Reading Historic Roofs

Q: “I’ve noticed distinctly different roof styles on the historic houses in my neighborhood. Are roofs one way to estimate the age of a house?”

Ruth Story, Portland

A: Roofs on historic houses in New England are dramatically different and, yes, can be very useful in identifying the style and age of a building. While Maine was settled by Europeans in the early 1600s, because of wars with the French and Native Americans, no homes are known to remain from this first period of settlement. The oldest surviving styles are Georgians, built between about 1720 and 1790. Elegant and symmetrical, these have steeply pitched gabled or moderately sloped hipped roofs and either one massive central chimney or smaller ones that rise close to the end walls of the house.

 The 1760 Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery Point

The 1760 Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery Point

The Federal-style houses that were constructed between about 1790 and 1830 have more delicate ornamentation than their robust Georgian predecessors and, often, lower hipped roofs. By the end of this period, however, most roof styles were gabled.

 The circa 1800 Ammi R. Mitchell House in Yarmouth. Photo courtesy of Maine Preservation

The circa 1800 Ammi R. Mitchell House in Yarmouth. Photo courtesy of Maine Preservation

At the end of the Federal era, the Greek Revival style became wildly popular across the state until roughly 1850. These houses are easily identified because, unlike earlier buildings where the roof ridge runs parallel to the street, most Greek Revivals are turned so that the gable end faces forward, often integrating a columned porch reminiscent of Greek temples.

 A Greek Revival Home in Belfast

A Greek Revival Home in Belfast

Less prevalent early styles include Gothic Revival houses, which were popular for a short period from about 1840 to 1850 and frequently have very steeply pitched, gabled roofs with ornately carved gingerbread trim, known as bargeboards, beneath the eaves.

 

 The 19th Century Whittier House in Gorham

The 19th Century Whittier House in Gorham

Homes built in the Italianate style (circa 1840 to 1875) typically incorporate many different roof shapes, including very low-pitched and even flat roofs that mimic those on Italian villas; Portland’s Victoria Mansion is a superb example.

 The 1860 Victoria Mansion in Portland

The 1860 Victoria Mansion in Portland

And then there are the Second Empire houses from the late 1850s and 1860s with their distinctive mansard roofs. These tall, box-like crowns, borrowed from French architecture, provide greater head room on the upper floor.

 The 1868 A.B. Butler House in Portland

The 1868 A.B. Butler House in Portland

Maine is among the richest sources in the nation for shingle style houses (circa 1870 to 1900). Popularized by Portland architect John Calvin Stevens and others, this genre treats the roof not as mere covering, but as a design element. The roofs on these houses are dynamic and varied, incorporating combinations of gabled and gambrel crowns that, like the rest of the façade, were originally covered in wooden shingles.

 The 1897 Charles H. Ingraham House in Phippsburg

The 1897 Charles H. Ingraham House in Phippsburg

The Queen Anne style from this same era pairs similar roof patterns with features like towers and corner turrets and walls of patterned brick, shingles, clapboards, or a mix of materials.

 A circa 1900 Queen Anne Home in Portland

A circa 1900 Queen Anne Home in Portland

You may be wondering why we haven’t yet mentioned Cape Cod homes. These are not considered a style, per se, but rather a cottage form first built in the 1600s. They became popular because they were practical and easy to construct. The oldest examples are very simple with gabled roofs, few windows (glass was expensive), and one enormous central chimney. If you see a Cape with two chimneys, it was likely built after 1800.

 The 1820s-era Captain Dunbar Henderson House in Thomaston

The 1820s-era Captain Dunbar Henderson House in Thomaston

One more pointer for old-house detectives: Don’t be thrown if you spot a house with many different roof types and additions of varying heights and styles. Here in Maine, families often built onto their homes, adding a new, formal structure facing the street and/or an ell in back that connected the original residence to a barn. Learning to “read the roof” can help you determine which part of the house is the oldest and when the other wings were incorporated.

 An Extended Farmhouse in Phippsburg

An Extended Farmhouse in Phippsburg

For a readable introduction to all these architectural styles, check out Historic Maine Homes: 300 Years of Great Houses, a richly illustrated book by architect Christopher Glass (a trustee of Maine Preservation). You can always reach out to us with queries too.

Restoring a Buckled Barn

My 2 ½-story carriage barn, built in the 1890s, has walls that are bulging outward on the upper floor, just below the roof line. I am told that the building is “balloon-framed.” What does that mean and can this condition be corrected?

– Tom Giles, Bangor

Your barn’s not broken — it’s just tired.

Balloon framing first became popular in the 1830s. Unlike traditional timber framing, which consists of heavy posts secured with wooden pegs, balloon-framed walls are constructed with slim wooden studs that run uninterrupted from the sill atop the foundation to the horizontal top plate, just below the roof. These walls, often two or three stories, were typically braced diagonally for greater lateral stability. Because the stud walls could be cut from mass-produced lumber on the recently invented circular saw and nailed into place, they were cheaper and faster to erect than post-and-beam timber frames.

Some say lightweight balloon framing was named for its vulnerability to being carried away by wind. But this is not the system’s biggest failing. With balloon framing, the weight of the roof assembly is carried by the rafters. Where the rafters meet the outside walls, the tremendous force of this load is transferred to the vertical studs and carried down to the sills and foundation walls below. The weak point in the system is the area where rafters meet studs, or precisely where you’ve noticed bulging. Sagging of the ridgeline — a coincident condition — is often a symptom of the same problem. Factor in the additional burden of ice and snow building up over 120 years and you’ve got a weakened and potentially unsafe building.

Anticipating the rafter thrust that would eventually bulge the walls, skilled carpenters strengthened their buildings with collar ties — planks connecting rafters on either side of the roof — or with tension rods. These long iron rods with threaded ends were bolted through the top plates of outer walls and tightened using a turnbuckle. Unfortunately, in many historic Maine barns — especially those with haylofts — builders either misplaced the collar ties above their optimal height to allow for more storage space beneath or neglected to install them, or tension rods, altogether.

As a rule, if your walls are bulging more than two or three degrees, they require immediate attention to arrest any further horizontal movement. At Maine Preservation, we can do a pre-assessment to evaluate the severity of the situation and refer you to a qualified engineer and barn repair contractor. The most common solution involves pulling the walls back into an upright position using rigid tie rods or steel cables that are tightened, over a period of weeks or months, with turnbuckles. In some cases, it may also be necessary to jack up the ridgepole where it has sagged. Additionally, your contractor may advise reinforcing the building with properly positioned collar ties to further resist rafter thrust. With increased wind loading on walls and roofs expected from future storm events, you may also want to add diagonal bracing under the rafters and at the corners of the building.

Leak-Proof Your Chimney

Q: How can I prevent water from getting into my house through the chimney?

– Peggy Gierhan, Auburn

A: Historically, when fireplaces were used on a daily basis for cooking, rain was absorbed into a chimney’s bricks and evaporated rapidly. Now that we don’t heat up our chimneys as frequently, that water can puddle in the fireplace, drip through the joints in a stovepipe, and even damage the framing of your house, if the chimney’s liner, bricks, and flashing are not maintained properly. If you’ve got a leak, this three-step guide can help.

Take it from the top.

Start by engaging a chimney sweep or mason to inspect your chimney (ideally with a camera on a cable) to make sure it is lined and the lining is in good condition. If you live in an older house with a massive center chimney, you may have as many as six flues that require lining. Each flue vents a single heat source (such as a fireplace, stove, furnace, or water heater) and is a potential conduit for rainwater.

You or the professional should also use a flashlight to examine the chimney’s exterior, paying particular attention to the mortar joints, any corbeling (a projecting, decorative necklace of bricks that circumscribes the top and helps divert water away from the exterior bricks below) and the crown — a sloped cement sheet at the top that sheds rain outward and fills in gaps between the chimney’s liner and interior walls. If you notice loose or cracking mortar, out-of-place or missing bricks, and/or fissures in the crown, have a mason repair these immediately. Alternatively, you can apply a waterproof, brushable sealant, such as CrownCoat, to the crown. Waterproofing exterior bricks with a clear liquid sealant will be of marginal benefit because products sold for this purpose don’t seal cracks and gaps.

Next, carefully examine the flashing. Chimneys in the 19th century were usually fitted with lead flashing. In the early 20th century, copper was frequently used. And from the 1950s on, aluminum flashing became popular. No matter what material you find, you should observe what’s called “counterflashing” on the sidewalls of the chimney — pieces of metal mortared into the joints and folded down vertically to cover the bricks below. Just behind, you should see sections of L-shaped “step flashing” that start under the roof shingles and disappear beneath the counterflashing. These two types of flashing interlock and the assembly, along with the flashing at the upper and lower faces of the chimney, is essential to keeping rain out of your house. If you notice gaps or cracks anywhere in your flashing, contact a roofing professional asap.

Head inside.

You can also assess your flashing — or lack thereof — from the attic. Look up at all four sides of the chimney where it pierces the roof. Do you see slivers or pinpricks of daylight anywhere? If so, you likely don’t have counterflashing, or it has become pierced and needs to be replaced. Mark any areas of concern with chalk, then return to the attic when it’s raining to see if those spots are wet; also note if any creosote is seeping through leaky flue joints or cracks in the brick or mortar joints. If these issues are observed, enlist a professional, as above. Note: Be wary of roofing contractors who recommend quick repairs like an inexpensive coating of tar or caulking. These are three- to five-year fixes at best. Once cracks penetrate the tar, or the caulking dries and shrinks, you’ll face the same problems all over again.

 

This is a close-up of the chimney shown above. Note the corbeling, counterflashing on the sidewall (integrated with step flashing beneath the shingles), apron flashing in front, and stone rain cap. Photo by Jay Cox.

Consider a cap.

 This is a close-up of the chimney shown above. Note the corbeling, counterflashing on the sidewall (integrated with step flashing beneath the shingles), apron flashing in front, and stone rain cap. Photo by Jay Cox.

This is a close-up of the chimney shown above. Note the corbeling, counterflashing on the sidewall (integrated with step flashing beneath the shingles), apron flashing in front, and stone rain cap. Photo by Jay Cox.

The best antidote to water penetrating your chimney is a “rain cap” in the form of sheet metal, a box-like fixture, or flat stone cover (left) elevated 10 inches or more above the crown. The cap permits smoke and heat to escape but keeps water out and is sometimes fitted with a steel mesh “spark arrestor” that deters birds and rodents. Another reliable fix is a “top damper”— a hinged steel or cast aluminum flap or cover that can be installed in lieu of a traditional throat damper and operated directly from the fireplace, thanks to a cable connected to a lever at the firebox. These dampers are water- (and pest!) proof, and can be custom-designed to seal off multiple flues. (Unfortunately, the standard metal throat damper, used to prevent heat loss and chilly downdrafts when the fireplace is not in use, does nothing to prevent water from entering and damaging the chimney above.)

One final DIY fix that’s only appropriate for seasonal camps and cottages: you can place a wooden cap (an orange crate works well) clad in galvanized sheet metal over the chimney when the house is not in use. Yes, you will have to get on the roof to install and remove your homemade cover, but this is an inexpensive and effective solution.

Cover image: This circa 1793 Cape Cod home with a recently repaired chimney is located on the property of The Old Farm Christmas Place in Cape Elizabeth. Photo by Jay Cox.

10 Steps to a Tighter Home

Q: What are some practical ways to make my 1911 home more energy efficient?

– B. Randall, Portland

As the temperature drops and the threat of higher energy prices looms large, this is an important question. Here are 10 practical steps that Maine Preservation recommends you take immediately to increase the efficiency of your old house.

1. Have your furnace serviced. Schedule your annual furnace (or boiler) inspection to make certain your unit works efficiently. The technician will install new fuel and air filters, check for proper ignition and draft, examine the chimney and vent pipe, and make sure there are no leaks or blockages that could allow carbon monoxide to enter your home. (If you don’t already have carbon monoxide detectors, install them immediately!)

 2. Schedule an energy audit. This service should include a “blower door test” to determine your home’s airtightness. (Visit Efficiency Maine to find a local contractor.) The test places a powerful fan in an exterior door frame, creating negative pressure that instantly reveals unsealed openings where cold air can enter your home. We also recommend ordering a “thermographic inspection,” which utilizes an infrared video or still camera to record temperature variations in your home’s skin, pinpointing gaps that need to be sealed or insulated and identifying areas where insulation may have been installed incorrectly.

 3. Mind the gaps. Caulk, plug, or repair any openings in the building envelope, paying particular attention to air gaps often found where the top of the wall and the attic floor intersect. Other spots that merit close inspection are window and door casings, corner trim, the gap between the sill of your home and the top of the foundation, and places where utilities — such as your oil tank filler spout and electrical or gas lines — enter the house. Where exterior caulking is required, we recommend a paintable 50-year “elastomeric” latex sealant, which will stay flexible through a range of temperatures and won’t develop cracks. For interiors, choose any 35- or 50-year paintable caulk, but avoid using those containing mildewcides in areas where food is prepared or people will have contact.

 4. Winterize your windows. Installing storm windows and doors virtually eliminates air infiltration through these openings. (You’ll also notice that your home is much quieter.) Follow our guide to shoring up your windows and selecting storm panels here or make your own storms by wrapping clear plastic heat-shrunk film, such as polyolefin, around both sides of a pine frame. Add peel-and-stick foam weatherstripping around the frame and fit the panel into your interior window casing. We’ve installed these DIY storms at our headquarters in Yarmouth and they’ve made a significant dent in our energy bills.

 5. Button up the attic. Make certain there is insulation above or below your attic floor to limit heat rising from the rooms beneath. If you have older pink fiberglass insulation or vermiculite — a pebble-like, pour-in product — consider replacing it. The fiberglass insulation found in many houses can pose respiratory health concerns from airborne fibers and 90 percent of vermiculite contains asbestos. You can safely replace fiberglass with mineral wool, a newer type of insulation with a higher R-value (a measure of the insulation’s ability to resist heat travelling through it) that repels water, resists rot, mildew, mold, and bacterial growth, and will not burn. Removal of vermiculite should be handled by a professional remediation firm according to EPA standards. If there is no insulation in your attic, consider dense-pack cellulose insulation, which can be blown into place and delivers excellent results.

 6. And the basement. I frequently encourage homeowners to insulate interior basement walls to at least one foot below grade. You can use a variety of products, such as rigid foam panels or rubber drainage mats that are draped from the walls like sheets on a clothesline; the u-shaped spaces above the mats are then filled with cellulose or mineral wool. Note: We do not recommend open- or closed-cell spray-foam insulation for use on basement foundation walls, or anywhere else in the home, because it is irreversible. The material also off-gasses and can compromise your health. What’s more, most spray-on materials are highly flammable and need to be covered with Sheetrock for safety.

 7. Insulate outlets. Electrical outlets are notorious inlets for cold air. (You can often feel it streaming into your home around these penetrations.) To remedy this pricey heat loss, remove the outlet cover and use silicon caulk to fill spaces between the receptacle and the surrounding plaster or Sheetrock. Next, affix a pre-cut foam gasket — available at hardware stores — to the back side of the cover before screwing it back into place.

 8. Wrap your ducts. If your heating system’s ductwork is poorly sealed or uninsulated, you may be adding hundreds of dollars to your energy bill every year. Start by sealing seams and joints in the conduit with glue-like duct mastic, which the U.S. Department of Energy recommends over duct tape because it is more durable and easier to apply. Then insulate the ductwork with a foil-faced insulation blanket that has an R-value of R-6 or higher, taping every seam and joint in the blanket with foil insulation tape to prevent moist air from penetrating and condensing on the ductwork.

 9. And your pipes. Insulating hot-water pipes with sleeves made of polyethylene or neoprene foam and placing an insulation blanket over your water heater will reduce heat loss and heating bills, and cut down on the time it takes for hot water to arrive when you turn on your faucet or shower. If you have a gas water heater, make certain to keep any insulating material at least six inches away from the flue.

10: Upgrade your thermostat. New programmable thermostats help you conserve energy by allowing you to set the temperature to tick down when you’re asleep or away from home. The Department of Energy estimates that turning down your thermostat by about 10 degrees for eight hours a day can save 10 percent on heating bills. We recommend setting your thermostat no higher than 68 degrees when you’re awake and at home, and lower when you’re asleep or out of the house.

Cover image: The 1858 Safford House on High Street in Portland is now the headquarters of Greater Portland Landmarks, which fully insulated the building’s roof with dense-pack cellulose, installed a new energy efficient gas-fired heating system, partially repointed the mortar, and restored and weatherstripped the original windows on the first floor.

Removing Artificial Siding

Q: Our historic Georgian home was clad in vinyl siding about 30 years ago, prior to our purchasing the house. In your July 2017 article, you discouraged the use of artificial siding, which is often considered in lieu of repainting. What can we expect to find if we remove the vinyl and what are our options for maintaining the house’s exterior?

– Dona and Karl Grant, Buckfield

A: I’ll be honest: The words “artificial siding” make preservationists, and often local firefighters, cringe. For decades, asphalt, asbestos, aluminum, and, later, vinyl siding were widely promoted as cure-alls that would eliminate the need for painting and upkeep. But these promises have proved false as homeowners discovered that artificial siding can dent, deteriorate (due to the effects of UV light), crack, and fade. The material also traps moisture and can be a serious impediment to fire suppression when firefighters have to break through it to access wall cavities.

At Maine Preservation, we advise homeowners to remove artificial siding, revealing the original wood, or replace the newer cladding with historically appropriate materials. This may require some financial planning and you may need to tackle the project in stages, but the results are worth it. Real estate studies show that well-maintained historic houses are more valuable and sell more quickly than buildings that have been “vinyled up” or insensitively amended. Here’s how to tackle the removal process.

First, assess the condition of what’s behind your artificial siding. Because the material traps moisture, you may see evidence of water damage or rot. I always suggest looking on the north and east sides of the house first, as these are most often plagued by moisture issues. Remove a portion of siding and see if the original clapboards or shingles are still intact. Pay particular attention to the sections above and below window and door openings. Try to establish the general condition of as many areas as possible and be prepared for a few surprises. Window and door details, corner boards, and decorative trim under the eaves may have been removed when crews applied the new siding. These adornments will need to be reproduced, a simple task for a skilled restoration craftsperson with the correct molding planes.

Next, determine the extent of the damage inflicted on the house’s original corner trim and cladding from screws fastening the channels that support the artificial siding. There’s good news here: the disfigurement may be unsightly but it’s no cause for concern. Most holes can be plugged with glue and epoxy and larger gouges can be filled with what carpenters call a “Dutchman”: a plug of wood fitted and glued into the marred area.

Armed with a condition assessment and a general understanding of needed repairs, it’s time to get serious about your intentions. Still feeling hesitant? Remember that removing artificial siding dramatically improves a home’s appearance. You’ll instantly notice that the architectural character of the building has been restored. That’s because the shadow lines and details masked by artificial materials will again be visible. These are the points of interest that attract the eye and make a home look pleasing and “right” — as the original designer intended. The transformation is particularly striking on old clapboarded houses. I recently saw a 19th-century house where the visible height of each antique clapboard — known as the “reveal” — was 2 ½ inches. The artificial clapboards that had been placed over the originals had a reveal of 5 inches. The difference was remarkable.

vinyl siding.jpg

Vinyl siding with a wide “reveal” conceals narrower wooden clapboards in good condition.

If your home’s historic clapboards remain in place, consider yourself lucky. The old-growth wood these are likely made of is more durable than what is available today and, unlike panelized artificial siding, you can remove and replace individual boards. The same is true with damaged shingles — simply swap them with new eastern white or western red cedar ones. (Cypress and Alaskan yellow cedar are also good options but markedly more expensive.) Follow our guide to repairing, prepping, and painting wood siding here and feel free to proceed with one wall at a time. This approach will be more affordable in the short run if you don’t have the dollars to tackle the entire project at one time.

Many homeowners ask about replacing their original clapboards or shingles with new cement-based or composite materials. This may seem appealing because these products promise durability and less frequent repainting. However, they’re still relatively unproven materials and their longevity remains questionable. Additionally, improvements in exterior paints mean owners of wood-clad homes can now go 10–15 years before recoating. So my best advice is to stick with original materials wherever possible.

Long story short: Removing artificial siding can reveal your home’s inherent beauty, improve moisture and ventilation problems, and provide resale rewards for you and your neighbors. Good luck and please contact uswith additional questions.

Cover image: The 1791 Abijah Buck House is one of the finest rural examples of the Georgian style in Maine. Still sporting its original clapboards, the home was constructed for a French and Indian War veteran and his wife, who settled the town now known as Buckfield.  

Exterior Painting Pointers

Q. I live in a seaside clapboard house built in 1856. Three sides of my home need repainting desperately, as bare wood is showing where paint has peeled off. What are the considerations I should be aware of in repainting a building of this age? How can I ensure the most durable finish?

– M.G. Sly, Brooklin

A. When it comes to painting old houses, careful preparation is of paramount importance. Keep the three Cs in mind before you apply a lick of paint to those clapboards: Condition, Carpentry, and Conservation.

Condition

If, as you write, there’s virtually no paint adhering to some of the clapboards, check the condition of the wood. Is there moss or mold growing? Do the clapboards feel wet? Is the wood cracked, damaged, or missing?

Any moisture problems must be addressed before you start painting. Typical causes of water damage to clapboards include leaking roof eaves, backed-up gutters, poorly vented kitchens or baths, dirt basement floors that permit moisture to rise up and penetrate all areas of the house, and concrete basement floors poured without a vapor barrier (frequently the case in homes built before 1975). Installing bathroom and kitchen fans is a simple and inexpensive solution to many excess moisture issues. It’s also easy to cover a dirt basement floor with plastic sheeting. For concrete floors lacking a vapor barrier, consider applying two coats of a vapor-barrier paint or investing in rubber matting that can be rolled into place.

To deal with other types of deterioration, follow the tips below.

Carpentry

Skilled carpenters can replace missing and cupped clapboards, repair areas where knots have fallen out or cracks have developed (where the clapboards meet the trim, for example), and reset nails that have popped out, a problem most often seen on south- and west-facing walls that take a beating from the sun.

Conservation

Bare, severely weathered clapboards punished by the intense rays of the sun won’t be able to absorb or hold paint. In this case, it’s useful to apply a conservation treatment like Smith’s Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer or Penetrol Oil-Based Paint Additive to penetrate, revivify, and help reinforce the wood fibers prior to painting. If you notice any mildew on your clapboards, look for Bora-Care, a liquid solution that retards mold growth.

Now that your clapboards are stabilized, you can proceed with the three Ps: Prepping, Priming, and Painting.

Prepping

You’ve likely heard about the serious health dangers associated with flaking lead-based paint — a product commonly used on houses built prior to 1978 — and dust. When scraping and sanding paint from any older home it’s essential to use common sense and scrupulously adhere to local codes about lead paint safety and abatement. Painting contractors must be EPA-certified and properly protected when removing and disposing of lead paint. If you elect to do any of this work yourself, you must wear a high-quality respirator (replace the filters once or twice daily), gloves, and goggles. Spread tarps at least 10 feet back around the apron of your home to collect all of the old paint. Your local recycling center can advise you on proper paint disposal.

Don’t worry about removing 100 percent of the old paint from clapboards. Where paint adheres, leave it be. For areas with peeling paint, hand scraping with a carbide blade and sanding to “feather in” surfaces are appropriate. (Some contractors recommend pressure-washing first to remove dust, mildew, and paint flakes, a process that can result in moisture getting trapped in cracks and behind walls. If you choose this option, make sure to schedule at least two weeks of drying time prior to priming.) You may also opt to use infrared-heated paint removal tools to soften the paint and minimize lead dust and vapors at a safe temperature. Under no circumstances should you permit the use of open-flame tools. They can ignite hidden dust and debris and set a house on fire. At Maine Preservation, we also strongly recommend against rotary sanding tools, which can leave unsightly crescent-shaped divots on clapboards that are very difficult to remove.

Priming

To prepare surfaces for priming, caulk thin longitudinal cracks with paintable silicone and apply an epoxy filler to larger holes. Next, consider applying two coats of primer tinted one shade lighter than your finish coat. Yes, two coats are more expensive, but they will improve the adhesion and endurance of the finish paint. If you notice that your clapboards are marked by ridges and striations, opt for a “high-build” primer designed to fill imperfections. For bare wood, we recommend an oil-based primer, which delivers superior penetration. To ensure your coats cure properly, make certain that day and nighttime temperatures are not forecasted to fall below 50 degrees. It’s also important to brush out the primer, even if you use a roller or sprayer to apply it, to create a strong bond with the wood.

Painting

Finally, you’re ready to paint! If you’ve used a tinted primer, you can usually get away with one finish coat. Stick to the same brand for your primer and paint — they are formulated to work together — and follow the application instructions above.

You’ll likely be asked about oil vs. latex paint. The good news is that recent formulations of latex paints are more durable than in the past, so the choice is up to you. Just remember this rule: latex can be applied over oil, but oil cannot be applied over latex. So if you have latex primer or paint on your house already, you’ll have to stick with latex going forward (or remove all of the old latex paint). Unsure of what’s currently there? Take a sample to your local, established paint dealer for identification.

One last point: Certain salespeople may try to convince you that vinyl siding is appropriate for old houses, but it’s not! Synthetic siding materials are simply incompatible with historic buildings, so just say no!

For more information on painting historic houses, check out this “preservation brief” published by The National Park service or contact us with questions.

Cover image: The 1858 Captain Reuben Merrill House in Yarmouth, home to Maine Preservation, was hand-scraped and coated with an oil-based primer and latex paint last summer.

Repairing Brick Walls

Q. I live in a brick house built around 1900 and I’ve noticed that some of the mortar between bricks is cracked or missing. Several workers have told me I should have the house “repointed.” Sounds odd. What is repointing — and what should I know before I go down that road?

– J. Russell, Fryeburg, ME

A. I agree with this observation. When the mortar between bricks erodes substantially or fails entirely, water can penetrate the walls of your house and cause alarming — and expensive — damage. Repointing involves removing some of the old mortar and replacing it with new mortar that matches the original.

Start by having your mortar tested to determine its composition and strength. A laboratory specializing in materials testing can provide this service. Most pre-1900 brick buildings have lime-based mortar and bricks that are softer than the Portland cement mortar and bricks used in later homes. The all-too-common error of using hard mortar with soft bricks will cause the latter to break down over time. If your house has lime-based mortar, your mason should use oscillating cutting tools, which are far less damaging to old bricks than circular saws. Maine Preservation can furnish the names of relevant laboratories and appropriately skilled masons. You can also reach out to a preservation consultant in your area; just be certain s/he has experience with historic masonry.

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From Left: Deeply eroded brick joints shown in their neglected state and with the deteriorated mortar removed

Once you’ve settled on an expert, be prepared for a job that is noisy and dusty. After the workers have cleared away the damaged mortar, they’ll likely use a combination of compressed air and water from a garden hose to blow away grit and dust. Then they’ll apply new mortar and let it set before shaping and texturizing the surface using tools and brushes. This is where the real art of repointing comes into play. Skilled masons make sure that the new joints match the size of the old, and have the same color, texture, and finish. This sculptural approach, coupled with a seamless marrying of materials, will lend curb appeal and character to your old house.

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Brick joints after repointing has been completed

Want to know more? The National Park Service publishes a series of in-depth “Preservation Briefs” on a variety of topics. You can find one on repointing here.

Cover Image: In North Yarmouth, a circa 1810 Cape Cod home is rendered in the Federal style, which was popular from 1790 to 1825.

Caring for Historic Windows

Q: Our 1923 shingled house in Cape Elizabeth still has its original wooden windows. I love them, but they’re not energy efficient. Some window companies claim I’ll save a fortune with vinyl replacements. What should I do?

– P. Brown, Cape Elizabeth, ME

A: This is a question that we at Maine Preservation hear all too often. And the answer is easy: Keep those historic wooden windows — please! Well-maintained wooden sash windows fitted with metal weather stripping and storm panels can perform just as well as expensive, vinyl replacement units. (By the way, they’re called “replacements” for a reason; they’re not designed to be repaired, only discarded and replaced.)

Here’s a three-step guide to caring for your old windows:

1. First, make sure you have no cracked panes, and that your paint and glazing compound is in good shape. Glazing is the putty-like substance applied around the outside edges of windowpanes to form an air- and watertight seal. Cracked or missing glazing needs to be replaced. We recommend acrylic glazing because it dries fast. You can apply it with a putty knife or caulking gun over a primed surface. Click here to learn how.

2. Next, repair or install storm windows and weather stripping. Storm panels create dead air space between your window and the exterior, blocking cold air from entering in the winter. There are even interior storm panels that slip into place from inside your home — no ladder required! If you don’t want to deal with the chore of removing storm panels in the summer and replacing them in the fall, consider installing color-matched, narrow-frame exterior storm windows with screens and two-part interior storm windows that slide up and down, just like regular double-hungs.

Weather stripping seals gaps around windows and doors, and helps reduce energy bills. You can buy plastic, felt, or foam varieties, but at Maine Preservation we like the results delivered by bronze or zinc products, which are composed of thin pieces of material that interlock for a durable, effective weatherproof seal. You can find local companies that install metal weather stripping online, or contact us at for more resources.

3. Lastly, don’t forget to secure your sash lock. Yes, it’s a security device, but it also pulls the upper and lower window sashes together making a tight seal that further reduces air infiltration.

Salesmen may try to convince you that vinyl replacement units are better than period windows, but this is simply not the case. Wood windows 60 years and older are typically made of old-growth timber. Not only are they dense and remarkably durable, they can be disassembled and repaired. Most importantly, they’re part of what gives your house its historic character.

Finally, I’d like to clear up one more myth about old windows. If properly cared for (see above), they are not drafty. As you learned in physics class, “heat is drawn to cold.” So when you, with a body temperature of 98.6 degrees, walk past any window on a frigid day, you’ll sense a chill as the icy pane draws heat from your body. So please don’t blame your historic window for that shiver — it’s thermodynamics at work!

Pictured Above: The 1782 Hugh McCulloch House in Kennebunkport sports 12 historic windows on the front and is currently available for purchase through Maine Preservation.