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-  Working with lime mortar (St Astier)


-  How to clean grime from Victorian bricks


-  How to judge an older roof ( 'Build It' magazine)


- The Victorian Society guides to:-


                 PAINT COLOURS & FINISHES

                      DECORATIVE TILES

                      MOULDINGS & DADO RAILS        



                      WINDOWS & DOUBLE GLAZING


-  Sash windows - repair don't replace!


-  Asbestos - a deadly plague  (The Observer)


 How to spot a cowboy builder (Confederation of Master Builders)






          Working with lime mortar


Here's some good advice from long-established specialists in lime -

St  Astier


Mortar. Plastering in hydraulic lime mortar normally consists of two or three-coat work. Lime plaster made

with feebly or moderately hydraulic lime and sand is the basis for this guide. This type of lime sets and hardens

predominantly by an hydraulic set and re-absorption of Carbon Dioxide from the air. By its nature the drying and

absorption process is slower than gypsum plasters, therefore lime plaster curing should not be hurried allowing

approximately 3-5 days per coat depending on the hydraulic lime used.


Background. When applying Lime Plaster on the hard, the background will normally be brick or stone. The

surface should be clean, free from dust and any organic materials such as lichens etc. Test the surface of masonry

backgrounds for dust by applying a piece of masking tape to the background and immediately remove, examine the

sticky side for traces materials that may affect the bond between the plaster and the wall.


Internal walls can be uneven and rough, often with areas that have been altered. Different background

conditions are therefore common and this needs to be addressed before plastering. Deep holes, wide joints or

pockets should be dubbed out in thin layers of mortar with pinnings tightly bedded in mortar, keyed and left to cure. 

The aim of preparing the background should be to achieve a surface that can take a first coat of consistent thickness,

and to provide an adequate key for this first coat. The quality of preparation work is vital to the quality of the

finished job. Suction between the first coat and the wall (and between all subsequent coats) is the primary means

of bonding although a physical bond is also important. Different materials have different levels of suction, so for

instance where a door way has been knocked through a stone wall and the edges built in brick, the brick may well

have a different level of suction to the stone.  Understanding and controlling suction is important for successful work.


For wood lath and plaster work, laths should be fixed by butt and break joints to joists or battens securely

fixed back to wall or ceiling, with gaps between the laths of approx, 8 - 10mm . The support battens or ceiling joists

should be spaced so that the lath does not give unduly in the centre. Wide spacing of battens or joists may require

intermediate support or thicker laths. Sawn or riven laths (traditionally hand made) should be thoroughly damp

before fixing. Dry laths swell when wet mortar is applied to them, sometimes causing the laths to bow in or out. 

Nails for fixing laths should be thin shank to avoid splitting the ends. Building paper and insulation is occasionally

placed between laths and outside walls to comply with current building control requirements, this will have an effect

on the drying rate and prevent proper rivet formation when fixed hard against the back of the lath. If building paper

and insulation are essential,

use moderately (NHL 3.5) or eminently hydraulic lime (NHL 5) for the first coat as they have faster natural sets,

maintaining at least a 20mm gap between the paper and the lath.





        How to clean grime from Victorian bricks


A very dilute solution of hydroflauric acid is generally considered to be suitable for removing ingrained dirt from the facings of old brickwork. Of course the condition of the bricks needs to be checked before you start as any eroded bricks will be damaged further by the acid. The mortar pointing should also be in good condition. Unfortunately hydroclauric acid isn't nice stuff to use, so protective goggles, masks and gloves etc need to be worn at all times.


Dilute the acid, work in small areas at a time, and then wash it down thoroughly with a high pressure hose (bear in mind that very wet ricks can absorb damp through to the inside of a solid wall, so try not to soak the walls for longer than necessary).

Work from top down, so that the areas you've already cleaned aren't then stained with dirt from above. Don't leave the chemical on the brickwork for too long, as making the bricks 'overly clean' may not look appropriate on a Victorian house. It is essential to carefully mask windows and openings, as the acid can etch the glass making it obscure.


Alternatively, alkali based cleaners can be used, but these are not so and easy quick to use.






          How the judge a roof


       An  abridged  version  of  this  article  first  appeared  in ‘ Build It’  magazine  Feb  2006


There are many challenges that house buyers may be prepared to accept when planning the

refurbishment of an older property. But the prospect of dealing with a dodgy roof can be one

risk too far, enough to deter even the most determined of renovators.

 Roofs have a certain intimidating mystique since everyone knows they are a Big Ticket

Item - get it wrong and your carefully planned budget will be comprehensively trashed. And when

rogue trader  reality-TV programmes seem to invariably feature cowboy roofers, it’s little wonder

that many of us dread the sight of a leaking roof. 

Such apprehension is compounded by the fact that roofers’ estimates are notoriously baffling,

carefully laced with (often inappropriate) technical terms designed to bamboozle the customer

into whimpering cheque-signing submission. So who can you turn to for advice?

Chartered surveyors offer professional  impartial advice, but sometimes suffer from a tendency

to err on the side of caution –  conscious that no one gets sued for being overly pessimistic  - 

so anything that looks a bit dated may get unfairly condemned as ‘nearing the end of its useful life’.

Unfortunately, roofs are more likely to suffer from defects than many other parts of an older

building. Which is no real surprise given that they’ve often had to withstand driving rain, baking

heat, storms and blizzards for a century or more.  Clearly, this is one part of the property

that it is essential to check thoroughly prior to purchase. So what defects should you look for on

an older property?

First, consider what kind of coverings you are dealing with. The traditional roofing material on

many period properties was hand-made clay tiles, or perhaps ‘stone slates’ in some rural areas.

Georgian townhouses popularised the fashion for lightweight natural slate which became almost

universal on Victorian  dwellings until superseded later in the 19th century by manufactured plain

clay tiles. Large wavy pantiles and Roman tiles were a popular regional variation  in areas such as

East Anglia. From the late 1930s, clay tiles started to be gradually superseded by concrete tiles.


So question number one has to be ‘does the property still have its original roof coverings ?’

If the answer is ‘no’ it may not altogether be good news. Generous Council grants in the 1980s

provided the incentive for many  Victorian properties to be unnecessarily re-clad with large heavy

Redland concrete interlocking tiles – the main attraction of which was their cheapness and ease

of laying. Plenty of cowboy firms failed to beef up the roof structures to take account of the

substantial extra loadings – resulting in extreme sagging, and in some cases, collapse.

Today, modern artificial slates (composite fibre) are generally considered to be a suitable,

cost-effective alternative to real slate, although earlier asbestos fibre artificial slates haven’t

lasted well and may now be due for replacement  (when contractors get wind of the ‘A’ word 

this can prove costly ).


As you can see from the table below, the lifespan of traditional handmade natural roof coverings

was far superior to modern manufactured stuff.  In fact it tends to be the fixings that fail first. 

Slate roofs commonly suffer from corroded nails,  and ancient ‘peg tiles’ or stone slates may start

to slip due to rotten timber pegs. Salvage yards can bear witness to the longevity of such traditional

materials,  normally being well stocked with handmade clay tiles and recycled Victorian slates

awaiting their second incarnation.


A rough guide to the lifespans of different materials                                            



Handmade plain clay tiles      

 125 - 250     

Stone slates     

 200 - 250

Natural slate 

 100 - 180

Manufactured plain clay tiles  

 75 -   140

Concrete tiles      

 55 -   100

Artificial slates     

 30 -   60

Straw thatch

 20 -   35

Zinc sheet    

 30 -   60

Lead sheet    

 80 -  100

Mineral felt (modern flat roofs) 

 10 -    20


Things to check outside

It will pay dividends to spend a few minutes casting a critical eye over your roof. There are a

number of  clues to possible problems that can be spotted fairly easily:-

1.  Firstly, take a good look down the street at nearby houses of the same age – if  any have new

roofs, there’s a greater chance that yours may also need to be re-clad.

2.  Are the main roof slopes reasonably level and even ? Slight settlement is not usually a problem

and is particularly common next to gable ends where the rafters have settled more than the adjoining

masonry. If  the ‘dishing’ is more pronounced, then it may be the result of  past recladding with

heavy concrete tiles, so you’ll need to check the support in the loft (see below). If the structure is

satisfactory and there’s no leakage, a fair amount of historic settlement can be acceptable.

3.  Are there many slipped or missing slates / tiles, or any that are sticking up ‘proud’ (usually due

to poor repair work)?   The need for some localised refixing is not unusual.  The odd slipped slate

can be re- fixed using small folded metal clips known as ‘tingles’,  but if there are more than about

6 or so tingles on one roof slope, the need for complete stripping and recovering may not be too far off.

4. Pay careful attention to all roof junctions (e.g. where the roof meets a stack or joins another roof). 

These joints are covered with flashings – a major weak point.  The worst offenders are cement mortar

‘fillets’  which are very prone to cracking and should be replaced with lead flashings. But even

good quality original lead or zinc flashings may now be living on borrowed time.  Another weak

point is at the valleys where two adjoining roofs meet (e.g. where a bay roof joins the main slope).

These are typically lined with lead sheet and pointed up with mortar at the sides. The pointing tends

to crack and fall out in lumps and the metal can suffer corrosion from acid rain pollution.

5.  The ridge tiles running along the top of the roof commonly suffer from eroded mortar joints

and may need pointing up, or even re-bedding. They are notably vulnerable to storm damage with

potentially lethal consequences for anyone walking below, and unless well maintained can allow 

damp to enter the roof.  The ‘verges’ at the edge of a roof slope also commonly require routine

maintenance in the form of pointing up with mortar.

6.  You may be (un) lucky enough to own a Georgian-style property with an elegant front facade

concealing an ‘M’ shaped  ‘butterfly’ roof, invisible  from street level. The bottom of the ‘M’

comprises a valley gutter running from front to rear above the bedroom ceilings. Being out of sight,

they are particularly prone to neglect, blockage and leakage with dire consequences for those below.

Anticipate the significant expense of  re-lining and replacement of rotten support timbers.

7.  Victorian flat roofs were commonly clad with  lead, or cheaper zinc, both of which will now be

well past their prime. Modern flat felted roofs can have a lifespan as short as 12 years. Flat

roofs are of course not flat, but need a minimum 1:40 slope to disperse rainwater and prevent

ponding;  many fall short of this requirement and the decks may need upgrading.


Things to check inside

To fully assess the condition of a roof, you cannot overlook the structure. Popping your head into

the loft space (assuming there’s a loft hatch) can tell you a lot about the wellbeing of the property.

* If your loft is draughty and there’s no underfelt below the slates or tiles, don’t be alarmed –

that’s the way it was built. Felt provides a secondary line of defence against driving rain, but

was only widely installed on new houses from the 1950s. Old roofs rely on decent ventilation so

that any rain that blows in can safely evaporate away. There may be small chinks of light visible

between the rows of tiles or slates, which is normally OK. But any larger gaps, particularly at roof

joints can spell trouble.

*  The main rafters on each roof slope  are normally supported by a large horizontal beam called a

purlin, which in turn usually employs a wooden strut for support. If the roof sags, improved support

may be necessary here. This is fairly simple carpentry and shouldn’t be too expensive, if access is


* White powdery salts under the tiles can be indicative of erosion. Especially check the condition of

the projecting ‘nibs’ at the top of each tile (where they are hung from the battens).  

It is also here on the underside that slates tend to first soften and ‘de-laminate’  indicating the

need for renewal.

*  Check  whether the firebreak party walls are in situ. If not they will need to be built up in

thermolite blocks or fire-resistant plasterboard.


Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that many original roofs will exhibit very few of the above defects

and will be perfectly satisfactory with a little routine maintenance from time to time. Premature

replacement is an unnecessary expense and roofers may well utilise inferior cheaper modern materials.





    How to spot a cowboy builder

     Don't take our word for it  - this is what the confederation of

    master builders say:-

 Cowboy builders are very much in the minority, but they are out there, so

 how  can you protect yourself. Treat them with suspicion if they:

  • EVADE giving you references or details of previous jobs
  • OFFER you a 'cheap' deal for cash-in-hand.
  • SUGGEST you can avoid paying VAT for cash
  • CONFUSE you with jargon and complicated explanations
  • INSIST that a written contract is not necessary
  • SAY they can start tomorrow (a good builder is usually busy)
  • CAN'T give you costings because 'things may change'
  • LAUGH when you suggest showing them plans
  • GIVE you a surprisingly low quote
  • CAN only be reached by mobile and don't have an address on their card
  • ASSURE you the details are their problem and you don't need to worry
  • KNOCK the opposition                                                                                               







             The following article appeared in The Observer


A deadly plague in all our houses?

Asbestos could lurk in any home built in the past 80 years, warns Ian Rock

Sunday May 16, 2004
The Observer

Right now, there is every probability that you are sitting just a few feet away from a substance that can make the risks from cigarette smoking seem trivial by comparison. In fact, if your lungs had to choose, nicotine-laden tobacco smoke would be infinitely preferable to deathly cancer-causing asbestos fibres.

The chances are, your workplace incorporates the substance in some form and, if your home was built between the 1920s and the 1980s, you may well have been coming home oblivious to the presence of the 'lurking menace' for years. It seems many of us were raised unwittingly surrounded by the stuff.

Asbestos is the largest occupational health killer in the last 50 years. Since 1968, 50,000 people have died after painful and prolonged illness from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. A quarter of these worked in the building trade. If you thought BSE sounded gruesome, get this: inhalation of any form of asbestos can lead to virtually untreatable disease, but you wouldn't notice it for years - it can take up to 40 years to develop and it is reckoned that by 2020, 10,000 people a year could be dying from fibres already in their bodies.

Asbestos-ridden council estates and potentially toxic public premises have long been the subject of screaming headlines in local papers. Now the latest Control of Asbestos At Work regulations provide that from 21 May 2004 all non-domestic premises, including your place of work, must have an asbestos audit to verify just how safe (or unsafe) the work environment is. It is estimated that 1.5 million commercial buildings contain the substance, so until an audit has been done, property owners must presume asbestos is present.

But what of Britain's 21 million residential dwellings? What isn't often appreciated is the extent to which asbestos-based materials exist in our homes. Amazingly, the use of asbestos in buildings was not totally prohibited until November 1999, so pretty much any building can be at risk.

The bad news is that homes are excluded from the legislation, with the exception of communal areas in blocks of flats. However, you can be pretty sure that when you bought your house the chartered surveyor who inspected it would have been alert to the risk of potentially hazardous asbestos- containing materials (ACMs). But if you were one of the eight out of 10 buyers who choose not to have a private survey and instead rely on a second-hand copy of the mortgage valuation, you may be none the wiser.

Asbestos was a 'wonder material' of the pre and post-war construction booms, part of a holy architectural alliance with reinforced concrete and flat roofs that was deemed to be the face of the future. A material that was light, strong, massively fire-resistant and relatively cheap seemed a good bet.

Probably the most common form you will come across in a typical house is the less harmful 'asbestos cement' compound, which you will often find as corrugated roofs to garages and sheds, or as flues and insulation in boiler cupboards. It is quite common in post-war semis on gutters, downpipes and soffits. You even come across it in some artificial slates and roof tiles. You can normally spot asbestos soffits (under the eaves) by their predictably flaking paintwork or their naked grim grey colour; paint peels off reliably no matter how much sugar soap or 'No More Nails' you apply prior to decorating.

Asbestos flues are typically hidden away, but are often found serving old floor-mounted kitchen boilers or back boilers in living rooms. Perhaps the most insidious form of domestic ACMs lie within many 'Artexed' ceilings in houses of all ages.

The difficulty faced by your surveyor is, on the one hand to create awareness that your lovely new home may incorporate the stuff, but on the other hand not to have you run screaming from the estate agents in a state of demented panic.

There is much arcane debate in the profession about the relative horrors of white, brown, blue varieties - which is a bit academic as they can be extremely difficult to tell apart outside a lab. Blue and brown were banned in 1985 and the arguably less toxic white (chrysotile) wasn't banned until the 1990s.

So what should you do about it? Briefly, don't panic. Asbestos-cement material in the home need not be an issue. The consensus is that asbestos materials in good condition and not releasing fibres which are unlikely to be disturbed should be left in peace. Materials which are damaged or deteriorating can often be safely sealed.


So in most houses the advice is to leave well alone and for heaven's sake don't drill it, grind it, sand it or breathe it in. But be warned, there are some real nasties still out there - the serious ones that I have personally come across include fluffy white asbestos pipe insulation (in the loft), and huge ceiling panels with taped joints (often in pre and post- war flats). These can drastically reduce the value of a property due to the potentially huge expense of a licensed contractor having to remove them. Employing men in space suits does not come cheap. The irony of the legislation introduced this week is that very few employees get their power tools out at work; you are far more likely to accidentally cut into hidden ACMs in the house and breathe in the dust than you are sitting in your office. Yet the legislation, while good news for maintenance workers, does little to safeguard those of us engaging in the great British passion for DIY.

My advice? Be vigilant, and if in doubt ask a qualified chartered surveyor for advice. Oh, and take a break with the Black & Decker, guys.




         The Victorian Society Guides to:-


 The Victorian Society is the most authoritative source of historical information on properties of this age

- see end of feature for website details.



Is stripped pine an authentic Victorian finish?
The stripped pine look is a late twentieth-century fad: before the 1960s, joinery was painted (or, occasionally, stained to resemble expensive and exotic woods and then varnished). The only exposed pine in a Victorian house was the well-scrubbed top of the kitchen dresser or table.

Expensive timber such as solid oak or mahogany was polished or varnished, to enhance its natural beauty and to make it easier to clean.

I like the natural wood look. How can I get that look if I don't strip the paint off?
Use a woodgrain paint finish. Expensive timbers such as oak, mahogany, rosewood, walnut and ebony can all be convincingly imitated in paint.

Is brilliant white an authentic Victorian colour?
No. 'Brilliant White' was not available until after WWII. Choose an off-white or cream colour for a more authentic result.

Is it true that Victorian iron railings were always painted black?
No; various colours have been found on historic ironwork. In the first half of the nineteenth century 'invisible' greens (so called because they would blend into a background of foliage) were used for fences, gates, railings and garden furniture. In 1840 Humphrey Repton recommended a 'bronze' finish, made by powdering copper or gold dust on a green ground. Green was used throughout the mid Victorian period but dark blue, red and chocolate brown were also popular.

Is it dangerous to keep old paintwork, which may contain lead?
Old lead-based paint is not dangerous unless it is disturbed in such a way as to release the lead into the environment, where it can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Special precautions must therefore be taken during redecorating work, when the old paint is likely to be rubbed down, sanded, burnt off or removed with volatile solvents. For advice on the procedures to follow, on protective clothing and equipment and on safe disposal of lead-contaminated waste, contact the Health and Safety Executive Infoline: 08701 545500, open 8.30am to 5.00pm Monday to Friday. Fax: 02920 859260,  Website: Email:

Can I use lead-based paint to redecorate my house?
No. Licences to use paint containing lead are only issued under strict conditions for special historic building renovation projects.

What is distemper?
An inexpensive matt finish, widely used on plaster walls and ceilings, made with whiting (ground chalk) bound with an animal glue size. Cheap and easy to make, distemper dried quickly, could be made in a wide range of colours and could be washed off before each redecoration. It did not trap moisture within the wall, but allowed the structure to 'breathe', which made it especially appropriate for newly-built houses

How can I find out what colours were used in the original decoration of my house?
Existing layers of old paint can be examined under a microscope to determine the original colours. However, it takes expert training to be able to analyse the layers, so although a casual scrape with a penknife will give you an idea of the number of paint layers and the range of colours used, it cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate colour sample for a particular date in the past. You would be lucky to find enough old paint samples to provide sufficient information to allow you to recreate an entire decorative scheme, and the cost of professional paint analysis is unlikely to be justified except for conservation of historically significant interiors. The best course is to 'get your eye in' by visits to preserved interiors and reading round the subject.

What kind of paint did the Victorians use on the exterior of the house?
On brickwork: nothing. Exposed brickwork should be left bare.

On stucco: some stuccoes are self-coloured and need no paint coat. Lime-based washes in a range of stone colours were used in some cases. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it became fashionable to paint stucco with oil-based gloss paint, especially in towns and cities, where the gloss surface would repel dirt

On render, pargetting, wet dash and pebbledash: lime-based washes.

On exterior joinery: oil-based gloss paint.





What is the difference between encaustic and geometric tiles?
Encaustic (literally, 'burnt-in') decoration is achieved by stamping a design into the body of a plain clay tile before firing while it is still damp, and filling the stamped impression with liquid clay of a contrasting colour. The tile is then fired to fuse the two clays together. Encaustics may be wholly or partly glazed, but most Victorian encaustics were unglazed.

Encaustic tiles were relatively expensive, and were often combined with quarries (plain square tiles) and geometric tiles in order to cover large areas at less cost. Sometimes erroneously referred to as 'mosaic' tiles, geometrics are small, usually unglazed, tiles in straight-edged shapes such as triangles and lozenges, all based on subdivisions of a 6-inch (150 mm) square tile, that can be combined in a variety of patterns. Most geometrics are of natural clay colours, ranging from off-white through red and brown to blue-black.

What sort of tiles would the Victorians have used for the kitchen floor?
Kitchens, sculleries and service passages often had floors made up of cheap 6-inch (150 mm) or larger quarry tiles, in plain, unglazed red clay or red alternating with blue-black.

What sorts of tiles were used on kitchen walls?
One of the commonest forms of wall tiling was plain glazed earthenware in 6-inch (150 mm) square tiles. Slightly dearer 6_ inch and 4_ inch (165 mm and 115 mm) hexagons and small octagons were also used. These tiles were made in pale colours such as white, ivory, cream, buff, celadon, turquoise and olive.


I want to put a tiled dado in my porch. What design should I choose?
From about 1870, tiled dados began to appear in porches, giving visitors landscapes or floral panels to admire as they waited for admittance. Original tile panels can be found in architectural salvage yards. Alternatively, a dado can be made up using reproductions of Victorian tiles, such as those sold for fireplace panels. These can be paired and framed within a border of plain coloured tiles to make up the full width of the dado. Plain tiled dados can also work well in more modest houses. Look for 'hand-dipped' glazes, which have variations and depth of colour not achievable with spray-applied glaze. You will need some matching moulded tiles to make a dado rail.

Before you make a final decision, however, are you sure that a dado is appropriate for your porch? Look at neighbouring houses of similar age and date to confirm whether any decorative treatment was originally intended. Some porches had bare brick or plain plastered walls, and genuine Victorian architecture, however plain or modest, is preferable to fancy fake 'Victoriana'.

What sort of tiling was used in Victorian bathrooms?
Bathroom tiling was hardly more decorative than that used in kitchens and other service areas. The bathroom was considered a functional room where extravagant decoration was inappropriate: a tiled dado with a moulded ceramic rail was sufficient.

How should I clean ceramic floor tiles?
Ordinary household surface cleaners, used according to the instructions on the label, will take care of day-to-day cleaning. To remove stubborn dirt, use a specially formulated product such as BAL Ceramic floor cleaner or HG Extra Cleaner. Scouring powder, metal scourers or wire brushes should never be used on tiles. Although cleaning products will help to shift a great deal of built-up dirt and old wax, be prepared to contribute a lot of elbow grease.


I have removed a fitted carpet to reveal the geometric tiled floor in my hall. What can I do to disguise the holes left by the carpet fixings?

Fill them with Polyfilla, coloured with acrylic paint (available from art supply shops) to a shade slightly darker than the surrounding tile.

There are a few loose tiles in my geometric tiled floor. What is the best method of repair?
If the tiles are all there and unbroken, you need to lift them out of the floor gently and clean out the hole into which they fitted. The cement left behind bears the imprint of the tile backs, and should be gently chipped away in order to give a good key and enough room for the new cement. Use a vacuum cleaner to remove all loose material from the repair hole. Lightly spray the hole with water, to prevent too much moisture being sucked out of the cement and weakening it. Then apply the new cement, following the manufacturer's instructions. Replace the tiles in the same pattern.

If you need to replace missing geometrics, it is sometimes best to look for plain unglazed tiles of the right colours that can be cut to the shapes and sizes required. This is because many modern geometrics are made to slightly different sizes and have cushioned edges that do not align well with the Victorian originals. Many modern tiles are thinner than Victorian ones, so it may be necessary to build up the substrate below the patched-in tiles with cement, to bring them up to the right level.

What sort of finish should I give a tiled floor?
The traditional treatment for a tiled floor after cleaning was to apply warmed linseed oil followed by a coat of wax polish. This gave a stunning, lustrous finish to the floor, but is so labour-intensive to apply and maintain that it is inappropriate in most modern situations. Modern cold wax polishes, for example Johnson's Traffic Wax, or HG Golvpolish are perfectly adequate. These products are available from hardware and DIY shops,

On no account should tiled floors be sealed or varnished with any kind of resin-based or polyurethane finish. Besides their unpleasant plasticky appearance, these may cause long-term problems by sealing in damp under the floor.

Are there any special techniques for installing tiles that would help me to achieve a more authentic Victorian effect?
There are small but significant differences between the way Victorian builders installed tiles and the fashions that prevail today:

  • Victorian tilers always set tiles very closely together. Geometric pavements in particular rely for their effect on close-butted tiles.
  • Plain coloured tiles were often laid in staggered courses like brickwork, or diagonally, rather than in the square grid pattern favoured today.

New grouting can be coloured to match old by mixing it with universal stainer (an oil pigment sold in tubes and available from good paint suppliers). These stains become lighter in colour as they dry so do a test patch first to check the colour match before grouting a large area.





What are mouldings made of?
Interior mouldings are usually made of either plaster or timber, although some applied decorations were also made out of compo, papier mâché or patent formulations.

What height should my dado rail be?
There is no hard-and-fast rule. Here are some points to consider:

  • If you are reinstating a dado rail it is usually easy to see where it was originally installed, once the wall is stripped ready for redecorating
  • If you are installing a new dado rail, it is helpful to consider the overall proportions of the wall: a high wall with a narrow frieze will require a deep dado.
  • the dado rail originally protected expensive wall hangings from the backs of chairs; the point at which the chair-back brushes the wall determines the height of the rail.
  • a dado rail on a staircase wall should match the height of the handrail on the banisters.
  • if the dado is to be wallpapered, the pattern repeat may influence the height of the rail
  • wallcoverings specially designed for dadoes, such as Lincrusta, may also dictate the precise height of the rail.

Did every Victorian reception room have a ceiling rose?
No. Bedrooms and attic rooms, servants' quarters and domestic offices were usually given the minimum of architectural decoration.

You can usually tell if a rose has been removed, from unevenness where the ceiling plaster has been patched. When reinstating ceiling roses, align them with the centre of the chimneybreast (which may not be the geometric centre of the ceiling).

How can I remove old paint from plaster mouldings?
There are lots of proprietary paint stripping formulations on the market. Follow the manufacturer's instructions and any warning labels. Wear protective clothing, gloves and goggles. Distemper may be impervious to some strippers. Steam may help to soften it enough to enable it to be chipped out by hand, using wooden sticks, dental picks and old toothbrushes.

All the interior mouldings were stripped out of my house in the 1970s. How can I find out what was there originally?
You will need to do some detective work:

  • look for evidence of old decoration: bumps in plasterwork (which may show up better under a raking light), old fixing holes, hardboard or plywood covers on doors and banisters.
  • look at neighbouring houses of similar age and style, to see whether they retain their original mouldings. Ask you neighbours if you can sketch, photograph and measure the mouldings.
  • look at books about Victorian interiors
  • visit preserved Victorian interiors that are open to the public.

Should I pick out the detail of my cornice in different paint colours?
Why not, if you have the patience and the result doesn't look too fussy? Painting is reversible, so it is not a disaster if you get it wrong.





I want to open up a blocked fireplace. How can I tell whether it is safe to do so?
Go outside and look at the chimney. It may have been capped or cowled but it should not have been completely sealed. Even if you do not intend to reinstate any fireplaces it should be unsealed, to ventilate the chimneystack.

Inside the house, remove whatever has been use to seal the fireplace, but do not demolish any brickwork outside the 'builder's opening'. Light a spill or twist of paper in the opening. If it burns well and the flame is drawn inwards and upwards, the flue is clear. Get a chimney sweep to clean and inspect the flue before proceeding further. The National Association of Chimney Sweeps, Unit 15 Emerald Way, Stone Business Park, Stone, Staffordshire ST15 0SR. Tel: +44 (0)1785 811732. Fax: 01785 811712. Website: Email:

I live in a conservation area. Do I need permission to put back a Victorian fireplace?
No. Internal alterations to houses in conservation areas do not generally require special consent. If in doubt, check with the conservation officer of your local planning department.

I live in a listed house. Do I need permission to put back a Victorian fireplace?
Probably. Listing protects the house as it was at the time it was added to the list, so even if you want to reinstate the fireplace as it was originally built, you may need to apply for listed building consent. Call the conservation officer in your local planning department for advice.

What fuels am I allowed to burn on my open fire?
You cannot burn wood or coal on an open fire in a smokeless zone. Your local authority can tell you whether you live in a smokeless zone. More information is available from The Solid Fuel Association, 7 Swanwick Court, Alfreton, Derbyshire DE55 7AS. Freephone Helpline: 0800 600 000. Website: Email:

How can I find out what sort of fireplace my house originally had?
The best guide would be an original fireplace from a neighbouring house of similar age and date that has escaped modernisation. You can also look for clues as you open up a blocked fireplace: shadowy lines in the plaster on the chimneybreast may indicate the scale and proportions of a missing surround. If you find any parts of the grate or its fittings within the fireplace opening, you can take them to a fireplace specialist or an architectural salvage yard to see whether they have matching parts in stock.

When choosing a replacement fireplace, take into account the status of the house and the room where the new fireplace is to be installed. An elaborate, oversized grate will not suit the living room of an artisan's cottage and be equally out of place in a maid's bedroom in a mansion.

How can I get paint off a cast iron grate?
Don't use heat: the metal may crack under sudden localised changes of temperature. Use a proprietary paint stripper such as Nitromors. Scrape off the softened paint with plastic or wooden spatulas, and work on fine detail with a nylon-bristle brush. Clean the bare metal with white spirit (not water, which might encourage rust to form).

What is the best finish for a cast iron grate?
Use Liberon Iron Paste or Zebo polish (available from paint shops, ironmongers and DIY stores). Apply the polish sparingly and buff up the surface with lots of elbow grease. A low-effort alternative is to paint the grate with 'stove black' paint, which is specially formulated to resist heat.


What is the best finish for a timber fire surround?
Expensive hardwoods such as mahogany or oak were simply polished or varnished. Pitch pine was often stained and varnished. Softwoods (pine/deal) were never left bare or stripped, but always given a paint finish.

Suggestions for suitable paint finishes for pine fire surrounds are given in our fireplaces booklet or The Victorian Society Book of the Victorian House.

How can I clean smoke stains off a marble fire surround?
Start by wetting the stained area, to prevent the dirt being drawn into the marble when it is dissolved. Apply the cleaning solution, working it into the stain with a nylon-bristle brush. Rinse the marble well and dry with a soft cloth. Work up from weaker to stronger treatments:

Household detergent dissolved in warm, distilled water

  • dilute household bleach
  • A solution of 1 part hydrogen peroxide (100 vol.) to 3 parts water commercial marble cleaner, e.g. HG Spot Stain Remover





What was the purpose of the scullery?
In the Victorian period, it was universally understood that the kitchen was used only for cooking. Washing-up, scrubbing vegetables and all the messy, low-status activities that involved water were done in the scullery. Even the smallest Victorian houses had a separate scullery, and it was rare for sinks to be installed in kitchens before the twentieth century.


How did the Victorians decorate the walls of their kitchens?

Kitchen walls were of plain plaster, regularly whitewashed or distempered. A bag of laundry blue in the paint bucket imparted a faint blue tinge to the walls, which was said to repel flies and imparted a feeling of coolness to the room. Lower down, the walls were covered with a high dado of tongue-and-groove boarding painted with washable gloss paint, tiles or glazed brick for hard wear and hygiene.

Why were the windows in Victorian kitchens so high?
This was not in order to prevent the servants from daydreaming, or spying on their employer's family taking the air in the garden. Open ranges generated huge amounts of heat, and so kitchens had high ceilings, with the windows set as high in the walls as possible, for the most efficient ventilation.

When did gas cookers become available?
Gas-fired ranges were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and in 1868 Shrewsbury's Portable Gas Oven came onto the market. However, prejudice, fear of explosions and health scares about eating food impregnated with harmful fumes delayed the widespread introduction of gas ovens, and they did not begin to replace solid fuel ranges in any numbers until the 1890s.

What floorcoverings were used in Victorian kitchens?
Stone slab or unglazed tiles were the norm. Wooden duckboards were used around the table, where the cook stood. Hard floors were also noisy under chairs or where there was lots of coming and going, hence a Victorian architect's observation that 'in small houses ... when the Kitchen serves also as the Servants'-Hall, a wood floor for the whole is sometime preferred'.

What cleaning materials did the Victorians use?
Few proprietary cleaners were available, and most of the cleaning materials used in the Victorian kitchen and scullery were hard on the hands. A mixture of soda and soft soap was used for washing up. Whiting made a mild, creamy cleaner that would remove grease. Stronger abrasives such as bath brick and emery powder were used for cleaning knives and iron utensils. Rottenstone was mixed with rape oil to make a paste for cleaning brass and tin. Washing-up cloths were boiled in water to which a little vinegar had been added. Drains were disinfected with chloride of lime.

Where can I see a real Victorian kitchen?
Many houses open to the public have kitchens that can be visited. Many Georgian and earlier houses contain Victorian kitchens, having been modernised 'below stairs' in the nineteenth century




My house has replacement windows and I want to reinstate the original design. How can I find out what sort of windows it originally had?

The first step is to see whether any original windows remain on the property. There may still be old windows at the back, or in less significant rooms or outbuildings. Neighbouring houses may still have their original windows, which can be copied. Points to note include:

  • the depth of the frame and its relationship to the surrounding masonry
  • the presence and shape of horns
  • the number and proportions of lights in each window
  • the thickness and profile of glazing bars, stiles and sashes

How can I improve heat and sound insulation without replacing my original timber windows?
Well-maintained timber sash windows should not rattle or admit draughts. You can upgrade your existing windows with one of several proprietary draught-stripping systems. Some of these you fit yourself; others are fitted by specialists, many of whom work on a franchise basis. For further information, contact the Draught Proofing Advisory Association (DPAA), PO Box 12, Haslemere, Surrey GU27 3AH. Tel: +44 (0)1428 654011. Fax: +44 (0)1428 651401. Website: Email:

Timber shutters provide very good sound and heat insulation, and improve security.


Thick, lined and interlined curtains cut down heat loss and draughts very effectively. They can be fitted behind front doors using specially designed portière rods.

Secondary glazing (see below) improves insulation without the need to alter the existing windows.

How can I improve the security of my windows?
Contact your local police station to request a visit from the Crime Prevention Officer. The officer will give free advice on home security.

Locksmiths carry a wide range of window locks. The type that uses a steel screw through the meeting rails is less visually intrusive than surface-mounted designs.

What is the difference between double-glazing and secondary glazing?
Double-glazing usually consists of two panes of glass with a gap of about 16 mm between them. The panes are vacuum sealed into a single unit that is fitted into the window frame.

Secondary glazing is an independent system of windows fitted to the inner window frame. The gap between the outer and inner windows is consequently much wider than in sealed double-glazed units. The secondary frames are aligned with the external window frames, to cause the least possible visual disruption. The advantages of secondary glazing are:


  • it does not interfere with the exterior fenestration
  • the bigger the gap between the exterior and interior panes, the better the insulation -- particularly noise insulation
  • it is cheaper than replacing the original windows
  • it is reversible.

Is it possible to fit double-glazing in a traditionally-made timber sash window?
Yes. Most timber sash window specialists can make new windows that incorporate sealed, double-glazed units within traditional timber frames. However, the levels of sound and thermal insulation given by double-glazing can often be matched by draught-proofing original windows, by installing secondary glazing or by using thick curtains or internal shutters.

What style of window is best for a loft conversion in a Victorian house?
New openings in a roof must not damage the roof structure, and must be in scale and in keeping with the rest of the house. Dormers should be sensitively designed, modestly scaled and carefully sited so as not to jar with the existing architecture. This is particularly important on the front elevation, but applies also to the side and rear of the house.

The same care should be taken over the choice and placing of rooflights. The aim should be to use the smallest size and number of rooflights as possible, and to replicate the proportions, glazing bars and profiles of Victorian iron rooflights. Replicas of traditional rooflights are available.


Every aspect of Victorian house design and interior decoration is described in detail in The Victorian Society Book of the Victorian House.




Although cement was used in some late Victorian buildings it was not the same cement as we use today (it was still experimental then).  Modern cement is far denser and more impermeable than that used in Victorian buildings; in fact cement if used was in foundations/footings and in floors rather than in the masonry wall construction.  My grandfather was a builder and used to tell me of slaking lime on site for use in building as late as the 1930s.  It was not until the 1930s that cement really took over from lime in general building (this followed the introduction of Building Standards in the 1920s).  Therefore when looking at repair of a Victorian building modern cement is inappropriate and can cause problems.

Sulphate attack is not that common and usually affects chimneys and is rarely a problem where there is lime mortar.  A far more common problem is the use of dense cement mortars that change the way the wall face handles moisture and this leads to spalling of bricks around arises and then the main faces.  This is due to the pointing being blocked by dense cement and moisture having to evaporate through the brick face thus causing spalling as the salts (various) crystallize. 

It is the pointing of the wall that acts as the lung of the building and clogging it with dense cement suffocates the building. The problem is worse with soft bricks, stone, etc.  The pointing should always be softer than the surrounding masonry.  

Where there is a cement render on the wall there are invariably a myriad of fine cracks and once water gets behind the render it is trapped.  Many damp problems I find where the wall face is rendered are due to the impermeable nature of the wall finish.  Once again the use of modern cement is the main problem, together with the use of modern masonry paint finishes. 

The issue here though is the fact that many home owners attempt DIY and/or employ builders that know nothing but how to use cement.  Lime mortar or render is seen as something of a mystery as well as being relatively expensive.  Yes, it is more costly, but in the long term if it does not cause the damage that using cement causes it will be cheaper. 

What type of lime?

Mixing a bag of hydrated lime with water is said to give you lime putty, but it is a rubbish product and many failures will occur thus giving lime a bad name unnecessarily.  Bagged hydrated lime is best used to gauge cement mixes rather than to create a lime mix. 

Pure Lime (called Fat Lime or Lime Putty) is very breathable and flexible.  Best used for fine work, etc.  Comes in tubs and sets by carbonation taking Carbon Dioxide from the air (not a chemical set like cement) and will not set in water.  Not highly durable and for many Victorian properties not really the most appropriate form of lime other than perhaps for some pointing work or if tuck pointing is needed. 

Naturally Hydraulic Lime, known as ‘NHL’ is the result of making lime using an impure lime (with clay and earth in it) and it comes in three forms:

Feebly hydraulic (NHL 2)

Moderately hydraulic (NHL 3.5)

Eminently hydraulic (NHL 5)

 The numbers relate to the compressive strengths.Because these are limes with impurities they have a mix of carbonation and chemical set and therefore come in powdered form.  This makes it more like cement and easier for builders to use.  However, even NHL 5 is not cement and should not be confused with cement.

If you want a quick set and a durable mix use NHL 5 (e.g. for chimneys, below ground, ridge tiles, etc.)For most work (pointing, rendering, etc) NHL 3.5 would be the one to use.For work requiring high levels of breathability or flexibility NHL 2 or Fat Lime should be used.The mix is easy 1:3, but the sand must be sharp well graded washed sand (building sand is no good as a binder).

For anyone with the appropriate hand skills (most brickies, etc) it is really not difficult and is just a matter of working in a slightly different way.  For DIY-ers it is perhaps a more forgiving product than cement and therefore easier to use. NHL is not easy to get in UK – very few producers, but several suppliers.  However, in France it is very common and cheap.  I would encourage a ‘lime cruise’ instead of a ‘booze cruise’.

It is a myth that lime is for historic buildings only and that it is very difficult to use. It is our firmly held opinion that cement should not be added to the mix, as it does not help.  

If we look around at the many buildings constructed in lime and surviving perfectly well after hundreds of years these are testimony to the long term durability of lime mortar in construction when properly looked after. 

Tests of different lime mortar mixes (carried out on Cardiff castle) have shown that using a magnesium stearate additive reduces penetrating dampness.

The best mix was found to be:-

1 part NHL (3.5 strength) with magnesium stearate  

2 parts sand and limestone blend (1:1).

Magnesium stearate is 0.25% of binder by weight, which is the same proportion as St. Astier 'Eco-Mortar'.

Test results represented moisture ingress via driving rain for 120 minutes.


Lime plaster

Regarding internal work, again lime plaster is best.  For some patch repairs something like Polyfilla can be used for fine cracks, modern renovating plaster is OK, but not ideal. 

Laths are expensive and Expanded Metal Lath is not ideal.  I used to recommend overboarding with plasterboard and if there are no cornices, etc this may be an option.  However, there is a product around called reedmat (a bit like the reed fencing you get in garden centres) and this can be used very effectively used for repairing lath and plaster and it is much cheaper than laths.







The issue of Damp and Timber in Victorian buildings is a major concern.  For too long the public have been conned by an industry that are intent on selling chemical treatment products that more often than not do nothing to resolve the real problems.  

I would say 95% of rising damp is misdiagnosed.  It is very very rare.  Most damp at low level can be cured by common sensible building work and I cannot remember when I last advised injecting a building.  Injection should be into the mortar course otherwise if there really is rising damp it would finger its way through the mortar and past the injected bricks. 

Further, the use of a tanking render internally after injection simply serves to mask the damp and can actually exacerbate the problem over time by allowing moisture to become trapped and build up behind the render. 

Injecting a DPC is unlikely to be necessary, unlikely to solve the problem and often a waste of time and money. 

The Burkinshaw and Parrott book on Damp (published by RICS) encapsulates present day thinking and demonstrates that in the vast majority of cases damp can be cured by sorting out the way the building and materials function rather than using chemicals, etc. 

A common cause of damp around chimneys is water running down the flue and soaking into the soot and debris behind the fireplace.  Simply clearing out a fireplace recess of debris can do wonders in sorting out such damp problems.


               an extreme case  -   'brown rot?'

Rot and beetle infestation

I would advise chemical treatment of insect infestation only if there is a serious active attack.  If it is Death Watch Beetle surface treatment does not get them anyway. 

With rot, we need to get away from the simplistic and incorrect use of ‘Dry Rot’ and ‘Wet Rot’.  They should be Brown Rot and White Rots.  Although very different fungal growths there are some common factors important for the home owner.  Rots can only germinate and attack if there is wet timber present and then only above 25% WME.  Dry timber will not rot even if the spores are on the surface.  Without damp as well the spores will not germinate and the timber will be safe.  The fungal growths do not transport moisture to “wet up” dry timber – they simply cannot do this.  From the 1950s it has been known that it was unnecessary to cut out 1m beyond the sign of rot attack, but of course the industry has not bothered to make it widely known because it is not in their interest. 

Most rot treatment chemicals are borne in water and therefore to chemically treat rot affected timbers (or irrigating walls) you are introducing water, the very thing the rot needs! 

To successfully treat rot the source of water MUST be found and dealt with.  The area affected allowed to dry, the area ventilated if appropriate, timbers protected by isolating membranes where in contact with walls, etc.  Replacement timbers should be pre-treated.  If any treatment is to be used it is sparingly and only to protect timbers temporarily whilst the brickwork and area dries out. 

Cuboidal cracking in timber is normally a Brown Rot and might be Dry Rot but it is NOT a White Rot.  Wet Rot is the wrong term for this – far too generic. 

The problem with using the wrong term is as follows.  If the damage is ‘Wet Rot’ it could actually be either a Brown or White Rot attack and these are very different rots, they actually destroy different parts of the timber (Brown Rot being far more effective and therefore destructive).  ‘Dry Rot’ is a Brown Rot.  Therefore if something is identified as a White Rot it CANNOT be Dry Rot (a Brown Rot).  However, if you call something Wet Rot it could be either Brown or White Rot and therefore a misdiagnosis could occur.





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