Decoding Specialist paint for historical properties
When I first moved into our 17th Century cottage I didn’t think much further than Dulux or Farrow and Ball when it came to paint choices.
However I live in a historic, Grade II Listed property and the walls in our living room and kitchen are over 400 years old. They breathe. They’re not straight, they hold more moisture than our newer walls and they, quite simply, don’t play by the rules.
I knew that they deserved special treatment, I just wasn’t sure what that special treatment, that special paint finish, was exactly.
It was actually on the Farrow and Ball website that I first discovered a ‘Specialist Finishes’ section, which includes a very brief summary of Limewash and Distemper. Very brief.
Aside from concluding that Limewash helped achieve a ‘historical finish’ and that both Limewash and Distemper were highly breathable, water based paints, I actually left the website no wiser about what the differences were and which type of specialist paint was right for my period home.
I reached out to the UK’s largest industrial paint distributor and spoke with Farrow and Ball separately to decode the mysteries of specialist paint for historical properties.
Interior Limewash Paint
Internal Limewash Paint is designed for use on interior walls and ceilings, and you will achieve a finish similar to that of a washed out emulsion, or a mottled, drying plaster effect.
Limewash has a very flat, matt and chalky finish and works incredibly well in helping decorators achieve an earthy, stone-like feel to any space.
Limewash typically comes in off-white, stoney taupes and greys. Because it dries quickly and up to ten times lighter in colour, it’s important to order samples and test colours on the surfaces you intend to apply it to.
Both the challenge and the beauty of using Limewash paint lies in its unpredictability. Colours will vary depending on the pigments of the paint you choose as well as the porosity and composition of the surface you’re applying the paint to.
Unlike regular house paints that sit on surfaces, limewash sinks in, which is why it’s best applied to porous surfaces, such as plaster, stone, and brick. That being said, modern limewash paints often contain mineral-binding additives which mean that it can be applied to plasterboard as long as an appropriate primer is used.
Limewash can be messy to apply and PPE is required for application. It is usually recommended that Limewash is applied by a professional, experienced Limewash painter.
Interior DISTEMPER Paint
Distemper is an environmentally friendly product made from natural ingredients, including gelatine, natural linseed oil and casein resins. Casein is a natural glue derived from milk.
Similarly to Limewash, Distemper dries to an non-uniform, mottled finish with a variety of different subtle tones. The paint also has a matt finish and Distemper also lets moisture pass through.
There are three types of Distemper available:
- Soft Distemper – the most permeable and normally used on ceilings and in low usage areas as it can be washed or wiped off.
- Casein Distemper – normally used on walls as more hard-wearing and more difficult to wash off.
- Oil-bound Distemper – normally used on walls as more hard-wearing and more difficult to wash off. This is the least permeable Distemper and shouldn’t be applied to new lime plaster (surfaces under 1-3 months old or those that have not fully cured/carbonated). This is also the least uniform Distemper paint and delivers the most tonally varied finish.
Distempers are internal paints that are typically applied to porous building surfaces but will also adhere to modern gypsum plaster and previously emulsion painted surfaces, making this a favourite choice for properties like mine which combine new walls with old.
Distemper is now more commonly used as a specialist interior paint rather than Limewash because it can be more easily applied to different surfaces, is safer to use and the finished look of walls and ceilings is very similar.
Although less porous than limewash, oil bound distemper retains excellent porosity and therefore the primary benefits of Limewash paint are retained – without the hassle of professional application and stripping of walls.
Which specialist paint is right for my cottage or period home?
Ordering a range of samples is the best way to test out which paint is right for you. Of course with Limewash, it’s not that straightforward as professional application and PPE is advised.
Personally, I am going to try out a couple of samples of Oil Bound Distemper and go from there. As this is the simplest to apply and the most durable option, I’ll use it as a starting point and if it isn’t what I hoped it would be, I’ll look to try a Casein Distemper which is sold in a variety of colours by Farrow and Ball and Little Greene.
However, it is worth noting that Farrow and Ball advised that Casein Distemper is only suitable for use on traditional lime plasters and will not adhere to modern gypsum plasters.
I was assured by a Senior Technical Manager at Promain House that Oil Bound Distemper is suitable to be applied onto plaster and over emulsion.
Wish me luck…