Things to Consider When Renovating a Historical Home
Did you know that 85% of homes in the United States were built prior to 1980? As a result, most of those are in need of some amount of home improvement. But when discussing the subject of historical homes, we usually think much older — although as a rule of thumb, a property really only needs to be 50 years old to be considered historic.
If you find yourself faced with the challenge of renovating one of the many historical homes, chances are you aren’t sure where to begin. After all, making renovations in a house that’s been constructed recently is complicated enough. What exactly is involved in renovating historic homes?
To help you figure that out, this list details a few of the many things you should think about when you’re renovating historical homes. From using the right tools for the job to remodeling old kitchens, hopefully, this will give you an idea of where to begin so your historical homes will be ready for the inspectors.
Paint and Plaster
Before you hire a house painter or have drywall installed, there are some important things to consider regarding plaster and paint in historical homes.
First of all, remember that original plaster is a significant historic element of any old home. Removing it to be replaced with inferior drywall changes a historical homes appearance dramatically, and impacts the home’s value. So rather than replacing cracking or chipping plaster, save as much of it as you can by filling in cracks and gaps with plaster. Avoiding taping over cracks and holes or using buttons to hold plaster against its substrate, since these methods result in unsightly bumps. Glue-injection reattachment is a better option for problems where plaster must be refastened to its the lathe underneath.
When you’re having plaster repaired, it’s always ideal to use the exact same type of plaster that was used for historical homes of the same period. This way it matches perfectly. However, combining modern gypsum plaster together with traditional materials, such as hair and lime putty, can be a more efficient solution. Although it’s not perfect, it still blends in with the original material. Always remember to practice using plaster on an inconspicuous area before attempting it on a critical part of your house.
When it comes to painting, if you’re really serious about getting a historically-accurate look, you may be able to identify and match the home’s original paint colors. An experienced paint consultant will be required to analyze the original colors by examining a handful of paint samples taken from the walls. This can be expensive, but if you’re passionate about renovating historical homes, it may be worth the expense to you.
If you choose not to use the home’s original colors, or if it’s impossible to take paint samples from it in its condition, you can instead use colors that were widely in use in the time and place the home was built. You can find some books on historical paint colors and get some guidelines from there, or you can hire a historic color specialist. These specialists often work remotely, accepting photos of a home to examine instead of coming to see it in person.
Using unusual or over-the-top paint colors on a historical home, whether on the inside or the outside, will likely have an awkward, jarring effect on visitors. To keep the entire design consistent, take your colors (and plaster) into careful consideration.
Woodworking and Hardware
Nothing says “old house” like historical woodworking and hardware. While plaster and paint should be applied thoughtfully to maintain a consistently historic look, your doorknobs handle, and trim is what really make a home look historical.
In an ideal case, the woodworking in an old house is almost perfectly intact and only needs to be cleaned and sealed. But in cases where there’s been a lot of damage, or sections of trim are missing altogether, you may have to work hard to get it fixed in a way that looks just like the original.
To start with, use heartwood for adding on to the woodwork in your house. The sapwood of most species should be avoided. Rift cuts or quarter-grain cuts are better than flat grain cuts because they’re more stable; flat grain can expand and contract with the seasons at a rate twice as high as quartered boards.
When you’re installing plain-sawn lumber, remember to install it with the heart side up. This will allow it to wear better and avoid obnoxious cupping on the edges.
Perhaps the most challenging part about replicating historical woodworking is that the tools commonly used today cannot create the same effect we would see from historical tools. Historic woodwork finishes that were made using hand planes, for example, can’t be reproduced using modern machines, such as sanders. Because of this, you should consider acquiring and learning to use old-fashioned hand tools, or hiring someone who can use them.
Along those lines, always use traditional joinery for repairs. Non-historic methods like epoxy casting for missing parts will stand out like a sore thumb in historical component repairs.
Hardware is probably going to be a little easier to work with. This is because metalwork lasts longer with less wear than woodwork, and besides, replacement parts fashioned after historical styles are easier to find in hardware stores than authentic woodworking.
Chances are most of the home’s original hardware is still intact, and your first job will be to clean it thoroughly. Just because it’s made of metal doesn’t mean you can be rough with it, though. Use cleansers with natural ingredients, like Autosol, to gently clean dirt and gunk from antique hardware and fixtures.
If you need to remove paint from hardware, this should be done just as carefully. A trisodium phosphate (or TSP) solution with water is typically your best option for removing stubborn paint. Keep in mind that toxic cleansers and chemicals can cause damage to the historical finishes. When removing paint, be patient. It takes time to loosen several layers of paint. Once it has come off, use a very fine steel wool, such as grade 00, to lightly scour it.
When you have no choice but to seek out a replacement part, the most important rule is to know with clarity what you have, and what you’re looking to replace. The more specific details you can provide about a piece of hardware, the more likely it is that a clever hardware store clerk will be able to match it for you. Careful measurements, photos, and details as to its function are all important to have on hand. If you’re looking for a replacement lock, know what kind of interior mechanism is has. As often as possible, bring an exact match of the item you’re looking for with you to eliminate any confusion.
Finally, remember to be flexible when searching for replacement hardware. Exact matches can be extremely difficult to find — after all, your home was built decades ago, so you can’t exactly expect anything used in it then to be available today. Remember that a close match can be just as good, and with some cleverness, can be hidden pretty effectively. For example, if you have two drawer pulls that don’t match the others, you can place them on the bottom drawer of the chest so they’ll be hidden by the originals above it.
Radiators and Heating
A familiar sight in historical homes is the old-fashioned radiator heating system. Giving a warm and cozy appearance, it also provides a warm and comforting heat using primitive steam heating technology. If you’re lucky enough to have radiators in your historic house, then you may choose to let them be your only source of heat. Minor heating repairs may be necessary, but once they’ve been refurbished, they’re an intriguing aspect of a historically-accurate home. Besides that, you don’t have to worry about fires, because even at their warmest, radiators only get about half as hot as they’d need to be to kindle paper.
When you’re setting up and testing a radiator for the first time, there are some things you should remember. First of all, don’t throttle a one-pipe steam radiator. Both steam and condensation have to share the same confined space, so the valve should either be fully open or fully closed to avoid squiring air vents or hammering water pressure.
It’s also necessary for one-pipe radiators to lean slightly towards the supply valve. If the radiator’s pitch needs adjusting, try placing two checkers together under the radiator feet to prop it up in just the right way.
If the radiator’s surface is rusted, scratched, or otherwise unsightly, it can be made to look good as new with a good sandblasting, followed with a powder coating. This will give it a high-quality, long-lasting, non-sticky finish. However, this is only something a professional should undertake, so don’t attempt it at home unless you have the skill and equipment to do it safely.
Kitchen and Bathroom Renovations
Choosing a highly skilled, reputable contractor and plumber is always critical for renovating historical homes. Water damage is serious no matter what type of home you’re working with, but in historical homes, it’s even more critical to make sure waterways stay sealed and surrounding structures stay dry. Besides causing long-term damage such as dry rot, wet environments are seen as prime real estate by burrowing and wood-hungry insects. Perhaps worst of all, water damage can easily take place below your line of sight, beneath the layers of carpet, plaster, and other materials making up your home.
The plumbing is just one challenge faced in kitchens and bathrooms of historical homes. Just like choosing paint, plaster, and siding, the kitchen design has to be done in certain ways to avoid looking inconsistent or cheesy. To this end, make sure you find interior designers who specialize in kitchens and bathrooms with experience in renovating period houses accurately.
Besides the aesthetic appearance of your kitchen and bathrooms and the quality of your plumbing, there are other factors to consider for maintaining comfort in a historic home. Problems like dirty water, too-small pipes, or awkward placement of water heaters causing long waits for hot water can dramatically undermine your enjoyment of an otherwise cozy home. Take things like this into consideration when you’re working on the plumbing, kitchen, and bathrooms in your home.
Masonry and Siding
The siding and masonry on your historic home may be the most exciting part. After all, it’s the most obvious part from the outside. As such, you can’t be too careful with getting it to look just right.
To start off, it’s important to know the maintenance cycles of any old building you’re working with. For most buildings, tuckpointing maintenance will be necessary every 50 to 60 years.
When you’re getting mortar to use in the brickwork of historic homes, make sure the new mortar matches the existing mortar as closely as possible in consistency, color, and elevation. If you add too much Portland cement to the mix the result can be a very hard mortar, which can be damaging to older buildings.
There are a couple of serious “don’t’s” regarding masonry. First of all, never grind out the joints. Only mortar that’s truly deteriorated should be removed. Anyone who tells you otherwise should not be trusted for home maintenance advice. Secondly, never use sealers, because they trap moisture and compound issues with freezing and thawing cycles.
As with our discussion on plaster, always do your best to replace in kind. Damaged masonry units ought to be replaced either entirely, or using Dutchmen of the exact same material. Remember that voids filled with putty won’t make for a permanent solution.
If your historic home has siding instead of masonry, hopefully it’ll be in good condition so you won’t have to replace all of it. Historical homes were often constructed using strikingly beautiful (and surprisingly durable, by today’s standards) siding. If you can keep it, do. If harsh weather or insect damage have made it mostly irreparable, you may be forced to choose an alternative option.
As with everything else when you’re replacing components on a historic home, stay true to the time and place it was constructed. Choose a wood, steel, or vinyl siding that looks as close as possible to styles actually used in that place and time period. Keeping the original siding is ideal, but it’s not entirely necessary to maintaining a consistent, historically-accurate look.
Landscaping and Lawn Care
Shaping the shrubs and landscaping designs around a historical home is no small feat. Once again, if you’re serious about having an optimized, consistent appearance, you’ll want to hire a professional landscape artist who can do your historic home justice in the lawn care department.
If the home already has a lawn and landscape that you’re happy with, you may simply need to become familiar with the shrubs and plants to learn about best maintenance practices for them. Consider natural lawn care solutions for the grass and plants, to get the best look possible with minimal environmental impact.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into restoring and renovating historical homes — and we’ve barely scratched the surface. But as many contractors can tell you, the price is well worth the rewards of owning a beautiful historic home.