Painted Historic Woodwork: Naughty or Nice?

Its light, its bright, but is it all right?

It’s light, it’s bright, but is it all right?

A hot trend in home design and decor these days is clean, light interiors.  And while a bright, airy interior is certainly achievable in a historic house, our un-remodeled old homes, especially those dating from the 1870s to 1910s, can sometimes be murky and oppressive.  I mean, there’s a reason why Hitchcock made Mrs. Bates’ house a huge high Victorian: they’re just naturally dark and ominous.  Think about a Victorian parlor: lots of carpets, heavy curtains, and lots of dark, dark millwork.  Today, we’re going to talk about that last one.

The debate about how to finish interior millwork rages on.  And by millwork, we mean molding, trim, paneling, banisters, balusters, cabinets, built-ins, and pretty much anything else in your house that is made of wood and could have conceivably been milled, either by hand or machine — but you knew that.  There are a couple of options for finishing millwork, and the most common are painting or staining.  That trend I mentioned before, about light, bright interiors?  Well, that’s led to a lot of homeowners painting their own historic millwork white and a lot of home buyers looking for properties where that work has already been done for them.


Theres no denying thats a sexy room.  But did that millwork really need a blue-out?

There’s no denying that’s a sexy room. But did that millwork really need a blue-out?

Painting wood trim isn’t a preservation crime, certainly, and sometimes it’s the most historically accurate move.  A lot of Colonial (and we’re talking real, pre-1776 Colonial here) houses on the East Coast have trim that was originally painted, and meant to contrast with the interior’s whitewashed walls.  The main reason for this was probably that the wood being sourced for millwork was by necessity very local, and not necessarily of high quality.  A lot of knotty pine, before knotty pine became desirable.  The easiest way to attractively finish not-so-great wood is to paint it, so that’s what a lot of our forefathers did.

But this isn’t the East Coast.  This is Chicago and we have a ton of excellent Victorian houses built by people who knew better than to use crappy wood in their interiors.  Fortunately, this leaves us with a very high-quality building stock.  Unfortunately, this also leaves us with a lot of tough decisions to make when it comes to finishing our non-crappy millwork.

Generally speaking, interiors are far less important, preservation-wise, according to our national and local landmark laws and standards.  This means that even if you own a house that’s on both the National Register and your local landmark register, you can still do pretty much whatever you want to the inside.  I mean, it’s yours.   Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part, historic designation of private residence pertains to the exterior, and not the interior.

On the other hand, painting this beaut probably means sure death at the hands of us rabid preservationists.

On the other hand, painting this beaut probably means sure death at the hands of us rabid preservationists.

You are, therefore, more than welcome to paint the pants off of your interior millwork.  The thing is, sometimes that’s just not the best idea, both from a historic-appropriateness standpoint and from a resale value standpoint.  It’s a judgement call, and one that homeowners need to make for themselves.  This calls for a pros and cons list, I think:


  • You get that bright, light interior look you’ve always wanted.
  • If the bright, light trend sticks around long-term, your resale value could get a nice bump.
  • From an interior design standpoint, you get a more versatile space that will serve as an excellent backdrop for a variety of furnishings and finishes.
  • Think about that last pro: your millwork will recede into the background, and while the characteristic features will still be there, they’ll also be less prominent.  That’s fine if that’s your thing, but there’s probably a reason you bought a historic house, and I’m willing to bet you didn’t buy it because you wanted a blank canvas.
  • While paint is reversible, it’s also a major pain in the tush to remove, so expect a lot of labor if you change your mind or the painted millwork trend dies out.
  • This is kind of an important one: because paint is thicker than stain, you risk losing some of your more intricate details if the paint isn’t applied carefully.
And hey, sometimes it was painted from the get-go.

And hey, sometimes it was painted from the get-go.


  • Could potentially be more historically accurate, if that’s your bag.  And since you’re here, reading this, it might not be a stretch to think that historical accuracy is your bag.
  • Because stain is manufactured specifically for wood, there are a lot of options for finding the best formula of stain for the kind of wood that you have and the look you want to achieve.  With paint, your choices come down to color and oil-, latex-, or water-based.
  • Refinishing from one stain to another or from stain to paint is much less labor intensive than stripping paint.  Just lightly sand, and you’re on your way.
  • When it comes to resale, sure, white millwork is in right now.  But no one can really predict what will be in five years from now.  Or twenty.  Or fifty.  Know what will probably always be really, really valuable?  Your original, old-growth millwork, and all the more so if it’s been minimally altered.  I’m not saying that painting the trim is going to kill the value of your house, but opting for stain might be the better long-term option.
  • The bright, white look is kind of hard to achieve with stained woodwork. (Though I might posit that going in an easy-breezy California mission direction — with white walls and dark trim — could do the trick).
  • The stain will really pull out the trim, so that it becomes a major element of the interior.  I know I made recessive millwork a con above, but bear with me.  There are two sides to every story, you know.  Maybe you aren’t prepared or inclined to work with prominent, dark millwork in your decorating scheme.
  • Despite the aforementioned range of stain options — or perhaps because of it — it can be hard to pick the perfect stain for your interior.  You’ll want something that’s compatible with the type of wood you have, but also something that you are happy living with.

So in the end, there’s no clear right or wrong answer.  You should do what’s best for your house and your long-term plans for it.  If you want to sell it in the next couple of years, sure, you go paint that millwork.  If this is a major investment and you’re not married to the idea of white trim, you might want to consider stain and do some research with regard to the type of wood you’ve got.  Who knows, maybe it’s black walnut or tiger maple or something else amazing and beautiful.  And I know I said that it’s not a crime to paint millwork, but if you’re painting black walnut, you’re a menace to society and you need to be locked up.

Sometimes, it pays to be a stripper.

Happy finishing!

One response

  1. I love the woodwork. I understand about making things ‘light’ because the rooms are dark but I hate it when people paint wood unnecessarily. If people are restoring a home they should research it first before just painting over everything. I can point you in the right direction for a great paint stripper.

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