Send me a FREE trial issue Plus a FREE gift
Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Repairs & How To » Historic Paints & Finishes » Guide to Period-Appropriate Historic Paints

Guide to Period-Appropriate Historic Paints

From historic color palettes to old-fashioned paint formulas, find the right fit for your house's walls with this source list.
By Lindsey Thomas

    The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co.'s line of hand-mixed buttermilk paints is organic, eco-friendly, and historic.

    The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co.'s line of hand-mixed buttermilk paints is organic, eco-friendly, and historic.

    For years, many historians assumed that historic house colors were serious and subdued—after all, those were the shades that revealed themselves when they scraped paint samples from old surfaces. However, modern paint research has toppled that theory and shown us that historic paints were much more vibrant before they faded with time. With our guide to period-appropriate paints, you can uncover the perfect color match and bring those vivid hues to life in your own old house.

    Historic Color Palettes


    Valspar has teamed up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to create more than 250 historically accurate colors that bring to life palettes from different National Trust properties, like the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., or upstate New York’s Lyndhurst Mansion.

    From Colonial to Victorian, Arts & Crafts to suburban modern, Sherwin-Williams offers a paint palette for nearly every incarnation of American architectural style. With both interior and exterior colors—like the down-to-earth Roycroft Adobe and the delicate Queen Anne Lilac—the palettes provide period-appropriate inspiration for wall, trim, and accent colors.

    Benjamin Moore
    The company’s web site provides basic background information on a range of architectural styles, beginning with Cape Cod homes (1600-1955) and ending with Contemporary (1965-present), and gives a sample color palette for each one.

    Pratt & Lambert
    Developed in conjunction with the Williamsburg Program, Pratt & Lambert’s Williamsburg Palette replicates 184 of the colors—from soft grays to grassy greens—discovered over decades of meticulous research on Colonial Williamsburg’s 500 historic buildings.

    California Paints
    Developed in conjunction with Historic New England, and spanning three centuries’ worth of paint colors, California Paints’ Historic Colors of America palette reflects the evolution of color in American architecture, from the bold earth tones of early farmhouses to the more brilliant jewel tones that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. The colors were collected from hundreds of samples taken from historic properties and objects, and for easy use, the web site groups shades both by hue and architectural style.

    Finnaren & Haley
    In Peter Cooper’s 1720 painting of Philadelphia, only six of the 93 Colonial buildings were painted white. Today, those proud reds and blues can be replicated with Authentic Colors of Historic Philadelphia, a palette offered by Finnaren & Haley. Paint sleuths analyzed the underlying layers of paint collected from historic surfaces in Philadelphia, revealing a wealth of hues that have been certified by the National Park Service.

    Historic Paint Formulas

    The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co.

    Long before the advent of the modern paint store, cave painters hand-mixed their own paints from raw materials like curdled milk, charcoal, and mineral ores. Today, the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co. carries on this age-old practice with organic paints made from lime, natural pigments, and casein (a protein found in milk). Old-Fashioned Milk Paint is available in 20 colors, or as a base with no pigment for custom-blending.

    The Real Milk Paint Co.
    If you can’t find the color you’re looking for from a traditional paint manufacturer, try mixing your own. The Real Milk Paint Co. offers a powdered milk paint formula consisting of lime, pigment, and purified casein—just add water, and you’re ready to paint. Colors are available in traditional and historic blends, or you can achieve your desired shade by adding varying amounts of white pigment.

    Olde Century Colors
    Ground pigments and a small-batch process lend Olde Century Colors’ paints their authenticity. As the paint dries, subtle brush strokes remain visible in the film, a hallmark of traditional paint produced in handcrafted batches in the 19th century. Fourteen of Olde Century’s 36 colors, including Tinderbox Brown and Goldenrod Yellow, are designated for bungalow, Craftsman, and Prairie-style homes.

    Fine Paints of Europe
    Based on formulas developed by Dutch paintmakers in the 1800s, Fine Paints of Europe evolved from owner John Lahey’s search for a high-quality coating for the walls of his 18th-century home. After marveling at the rich paints used on the walls of historic homes in Europe, he set out to replicate the age-old combination of pure oils and pigments. Today, the company offers a variety of paints (including an environmentally friendly water-based line) in historic colors like those in the Mount Vernon Estate of Colours Collection.

    Old Village Paint
    Since 1816, the experts at fifth-generation Old Village Paint have crafted formulas to withstand the test of time, making their paint the product of choice at historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg and the Law Library of Congress. Whether latex, buttermilk, or oil-based, all of their paints are produced with natural earth pigments and are perfect for Colonial, Federal, or Victorian homes.

    Published in: Old-House Journal September/October 2009

    { 3 comments… read them below or add one }

    cheri lehman August 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    I am trying to match a dark varnish or shellac used on my chestnut woodwork in my living room but when I strip a piece of sample woodwork is looses its color and depth. Help The woodwork was from 1990

    James Lueckenhoff January 10, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    Sherwin Williams has worked hand in hand with the New Orleans Vieux Carre Historic Comission in the reproduction of the classic New Orleans colors. I use them as much as possible and they are as close to the original paint as you would want——-all the way from Bourbon Street Blue to Ponatbla Rose and Tolouse Street Cream. Sherwin Williams and the Vieux Carre are an excellent match.

    Rose mettle November 11, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    I am inquiring as where to buy the old fashion oil walls were painted with oil paint 28 years ago and still look pretty good. It holds up beautifully. I now want to re-paint my house and would like to know which state I can purchase oil paint close to Maryland.

    Leave a Comment

    Get your FREE Trial Issue of Old House Journal and 2 FREE gifts.
    Yes! Please send me a FREE trial issue of Old House Journal and 2 FREE gifts.
    If I like it and decide to continue, I'll get 7 more issues (8 in all) for just $24.95, a savings of 48%. If for any reason I decide not to continue,
    I'll write cancel on the invoice and owe nothing. The Free Trial Issue is mine to keep, no matter what.
     Full Name:
     Address 1:
     Address 2:
     Zip Code:
     Email (req):
    Offer valid in US only.
    Click here for Canada or here for international subscriptions

    Products & ServicesHouse ToursHistoric PlacesHouse StylesOldHouseOnline.comMagazine
    Architectual ElementsKitchen & BathsHistoric HotelsArchitectural TermsRepairs & How ToSubscribe to Old-House Journal
    BathsInterior & DécorHistoric NeighborhoodsAmerican FoursquareFree NewslettersBack Issues
    Ceilings & WallsGardens & ExteriorsHouse MuseumsBungalowSubscribe to Arts & Crafts HomesDigital Editions
    Doors & WindowsColonial RevivalOld House CommunityAdvertise
    Exterior Products & LandscapeGothicAbout Us 
    FlooringQueen AnneContact Us 
    FurnitureVictorianPrivacy Policy
    HardwareLand for Sale
    Heating & CoolingSite Map
    Home Décor
    Period Lighting
    Real Estate
    Repair & Restoration
    Roofing & Siding
    Tools & Equipment

    Designer Sourcw e bookHistoric Home Show Logo

    Copyright © 2011-2016 Old House Online