Painting Your Old House

A paint job that is prepped correctly and uses quality products is one of the best ways to highlight the great architectural beauty of an older house. A great color scheme can make a dramatic difference. Exterior painting is a more than just a cosmetic issue, though.

Keeping surfaces well painted is one of the best ways to ensure against rot and deterioration. The longer the paint deteriorates, the better the chance for damage to occur. Protect your house while highlighting its features- PAINT!


Lead Safe Work Practices

Before scrolling any further, many homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint. Lead safe work practices are designed to prevent further lead hazards. Below are some of the techniques that are recommended for good surface preparation and to prevent further lead contamination. Check your local building department or your regional EPA Office for further information regarding regulations and lead safety. Once you have diagnosed the type and reason for paint failure you can begin to correct it. Whether you are performing the work yourself or hiring a contractor, exercising lead safe work practices is a must. 

Preparing the surface

Cover the ground, foundation plantings, etc. with protective plastic sheeting.

Scrape and sand- Use wet methods by misting surfaces before scraping and sanding. Remove failing paint until a sound surface has been reached. Dry scraping or sanding should be done only in small areas

Mist before drilling and cutting to reduce dust creation and keep dust from becoming airborne

If power tools are used, equip them with a HEPA vacuum attachment.

Do not use open flame torches, infrared scorchers, electric irons, and heat guns operating above 1,100 degrees as it may cause the release of dangerous lead fumes

Be sure that the substrate is clean, completely dry, and free of dust and moisture before paint is applied.

Applying paint

Prime all bare wood

Apply top coat. Hand brushing the top coat is the best method. If using a sprayer, back brush the paint by hand to insure complete and even coverage

Seal any paint chips, paper towels, tape, vacuum bags and gloves in a plastic bag and dispose of safely

Paint Failure

Many homeowners are faced with the common problem of paint failure on their older home. Paint can fail for a variety of reasons. Inadequate surface preparation, moisture and inappropriate painting conditions affect the lifespan of your paint job.

If your house has cracking, bubbling, wrinkling, flaking or peeling, read below for the common issues that cause this paint failure, as well as ways that you can identify and cure your paint issues.

Alligatoring is a patterned cracking in the paint film resembling the scales of an alligator.

Causes: Alligatoring is a sign of old, thick paint that has lost its flexibility due to age. If alligatoring only occurs on the top coat, it is a sign that the paint was unable to bond with the paint beneath.

Cure: Removal of the paint down to bare wood or a sound surface

Blistering is bubbles or wrinkles resulting from loss of adhesion and lifting of the paint film from the surface.

Causes: Painting a warm surface in direct sunlight, or on a surface that is damp or wet, the exposure of uncured paint to rain, dew or high humidity, painting a surface in which moisture is escaping through the exterior walls

Cure: Locate the source of and stop the moisture, scrape down the blisters or wrinkles, sand the surface, prime any bare wood and repaint.

Cracking or Flaking is the splitting of older dry paint film through at least one coat. This problem begins as a hairline crack.

Causes: Older, brittle paint with many layers, paint that was applied too thick, surface coat was applied in conditions that were too cool, or windy causing the paint to dry too fast

Cure: Removal of the paint down to bare wood or a sound surface

Peeling is paint coating lifting from the surface in sections or sheets

Causes: Excessive moisture coming through the surface, applying paint to a wet or damp surface, applying paint to bare wood that has not been primed, improper removal of surface contaminants

Cure: Identify and remedy the source of peeling whether it be moisture, dirt or improper paint prep.

Paint Removal

If you have identified a paint problem that requires either limited or total paint removal, the gentlest removal method possible should be selected. Paint can be removed in a number of ways and no removal method is without its drawbacks. The three most common ways of removing paint are by abrasive, thermal or chemical means. NEVER use sandblasting as a paint removal technique. No doubt, it will remove paint, but at the same time it will scar wooden elements and leave pitted surfaces with ridges and valleys.


The painted surface is removed by scraping with a putty knife or paint scraper and/or sanding. Generally this is a technique used for surface preparation and limited paint removal. Sanding blocks or sponges and sandpaper are the recommended methods for sanding paint layers. Orbital or belt sanders as well as rotary drills with a wire stripping attachment should be avoided.


Softening and raising the paint layers by applying heat from a heat gun, heat plate or infared stripper, followed by scraping and sanding. Generally a technique used for total paint removal. This is a great method if you are trying to remove thicker built up layers of paint.


Softening of the paint layers with chemical strippers followed by scraping and sanding. Generally this is a technique used for total paint removal. This is a great method if you are trying to remove thin paint layers and clear finishes. Methylene chloride paint strippers are not recommended. Use extreme caution when dealing with chemical strippers.

Remember that sandblasting should be strictly avoided. Sandblasting has the potential to scar wooden architectural elements beyond recognition. Even if the nicest contractor promises that he or she can control the amount of blasting force without harming the wooden elements of your home, think twice.

Picking the Paint

Choosing the right colors for your house can be tricky. The right colors placed on the right architectural elements can transform a house. At the same time, a lack of a color scheme, or colors placed in the wrong places can detract from your house’s natural features.

Some home styles and types have distinct color palettes that fit them, and others have a bit more range in choosing exterior colors in particular. To learn more about the house types and styles listed below, click HERE

Contact the Heritage Home Program for a Color Consult if you are interested in learning about what colors your home may had in the past. 

Symbol of the American Dream for the urban middle class, The Foursquare house generally maintains a light earth toned body color with off- white trim. A darker accent color is often used to highlight shingled gable ends and window sash. This style of home was built during the period when Colonial Revival and Craftsman Bungalows were fashionable. Take cues from your house’s porch details to paint it in an appropriate scheme.

Home to many immigrant families, Cleveland Doubles were often painted in hues that followed the concurrent trends toward Colonial Revival whites and grays or the green and brown earth tones associated with Bungalows. Doubles’ signature shingled gables should be painted the darkest shade on the house – either dark green or red. Trim colors should be white or off-white and the sash may be painted dark green or black. Front doors often employ varnished hardwood surfaces to accentuate the entry from the structure’s simple geometric lines.

The Colonial Revival style marked a return to classical symmetry and the lighter paint colors that were used in the early nineteenth century. The body is typically painted a lighter shade of ocher, yellow, tan, gray, gray-blue or gray-green. Trim should be painted off white or vellum.

The major distinction of the Colonial Revival paint scheme is the sash color, which should always be the same as the trim. Doors and shutters should be painted in dark greens or black.

Blending inspiration from Asian motifs with the look of hand-crafted woodwork and metals, Bungalow houses showcased colors found in nature. Body hues like browns, olives, tans, and dirty grays are typical. The trim color should have a subtle, but harmonious contrast to the body. Window sash and entry doors are usually the darkest color on the house.

Greek Revival houses recall the stylistic elements of Greek and Roman temples; like pediment fronts, columns and symmetry. The style is best suited to stone colors (grays, blue grays, tans), ochre based colors (straw and yellows), whites and off whites. This limited palette was common in the early nineteenth century when paint pigments were hand-ground in linseed oil to create a paint. Typically the body, trim and sash are painted white or very light color with doors and shutters accented with dark green.

Like Second Empire structures, Italianate style dwellings were derived from masonry prototypes in the Italian countryside. As a result, body colors should mimic light stone shades from grays to beiges. Italianate trim should be differentiated from the main color of the house and the sash are typically painted in dark greens or browns. If the body is light, the trim, cornices, brackets etc., should be painted several shades darker of the same color. Conversely, if the body color is deeper, the trim should be a lighter shade of the body color, though still keeping the sash dark.

Built as the crowning achievement of Victorians’ obsession with detail, Queen Anne houses were built on a grand scale with machine-made ornamentation. Most houses of this style were painted in one or two earth tone body colors to accent multiple types of siding. One trim color was used throughout to frame the structure’s decorative elements. Window sash should be painted a dark shade so as not to attract attention from the other architectural details.

The war was over and Americans were ready to settle down and enjoy suburban living. The Ranch, with its wide façade and smaller footprint, was often painted a bright and sunny color. Trim was typically edged in white. These whites often had a golden cast to them until titanium dioxide paint was developed. Yellows, blues, grays and browns were common body colors. Lacking complex architectural detail, slab entry doors with geometric windows drew attention to themselves with bright colors like yellow, turquoise, and terra cotta.

Though most of America’s Second Empire dwellings are wood frame construction, they were built to mimic a popular French style built of masonry. As a result, the most historically accurate body colors tend to be stone grays, ochre yellows and buff browns. Trim work, including window casings, brackets and cornices should be light brown, terra cotta or even olive green. Window sash, doors and shutters are often accented in the darkest shades of green, brown or red.

Emphasizing a fascination with our European past, Tudor style houses instantly transport us back to 16th century England. Utilizing natural building materials like stucco and half-timbering, the Tudor should be painted in warm, earthy tones. Both trim and sash should be painted in dark shades of browns, occasionally reds or dark olive greens.