Glossary of terms for paints and finishes

This online fact sheet includes a glossary to explain the terms used for paints, coatings and decorative finishes on heritage places.

Glossary of terms to describe the characteristics and components of paints and other coatings and decorative finishes associated with heritage places.
Acrylic (latex) paintsTerm used for water-based emulsion paints made with synthetic binders that have resins comprising polyvinyl acetate (PVA), acrylic or a copolymer of the two. Pigments in paint produced from petroleum and coal tar have largely replaced the old inorganic pigments derived mostly from coloured earths and metals.
Alkyd paints

Weather-resistant paint made of synthetic resins which have replaced traditional mineral-based paints.


An inexpensive light-weight embossed material, developed from lincrusta but made of cotton pulp, used on ceilings, uneven surfaces and often as a dado as an alternative to more expensive materials. It was very popular in the Victorian era.


Liquid holding pigment particles together in paint which fastens pigment permanently to the support material when it dries.

Brick wash

A type of thin red-coloured wash often used to improve the impermeability and appearance of poor-quality bricks without altering their finish and colouring. The joints were often lined in white.


Plain, white or printed cotton cloth.


Derived from curd, which is separated from whey in soured milk, then washed, dried, ground to a powder and emulsified.


Soft white limestone, carbonate of lime (calcium carbonate - CaCO3).


Paint pigments released by paint binders that have been broken down by weather exposure to form a fine chalky powder on the surface of the paint coat. Some chalking is a normal way paints self clean when exposed to weather, which if severe, can run off and stain surrounding areas.


The sensation produced by waves of decomposed light upon the optic nerve. White light or sunlight is composed of innumerable different wave lengths or colours of light and when light falls upon a body it may be reflected, absorbed or transmitted.

A pigment produces a certain colour sensation because of the particular rays it absorbs or reflects.

A body takes the colours which it does not absorb (or the colour of an object is determined by the colours which are reflected). Black absorbs all colours whereas white reflects all colours.


Most often refers to coal-tar creosote, an Environmental Protection Agency-registered wood preservative distilled from crude coke.


A decoration or finish on lower part of an internal wall. It is often a darker colour decoration than rest of wall in a material that is more resistant to abrasion and knocks.


Patterns enclosed by bounded lines or divided into uniform-sized compartments and often outlined in round, square, diamond, or quatrefoil geometric designs. These patterns are used in decorations such as on wallpapers and stencils.


Generally a water paint in which pigments are mixed with water and a glue-size or casein binder to provide a flat finish to interior walls. A distemper can also be an oil-bound distemper containing a drying oil.

Emulsion paints

Acrylic or vinyl paints (latex or plastic paints) in which the binder is dispersed in water (solvent). Acrylic paints are commonly used for exteriors whereas vinyls are used for interiors. Although these paints are water resistant, they are sufficiently porous to allow vapour to penetrate so are not suitable for wet or damp walls.

Enamel paint

Enamel paint generally refers to oil-based covering products which· contain a significant amount of gloss paint. The term often refers to hard-surfaced paint of high-quality paint brands that have a high-gloss finish. Some enamel paints have been made by adding varnish to oil-based paint.


A coating of tiny pieces of material applied to give a velvet-type relief to a surface, as in flock wallpapers.


Horizontal band of decoration between the cornice or ceiling and the picture rail which is usually painted, stencilled or papered. Often used as a feature in foyers.


A bright white mix of whiting and glue, plaster of Paris and size, or of other materials used as a background for painted designs or for executing relief work on woodwork or plaster.


The act of reproducing the decorative qualities of natural wood graining by working semi-transparent glazes over a solid painted colour.

Kalsomine (calsomine or calcimine)

A porous, water-based wash of whiting and colour dissolved in water and held together with glue size. This was the trade name for distemper and commonly used on interior walls and ceilings until the late 1930s.

Lamp black

One of oldest man-made pigments comprising free carbon and produced by incomplete combustion of waste coal tar products or substances such as tallow, beeswax and linseed. The pigment turns a bluish grey when mixed with white but is not intense in colour.


A clear or coloured varnish that dries through solvent evaporation and often also a curing process that produces a hard, durable finish, in any sheen level from ultra-matte to high-gloss that can be further polished as required. The term ‘lacquer’ originates from the Portuguese word for lac, a type of resin excreted from a beetle.

In modern usage, lac-based varnishes are referred to as shellac, while lacquer refers to other polymers dissolved in volatile organic compounds, such as nitrocellulose and later acrylic compounds dissolved in a solvent generally referred to as lacquer thinner.

Lacquer is a more durable traditional finish than shellac and is used to produce a highly polished and lustrous surface on wood.


An exterior paint made up of slaked lime and water which can be tinted with a variety of (lime proof) dry pigments. Lime was often mixed with cement or applied hot when mixed with tallow or glue size and salt. Its permeable qualities make it suitable for masonry walls because it does not trap moisture.


A durable surface made from linseed oil and fillers which is put through an embossing machine to produce a low-relief pattern or design and mostly used for dados in high-traffic areas. It could be decorated to imitate more expensive materials such as carved wood, pressed metal, leather or plaster and was first produced in 1877 by Frederick Walton, inventor of linoleum.

Linseed oil

A clear to yellowish drying oil derived from the dried ripe seeds of the flax plant, also known as ‘flax-seed oil’. Linseed oil is the most commonly used carrier in oil paints to make them more fluid, transparent and glossy.


A painting treatment to create a polished marble effect on surfaces such as mantelpieces.

Munsell system

A three-dimensional solid colour definition system constructed from hue, or dominant wavelength (what distinguishes one colour from another such as red from yellow or green from blue), value or brightness, (a colour’s lightness or darkness in relation to black and white), and chroma (a colour’s strength or purity).

It was devised by American art instructor and painter A H Munsell in 1913 with his publication, Atlas of the Munsell Color System, featuring 15 colour charts of several hundred colour chips. The system used internationally for specifying opaque colours of dyed or pigmented surfaces. A three-dimensional representation of this system is called the Munsell colour tree.


A yellow earth pigment, one of the oldest known pigments, which is derived from sand and clay and mixed with silica, alumina and hydrated oxide of iron.

Oil paint

Waterproof paint made from pigment, resin or binder, solvents, driers and additives for use mostly in wet areas or on building exteriors. The composition of old-style oil paints were:

  • main pigments: white lead and zinc oxide
  • binder: linseed oil
  • solvent: mostly pure wood turpentine
  • driers: terebene (sometimes used)
  • additives: very few used.

Paint is a protective and decorative layer applied to most types of surfaces. It is comprised of the binder (binding the pigment particles together), solvent or base (in which the binder, pigments and additives are dissolved) and pigments (colour).

Petrifying liquid

A thin emulsion used instead of water in decorating, when thinning down an oil-bound water paint for use on exteriors or very hot surfaces.


A material that changes the colour of light it reflects as the result of selective colour absorption. A pigment must have a high tinting strength and be stable in solid form at ambient temperatures. Most pigments used to dry colourants, usually ground into a fine powder which is added to a vehicle (or matrix), a relatively neutral or colourless material that acts as a binder.


First complete coat of paint to create a stable surface on which subsequent coats of paint can be successfully applied.

(glue size)

A gelatinous solution, traditionally used as a binder in water-based paint. The best-quality size was made by boiling animal hides.


An imitation stonework effect with a polished finish for decorating interiors which is made from fine plaster of Paris and glue embedded with pieces of marble and gypsum. Paint treatment could be made to give a similar visual effect.


A semi-transparent stain or glaze applied over a different coloured dry ground to expose portions of it  – basic medium for marbling, stippling and glazing. It was used for decorating plaster.


A coating made from purified lac dissolved in alcohol and often bleached white.

Slaked lime

Calcium hydroxide produced by adding quick lime to water which is then left to slake for at least a fortnight before use. Caution should be used as the mixing reaction gives off heat and can be dangerous.


Dissolving or weakening agent which forms a solution with another ingredient. Water is the most common solvent.


A thin plate of paper, cardboard or metal cut through to reproduce a design which is placed on a surface and colour painted over the voids to reveal the pattern.


The process of striking a freshly painted surface with a stippler. Rubber stipplers of various patterns and shapes can be used to create broken colour effects by adding different colours to a previously painted ground.


A substance or surface such as plaster, wood or render on which a decorative material like wallpaper or paint is applied.


A special blend of chemicals to speed up the drying of oil and alkyd paints and varnishes. It can be added to old paint and varnish that has become slow drying as it has been stored for a long time.


Paint coating(s) applied on top of a primer or previously painted surfaces after preparation, to achieve the most suitable surface for applying the finishing coat.


A transparent, usually glossy, hard, protective finish or film primarily applied over wood stains to provide a protective gloss film. Varnish is traditionally a combination of a drying oil, resin, and a thinner or solvent with no added pigment.


A mix of ground and pulverised natural chalk and a very small quantity of glue size to make distemper.

White lead

A mix of ground and pulverised natural chalk and a very small quantity of glue size to make distemper. Lead(II) carbonate(PbCO3) is a heavy metal used as pigment in lead paints. Lead is also added to paint to speed drying, increase durability, retain a fresh appearance, and resist moisture that causes corrosion.

Lead exposure is dangerous and can cause nervous system damage, hearing loss, stunted growth, delayed development and reproductive problems.

Lead exposure is especially damaging to young children whose bodies are still developing and is commonly through ingestion of lead dust that has dislodged from deteriorated paint or during remodeling or painting.

More information

For more information, contact Council.

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Brisbane City Council acknowledges this Country and its Traditional Custodians. We pay our respects to the Elders, those who have passed into the dreaming; those here today; those of tomorrow.