Repainting Interior Woodwork in Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Repainting Interior Woodwork in Your Historic Building

Repainting Interior Woodwork in Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you intend to follow preservation best practices to maintain the woodwork in your historic house or building, you should base your decisions on the current condition of your woodwork:

  • If your woodwork currently has a natural finish, you should keep the natural finish.
  • If your woodwork has a painted-over natural finish, consider removing the paint to reveal the original, natural finish.
  • If your woodwork has always been painted and it needs a new paint job, follow the instructions below to prepare your woodwork for repainting.

Gather Your Tools and Supplies

To prepare woodwork for repainting, you will need the following tools and materials:

  • Hand scrapers
  • Wet/dry sandpaper
  • Ground tarps
  • Spray bottles with water to wet scrape old paint
  • Plastic buckets for cleaning solution
  • Trisodium phosphate (TSP), synthetic
  • Scrub brushes
  • HEPA filtered vacuum
  • Tack cloths
  • Safety glasses and rubber gloves
  • Architectural epoxy for wood rot repair
  • Moisture meter

Step 1: Remove Old Paint

EnlargePaint prep

Step 1

Source: Bob Yapp

To prepare your previously painted woodwork for new paint, you should try to remove any unsound paint layers down to the first solid, sound paint layer. Never strip all the paint layers off wood that was historically painted unless it is the bottom layer of paint that has failed. However, if your woodwork was originally stained and varnished, then it would be appropriate to remove all of the paint and return the wood to its historic unfinished look.

If your painted wood surface is sound and solid, then you do not need to remove any paint and you can move on to step 2.

You should never use dry scraping or electric power sanding to remove old paint from your woodwork. Old paint usually contains lead, and the use of these paint removal methods will generate a lead dust hazard. Instead, you should remove paint by wet hand scraping the surface. To do this, use a spray bottle filled with water to lightly mist the paint before you scrape it with a hand scraper. The water will contain the paint dust so you can vacuum and dispose of it. Use tack cloths to dust off your woodwork after vacuuming. Tack cloths are available at any paint or hardware store.

Next, use wet/dry sandpaper and water to sand the painted surface. Lightly mist the paint, and then sand the surface by hand. However, if your woodwork is ornate, you should avoid using sandpaper. Sandpaper can erase fine detailing in your woodwork.

If you need paint removed on your entire house or building, you may want to hire a contractor to remove the paint using an infrared paint removal device. Infrared devices are capable of removing individual layers or multiple layers. These devices are quick, safe and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for removal of lead paint.

Step 2: Clean the Wood Surfaces

EnlargePaint prep

Step 2

Source: Bob Yapp

When you have removed the old paint from your woodwork, you should thoroughly clean all bare wood and the solid paint that remains on the wood. For the most effective cleaning, use a mixture of ¼ cup synthetic TSP for every gallon of water. Cover any surface with tarps that could be damaged by the cleaning solution. Also, be sure to wear eye protection and rubber gloves. Scrub the woodwork, and then rinse it with clear water.

Step 3: Repair Woodwork and Trim

EnlargePaint prep

Step 3

Source: Bob Yapp

Repair any damage to your woodwork or trim with like materials. Use architectural epoxies to fill voids and dents.

Step 4: Check Moisture Content

EnlargePaint prep

Step 4

Source: Bob Yapp

Before you apply any primer, paint or caulk, use a moisture meter to test the moisture content of your woodwork. Paint will not adhere to any surface with a moisture content that exceeds 15 percent. You can buy a moisture meter through woodworking supply companies and some lumberyards.


The information presented here is not intended to provide comprehensive technical advice or instructions on solving historic preservation issues. Any information contained or referenced is meant to provide a basic understanding of historic preservation practices. Read full disclaimer.