May 19, 2023

5 DIY Projects for Your Historic Home

Whether you’ve just moved into your dream historic house or have called it home for some time, it can be daunting to know what improvements are safe (and advisable) to tackle on your own. To help you out, we asked four preservation trades experts for their top recommended DIY projects.

photo by: NCinDC/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

So you live in a historic home? What are some DIY projects that you want to tackle?

1. Show your interior walls some love.

Our trades experts gave the green light for everything from removing old, dirty, peeling wallpaper to plaster finishing, and repairs. Ann Swigart, a master craftsperson in painting and finishing, recommends wallpaper glue solvent mixed with warm water in a spray bottle, a wallpaper perforating tool, and perhaps a rental wallpaper steamer. Most importantly she prescribes patience and a sense of humor. This DIY will “yield a fresh, clean surface to begin to give your old house a new look,” says Swigart.

James Turner of Turner Restoration offered another interior wall DIY: “Small trim or paint jobs can brighten and sharpen areas that have aged. You just need a few simple tools to remove paint and prepare the surface for a new coating: a 1" carbide scraper, 60 to 80 grit sandpaper or sponge, paint brush, oil-based primer, and paint.”

Mary Webb, restoration director & carpenter at Preserve Montana, added that “interior wall DIYs use tools that are less intimidating, so it is fairly easy to dive in even without knowing how to use power tools.” Webb notes that these interior wall tasks can be easily done in stages, which can make the execution more manageable and less intrusive to daily life in your home. She also encouraged, “there is a learning curve with any of these tasks—the deeper you get into the project, the better you get!”

photo by: BriPod/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

To remove wallpaper our expert recommends an array of tools including a spray bottle that contains a mix of wallpaper glue solvent and warm water.

2. Refinish and tend to your floors.

Webb also feels DIY floor refinishing can be manageable for homeowners. She recommended, “Check to see if your town has a tool lending library. They are becoming more common around the country and are a great way to save money; homes built before 1950 likely have wood floors. Webb added, “Taking the floor back to its original wood can help brighten a room up and make it easier to keep clean. It can also add value to the home, as buyers are attracted to flooring that they won’t have to replace when they move in.”

Webb listed this as another task that can be broken down into phases to minimize the disruption in your life: “Remove the carpet one weekend, sand the wood floor the next, and finish it another.”

3. Refresh your windows and doors.

David Gibney, a multi-skilled trades expert with Historic Preservation Inc., and James Turner both recommended that homeowners check and repair the caulking around their doors and windows on the interior and exterior.

“Every year, you can walk around your house with a piece of chalk or painters’ tape and mark all the places you see cracked caulk, and peeling, bubbling paint. Then stand back and assess how much work and where it is; if the job is within your comfort zone, you’ll need carbide scrapers, an orbital sander, tack cloth, and a good paint brush and caulk gun,” said Gibney. He adds if after assessment the job is out of your comfort zone to “call a professional or to ask your neighbors with the great paint job who they used.” Turner also reminded not to climb ladders above six feet without proper support or a partner to assist.

Webb also shared a reminder of why caring for your historic windows is better than replacing, that often windows are a part of the personality of the home, but also that the replacement modern style ends up looking out of place. This also starts a cycle where the new windows need to be replaced every thirty years. “Once a window is restored, complete with weatherstripping and storm windows, it can perform just as well as a modern replacement.”

Toolkit Comfortable Interiors Historic Windows in Apartment Building

photo by: Adrian Berg/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Character-defining historic windows are often described as the eyes of a historic home.

4. Assess your exterior drainage systems.

Gutters and downspouts control the water coming off your roof and carry the water away from the foundation of a building. Gibney noted that “leaves and other debris can build up, blocking the flow of water, causing it to spill over the edge, or create an ice dam in the winter, leading to damaged roofing and interior water damage.” To clean your gutters, Gibney said you’ll need “a ladder, a small scoop or spatula to remove the gunk, a tarp to catch the debris you toss down, and a hose to rinse out the gutter and downspouts.”

However, as many old houses are tall with complex roof lines, climbing ladders above certain heights isn’t advisable. This is where Gibney said assessment can be critical to stay ahead of storms or damage caused by deferred drain maintenance: “Every homeowner can walk outside on a rainy day. Is water flowing over the edge of the downspout? Is it flowing through the downspout? Where is it being deposited? It should be carried several feet away from the building’s foundation. If the gutter system isn’t working, it’s time to have them cleaned, and repaired if needed.”

5. Don’t forget your landscape.

Beautiful landscaping around a home can help it blend with the environment and accentuate architectural detail, but landscaping features can also hide damage and hasten deterioration. “Climbing vines like English ivy and wisteria trap moisture against a building promoting wood rot,” said Gibney. “English ivy’s roots are notorious for taking hold in soft lime mortar hastening its deterioration or growing through cracks in windows and siding. Tree and shrubbery roots can push into foundations, sidewalks, and porch piers. Dead tree limbs will eventually fall and could damage a roof.”

Burchfield Homestead Garden

photo by: Irene Barns

Don't forget your garden and landscape when planning DIY projects at your historic home.

Gibney provides a list of tasks most homeowners can accomplish:

  • Shrubs should be trimmed back from the structure.
  • Climbing vines can be trained to grow on a trellis rather than on the house.
  • If root systems are an issue, the shrubs might need to be removed and replaced with a less aggressive planting.
  • Trees that are significant to the historic setting of a home should be inspected by an arborist certified by the International Society of Arborists.

Don’t forget, the landscape around your home or building encompasses more than foliage. Although it may seem a low visual impact, Gibney also instructed you to “look at the terrain around your home. Are there low spots or puddles near the foundation? This can lead to a damp basement. You can fill low spots with soil, or dig a small trench, line it with gravel, and install perforated drainpipe to direct water away from your foundation.”

Oak Trees at Manresa

photo by: Jenna Sauber

Make sure to check your historic trees with a certified arborist.

Bonus Reminders

Our trades experts would like to remind you:

  • Make sure to test any products you’ll be disrupting for hazardous materials (e.g. asbestos and lead paint). Trades experts recommend you hire a professional for abatement.
  • Consult professionals in stores for advice on products and techniques. One trades expert recommends seeking out professionals at smaller specialty trade stores rather than big box stores.
  • If it involves a permit to complete the work, think twice. There’s a reason the work requires a permit—it requires more skill and things can go dangerously wrong if they are not done correctly.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Milan Jordan is the director of HOPE Crew (Hands-On Preservation Experience).

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