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Repainting Historic Buildings for Cosmetic Reasons

If existing exterior paint on wood siding, eaves, window sills, sash, and shutters, doors, and decorative features shows no evidence of paint deterioration such as chalking, blistering, peeling, or cracking, then there is no physical reason to repaint, much less remove paint! Nor is color fading, of itself, sufficient justification to repaint a historic building.

The decision to repaint may not be based altogether on paint failure. Where there is a new owner, or even where ownership has remained constant through the years, taste in colors often changes. Therefore, if repainting is primarily to alter a building's primary and accent colors, a technical factor of paint accumulation should be taken into consideration. When paint builds up to a thickness of approximately 1/16~ (approximately 1630 layers), one or more extra coats of paint may be enough to trigger cracking and peeling in limited or even widespread areas of the building's surface. This results because excessively thick paint is less able to withstand the shrinkage or pull of an additional coat as it dries and is also less able to tolerate thermal stresses. Thick paint invariably fails at the weakest point of adhesion--the oldest layers next to the wood. Cracking and peeling follow. Therefore, if there are no signs of paint failure, it may be somewhat risky to add still another layer of unneeded paint simply for color's sake (extreme changes in color may also require more than one coat to provide proper hiding power and full color). When paint appears to be nearing the critical thickness, a change of accent colors (that is, just to limited portions of the trim) might be an acceptable compromise without chancing cracking and peeling of paint on wooden siding.

If the decision to repaint is nonetheless made, the "new" color or colors should, at a minimum, be appropriate to the style and setting of the building. On the other hand, where the intent is to restore or accurately reproduce the colors originally used or those from a significant period in the building's evolution, they should be based on the results of a paint analysis.(5)

(5) See the Reading List for paint research and documentation information. See also "The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation Projects with Guidelines for Applying the Standards" for recommended approaches on paints and finishes within various types of project work treatments.