Distemper

According to one Suffolk expert, limewash was not used inside homes. If true, then we’ve been doing it wrongly for years. Instead distemper made from chalk and milk casein is said to have been the covering of choice, so this winter we’ve tried it.

Room preparation is exactly the same as for limewash. We brushed down with a stiff brush rather than washed the walls, because there was no evidence of any greasiness. We then did all the usual masking of the exposed timbers using tape; for the wide horizontal beams and foot high skirting board we taped on old newspapers for greater cover.

The distemper was from the excellent Ingilby’s of Glemsford, with the cream colouring done while we were there – as each bit of yellow was added, a little distemper was dried on a piece of wood with a hair dryer until the cream looked rich enough. (I did not know that grey is also used in making a creamy colour). We were warned that it only keeps for a couple of months and is very smelly when it goes off, because of the casein.

The distemper was very thick and the first coat and indeed the second coat needed thinning to different degrees. We tried a little then a lot, and up to 20 per cent is advised for the first coat. The surfaces proved more absorbent than we thought.

The surfaces had been emulsioned, which at first we thought a disaster for breathability. But on reflection, after seeing the distemper sink in so fast, it must have been one of the old trade emulsions which various authorities say were quite breathable compared with modern products. It is very good to know that the emulsion has not ruined the breathability.

Unfortunately some of the plaster panels have been repaired with a skim of cement but experience in other rooms suggests it is more destructive to try to remove it than to live with it. When we tried to get it off clay and lime elsewhere, there was disintegration.

Application is not like limewash, which you almost literally wash on with the brush. Distemper in contrast has to be brushed out like an emulsion, and the final laying off strokes need to be done in the same direction like a modern paint, or odd patterning appears when lit from the side.

An advantage is that it needed only 2 coats rather than the 3 for Ingilby’s linewash though one particularly absorbent and marked surface needed three. However, given the greater amount of brushwork needed, I do not think the time advantage over linewash is as large as two coats suggests.

The previous owners, when The Old Brewhouse was a farm service building, had plasterboarded the ceiling in this room and also put in plasterboard to make a partition for the bathroom, and we have not tried to alter this. Distemper did in fact work well on the plasterboard.

Overall the room shows a splendid amount of old timber, including a foot-high skirting board, and most of the plaster in the wall panels on the three outsude walls of the room are old plaster. There are four mullion windows in the room.

There is also an oak floor with very wide planks which we think must be very old. Next job is to expose, repair and beeswax it. At the moment it is protected by hardboard and carpet.

One thought on “Distemper”

  1. This is so interesting! I opened this post because – thinking distemper was a disease – I wondered what it had to do with traditional renovation methods! We live and learn – good stuff!

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