Traditional types of paints and finishes

Use or reinstate a heritage building’s original paint colours where possible to enhance the appearance and understanding of the heritage place.

Historical overview

Traditional types of paints were used on most Australian buildings until the 1930s.

Traditional paints were inorganic or mineral paints comprising of three main ingredients:

  • binder (often glue-size)
  • solvent (water or oil)
  • pigments (minerals – iron oxides or silicates plus manufactured compounds such as white lead, lamp black and Prussian blue).

Ingredients in gloss finishes generally included natural oils such as linseed and fish oil. Quality depended on the purity of oils and pigments used. These paints were excellent for repelling water from wood surfaces and protecting structural and decorative cast and wrought iron from corrosion.

Limewashes used for painting rendered masonry were inexpensive, as were alkali-stable mineral and earth pigments, such as sienna, red and yellow ochres and Venetian red.

Until the early 1900s, painters mixed paints by hand, and often onsite, using natural binders such as casein, vegetable oils, shellfish, bitumen and tar. This provided a colour range that was rich in tonal variations.

In the early 1920s, milk curd (a natural emulsion made of oily and watery constituents) was still commonly used as a binder to make casein or milk paints.

Although ready-mixed, industrially-made paints were more available from the 1920s when petroleum binders evolved, a number of painters continued to mix their own paint until the late 1960s.

From the 1920s painters used ultraviolet (UV) stabilisers, anticoagulants and new materials such as nitrocellulose, phenolic and alkyd resins, synthetic resins and pigments, extenders and modifiers. Acrylic (latex) paints became more popular in postwar years, leading to a decline in use of traditional paints and painting practices.

More recently, there has been an increase in painters using good-quality, pre-mixed and ready-to-use traditional coatings. These are more durable than many modern synthetic coatings.

Manufacturers are now making environmentally-friendly, non-toxic and pollutant-free paints, based on traditional mixes and methods. These include Porter’s limewashes, cement-based paints like boncote and mineral-type coatings.

Types of coatings and finishes

Limewashes and cement washes

Lime and cement washes provide the most durable and suitable matt-finish for rendered masonry walls. This is becaue they do not contain waterproofing ingredients and allow excess moisture to evaporate. Limewash was an early form of water paint comprising of water, lime and pigments. Cement-based washes appeared later (e.g. Porter’s boncote cement paint). Painters apply cement-based washes over outside rendered masonry. They are commercially available in a range of pre-mixed colours.

Apply these paints as follows:

  • walls should be moistened before application and expert advice sought if the paint surface is not porous or absorbent
  • use a bonding agent if painting over acrylic paint
  • only use these finishes in the original location, as they are not easy to remove.

Brick wash

Brick wash is a thin, red-coloured wash was used to improve the impermeability and appearance of poor-quality bricks, without altering their finish and colouring.

A recipe for a cheap but good brick wash is as follows:

  • melt 4 oz (approx 113 grams) glue size (animal glue) with 4 gallons (approx 18 litres) water
  • add 1 lb (0.453 kg) alum (double sulphate of aluminium and potassium) while hot
  • when cool, stir in pigment (powdered red oxide)
  • test colour and adjust by adding Spanish brown tint or red oxide as required.

Acrylic (latex) paints

Water-based emulsion paints are made with synthetic binders and available in a vast range of colours. The resins in binders comprise polyvinyl acetate (PVA), acrylic or a copolymer of the two. Pigments produced from petroleum and coal tar oil have largely replaced inorganic pigments derived mostly from coloured earths and metals. 

Acrylic paints are the most commonly used paints for interiors and exteriors. They are easy to apply and fast-drying with a thin surface coating which can be re-coated a number of times.

Manufacturers make a vast range of acrylic paints for exterior timberwork. These paints are more resistant to weathering and discolouration from UV rays. Acrylic paints (particularly gloss acrylics) are more resistant to colouring and cracking. They are better suited for fixed external joinery (fascias, posts and trims), rather than moveable fixtures (windows and doors) which may stick on opening. They are not suitable for use on old masonry walls as they can trap moisture, damage brickwork and cause paint to blister and crack.

Oil stains

Oil stains are made with oxides mixed with pale boiled linseed oil - two pounds (0.906 kilograms) colour oxide to 1 gallon (4.54 litres) oil, plus a little turpentine to ensure stain-penetrated timber. Colour oxides generally comprised burnt amber (brown) and burnt amber + red oxide (red brown). Yellow colour oxides were less commonly used for this type of exterior oil stain. A popular external finish for traditional Queensland timber buildings with trims and panels usually painted white, cream or stone.

Wax ochres or Japan wax

A type of varnish pigmented with black or brown and diluted with turpentine, traditionally used on timber floors since the Colonial era. The fashion in the late 1800s and early 1900s was to coat the edges of interior timber flooring, with the remaining area covered with rugs or cloth.

Water-based calcimine (kalsomine) and distempers

Water-based calcimine and distempers are water-based washes. They allow moisture to evaporate from the surface of plaster after it has passed through the often soft, porous early brickwork. It is a mix of whiting and colour dissolved in water and held together with size (a gelatinous solution used as a binder in water paints to produce a cost effective dead flat finish). They vary in quality depending on manufacture and are used on ceilings and interior walls.

Oil-bound distempers

External oil-bound distempers (Hollis distemper, an old Walpamur water paint) are similar in appearance to limewash, but have the advantage of adhering to Portland cement renders. Oil-bound distempers developed a bad reputation from 1930s-1960s as the coating did not work when petrifying liquid was added to improve waterproofing and durability.

Oil (enamel) paints

Oil (enamel) paints comprise a base of white lead (later replaced with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) and linseed oil, tinted to the required colour. Painters used enamel interior and exterior coatings on a variety of surfaces.

Glossy oil based paints (gloss enamels) were traditionally used to paint timbers, as they have a high resistance to moisture. This is the best type of paint for windows and doors. Oil paint coated with varnish for a harder wearing surface was a common early finish for high-use areas like kitchens.

Stains and waxes

Stains and waxes are paints thinned with spirits such as shellac and French polish. Uses include interior timbers, joinery and furniture.


Varnishes comprise oil and spirit-thinnable varnishes and are mostly used on wood or metal. They are applied over paints, stains or bare timber to produce a glossy hard-wearing finish. They are mostly used for interiors, rather than exteriors, as clear finishes do not stand up well to the weather.

Further reading

  • Cuffley, Peter, Australian houses of the ‘20s and ‘30s, The Five Mile Press, Fitzroy, Vic, 1989
  • Cuffley, Peter, Australian houses of the forties and fifties, The Five Mile Press, Knoxfield, Vic, 1993
  • Evans, Ian, ‘Restoration’, in The Queensland House: A roof over our heads, Queensland Museum, 1994
  • National Trust of Queensland, Queensland interiors: a guide to their care, National Trust of Queensland, 2000
  • National Trust of Queensland, Exterior painting: conserving the Queensland House, National Trust of Queensland, 1995
  • Stapleton, Ian, How to restore the Old Aussie House, The Flannel Flower Press, Yeronga, Queensland, 1991

More information 

For more information on painting heritage properties:

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Topics: heritage

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.