Benefits of traditional finishes include breathability, a more attractive finish and greater depth of colour. They’re also often safer and more environmentally friendly than modern paints. You should try to use traditional finishes and follow historic colour schemes wherever possible.
While patterns and scenes created using paint were important, the use of colour itself often had added significance. Some pigments were so rare and expensive that certain colours were impressive status symbols in themselves.
Sourcing traditional paints is straightforward: all of the finishes mentioned in this guide are still made today. They may be manufactured in a different way, but they remain very similar in composition, colours and performance to those used in the past.
Decorative paint finishes that mimic natural materials such as wood and stone have been used for centuries to enhance interiors. Take care during any paint or wallpaper removal: early marbled or grained decorative schemes may remain beneath.
Soft distemper is a pigmented, water-based matt paint. Whiting (chalk powder) is mixed with size (liquid glue) and pigments to produce a soft matt finish.
Distemper was the main finish used on the plaster walls and ceilings of everyday interiors. The white chalk powder provided durability and also contributed to distemper’s other name, ‘Paris White’.
For added durability, other binders might be included as well as size. For example, adding milk, casein (a cheese-making by-product) or linseed oil produced a ‘washable distemper’.
Distemper is non-alkali in composition, so is compatible with a wider range of pigments than limewash. The white chalk dilutes the intensity of pigments, however, and so distemper wasn’t suitable where bold colours were required.
All oil-based paints were traditionally made from a paste of linseed oil and pigment (usually with a base of powdered white lead). The paste was diluted with more oil and sometimes mixed with turpentine for ease of application. Synthetic substitutes were used in place of linseed oil from the early 1900s.
To speed up the hardening of the paint, additives called dryers were often added – most often zinc sulphate.
Traditional oil-based paints:
were very flexible
gave a greater depth of colour and texture than modern paints
Oil-based paints were used mainly on joinery and ironwork, due to the bold colours and versatile range of finishes available. Varying the ratio of linseed oil to binder created finishes ranging from ‘flatted’ matt to glossier sheens. The effects produced were different to those of today’s paints.
Varnishes and stains
In the 1700s, most internal wooden surfaces were painted or given a wood grain effect. Bare wood was unusual. By the 1850s, a dark stain and varnish was often used on joinery elements instead. This consisted of a linseed or walnut oil-based stain (usually with yellow ochre and burnt umber added) and a clear varnish layer.
Suitable natural modern alternatives are:
boiled linseed oil
Many properties now have their internal timber elements stripped bare. Yet applying surface varnish or light stain seals the timber, makes cleaning easier and is more in keeping with the original scheme.
Original varnished woodwork should be preserved. You can freshen up crazed (cracked) surfaces with a thin coat of Danish oil applied with a brush or rag.
If you live in a traditionally built house there are many benefits to using traditional finishes and following historic colour schemes.
Compared to modern paints, traditional coatings:
are often safer and better for the environment – largely solvent-free, they give off fewer noxious fumes
produce an attractive finish that better suits the character of a traditional building’s interior
contain a variety of pigments, which provide shading and depth of colour, the hues changing subtly in different lights
are breathable and allow moisture to disperse freely – reducing the risk of damp problems
Nearly all interiors had some form of painted surface finish, which often reflected the function of the various rooms. Returning rooms to their traditional decorative schemes can be rewarding and add character to a property.
Many pigments used in the past produced far more vibrant colours than the faded hues that survive suggest. Until the Victorian era, however, the range of paints available was more limited.
Bold, bright colours only became widespread with 19th-century advances in synthetic dye production. Prior to this, pigments added to paint finishes were largely imported and costly – only some ochres and yellows were mined in Scotland.
Some pigments were so rare and expensive that certain colours were impressive status symbols in themselves. For example, Royal Blue and Imperial Purple were affordable only for high status decorative schemes in churches and royal residences.
So while patterns and scenes created using paint were important, the colour of the paint itself often had added significance.
For example, colours chosen for interiors were often linked to function:
larder and store cupboard interiors – often dark blue, as this was thought to deter flies
dining rooms – dark green
principal rooms – lighter colours and varnished timber
service area facings and finishes – often darker reds and browns, probably as the pigments cost less
Most domestic ceilings, in the 19th century, were painted with an off-white distemper, known as ‘broken distemper’. Smoke and fumes from lamps and gas fittings meant that ceilings had to be regularly repainted, and this was a low-cost finish. A soft distemper is a good modern substitute.
A plaster cornice is usually painted in an off-white colour. Avoid using oil or emulsion paint, as it can be hard to remove from plaster when repainting is required.
Historic lath and plaster walls are most suited to a soft distemper. Many decorators will first apply lining paper to give a smooth surface. But distemper was traditionally applied directly to the plaster.
Interior walls plastered ‘on the hard’ (i.e. where plaster is applied directly onto masonry) are best painted with a soft distemper or limewash. These will allow maximum permeability, reducing the risk of moisture being trapped in the wall.
Gloss paint is often found on lime plaster. It is unlikely to do any harm but is hard to remove so to repaint it is best to apply a lining paper and paint with distemper.
Joinery and timber finishes
Most woodwork is likely to have many layers of traditional oil-based paints or modern paints. Removing earlier coats will make the mouldings stand out more clearly but it is a time-consuming process and you should check if there is any lead based paint.
Take great care during paint removal, as older paints are likely to contain lead. Avoid damage to the woodwork, and look closely at the paint layers for signs of any graining or marbling effect.
All of the traditional paints mentioned in this guide are still made today. They may be manufactured in a different way, but they remain very similar in composition, colours and performance to those used in the past. You may need to source them from specialist suppliers rather than your local DIY store.
Lead-based paints were once common, but their use is now considered a health hazard. They are now only used in rare situations.
Modern ‘heritage’ paints come in a range of traditional colours and surface textures. They look very like traditional finishes, but use a modern base and modern chemical pigments. As a result, they may not be quite the same as traditional paints but may be suitable for some schemes.
Decorative paint finishes that mimic natural materials such as wood and stone have been used for centuries to enhance interiors. ‘Graining’ and ‘marbling’ were very much in fashion in the 1700s and 1800s.
Graining recreates the colour and grain of timber using paint and transparent mediums.
Marbling mimics the look of marble or another stone using paint and transparent mediums.
Take care during any paint or wallpaper removal: early marbled or grained decorative schemes may be found during re-decoration work.
The look of marble was achieved using similar methods to the graining technique. Specific marbling techniques varied depending on the:
base to which the finish was to be applied
marble to be copied
A distemper rather than oil base was used where the finish was applied to plaster. For darker marbles, a dark base was applied, onto which lighter veins were painted. Careful surface preparation was crucial to emulate the smoothness of polished marble.
Remnants of decorative schemes
You may come across fragments of earlier decorative finishes when redecorating a property.
Learning more about these can provide valuable information on the:
past appearance and use of the building
fashions of past eras
tastes of the building’s previous occupants
Researching old documents relating to the property, such as accounts, may mention when work was carried out.
You should get in touch with a specialist paint conservator if you think the paint scheme may be of historic value.
A conservator can:
inspect and analyse paint layers, colours and materials
reveal the number and type of early decorative paint coats
tell you about the quality and significance of the scheme
The cause of a problem must be identified before repairs to historic paintwork are carried out. A conservator can advise on more complex problems.
A condition survey will record and assess the state of historic decorative paint finishes, and propose urgent treatment and future care. Where the substrate is sound, simple remedial treatments can be carried out – whether to clean, to secure flaking pigments or to repair small areas. Any treatment used must be reversible and leave no harmful residues.
Following a regular building maintenance regime will significantly reduce the risk of further damage to historic features.
To protect painted surfaces:
fit window blinds to reduce damage from exposure to daylight
ensure rooms are well ventilated
avoid big changes in temperature
ensure open fires don't smoke excessively
keep furniture away from walls
create a route through the room that avoids brushing past painted surfaces
use picture rails rather than nailing directly to walls
carefully plan any service installation that may affect a painted surface
Revealing a decorative scheme
It’s usually too difficult to reveal in full a decorative scheme that’s been covered with many paint layers. But you may be able to uncover a section as an example of the decoration. This can then become part of a reproduction or new scheme. If you place a protective glass or plastic cover over the section it must be set off the surface to allow ventilation and avoid condensation.
Redecorating over a scheme
To prepare a surface for repainting, you would generally first strip off all previous layers of wall paper and paint. However, where a decorative paint scheme exists but is in poor condition it is best to leave this in place, make a record of it and then create a new scheme on top. Cover the previous decorative surface (usually painted plaster) with lining paper and decorate on top of that.
Reproducing a decorative finish
Areas of historic graining or marbling may be large enough to give a good idea of the original scheme’s pattern and colour. This may enable an experienced decorator to reproduce the scheme over a larger area. You should ask to see examples of your preferred decorators’ previous work on historic buildings.
A suitable reconstruction should:
achieve the same quality as the original scheme
reproduce its pattern, colours and texture using templates of the original detailing set out in their repeating pattern dimensions
Your decorator or a conservator can advise on the traditional finishes with the most suitable characteristics for the circumstances.
Limewashes have been used as interior coatings for centuries, though they’re mainly associated with external work. Unless highly filtered and strained, limewash gives an uneven, textured finish. This can be suitable for pre-18th century structures (but not classical or formal rooms).
From the mid-18th century, distemper was the main finish used on the plaster walls and ceilings of everyday interiors. Its durability came from the white chalk, which contributed to distemper’s other name, ‘Paris White’. It also had various regional names. Distemper had almost entirely replaced limewash as a domestic interior finish by the 19th century, although limewash was still used in industrial and agricultural buildings.
The white chalk powder in distemper also diluted the intensity of any pigments added to it. This made it unsuitable for use in areas where bold colours were required. Traditional oil-based paints were used instead on joinery and ironwork, as vibrant colours and versatile range of finishes were achievable.
All oil-based paints used to be made from a pmixture of linseed oil and pigment (usually with a base of powdered white lead). But by the early 20th century, linseed oil was increasingly replaced by synthetic substitutes.
Historically pigments added to paint finishes were largely imported at some cost – only some ochres and yellows were mined in Scotland. Chemical engineering advances in the 1800s meant a wider range of colours became affordable. Victorian colour schemes were typically vibrant as a result. Most such interiors have been painted over as tastes have changed.
Many properties now have their internal timber elements stripped, but historically it was rare to see bare wood in a property. In the 18th century, most internal wooden surfaces were painted or given a wood grain effect. By the 1850s, a dark stain and varnish was often applied to joinery elements.
Graining and marbling fashions
Graining techniques were used from the 1600s to mimic the finishes of fine cabinet hardwoods such as oak and mahogany. Early examples were crude, featuring patterns and colours that were more abstract than realistic.
Graining was used not only on softwoods, but also on fine hardwoods, to imitate the highest quality cabinetmaking. Techniques became complex and the results more refined as materials and skills developed. By the early 1800s, it was the fashion for principal rooms to feature graining on panelling and joinery.
Marbling techniques were also practised, usually in halls and on staircases. Some schemes achieved immense richness using imitative inlays and contrasting colours of marbles.
High quality graining and marbling calls for great technical skill as well as detailed knowledge of the type of timber or marble to be copied. The finest examples of such finishes tell us that the best decorators were also artists, who were free to express their own ideas in their work.
The Engine Shed is accredited by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and National Open College Network (NOCN).
The Engine Shed was supported by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to share knowledge of traditional building materials, develop skills and raise standards in conservation for traditional buildings.