Old home exteriors: Should you use paint or stain?

Posted by Woodrow Aames ~ July 21, 2011

Home improvement or maintenance projects for historical homes naturally bring up issues that never surface with newer or new retro designs. A major concern among owners of historical homes is retaining the original period look without compromising on the cost and preservation qualities of modern materials. A great many historical homes have wood exteriors that, with age, lose not only their visual appeal but structural integrity. That's when homeowners differ over whether painting or staining the exterior is prudent the way to go.

Scrimping on paint or stain solutions can jeopardize the ultimate value of the home. While a short-term solution may make sense in a cash-strapped economy, you might face the harsh reality of having to call in exterior specialists to do the job again after only a little time has passed. Worse, if the prep work or structural corrections aren't handled carefully before the exterior is painted or stained, your exteriors may hurry down the road to ruin.

When a wood exterior is compromised, a vintage home improvement project seems minor compared to the greater burden of treating termites, rodents, mold and decay. Whether you go with paint or stain, the idea is to protect the wood; your other decisions center around appearance and historical accuracy.

Let the era determine your treatment

Before the turn of the 20th Century, the wood exteriors of era homes were stained to best show off oak or walnut trim. Let the overall condition of the stain today and the wood itself drive your decision whether to use paint or stain. This assumes you're keeping the wood exteriors. Many Craftsman homes from later in the century have been covered with (ugh) siding or stucco. It's a choice. I'm assuming that the current owner understands the need for historical accuracy for their investment.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has officially designated 250 colors that map to historical homes by era. If you like the idea of acrylic latex paint, home improvement stores like Lowe's carry these colors in an exterior paint that resists mildew and cleans up easily with soap and water. And if you're painting a home that traditionally has bright, blended colors-a Victorian, for example-why would you want to use stain?

Who will do the painting?

According to Better Outdoor Living at Home, owners choosing paint should strive to coordinate the palate for the historical tones for trim, walls and accents. For all its charm and ability to bring out the details of wood, stain can be a real problem child if you don't have much experience working with it, or if your exterior walls themselves need tender care.

If you're going to handle the job on your own, prep for exterior painting. Clean the surfaces thoroughly and repair all holes you find in the wood. Be sure to find a primer specifically designed for your type of wood.

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