Monday, May 1, 2017


Ask anyone who’s restored an old house to name the most miserable part of the job, and they’re likely to tell you, “Stripping paint.” Countless hours of labor have been spent undoing the work of paintbrush-wielding maniacs from earlier eras. Those of a certain age may remember the psychedelic interiors college kids favored during the Sixties, many of them blithely painted over gorgeous old woodwork.  

If you're not old enough to remember interiors  like this,
count yourself lucky.
Sadly, a lot of us are still doing this sort of thing today. We may be using trendier colors, but the damage is just as permanent. So out of kindness to posterity, please—think twice before you paint over stained wood, brick, stone, or tile.

Older stained woodwork is probably the most frequent victim of arbitrary painting. That’s a pity, because it’s almost always integral to the style of the house. Craftsman-era homes, for example, are known for their abundance of dark-stained beams, wainscoting, and cabinets—a feature people once again appreciate today. Yet a few decades ago, many such stately interiors were permanently ruined by coats of paint to keep up with the “all-white” fad of the Eighties.

Undoing a few hours worth of ill-advised painting can take weeks.
Think twice before you paint natural finishes.
(Image courtesy
The magnificent oak, mahogany and teak woodwork of many Victorian houses was likewise damaged during the Postwar years, when dark wood happened to be out of fashion and paint was an easy way to obscure it. Suffice it to say that most of the glowing woodwork you see in restored Victorian interiors required hundreds of hours of painstaking stripping to remove layer upon layer of glopped-on paint.

With environmental concerns justifiably making many species of woods costlier and harder to get, it’s unlikely that we’ll see natural wood used in home interiors as profusely as it once was. So it makes sense to preserve what woodwork you already have.
Somebody thought this was a good idea at the time.

A problem that’s thankfully less common but even harder to rectify is the practice of painting over brick, stone, and tile. Short of sandblasting, it’s almost immmm impossible to get painted brick entirely clean again. You can forget about stripping painted stone altogether. And while tiles will let go of paint fairly easily, their intervening grout lines won’t.  

The best rule of thumb for painting over originally unpainted surfaces is simple: Don’t.  

Moreover, if your house still has oil-based paint on the interior trim, there are some fair reasons to avoid painting over that too, unless it’s absolutely necessary. One is that prep work entails its own hazards—many older paints contained lead, and therefore create lead dust when scraped or sanded and lead fumes when heat-gunned. The alternative, using chemical paint strippers, is also toxic and even messier. The waste  from these procedures must also be disposed of carefully.  

Latex paint doesn't like to stick to
oil base paint, and this is
the usual result.
An even more compelling reason to avoid unnecessary repainting is that today's water-based paints, while easier on the environment, simply don’t hold up as well as their oil-based predecessors. Old oil-based finishes are generally more durable and have a higher gloss. So you may go to all the trouble of repainting, only to end up with a finish that's inferior to the one you started with.

So—if you must paint, don’t paint over surfaces that weren't painted originally.  If you already have a marginally presentable oil-based paint job on your interior trim, think twice before repainting it.
And save this column till the next time your spouse nags you about painting.

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