Painting the Exterior of a House

Learn how to choose and apply paint to the exterior of your home.


Careful attention to detail will give the best results when painting your home.


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Ken Kern, author of THE OWNER-BUILT HOME and THE OWNER-BUILT HOMESTEAD, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments. 

Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern's articles in THE INTERPRETER, WAY OUT and GREEN REVOLUTION. Ken has also issued a three-year series of pieces (called TECHNIC) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of his has been featured in ORGANIC GARDENING. 

This series of Ken Kern's work is being taken both from OWNER-BUILT HOME and OWNER-BUILT HOMESTEAD. 

If nothing else is learned from studying the series of chapters in this volume, it is hoped that the amateur home builder will at least be in position to ridicule the main slogan of the organized trades: "Relax-let an expert do it." We should not think of an expert builder as a special kind of man. We should rather think of every man as a special kind of builder,

planning and working, perhaps with his wife, to meet the unique needs of the growing family. A certain romance surrounds the home building efforts of a congenial and loving husband-wife team. 

It must be confessed that, from correspondence here, it appears that many amateur building attempts met with dismal failure; the owner-builder suffered a major disability owing to careless accident; or he was sidetracked by divorce arising from strained family relations; or he grew weary of well-doing, and relinquished his builder role to the ever-ready vulture-like subcontractor. 

Such owner-builder experiences appear tragic to outsiders and humorous to those inside the building field. Yet any amateur building experience is the growing edge of the fundamental relationship among builder, tools, materials, and home that makes a man a man, homus faber. The successful amateur builders do not send woeful letters here; they build. Those of us who have had experience within the fold of the "expert" building industry realize that the only expertise offered is what stems from the grasping of as much monetary return as the traffic will bear. The commercial builder is not, of course, a bad man at heart; but, in addition to the profit motive, he is encumbered with tedious distractions and involvements; unfair competition, unions, estimates, insurance, loans, taxes, contracts, licenses, permits, office overhead, memberships, and dues. But these are only the surface requirements that have to be met before the contractor can start a project: The really vicious aspects of conventional building construction are far more subtle-especially as the building specialists themselves are seldom aware of the corruptions within their own field. This general observation can best be illustrated, perhaps, by a brief historical account of the painting art in reference to building. 

History of Painting

Credit for being the first painter known to the West will have to be shared by Noah of Biblical fame and the Cro-Magnon Reindeer Man. After his well-known ark was completed, Noah "pitched it within and without." Pitch (asphaltum) is still used by varnish manufacturers to produce protective coatings. Prehistoric cave man, it seems, was more interested in the decorative aspects of paint. He mixed simple earth colors with animal fats and painted the walls of his cave-houses. 

Decorative painting assumed an important role in the lives of Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman ruling classes. White lead was extracted and used as early as 430 B.C. by the Romans. In medieval times the people used paint to decorate and protect the spokes of their carts and the handles of their various agricultural implements. 

With the advent of the Renaissance came the guild organization of master, journeyman and apprentice. The formation of the Old English "Payntour-Steynor" guild in the 13th century laid the groundwork for our equally hidebound unions and trade organizations. In the early history of painting guilds are items that might have come from a contemporary grievance committee: 

In 1488 the Mayor was petitioned to halt the ingress of "foreyns" (outsiders) from working in the city limits, there by taking work from members of the guild . . . In 1502 the Companies of Painters and Stainers were united into one company . . . In 1575 the Payntours-Steynors petitioned the Queen against Plasterers who were infringing on their painting work. 

In 1581 the Payntours-Steynors received a new charter, seal and license from Queen Elizabeth. This new ordinance required seven years' apprenticeship, except from the genteel class who were permitted to paint for their own private pleasure. No person was allowed to instruct another in the art, unless that person be an apprentice bound for seven years. All work had to be approved by the Masters and Wardens. Masters and Wardens had rights to enter any building for inspection and approval. They had the power to impose fines or destroy the work if it fell below standards. The oaths of all members required them to keep "the secrets of the mistery, and not reveal these same except to apprentices and report all evils to the Company." 

In 1606 it was determined that the price for laying color or oil paint upon any flat surface must be sixteen pense per day. Later the cost was figured by the square yard of surface covered. The work day was stipulated to be from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. As the Company grew in size and political strength, it started labor exchanges for the employment of painters. These became meeting places and finally evolved into our current labor unions. Masters and Wardens founded The Institute of British Decorators which in this country is called the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America. 

Nothing much has really changed today in the painting industry from the formation of the first medieval closed shop. Modern house painters have their own particular brand of price-fixing exclusiveness; and their union, too, is careful to enforce maximum-size brush widths and to outlaw fast-working renegade spray or roller equipment. Thank God, a man may still work on his own home. And thanks to a tremendous chemical advance in recent years with unbiased reports from countless agencies, the "secrets of the mistery" are no longer the private property of an inner circle! 

The chemical advance has been very rapid. It has not been long since a painter himself mixed and ground his paints. His pigment was first zinc, then the improved titanium dioxide—first used in 1920. From earliest days he had used linseed oil as binder or vehicle. 

Then in 1930 we had what is known in the industry as the alkyd revolution. Alkyd resin has all but replaced linseed oil in commercially prepared paints. More recently the synthetic paint industry has developed other remarkable vehicles such as phenolics, vinyls, urethanes, silicones, epoxies, acrylics and latex. 

Exterior Painting

Exterior wood siding should not have to be painted less than six years after the first application. Planed lumber requires more frequent treatment than rough-sawn or rough-planed wood. As a matter of fact, rough-sawn redwood and cedar weather beautifully without any preservation whatever. Experimentally-minded home builders have found that any number of natural finishes can be concocted from readily available inexpensive materials. To create an aged-appearing flat finish, a mixture of discarded crankcase oil and gasoline has been used with success on rough-sawn siding. A mixture of creosote and pigment-stain is another often-used natural finish. After several years a second coat of clear creosote and oil mixture is applied to restore protective qualities. 

Conventional exterior paint uses titanium dioxide as the white paint-solid, and linseed oil and mineral spirits as the nonvolatile and volatile ingredients of the vehicle. But alkyds are more stain-and-blister-and-mildew-resistant than linseed oil paints. The finish coat should have zinc oxide pigments in it to control the rate of chalking. As a paint ages it collects dirt, changes color, and chalks. If the paint is correctly controlled, rain will wash off the dirt along with the chalking. The chalking effect is thus utilized to keep the paint cleaner and brighter, and so to prolong its usefulness. Applying a prime coat of shellac or aluminum paint over knotholes and flat-grained siding is an especially good practice. 

Lacquer and varnish films break down sooner on outside exposure than do regular paints having protective pigments. The use of three coats of a high grade spar varnish is a minimum requirement for an outside transparent finish. Butyl phenol resin-based varnishes are definitely superior to the old type in hardness, durability and water resistance. 

Polyurethane-based, phenolic gum and phenolic tung oil are the best commercially available natural finishes, though they last only two years at the longest. An eight-year natural finish was developed some years ago by the Forest Products Laboratory, which publishes this formula for a 5-gallon batch, cedar color: 

Pour the gallon of mineral spirits into a 5-gal., open-top can. Put paraffin and zinc stearate in another pan and heat over flame, stirring until uniform mixture results. Pour this into the mineral spirits, stirring vigorously. Keep flame away from mineral spirits. When solution has cooled to room temperature, add pentachlorophenol concentrate, then linseed. Stir in colors until mixture is uniform, and it's ready for use. For redwood color, use 1/2 pt. burnt sienna and 1/2 pt. raw umber, plus 1 pt. pure red oxide color-in-oil. 

Shingle stains can be used also on rough-sawn siding. Linseed or oil-modified alkyd coatings are the best here, as a porous paint film is necessary to allow moisture to escape and thereby prevent blistering. Regular shingle stain is composed of a color dissolved in oil-containing solvents and a wood preservative such as creosote. Preservation of the shingle depends upon adequate penetration of the stain rather than the formation of a protective outside film, while with regular paint, on the contrary, adhesion of the film to the surface is more important than penetration. 

It has been found that 90% of all paint failures are due to the poor lumber used as the base—mainly the high moisture content of the wood, or moisture entering the back side of the wood after it has been painted—through condensation due to faulty gutter and flashing. Blistering is a common result of moisture destroying the paint bond. Paint will adhere best to slow-grown spring wood and will tend to peel from fast-grown summer wood. Paint will also last longer upon narrow-band, edge-grain boards than upon wide-band, flat-grain boards. 

Alligatoring, the final stage of checking, is one common paint-mixture deficiency. It results from having too much oil in the prime coat. The prime coat should always be harder than the final coat. For this reason it is important to allow plenty of time between coats, as exposure to the air causes a hardening action (oxidation) to take place. The final coat should be elastic enough to respond to the expansion and contraction of weather change. 

Lacquer, shellac, spar varnish, linseed, or alkyd can all be used on interior wood paneling and plywood. Alkyd is an excellent sealer for plywood. Alkyd gloss or semi-gloss paint will last as long and retain color as well as any paint now sold. If a colored surface is desired, one of the styrene-butadiene, polyvinyl acetate, or acrylic latex paints is an excellent choice. Already, the greatest volume of water-emulsion paint sold in the United States is of the latex type. Such paints dry rapidly, are easily applied, have no odor, have good scrub resistance (after hardening), excellent penetration, and good color-uniformity. 

Masonry Painting

Latex paints have proven to be the foremost choice for interior as well as exterior masonry surfaces. Styrene-butadiene (rubber latex) pioneered among latex paints in this country. It out-performs by far the best oil-based paints on the market. It is the least expensive of all latex paints and is best used on inside masonry basement walls, owing to its water-repellent and alkali-resistant qualities. 

Cement-water paint has been the traditionally accepted waterproofing material for masonry surfaces, especially porous concrete block walls. The portland cement content should be not less than 65% by weight of the total paint. Fine, sharp silica sand and/or hydrated lime make up the balance. The paint must be applied to damp walls for proper adhesion. 

Whitewash is an inexpensive, even older, and still used masonry coating. The National Lime Association suggests a formula having 5 lbs. of casein dissolved in 2 gals. of hot water, 3 lbs. of trisodium phosphate dissolved in 3 gals. of water, 3 pints of formaldehyde mixed in 3 gals. of water, all added to 8 gals. of lime paste (50 lbs. of hydrated lime mixed with 6 gals. of water). The lime coating is applied to damp walls, and dries to an opaque, hard, dust-free finish. 

Polyvinyl acetate and acrylic have excellent color-retention and water-resistant qualities on outside masonry surfaces, asbestos cement, and asphalt shingles. Resin-based urethane is a new concrete floor varnish that is claimed to outlast other floor varnishes three to five times. Chlorinated rubber and phenolic are used where the floor is exposed to acids, alkalis, salt and other corrosive elements. 

There are a number of factors that influence the proper choice of masonry paints. Cement-swater paints, for instance, are more suitable for new, and therefore damp, walls containing water-soluble alkaline salts and open-textured surfaces. Resin-emulsion paints are better for dry, close-textured surfaces such as cast concrete, asbestos-cement siding, tile, etc. Oil paints are best used on masonry surfaces that are dry at the time of painting and remain dry afterward. 

Corrosion (rust) is a common problem when using exposed metal in building construction. Zinc-dust paint is about the only primer that will adhere satisfactorily to galvanized metal surfaces. In priming steel, "red lead," iron oxide, or zinc chromate in linseed, alkyd, or phenolic vehicles is satisfactory. A linseed or alkyd finish coat is then applied. The best preservant for tarpaper roofs is a commercial asphalt varnish mixed with aluminum powder. Upon application the aluminum flakes float to the surface and give a metallic finish. These paints combine excellent durability with reflective roof-coating features. 

These recommendations on paint materials deal with only one small segment of the total painting problem. Equally important, a painter must understand the "paintable" characteristics of different surfaces. He must choose and use correctly the various tools of the trade. Finally, his method of procedure must be correctly established—such as painting the house exterior before the interior, and painting the ceiling before the walls before the woodwork before the floor before the baseboard. 

A good-quality paint brush will have more long-length bristles than short-length bristles—to insure proper paint absorption. Stiff and soft bristles are correctly proportioned to allow for proper paint retention. Some of the newer quality nylon brushes are as good as the traditionally superior Chinese hog bristle ones. 

In many cases the paint roller will do a faster and better-appearing job than the brush. It can be used for applying any kind of paint; but the surface to be painted will determine the cover nap (roller cover) size; the smoother the surface, the shorter the nap should be. 

In view of the multitude of technical details covered in these chapters, the would-be owner-builder may throw up his hands and sigh that the stuff is all too much to take in. But consider. The details set down here are meant to meet the various needs and interests of almost all possible owner-builders. They are not all meant for you. You will select from this material just what will help you. Perhaps you need note but one-tenth or one-twentieth of the observations these chapters offer. A student in a university architectural school must become familiar with all use-and-beauty building ideas in every country from the year one until the present. But that is not you. You are going to build, most likely, just one home for one family. 

Building a home should not be the formidable project that it happens to be for some would-be owner-builders today. Land should be assigned without charge by the local community for house building and other improvements. Money should be loaned by the community bank without charge. There should be counsel and help from friendly neighbors who have already built their homes. 

Lacking this home-owner's heaven at present, you may have to scout for desirable land at a moderate price, have some capital somehow to begin operations, and then perhaps work on and off for several years before you can move into your home. But that will be your family's haven in perpetuity and, if enlarged and adapted, perhaps for children's families. Building can be fun, especially if you are building together with someone. A house is not a home. Land is the home on which you erect a dwelling and several smaller buildings for work and appreciation. Your home should grow through your lifetime—and after. 

There is nothing more desirable in this world than love; and nothing is better suited to cultivate love than a nature-based home of your own. Building your own home today, furthermore, is not a merely private affair. It belongs to the movement of freedom from America's religious, political and economic straitjacket comparable to the movement of our freedom-loving forefathers from Britain and Europe to these shores. We have grown accustomed to finding some sort of lodging wherever we can, if lucky, find employment, and to re-moving (on the average) every three years. This sort of thing cannot fitly be called human living. Today's revolution will occur when employment, including political, economic and technical operations, shall become a means to the tender love, personal growth, and spontaneous artistry of settled home life.