Selecting the most appropriate paint colors for historic buildings can be challenging, but with a little know how you can turn this potentially daunting task into a rewarding experience. Much like today, paint colors originally used for historic buildings were chosen because they were aesthetically pleasing at the time of construction. As architectural styles changed and certain colors fell out of favor, owners relied on new paint colors to keep their buildings fashionable.
A fresh coat of paint has always been an easy way to personalize or update a building without altering it structurally. A trip down the paint isle in your local home center will prove that this continues to be a popular solution. Hundreds of colors on neatly presented take home swatches invite you to freshen up your building’s appearance with relative ease. Making a color change is not necessarily a bad thing, but repeating this process every five or ten years results in layers and layers of paint buildup. Imagine how this cycle affects a 140-year-old building.
Over the years, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home had received its fair share of repaints. Although these multiple layers of paint provided an added measure of protection from the elements, they had effectively concealed the original paint colors. Considering our rehabilitation plan is based on returning the building to how it appeared during the 1870s, we opted to have a team of specialists perform a comprehensive historic paint analysis.
Paint samples were gathered from exterior and interior walls as well as from trim, doors and windows. Basically, multiple samples were collected from anything and everything that was painted. These samples were labeled with the location from where they were gathered and then taken to a laboratory for a comparative examination. Using specialized equipment, the paint layers were evaluated and the colors were determined by matching them to a universal standard called the Munsell Color System. This in-depth analysis resulted in an accurate color palette, which allowed us to move forward knowing that our paint colors were historically correct.
Although we chose to have skilled professionals conduct our historic paint analysis, there are techniques that the average person can use to get a general idea of their building’s original paint colors. If accuracy is not a primary concern, consulting historic color photographs may give a glimpse of how a building appeared at a particular time period. If a more conclusive result is desired, a technique known as a crater test can be performed. A crater test begins by cutting through and exposing layers of paint using a small utility knife. Then, various grits of sandpaper lubricated with water or mineral oil can be used to progressively polish the “crater” to reveal the layers of paint. This can then be viewed under low power magnification for color documentation purposes.
The accuracy of a historic paint analysis relies on sampling techniques as well as where and how many samples were taken. Keep in mind that prior to being repainted, each layer of exterior paint was subjected to the damaging effects of the sun’s UV rays and environmental elements such as rain and extreme temperatures. It is always advisable to collect paint samples from various parts of a building in order to produce the most accurate results. Whether you choose a high-tech scientific analysis or a simple crater test, a historic paint analysis will help you gain a broader understanding of the colors that have been used throughout your building’s past and help you determine the most appropriate colors for your next repaint.
One very important thing to consider is that painting your historic building the “right” colors won’t protect it any better than the “wrong” colors. Choosing the color palette for your building is a personal preference; however, just because you can paint your building any color you wish doesn’t mean you should. Most historic building owners appreciate seeing their buildings returned to the way they would have appeared when they were originally constructed. A color palette based on the building’s original colors or one that accurately represents the architectural style and construction period of the building will help to preserve its historical context and maximize its visual appeal. This not only protects our architectural heritage, but also offers a glimpse into an earlier time period when something as simple as choosing the right paint color helped to define the era.