Part of Historic Environment Scotland

Conservation of Surface Finishes

Dates: 04/04/19
Days of the week: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday
Total hours: 45
Taught hours: 21
On-site instruction: 9
Off-site instruction: 12


Explore the history and conservation of paints and a range of other surface finishes traditionally used on Scotland’s historic buildings.

Explore in depth the science of paints and coatings used on interiors and exteriors, and how these developed in Scottish architecture from the medieval period to the 20th century. Follow the technological progression from hand-mixed coatings using lime and earth pigments to paint and varnish manufacture on an industrial scale.

High-style decorative finishes such as gilding and stenciling – and the skills needed to conserve, restore and replicate these today – are a key focus. You will also study the Scottish tradition of painted ceilings, and how Scottish artists like Adam, Cottier, Mackintosh and Traquair influenced the fashion for internal decoration.

You will learn how to plan suitable conservation and repair strategies for decorative finishes in line with conservation best practice. All stages involved in carrying out a repair project are covered, including assessment of the fabric condition and diagnosis of the causes of defects or deterioration. Planned maintenance is stressed as a priority, given the fragility of decorative finishes.

Entry requirements

Individual modules are open to anyone with an interest in the subject matter. Applicants for the Advanced Professional Diploma should have a relevant degree or professional experience.

Classes, lectures and presentations

  • Historic Use of Paints and Finishes
  • Traditional Paint Types
  • Structural Painting
  • Decorative Finishes
  • Conservation Techniques for Surface Finishes
  • Specifying Repair Works for Surface Finishes
  • Health and Safety Issues

Potential site visits

  • Abbot’s House, Arbroath
  • Holmwood House, Glasgow
  • 22 Park Circus, Glasgow
  • Cottier Theatre, Glasgow
  • Georgian House, Edinburgh
  • Gladstone’s Land, Edinburgh
  • Mansfield Traquair Centre, Edinburgh
  • Hill House, Helensburgh
  • The Palace, Stirling Castle
  • Argyll’s Lodging, Stirling
  • Pinkie House, Musselburgh
  • Kinniel House, Bo’ness

Hands-on workshop/lab activities

  • Paint sampling – preparation and microscopal analysis of samples
  • Exercises in gilding, graining and application of other faux finishing


Origins of the material

Use of paint in Scots traditions – e.g. 16th to 17th century painted ceilings and panelling

Range of materials and properties

  • Traditions of paint making and pigment grinding by hand
  • Manufactured ‘ready mix’ coatings
  • Oil, distemper, limewash, stains and varnishes
  • Colourants and pigments
  • Binders and solvents
  • Use of white lead in oil paints
  • Synthetic coatings – e.g. alkyds, vinyls, epoxies and urethanes
  • Range of uses – internal and external
  • Limitations of materials and paint systems
  • Nature of substrates – e.g. timber, plaster, metal, concrete
  • Decorating tools and equipment

Decorative finishes

  • Characteristics and material composition
  • Internal – gilding and variations, bronzing, scumbling, graining, stencilling, wallpapers, varnishes (spirit or oil)
  • External – limewash (hydraulic, casein, tallow-based)

Decay mechanisms

  • Paint failure, peeling and blistering
  • Wrinkling
  • Crazing, checking, alligatoring
  • Chalking
  • Staining or discolouration
  • Mechanical breakdown – abrasion, fatigue, creep, graffiti and vandalism

Specifying repair works

  • Paint analysis and documentary research
  • Site survey and establishing sampling plan
  • Sampling techniques – e.g. cratering, scraping, solvent exposure
  • Sample examination – e.g. microscopy, organic pigment analysis, chromatography
  • Identifying pigments and media
  • Matching colours and patina

Conservation and renewal

  • Paint removal techniques – heat, chemical, abrasive
  • Assessment of alternative materials, sustainable sourcing
  • Retention and reattachment techniques
  • Site and substrate preparation for conserving, repairing or repainting – including assessment of substrate condition
  • Role of microporous paints
  • Establishing inspection and maintenance regimes

Health and safety issues

  • Toxicity of chemicals – e.g. removing lead paint safely
  • Role of Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) procedures – e.g. The Volatile Organic Compounds in Paints, Varnishes and Vehicle Refinishing Products Regulations 2005
  • Ventilation requirements
  • Working at height