Traditional types of paints and finishes | Brisbane City Council

Traditional types of paints and finishes

Always use or reinstate a heritage building’s original paint colours wherever possible as they enhance the appearance and understanding of a heritage place.

Historical overview

Most Australian buildings were painted with traditional types of paints 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 as well as protecting structural and decorative cast and wrought iron from corrosion.

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

Until the early 1900s paints were generally prepared by the painter who mixed them by hand and often on site using natural binders such as casein, vegetable oils, shellfish, bitumen and tar, which 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 were introduced, a number of painters continued to mix their own paint until the late 1960s.

From the 1920s UV stabilisers, anticoagulants and new materials were developed such as nitrocellulose, phenolic and alkyd resins, synthetic resins and pigments, extenders and modifiers. Acrylic (latex) paints became more popular in the postwar years, leading to a decline in using 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, which are much more durable than many modern synthetic coatings.

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

Types of coatings and finishes

Limewashes and cement washes

These provide the most durable and suitable matt-finish for rendered masonry walls as they do not contain waterproofing ingredients and therefore allow excess moisture to evaporate. Llimewash was a very early form of water paint comprising of water, lime and pigments made in varying degrees of quality. Cement-based washes were introduced later e.g. Porter’s boncote cement paint. They are mainly applied over outside rendered masonry and are commercially available in a range of pre-mixed colours.

Apply these paints as follows:

  • walls should be moistened before application and expert advice might be required if the surface to be painted is not porous or absorbent
  • use a bonding agent if painting over acrylic paint
  • only use these finishes where they were originally applied as they are not easy to remove.

Brick wash

A thin, red-coloured wash that was often 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 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. They are most commonly used paints for interiors and exteriors, being easy to apply, fast-drying with a thin surface coating which can be re-coated a number of times.

A vast range of acrylic paints is now manufactured for exterior timberwork which is more resistant to weathering and discolouring from UV rays. Although 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 the brickwork and cause paint to blister and crack

Oil stains

Oil stains are made with oxides mixed with pale boiled linseed oil (2 lbs (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

A type of varnish pigmented with black or brown and diluted with turpentine. It was 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 that allow moisture to evaporate from the surface of the plaster after it has passed through the often soft, porous early brickwork. It is made with 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 greatly in quality depending on how they are made and are commonly 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 with the added advantage of adhering to Portland cement renders. Oil-bound distempers developed a bad reputation between the 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 which is tinted to the required colour. Enamels were used as 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 to be used on 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 are waxes are paints thinned with spirits such as shellac and French polish. They are used on interior timbers, joinery and furniture.


Varnishes comprise oil and spirit-thinnable varnishes and mostly used on wood or metal. They are applied over paints, stains or bare timber to produce a glossy hard-wearing finish and 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 on painting

For more information contact Council’s Heritage Unit.

07 May 2014