Tips on decorating historic buildings
Regular redecoration of the outside is important as it helps prevent decay. This is especially true for external woodwork. Windows and doors need regular painting to protect the wood from weather. The only exception is old hardwood such as oak, which is best left unpainted but may benefit from oiling or other traditional treatment.
For example, lime render and stucco - may need special ‘breathable’ paint such as limewash that protects the material but does not trap moisture in the wall. In old houses, it’s important to let moisture in walls evaporate so that it doesn’t cause damp. Painting brick, stone or concrete walls can create damp problems and modern paint can be almost impossible to remove without causing damage. If your walls are already painted, seek advice. See Finding Professional Help.
Your favourite colour
In most cases the choice of colours for the outside of your house is up to you, although for old buildings you will usually get the most pleasing results by keeping to traditional colours. For example, joinery in older houses was often painted dark brown rather than white. Modern white paints are much brighter and colder than historic whites.
If your house is listed you may need to get permission for external redecoration if this would change the character of the building, for example by painting outside walls if they have never been painted before, or using bright red! In some conservation areas there may be special controls on the colours you can use, so check with your local authority first. If your house is in a terrace there may be a tradition of using different bright colours, or for all houses to match; it’s a good idea to take account of local approaches.
The historic interior of your house
Interior decoration is very much a matter of personal taste, but there are some things that you need to remember. If you live in an old house there may be traces of interesting earlier decoration.
If your house is an important historic building, take extra care with redecoration because there may be layers of old paint that tell the story of the house. There could be unusual wall paintings hidden under later plaster, paint or wallpaper, which need to be kept and may be worth restoring.
A close-up of Georgian block-printed wallpaper, c.1795, with a small green and white leaf motif and darker patterned border
If you suspect your house has early wall decoration, you may need specialist advice and conservation, rather than just redecoration. Stripping paint or lime plaster can take away layers of history that can’t be replaced. Painted or stained, rather than bare, woodwork is the norm in most historic houses and in some cases was an important design feature. In such cases stripping these finishes would be damaging.
Try to work with the character of your house, finding out how it would have looked, and making the most of any original decorative features. Original features such as wall-panelling, plaster cornices, picture rails and timber mouldings around doors and windows are valuable and you would need consent to take them out. Some - for example, ornamental plaster ceilings or hardwood panelling - may need special treatment, so look for firms that specialise in restoring or repairing historic interiors.
If your house is Grade I or Grade II* listed it may be appropriate to use traditional paints with white lead pigment or high solvent content. However, their toxicity means they are restricted by environmental legislation and their use permitted only under licence. For more information please read our advice page on Paint Legislation And Historic Buildings.
If you need advice about decorating houses from particular historical periods, the Georgian Group and Victorian Society publish helpful leaflets. These cover timber mouldings, wallpaper and tiles and paint.
To find out more visit Historic Englands website.