Saturday, March 4, 2017

Pressure Washers and Painting: Should You or Shouldn't You?

There are conflicting messages about using pressure washers when prepping building exteriors for painting. Some insist that pressure washers should never be used while others maintain that they are just fine and use them both for paint removal and cleaning.  Which is accurate?  As with most things, the truth is somewhere in between and depends on circumstance.

First, it is true that pressure washers should never be used to REMOVE paint.  In order to remove paint effectively you need to dial the water pressure up to blast away the old paint layers.  Unfortunately, this also means that the wood siding or stucco can be damaged or eroded.  This is especially true on historic buildings because they typically have areas which are in good and others in poor condition (often on the same piece of siding).  Remember, pressure washers are powerful enough to mar stone such as granite, so even at a relatively low setting a wood substrate can be affected. Some would argue that they can dial the pressure down so that it won't damage the wood.  However, in order to to make a pressure washer effective, the pressure has to be set fairly high.  The photo below shows clapboards where wood fibers have actually been torn away from the surface.  The best and safest way to remove paint from historic exteriors is by scraping and sanding because it allows you to vary pressure according to the condition of the siding.

Another problem with pressure washers is their tendency to drive water into cracks and gaps and saturate the siding itself or the sheathing behind it with water.  When water has been driven behind the siding it can take weeks for it to dry.  As the water evaporates and escapes through the siding as a vapor it can cause paint failure. Even the best primers and paints will not adhere to damp wood or wood releasing water vapor.  The photo below shows siding on the same building that has more eroded wood as well as cracks around nails which would allow easy access to water from a pressure washer.

Does this mean pressure washers should never be used?  No, not really.  They can be fine when used at their lowest pressure setting as a means to CLEAN a wood or stucco surface. Care must be taken to direct the water stream at a correct angle so that water won't be driven underneath clapboards, battens or molding.  However, a garden hose with a brush is just as effective and far less likely to damage the wood siding or drive moisture behind the surface.   As is often the case when working on historic buildings, shortcuts can lead to poor results and there usually is no substitute for a little elbow grease.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The National Register of Historic Places

Historic Design will donate free architecture research services for a local institution, business or individual in 2017!  Click here to learn more.

We frequently see and hear about historic buildings and other structures being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, it isn’t clear to many what the National Register is and what it really does. Does it protect a house from demolition?  Does it prevent owners from building an addition, remodeling the kitchen or adding a bathroom?  If your church is listed on the National Register does it mean you can't display the cross?
A centerpiece of the landmark 1966 National Historic Protection Act, the National Register of Historic Places is an official list of historic buildings, structures and places that are considered worthy of preservation. The National Register is administered by the National Park Service and is part of a larger federal program which coordinates and supports private and public efforts to identify, evaluate and protect our Nation’s historic resources.  The listing is largely symbolic and itself offers no real or statutory or regulatory protection.  In other words, listed buildings can be used, altered or even demolished in any manner, for any reason and at any time by their owners.  Despite what you may hear, the National Register itself absolutely cannot prevent you from remodeling your kitchen, painting the exterior, adding a bathroom or displaying religious symbols.
If the National register only provides recognition of a property’s historical, architectural, or archaeological significance without any regulatory teeth, what is the point of listing a property? First, listing a property is important as it does distinguish it and encourages the community to recognize and appreciate it historical and cultural significance. This is not insignificant as preservation has becomes a larger part of city planning and efforts to rebuild communities. Second, while the National Register itself is symbolic, inclusion on the Register can make the listee eligible for grants for restoration and rehabilitation, state, local and federal tax credits, preservation easements and some building and fire code alternatives.  Although these programs and benefits usually require additional qualifications and regulations, a listing on the National Register is the first step towards eligibility.
Inclusion onto the list is considered according to one or more of four criteria:
  • Criterion A: The property must make a contribution to major patterns in American History.
  • Criterion B: The property is associated with significant people of the American past.
  • Criterion C: The property has distinctive characteristics in its architecture and construction, including having great artistic value or being the work of a master.
  • Criterion D: The property has yielded or may be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history
The application process can be quite involved and complex.  It includes documenting the building or property following established standards, historical research, evaluation of the building or property’s physical state (i.e. does it retain enough of its original, historic fabric), identification of its historical context and its eligibility according to one or more of the criteria.
The National Register application can be completed and submitted by anyone, although many property owners and public institutions rely on preservation professionals for part or all of the application.  Consultants who are familiar with architectural history, regional or local architects and important local and national historical patterns can be particularly helpful.
If you have any questions about your historic house or building and the National Register, feel free to contact Historic Design Consulting.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Historic Design will donate free architecture research services for a local institution, business or individual in 2017.

People who choose a career in Historic Preservation and Cultural Resources Management do so for a variety of reasons.  One thing that is common to us all is a deep and abiding interest in preserving our built heritage. This certainly is the case for us at Historic Design Consulting.  In an effort to contribute to our community Historic Design Consulting will donate research services for a worthy project in the  Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area in 2017.

We will accept applicants through July of 2017.  This is not a contest and we do not have any formal eligibility requirements.  We will choose a project depending upon our schedule and the scope and type of the research project.  This could be a context study for a National Register nomination, property evaluation or a general research report for a home or business.  We do reserve the right to accept or deny project for any reason.

If you have any interest, please contact Historic Design Consulting and tell us a little about the project.  We'd like to know where the building is, what sort of building (house, business, ???), when it was built, and what you would like to learn about it.

We are looking forward to hearing how we can help our own community preserve its architectural heritage!!!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Historic Plaster and Somebody's Horse

Plaster has served  as a durable coating for interior walls in both high style and common buildings for centuries. 19th century wall plaster was made from four ingredients: lime, sand aggregate, fiber and water.  The lime was the most important part of the mix as it cured and hardened much like concrete.  Sand was a filler that also added structure.  Water was the catalyst and the fiber held it all together while the plaster mix cured and hardened.   Gypsum replaced lime in the 20th century because it set more rapidly and provided a harder, more durable finish more quickly.  Since gypsum sets in minutes and cures in weeks (lime plaster required months to cure before it could be painted or papered), it made the addition of fiber unnecessary.

The lime was often produced in kilns from local limestone deposits.  The sand aggregate usually came from a nearby river or lake which could also provide fresh water for mixing. What was the source of the fiber?  More often than not, it also came from local source: an unsuspecting cow or horse from the barn out back.

I recently attended a workshop on repairing historic plaster organized by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.  Our leader for the day was Anders Christensen of TigerOx, a Twin Cities painting and plastering company that frequently works on historic buildings. Rather than spending the day in a classroom we had the privilege of  working on an actual historic site, the 1867 Andrew Peterson farmhouse in Waconia, MN.

In high style houses the plaster was applied in three coats over split or sawn lathe. The first two coats, called the scratch and brown coats, were thick, coarse and contained the animal fiber with lots of aggregate. This constituted the bulk of the wall plaster.  These two coats were finished with a thin layer of finish plaster. The finish coat had little aggregate and was troweled to a smooth finish.

However, when we looked at the walls in the Peterson house, we found something quite different. The Peterson house was built by Andrew himself, who was a farmer and not a professional carpenter or plasterer.  Rather than three coats, we found one, rather coarse coat of plaster.  This is not uncommon at all in vernacular buildings such as farmhouses or city buildings which weren't built by professional tradesmen.        

This is one of the holes we repaired in the Andrew Peterson farmhouse.  Notice
the single layer of plaster with a sand aggregate. 

What was also interesting was what you could see in a few chunks of loose plaster. The animal hair used to bind the plaster was quite obvious.  I'm not sure what sort of critter donated its hair in 1867, but it was chestnut brown and rather soft. A horse, perhaps? Whatever it was, it is long gone. That is, with the exception of its hair, which survives 150 years later in the walls of the Peterson farm house.

A piece of plaster with the animal hair fiber.

Something else that interested me were traces of paint on another piece of plaster.  I noticed a few remnants of a light, purplish-blue paint.  The color is a light pastel which was common in house interiors into the 20th century.  I suspect it is a calcimine or distemper paint. Calcimine paints were water based and fairly durable because the pigments were bound to the wall with size, or diluted animal glue.

Another piece of plaster with a few remnants of what appears to
 be a light, purplish- blue paint

The next time you find yourself in a 19th century home, take a look at the plaster walls.  Is it coarse with lots of sand or is it troweled smooth and flat?  If it is smooth, it probably was applied by a skilled tradesman.  If not, it might have been plastered by the homeowner himself.  In either case, it is likely some sort of quadruped also made its own, valuable contribution.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

An Interesting Artifact for the Fan of Historic Homes

An important ritual for many American men during the 19th century was a weekly trip to the barber shop for a shave. The barbershop was a social hub in large cities and small towns alike as men congregated to gossip, do business, read the paper and get a professional shave. The shave was a multi-step process where barbers softened the beard with hot, moist towels and conditioned the skin with scented oils. They then used a porcelain shaving mug, badger hair brush and scented soap to create the lubricating lather needed for a close shave with a straight razor.  

Plain porcelain shaving mugs are quite common today (after all, every man had one) and aren't particularly interesting. However, there is one, less common type of shaving mug that is quite interesting and offers a glimpse into the life of a tradesman in the 19th century. 

The discovery of Germ Theory by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s led to the creation of sanitation laws that required a barber's clients to have their own shaving mugs which could not be shared with other patrons.  Blank shaving mugs were imported from France and Germany and personalized by painting the man's name in elegant, fraktur calligraphy.  Sometimes a scene was also painted on the mug which depicted the man's profession or trade.  These occupational shaving mugs were displayed in the barber shop and served as a type of advertising.  When someone went looking for a painter, carpenter or lawyer, they could stop by the barbershop and check out the shaving mugs to find the professional they needed. 

Pictured is a example of an occupational shaving mug for house painter.  Although detail is lacking, we can see wooden barrels which would contain linseed oil and white lead.  The painter is standing on a scaffold which appears to be supported by ropes and pulleys.   At his feet is a pail of paint. The other object is likely another pail which might hold his brushes or other things such as rags or a pumice stone for smoothing rough wood.  Interesting for the historian and colorist is the entrance door.  We can see that the door's rails and stiles are painted a lighter brown and the panels another, darker brown.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

When Something Just Doesn't Look Quite Right.

This house is one of my favorites in my hometown of Spencer, Iowa.  The ornament and detailing are classic examples of the Queen Anne.  Note the beaded spindle work on the porch, including the frieze across the top, turned porch posts and large newels.  This sort of elaborate spindle work is characteristic of the Eastlake sub-type of the Queen Anne.  Other features commonly found on examples of the Eastlake are the incised, geometric patterns between the second story corner windows and on the porch gable and the baroque-style scrollwork under the front eave.  
A beautiful home for sure.  But can you spot something that doesn't look quite right?
However, when you look at this house as a whole, something does not look quite right.  Here are a few things that stick out to me. On most buildings the rake angle of gables and the pitch of the roof are similar.  That isn't the case here as the gable on the porch roof has a much steeper angle than the very low-pitched roof.  Queen Anne houses are also known for their asymmetrical shape where bay windows, porches and wings are often capped with a complicated roof with hips, valleys, gables and dormers.  This roof is symmetrical and does not follow the irregular shape of the house below. 

What is going on?  This house is an example of how buildings can change through time.  Sometime around 1910 this ca.1890 Queen Anne had a fire which destroyed the roof.  Rather than rebuild the original roof, the owners built one typically found on Foursquare homes popular at that time.  It is unclear whether this decision was a stylistic one or due to expense, since rebuilding the more complicated Queen Anne roof would have been more expensive.   The results are not unpleasant, but do lead to a moment of pause as we try to reconcile the different parts into a stylistic whole.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why choose Historic Design Consulting to help you select historic paint colors for your Victorian era home or business?

For more information about historic paint colors for your Victorian or Arts and Crafts era home or business, please visit the Historic Design Consulting Website today!

There is an abundance of colorists, consultants and other professionals who specialize in Victorian-era paint colors and ornament for historic homes.  This can make selecting a consultant who is right for you and your historic architecture difficult considering their varying levels of training, education and expertise.  Historic Design's color consultants, however, have a unique background which includes academic training in architectural history and building conservation as well as hands-on experience in restoration which distinguishes us from others in the field.  

Unlike colorists whose backgrounds are in decoration and design, Historic Design's consultants are grounded in a graduate level education in history and architectural history.  Like any good historian, we start our research with primary sources and period color palettes rather than rely on modern authors and paint manufacturers to tell us how people painted their homes and businesses.  We know which pigments painters used and when. We know how architectural styles and aesthetic ideals evolved during the 19th century and how color palettes reflected these changes. We know that colors used on an 1850s Italianate home might not be appropriate for a 1905 Colonial Revival or Shingle Style home.    

19th century card with paint chips from Lion Brand.  Historic Design
 Consulting has a collection of primary sources like period color
samples which we use to select our period-correct color palettes.

In short, we use the same materials and literature that painters used in the 19th century to write custom color reports for our clients.

John W. Masury's 1881 book on house painting.  Period literature offers
an instructive account of 19th century painting practice and theory.

Our expertise in architectural history is complimented by our training in building conservation. Building conservation is the discipline of preserving and restoring historic architecture. This includes a thorough knowledge of historic building materials and construction methods as well as the best practices to preserve them. 19th and early 20th buildings present challenges that are unique to historic architecture and a background in building conservation is necessary to preserve these building's distinguishing characteristics.  

Historic Design Consulting has a library of period photos which we use to determine correct
color placement. 

Historic Design Consulting also benefits from hands-on experience in building maintenance and restoration.   Although academic training is important, there is no substitute for actual experience in paint preparation, window restoration and building repair.  Our expertise in modern maintenance methods as well as 19th century carpentry and house joinery using Civil War era tools and techniques makes Historic Design Consulting stand apart from other consultants and colorists.  

To get your own historic paint color report for your Victorian era house or business, visit our web page at and click on the Paint Colors button in the Our Services Menu.