Researching Historic Paint Colours on your Building

When undertaking restoration, consideration might be given to reinstating historic colours and finishes that were found on the building in the past. Historic colours and finishes are part of a building’s fabric and employing them can provide additional authenticity to a restoration project. If not too badly damaged, it may even be possible to restore an original finish without removing it. This could be the case for wall murals (which are rare) or faux finishes. A professional would generally be required to undertake the restoration or repair of original finishes.

Even if you decide that earlier colours are not to your liking, understanding early decorative schemes can add to the story of your house. An investigation of paint finishes used on the Colonial Building in St. John’s provided a veritable history of decorative finishes from the early to late Victorian era, with new decorative schemes being employed every couple of decades.


With a bit of detective work, an historic building can often yield up clues about early paint finishes. Many homes had wallpaper rather than painted walls but wooden trim, flooring, and ceilings were virtually always painted, often with faux finishes that used paints, glazes, and varnishes. These usually evoked wood grains or sometimes marble or other stone finishes. There is sometimes an assumption that original interior finishes were unpainted wood. In fact, this was rarely the case. Except for the homes of wealthier people, most buildings in the 19th century and early 20th century were built from local softwoods, including trim and flooring. Since these had little in the way of graining, they often had a faux grain applied to suggest more expensive hardwood. Some of these are quite convincing such as the faux birds-eye maple effect used on the Alpheus Barbour House in Newtown.

Generally, early paint finishes are buried under layers of paint. With a bit of patience and care, it should be possible to determine all of the various layers.

Pictured from top to bottom: Conche; Hopedale Moravian Mission; Bonavista, used with permission of Bonavista Living; Hodge Brothers Premises, Twillingate; Bonavista, used with permission of Bonavista Living.


Paint Investigation Approaches

There are a number of different techniques for determining earlier paint finishes. Scraping with a paint scraper is generally not recommended as it is difficult to remove a single layer at a time. As well, it is easy to miss varnish layers that might exist and to mistake a primer coat as the original finish. While you may wish to call on an expert, you can try a couple of techniques yourself. It is worth noting that painted surfaces exposed to heat or constant sunlight may have discoloured and the paint layers may have blended together so it is better to pick another area.

  1. Look at early colour photos – Early black and white photos will be of little use in determining early paint colours. But seeking out early colour photos (which generally date to around 1950 and later) will give you an idea of the colours used on your building 50-70 years ago. Archival sources such as diaries or ledgers might provide indications of colours used.
  2. Use of chemical strippers – Using masking tape, block off a small square on your wall or trim for a test area. If possible, do this in an area that isn’t highly visible. Then apply a paint stripper to the blocked off area and allow it to work long enough for what you think is required to remove the top layer. Don’t allow it to soak into lower paint levels. Using cotton swabs, remove the softened paint – or use a harder object such as a blade if required (but gently). Take a photo of the finish beneath or, with the use of paint colour cards, try to match it as closely as possible. Some finishes may not easily be removed with regular strippers. A sharp scalpel or blade may be helpful to gently scrape off layers that are resistant to strippers. Or you may decide to use this approach for the removal of all of the layers. Proceed down through the layers until you reach the wood, recording each as you go. This may take a bit of practice to master. If you do not plan to completely strip the area you are testing you will need to use a bit of filler to bring the surface back up to the last paint layer when repainting.
  3. Removal of small paint chips – In an unobtrusive area take a sharp utility knife and cut out a small, narrow section of paint, being careful to get through all the layers of paint and a thin section of wood. Ideally, the side edges would be cut at an angle to expose a wider cross-section of colours. Place the sample on its side under a microscope to examine the different layers, using colour samples to match. An inexperienced eye may not pick up some of the layers, particularly varnish layers, but it should be possible to get a sense of most of the earlier colours used. This technique would not pick up faux finishes as the area of exposure is not large enough to gauge them.
  4. Removal with sandpaper – Another approach is to carefully remove the various layers with the use of fine sandpaper. Sand more carefully as you start to move into another colour layer. This technique will not require chemicals or equipment.
  5. Removal of later materials or disassembly of architectural components – Building renovations may have added layers of materials like wood cladding, panelling, or framed-in walls. Removal of these elements during renovations may reveal earlier paint colours. As well, when disassembling wooden mouldings one can sometimes see vestiges of earlier paint colours along edges.

The techniques above apply mainly to interior painted finishes, but the same techniques can be used to determine exterior paint colours. However, most older buildings will have had exterior cladding replaced one or more times, so it may not be possible to determine the original colours

PLEASE NOTE: Historic paint may contain lead and should only be disturbed after taking precautions, including protecting work areas and wearing a P100 respirator and goggles. Work areas and clothing should be cleaned following work to eliminate spread. Wet sanding is preferable.

For a short Youtube video on the subject see: