The biggest project I ever undertook was the redecoration of Holcombe Folly, Painswick, Glos in 1998. 5 decorators for 8 weeks solid, and then a 2 or 3-man crew practically in residence for months afterwards.
When working out how to tackle the job, there were several issues to balance. The property had been left empty for months. Most of the lathe and plaster walls and ceilings were still intact, but we were faced with acres of deteriorating lime-wash surfaces, with crazing and cracking and broken patches. Of course the client wanted the walls to look brand new without ripping out the old plaster – and the designer specified Farrow and Ball paints to boot!
The solution for lime wash
To make sure we had a solid foundation to work from, starting from the top, we stripped the lime wash off with artex! You apply a thick layer, wait for it to almost dry, then scrape it off like big scabs, right down to the bare plaster. It works really well, especially if the floor is covered in plastic sheets that can be wrapped up and thrown into a skip.
Unfortunately there were no skips allowed on this site, so the muck ended up in the back of my van.
Restoring the plaster
In a faithful restoration, distemper would have been a great option for the walls and ceilings, especially as it is suitable for dampish conditions, but the spec called for a more modern paint finish. In this case, my preferred sealer for dodgy surfaces is alkali-resistant oil primer. It provides a perfect base for filling, painting etc, but perversely, its best property is that it can’t cope with existing damp. It stains immediately, highlighting issues before work gets too advanced. Fortunately the builders had made the property water tight and the house was drying well by the time we were let loose on it.
Once sealed, we then skimmed all surfaces with artex and sanded it down smooth. If you say it quickly, it doesn’t sound much work, but the skimming stage was the most labour-intensive part of the job.
Next stage, we “sized” the surface with Beeline PVA sealer, and cross-lined everything with 1000 grade paper. Apologies to the green supporters, but back then, virgin pulp was by far a better product than the recycled stuff available. (I have since got used to recycled lining paper, and also I planted a walnut tree to redress the balance in the environment.) We used paste machines and trestles, and the team were hanging dozens of rolls a day.
Farrow and Balls up
I had a bee in my bonnet about avoiding any water-based products where possible, so for walls and ceilings we used Farrow and Ball’s flat oil finish. I made an expensive discovery about how to get a flawless finish with flat oil over lining paper. Initially I had misread the spec and allowed for 2 coats, but as our Quality Control guy commented, it looked crap! We needed a sealer. Fortunately the local council were selling Permoglaze undercoat at cost price, so I got out of jail and sealed all the lining paper without bankrupting the job. We then filled every joint with Polyfilla, sealed the joints, sanded the whole surface smooth, re-undercoated the joints and then applied 2 coats of Farrow and Ball flat oil, rubbing down between coats.
The results of this monumental spec looked fantastic, and as far as I am aware, stood the test of time, especially the joints. (Up till then we had struggled with fillers that were too soft in the long term, but this harder filler worked well.) This became our standard treatment for old plaster surfaces and earned us the on-site title of Decorators, rather than painters!
Update: This job was done 11 years ago. In recent weeks I have been discussing traditional painting methods with colleagues on Twitter, and I have questioned the way I would deal with that job again. There is a case for a couple of alternative methods.
If the filling on the walls and ceilings was done well, (which it was), then maybe lining paper was an unnecessary stage? Tom, a traditional painter in Brighton brought this question up.
I think the choice of preparation is based on a balance of aesthetics and practicalities and clients’ expectations. If the plaster is solid but dinged and crazed, then filling and painting would be very acceptable to most. Others have expectations where nothing less than perfect is acceptable, in which case, having every surface re-plastered is the only option. And then there are clients who want a great finish without the expense of plastering, in which case, lining paper is the way to go. And if the plaster is flapping, you have to make a judgement call between filling and lining paper v re-plastering. Decisions decisions!
Alternative ways of dealing with grubby lime-washed walls. To deal with limewash without removing it, we could have used Classidur, a wonder product that works straight over chalky surfaces. (As suggested by uber master craftsman, Richard Ireland.) And to achieve the traditional colours required by the designer, the Classidur could have been tinted perfectly by Papers-Paints in Chelsea. Again, you have to weigh up the pros and cons of painting over old lime wash v stripping back to the bare plaster v what the client prefers.
Filling joints in lining paper? I don’t fill joints in lining paper any more, what were we thinking?! For years now, the aim is for nice butted joints with a tiny gap which the paint fills, leaving a flat finish.
Overall, I am quite happy with the approach we took back then, but I am glad to be continually revising ideas and learning from other consummate professionals.
Apologies for lack of photos, a digital camera was a long way off my radar back then. But if anyone has pictures of Holcombe Folly, I would love to see them.
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