the paint. Once the paint is removed, you can prime and repaint the surface normally.

6 Steps: How to Paint the Rest of the Historic House

Undamaged areas of the house can be painted like any other house. Just make sure your paint matches the original color as closely as possible. Here are the steps you should take for the rest of the historic home’s exterior.

  • 1. Wash the Exterior
  • 2. Scrape Away the Old Paint
  • 3. Sand It Smooth
  • 4. Prime
  • 5. Caulk Small Joints
  • 6. Paint

1. Wash the Exterior

Before you begin, make sure every surface is clean. Dirt, mildew, and debris will cause problems for your paint later if you paint over them.

If you’re unfamiliar with power washers, use a hose, sprayer, and scrub brush instead. Without proper handling, power washers can damage your walls.

extractive bleeding on exterior of house after painting historic homes and not letting powerwash to dry

@thecraftsmanblog suggests: “This is what happens when you prime and paint hundred year old wood before it has had time to dry after pressure washing. Extractive bleeding!

2. Scrape Away the Old Paint

Before you begin, make sure your paint doesn’t contain lead. Historic homes often have paint that contains lead. If you’re not sure, send a paint chip to a lab for testing. 

If your paint contains lead, there are devices available that will collect the dust while you scrape off the paint. It can then be disposed of safely.

Grinders and sanders are faster but less efficient than scraping by hand. If you need to speed up the process, you can use a heat gun to soften the paint.

3. Sand It Smooth

If the surface isn’t too bumpy, you might be able to sand it with sandpaper. If you need more power, pad and random-orbit sanders can make the job easier.

Random-orbit sanders require a respirator. Any other option can be used with a dust mask.

4. Prime

An older home will need to be primed before you can paint it. If your home is made of cedar or redwood, you’ll need an oil-based primer. Acrylic primers should work for any other surface.

If you choose a primer that is a different color than the topcoat, you will be able to see exactly where you need to paint. Special primers are available for nails and screws that prevent rust. Prime these spots first, and make sure the color matches the rest of your primer.

painter caulking joints before painting historic homes

5. Caulk Small Joints

Fill in any cracks or holes near joints with painter’s caulk. This will protect your historic home from moisture, bugs, and drafts.

If you need to do this after painting for any reason, you’ll have to scrape away the paint and start over. Make sure you do this before adding your top layer of paint.

If drafts are a problem in your house, now is a great time to add insulated window inserts. These inserts will give you an added layer of protection that caulk doesn’t provide. Because these are installed inside your house, you can move to the next step and take care of this later.

6. Paint

Old homes have likely been painted with oil paints multiple times. If you want to most accurately match the old paint, you’ll likely need to choose an oil paint. 

Other types of paint are also more likely to fail if applied on top of oil paint. However, if you have completely removed all of the paint from the exterior, you can use any paint you want as long as you use an oil-based primer.

You should be able to chip off a piece of the old paint and bring it to a paint mixer. They will be able to match the color as best they can.

When applying the paint, it’s best to do it by hand. Paint sprayers are convenient, but you’ll end up with a paint job that doesn’t match the original. Rollers and brushes should be used instead.

Arts and Crafts Bungalow with new paint

Are you considering repainting your historic home? What is wrong with the old paint? Let us know in the comments below!