Techniques > Systems > Finishes > NPS Preservation Brief 28 Painting Historic Interiors >

Oil-Based and Water-Based Paints




The two major types of paint are termed oil-based and water-based.

For oil-based paints, linseed oil was frequently chosen because it is a drying oil. When thinned with an organic solvent such as turpentine for easier spreading, its drying speed was enhanced.

To make the drying even faster, drying agents such as cobalt compounds were frequently added. Because the addition of driers was most successfully done in hot or boiling oil, boiled linseed oil was preferable.

The drying rate of linseed oil paints was relatively rapid at first, for several days immediately after application, and paint soon felt dry to the touch; it is important to remember, however, that linseed oil paint continues to dry — or more precisely, to crosslink — over decades and thus continues to a point of brittleness as the paint ages. Strong and durable with a surface sheen, oil-based paints were mainly used for wood trim and metal.




Whitewashes and distemper paints differed from oil paints in appearance primarily because the vehicle was water.

Water-based paints were always flat, having no gloss of their own. Because the paint film dried to the touch as soon as the water evaporated, driers were not needed. Water-base paints were fairly strong, with the pigments well bound as in hide glue distempers, but they did not hold up to abrasion.

Wood trim, therefore, was rarely painted with these types of paint historically, though interior plaster surfaces were frequently coated with whitewash and calcimine. Distemper paints were commonly used for decorative work.

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