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How To Paint Your Historic House…Properly

How To Paint Your Historic House...ProperlyIn Choosing Exterior Paint Colors For Your Historic House we discussed how to go about picking the right colors for a historic home. Will you choose colors that are historically accurate to your home, historically appropriate for the time period your home was built or will you just wing it and pick your own color palette?

So, now that you’ve picked your colors and are ready to go, what’s next? The folks at Historic Shed covered that as well and so we’ll walk you through a few things to consider when hiring a painting contractor or for the braver folks who choose to go it alone.

First Things First

Before you start purchasing buckets of paint and 100′ drop cloths you should test your paint colors out on your house. Buy a few small samples and paint them on your house. See how they look at different times of day. You may be surprised. You’re about to spend a lot of time and money, and it’s best to be absolutely sure you are happy with your choices.

Also, most painters recommend flat paint for the body of your house and satin or semi-gloss for the trim and windows. Make sure you’re happy with your choice of sheen as well. If you’re pleased as punch, then it’s time to move on to prep.


Anyone can paint a house, but a quality paint job will become apparent as it ages. Make sure you or your contractor properly prepare your house for new paint.

If your house was built before 1978, you’ll need to test for lead paint. If the test comes out positive, then you need to hire an EPA certified professional who has been properly trained in dealing with lead paint and the dangers it poses. Assuming there isn’t lead paint, you can proceed to prepping the surface.

  1. Wash – Give your house a good washing. We recommend a good rinsing with a hose and a long brush to get the surface thoroughly clean. A pressure washer might cause more damage than you want if there are some soft spots. After the surface is completely dry, you can continue.
  2. Remove Loose Paint – Depending on the condition of your existing paint job, this might take 10 minutes or 10 days! Paint is only as good as the surface it adheres to, and if you paint over loose or chipping paint, it will be a matter of weeks before your new paint job starts to fall apart. Paint adheres best to bare wood, so for the best adhesion you should strip all the old paint off using a scraper, infrared heat gun or paint shaver; however, this will take a lot of time and cost a lot. At the least, you want all the loose paint off. Once that’s done, you’ll want to sand the rough edges where the paint chipped off to smooth the transitions out.
  3. Repair Damaged Wood – Now is the time to repair your rotted wood. Whether it’s replacing a battered clapboard or rotted trim don’t skip this. Paint will not hold onto rotted surfaces, and you’ll wish you had replaced the rot when you had the chance. If the damage is small, you can use wood fillers or epoxies. For nail holes wood filler is fine, for larger spots like knot holes or rotted sections I recommend KwikWood or some other epoxy.
  4. Caulk & Prime – Make sure to caulk any gaps around siding and trim junctions. Then spot prime any bare wood or filler/epoxy repairs.

The Big Job

You’re almost there! If you’ve done all the extensive prep we’ve talked about, your house probably looks like a mottled mess, but that’s all about to change. Here’s just a few tips for the main attraction.

  1. Buy quality brushes and quality paints. You DO get what you pay for!
  2. Start your painting from the top and work down.
  3. Try to avoid painting in direct sunlight.
  4. Clean up spills and drips quickly before they dry.
  5. TWO Coats! One coat is not enough to protect your house from Mother Nature.
  6. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for drying time between coats. They know best.
  7. Cold or humid weather will slow your drying time, so adjust accordingly.

Now stand back and enjoy the fruits of your labor! You’ve just completed a paint job that will stand the test of time. One last tip before we go: keep some of each color paint for touch ups and color matching. Keeping your paint touched up will protect your house, prevent any further rot, and keep you from having to do yet more repairs!

This series was done in conjunction with Historic Shed which is based in Brooksville, FL (just north of Tampa) and provides affordable traditional wood garden sheds, cottages, detached garages and outbuildings that complement historic homes. You can contact them at design@historicshed.com or (813) 333-2249

Photos Courtesy 123RF Stock Photo

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16 thoughts on “How To Paint Your Historic House…Properly

  1. Scott,
    We live in central Florida. We are using oil-based primer and paint for our 1920s bungalow. What brand of primer and paint do you recommend for historic homes in Florida? Do you recommend any additives for the paint?

  2. I have a 1926 bungalow that has lead paint under several other coats. I bought a SpeedHeater to remove the alligator paint & have spent a lot of time taking care to try to get to the original cedar siding on most of the house. Imagine my horror when the “paint” on the porch began to smoke and smell extremely funny (even with a HEPA ventilator on) after removal of the top 2 or 3 coats was so easy. It turns out that the surface of the lead paint was skim coated with wood filler across the whole surface to remediate the alligator layers of lead paint on the porch (probably the result of painting too thick or not allowing appropriate drying time on the covered porch before putting a 2nd coat of paint on top because it peels in deep chunks down to bare wood). I can’t use the SpeedHeater on the front of the house under the porch because the vapor point of the skim coat of wood filler is low enough that really stinky (& probably harmful) gases escape and instead of a nice curl of easily removable old paint, I get a gappy, gummy blob that requires sanding. The whole point was to avoid sanding the lead stuff. I would welcome any suggestions, as fall in Michigan is damp & I have half of the paint on the front of my house removed & half a lumpy, bumpy mess. Winter will be here before we know it & the wood needs protection. Thanks in advance!!

    1. That sounds terribly annoying, but understandable for an old house. People will do all kinds of weird things! If the Speedheater isn’t working I would probably switch to a ProScraper or a Paint Shaver. The former is inexpensive and easy to use but requires a lot of elbow grease. The later is expensive but very effective once you learn how to use it properly.

    2. I’d strongly recommend the Paintshaver Pro. You can adjust to the depth of your paint and it will take it down to the clapboard surface, and even strip the bottom edge of the clapboard above the one you’re working on simultaneously. It is the fastest way to remove paint and is specifically designed for lead paint on clapboard. It attaches to a HEPA vacuum. You can do an entire side of a 2-3 story house in 1-2 days.

  3. Scott, I can’t begin to convey how helpful your blog is for those of us who want to do right by our old bungalows, but don’t have old house experience. We’re currently prepping original 1924 clapboard siding (recently freed from an asbestos shingle layer that had been installed in 1953), using what we’ve learned from this site. Question regarding the priming and painting stage we’re moving on to: if it’s important for the horizontal joints of the siding to be left uncaulked so that water can escape over time, does that mean that one needs to prime and paint only lightly (or not at all) on the clapboard bottoms to keep those horizontal joints open/not plugged with paint? Or do you keep the primer and paint layers the same thickness on the face of the clapboard and on the bottom part of the clapboards?

    1. KM, in a perfect word the joint would be open all the time, but I realize paint can get in there in fill the gap. My best advice is to paint normal and not worry about the gap as much, it will open and close through the seasons, but if it’s caulked then it seems to really clog things up permanently.

  4. Hello, Scott,
    I have some T1-11 siding that I am trying to repaint. There is quite a bit of cracking on the garage front, which takes the most sun. Just when it seems I have gotten the last bit of loose paint off, I find more to peel away. It peels off thick, and down to the bare wood. If I dig into it, I am occasionally damaging the wood. How do I know when I have peeled off enough?
    I bought some Peel Bond from Sherwin Williams hoping to help cover the edges.

    1. T1-11 siding has a lot of issues with water because of the way it is installed most times. If you have peeling to bare wood it is most likely a water issue and should hopefully improve as you move higher off the ground. You really just have to peel until the paint is sound and well adhered. Sometimes that’s only a couple inches other times a yards worth of paint that is coming off.

    1. I prefer latex over oil primer on wood. But you can also put latex over latex primer or oil over oil primer. The one thing you CANNOT do is put oil paint over latex primer.

  5. You list step 4 as caulk and prime. Isn’t it important to prime before caulking so that the wood doesn’t suck the moisture out of the caulk? And for what reason do you advocate only spot priming, rather than priming the entire area?

    1. Corbin, priming before caulking does help with adhesion of the caulk which is always a good thing. Bare wood should always be primed prior to applying finish paint, but priming already painted areas on the exterior of the house doesn’t have much payback in my opinion. Does it help with adhesions? Yes. But unless you are covering oil with latex or vice versa the need for primer is minor.

  6. I strongly disagree that folks need to hire an EPA/RRP certified professional if they discover lead paint. Homeowners can do it if they follow lead-safe work practices (www.epa.gov/lead) and clean up properly. The Speedheater Infrared Paint Remover (UL-listed from http://www.eco-strip.com) makes soft curls of paint waste that are easy to contain for thorough and safe disposal. Not everyone can afford the $10,000++++ most contractors will charge. Homeowners can buy quality tools, use their own labor, and do the job as time permits while still protecting their kids from lead poisoning.

  7. Thank you for this article! We were just going to “touch up” the peeling paint on our house’s wood exterior (by painting over the peeling spots), but after reading this, we’re going to do it properly, beginning with scraping. Thank you for the timely advice!

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