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

Choosing Modern Paint Types/Finish Coats




Most frequently today, the project goal is preservation or rehabilitation. Because of the impracticality of replicating historic paints, restoration is least often undertaken. Given current laws restricting the use of toxic ingredients, such as lead, solvents, and thinners, contemporary substitute paints using safer ingredients need to be used. Many paint companies make latex paints in colors that are close to historic colors as well as appropriate gloss levels, but contain no white lead and no hazardous volatile organic compounds.

Work on historic properties generally requires the services of a qualified paint contractor who has had at least five years of experience and who can list comparable jobs that a potential client can see. Then, too, getting a sample or a mockup of any special work may be advisable before the job starts. While less experienced workers may be acceptable for preparing and priming, it is wise to have the most experienced painters on the finish work.

Oil-based/Alkyd Paints

Today's version of oil paint has a binder that usually contains some linseed oil (read the paint can label), but also has one of the improved synthesized oils, frequently soy based, known as alkyds. They dry hard, have flexibility, and discolor far less than linseed oil. They can also be manufactured to dry with a high sheen, and can take enough tinting pigment to create even the very deep Victorian period colors.

However, they all contain volatile organic compounds, and thus are forbidden by law in some parts of the United States. They are also less simple and more dangerous to use, as cleaning up involves mineral spirits.

Acrylic Waterborne Paints (Latex)

Latex paints are synthetic resins carried in water. Before the paint dries or crosslinks, it can be cleaned up with water. Early in the history of latex paints, some contained styrene/butadiene resins. Now nearly all topgrade latex paints contain acrylic resins, which are superior. Also, until fairly recently, the latex paints, while offering great strength, quick drying, and water cleanup, had some disadvantages for jobs which needed to have an historic look.

Today, there are latex product lines with better gloss characteristics and more historic colors from which to choose. In addition, latex paints often have excellent color retention with very little fading. Still, it is always a good idea to buy a quart and "test paint" the color chosen for the job on site before making a total commitment.


Modern wate-rbased paints such as calcimine can be purchased today and have much the same appearance as the early ones.

The same is true of modern whitewash, although today's whitewashes do not leave the same ropy surface texture as the early ones.


Glazes were often part of historic paint treatments. Traditionally oil and turpentine, sometimes with a scant amount of pigment, today's glazes can be formulated with a water base and are relatively simple to apply by brush. An experienced decorative painter should be consulted before deciding whether to use a glaze coat rather than a high-gloss enamel. The glaze is capable of providing protection as well as a more accurate historic appearance that includes a greater depth to the finish.


These were not available until relatively recently and thus are not appropriate for replication of traditional finishes.

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