Paint ages and may suffer defects, such as cracking or peeling, so where its purpose is for protection, as on external softwood, regular maintenance is vital. Of course, this is also desirable internally. Periodic retouching helps extend intervals for complete redecoration.

An old home can start to look dated and dilapidated simply with the ageing of paintwork, whether it be internal or external. Follow this advice to make sure your paintwork is kept fresh and looking authentic, even in the modern day.

Related articles: How to choose a paint type | How to strip paint from a wooden door | Repaint and revive outdoor paintwork | 9 incredibly colourful period homes

Traditional paint types

Many modern paints for decorating homes are mass-produced and based on plastics, including acrylic and alkyd resins. Before the early 20th century, however, they were usually hand-mixed by painters, and finishes included soft distemper, limewash and oil based.

Soft Distemper

A water-based solution that primarily comprises a white-base pigment (generally water-soaked whiting) bound with glue-size. This basic mix is tinted with alkali-resistant pigments to give colours such as blues, greens and earth tones. Whitening, a variation, was often employed for ceilings.

Soft distemper has a velvety, matt finish and is used almost exclusively internally. It is distinct from oil-bound or ‘washable’ distemper used from Victorian times — the forerunner to modern emulsion which came into use following the World War II. While the drawback of soft distemper is that it is not wipeable like modern paints, it does allow a wall to breathe.

How to identify soft distemper: As it is water-soluble, it will rub off on a moist fingertip. Limewash is also water-soluble, but will take much more scrubbing to remove than soft distemper.


A simple matt paint made from lime and water, with or without additives. It is applied both internally and externally, particularly to lime renders. Colours are made using alkali-resistant pigments, especially metal oxides from natural earths. Impurities in early lime commonly produced off-white limewash without additional pigments. See below for how to use casein paint internally in place of limewash.

How to identify limewash: Because limewash is water soluble and contains no oil-based binders, it can be rubbed or washed off. It also tends to erode or chalk rather than crack. External limewash will develop darker patches for a short period when it rains.

Oil based paint

Traditionally consisted of lead pigment, usually lead carbonate, bound in oil. The pigment created either a white paint or a base for tinting with colour. Historically, linseed oil was the binder and turpentine the thinner, their proportions determining whether the finish was matt or semi-gloss. It was utilised extensively on softwood joinery and metalwork, and some plasterwork or render.

You can mix your own linseed oil tempera paint for restoring painted woodwork. Here architect Neil McKay, who renovated and restored his own 17th century thatched cottage, demonstrates how to make and mix tempera paint from raw ingredients, how to ensure paint colour consistency, and which surfaces are most appropriate for its application.

How to identify lead paint: Many oil based paints use a lead pigment which is toxic if ingested or inhaled. Therefore great care must be taken if repairing or removing lead paintwork. Lead paint tends to develop oblong cracking rather than peeling. Like lime wash and distemper, it may have a chalky surface, but the difference being it is not water soluble.

Conserving paint

Maintaining interior paintwork

With a historically important interior, existing decoration might either be best left alone or gently cleaned and conserved by a specialist. Exceptionally, the uncovering of an earlier scheme may be justified. Re-creation is sometimes an option, but differences in paint manufacturing and application methods make true replication difficult (the ‘suede effect’). However see below for a video on how to achieve an authentic finish using casein paint.

Maintaining exterior paintwork

Painting bare surfaces, such as exposed brickwork, can harm the character of an old building. Therefore, it should usually be avoided, unless inappropriate stripping has taken place — for instance, of softwood doors. In the majority of cases, redecoration using paint of an appropriate type, colour and gloss level, to create an authentic or alternative scheme, achieves sympathetic results. Architectural paint analysis can assist in making a decision.

What should you use to redecorate?

Historic formulations, such as limewash and soft distemper, frequently remain appropriate for redecoration. The latter, for example, prevents details on decorative ceilings clogging-up, as happens with synthetic emulsions. In addition, limewash will penetrate fine cracking, which is common in older properties, and heal and consolidate the cracking, whereas modern emulsion wouldn’t.

Substitution with a modern type of paint might be justified in some circumstance, for instance, linseed paint where lead use is now unlawful. However, see the video above for how to mix your own linseed oil tempera paint, substituting lead oxides with titanium dioxide.

You can mix your own limewash for redecoration. If you find that a limewash chalks on the walls of your period home, rubbing off on clothes or furniture, you can use a casein paint – this is essentially a limewash that is made with skimmed milk instead of water. Casein paint still has the breathability and flexibility of a limewash, but does not chalk.

Here architect Neil McKay demonstrates how to mix and use casein paint, by redecorating a patch of wall in his own 17th century thatched cottage.

Internally, clay-based solutions helps unify patchy plasterwork. Clay-based products, or perhaps proprietary renovation paint or contract emulsion, may also be suitable over less-breathable vinyl emulsion.

Brilliant white gloss is frequently not as appropriate as a semi-gloss off-white. Bituminous coatings or tar are normally inadvisable on pre-Victorian timber frames, and polyurethane varnish is often best avoided, too.

Where can you buy traditional paint?

A number of manufacturers specialise in traditional paints to serve a market of people looking to decorate their homes authentically, or with breathable paints. Search for limewash, distemper or casein and you will find a company selling it. You can also try the companies below.