Points to keep in mind when painting your heritage home:

  • Keep paintwork in good condition to preserve your building longer.
  • Choose a colour scheme that is suitable to the age of your house.
  • Use colour to highlight the special features of your house.
  • Reference books can provide detailed information on paint and colour

Design guidelines

The purpose of this advisory note is to provide general guidelines for colour schemes, painting and maintenance of buildings in heritage and character precincts. The Toowoomba Regional Council planning scheme does not prescribe colours that you must use. However an exterior colour scheme sympathetic to the era of your house can make a significant contribution to the appearance of a building and its overall presentation.

A good exterior colour scheme should not only incorporate colours appropriate to the architectural style but also have a logical colour theme over the different elements, such as all windows sashes in the one colour, and be practical for local conditions. For example in our region a white wall may soil quickly in areas with red or black soils or that are particularly dusty.

Researching original colours

Preserving original paint finishes or reinstating a building's colour-scheme helps to retain and enhance the buildings' historical significance and complement its architectural and decorative elements. There are a number of ways to find or research the original colours. Traces of the original colour of the building may exist. These are often found during restoration work where perhaps doors or windows have been temporarily removed, later partitions demolished and behind fittings such as cupboards and electrical wiring or switches. Paint scrapes using a Stanley knife or scalpel can reveal the layers of colours that the building has been painted with over time.

colours illustration 1

Old paint colours can be examined with a magnifying glass or microscope and compared with and matched to a manufacturers' colour chart, Australian or British standard paint charts or the Munsell colour system, depending on the degree of accuracy required. For the most accurate match choose areas where the paint has had the least weathering or likelihood of being disturbed, such as under sills, window hoods or in shaded areas. It is also important to investigate and scrape different areas of a wall or architectural features because of possible colour variations such as on doors, windows, verandah posts, gable fretwork and other decorative elements.

Record as you go, the location and colour of each paint scrape, starting with the base and ending with the current layer. Understanding how a colour fades can help you to identify how it changes through sunlight exposure - for example, Brunswick green fades to a light-blue and red paint fades more quickly than most colours. Also remember to distinguish the original finishing coat from the primer or the undercoat e.g. Victorian-era primers were usually off white or cream and sometimes red lead-pigmented.

You may like to consult a specialist with expertise in analysing early paints and use of finishes, especially for paint analysis of larger or complex structures or for uncovering fine details/design or work, such as stencilling, dados and other types of decoration.

Other documentary evidence of early colour schemes may also be a valuable source of information. These include photographs, books on colour schemes and restoration, period publications and books and even other similar buildings that are either in an original state or have been professionally restored.

Photographs, even in black and white, are useful as they show dark and light tones and placement of contrasting colours. These may be found through neighbours or previous owners or occupants. Collections of photographs are generally held at local libraries, museums and historical or family history societies. There may also be copies of period publications, such as Home Beautiful and The Architectural and Building Journal of Queensland. These publications are available at the State Library of Queensland.

colours home of mclean family

The State Library of Queensland and web based sites hold photos such as the Picture Queensland collection (formerly available through the Queensland Digital Library, is now available through One Search) are also good sources of photographs. Though you may not always find an image of your particular building, images of buildings of a similar period can still be helpful.

Occasionally it is possible to find original building specifications, drawings and sketches or early paintings, diaries, letters or stories providing written descriptions of buildings. Buildings of civic importance often appear in local newspapers with descriptions of finishes and colours. The social pages can also be a source of information with descriptions of "at homes" or other gatherings that also include descriptions of the house.

Often a combination of evidence can be used to build up a picture of the intent of the original colour scheme. Even if the colours cannot be determined research can lead to a greater understanding of the colour placement which is equally important to colour selection in relating to a building's architectural form and decorative details. In retaining the type of finish, the colours or accent scheme, the historic character of the exterior is maintained.

Sometimes using a later colour scheme best reflects a significant period of the building's history, particularly if there have been many additions or alterations over time. For example many mid 19th century houses in our region were first constructed as modest two room cottages. More rooms and verandahs were often added later that substantially altered the character of the place. Colours from this later period may be more sympathetic with the current form of the building than the original colours.

Alternatively, you can select to create a new colour scheme sympathetic to the era and architectural style of the building. More modern interpretations of traditional colour schemes can be used successfully on heritage homes. Consider carefully the placement and number of colours and the shades and tones used to ensure the heritage character of your building is enhanced. Contrasting colours were used to highlight features of a building such as gable decoration, window hoods, verandah rails and brackets.

Consideration should be given to where each paint colour will start and stop. It is typically better to paint thinking about different elements, such as gables, as opposed to surfaces. For example, when painting a sill the same colour generally should be used at the ends and underside of the sill.

Stark modern white is inappropriate on heritage or character buildings. Traditional whites have a hint of cream in them and in modern terms would be described as 'off white'.

Avoid painting old previously unpainted brickwork as you can't later reverse the paint without damaging the brick surface.colours illustration 2


Preparation for painting

Generally removal of old paint or surface covering is required before painting a building. It is critical to consider the age of the paint as many older homes will have a lead based paint which must be removed with extreme care. Professional advice should be sought prior to removal of lead based paint.

Removing or stripping paints should only be used as a last resort in the preparation of timber surfaces for new finishes – the earlier layers of paint and varnish are part of the history of a place. Use the gentlest method possible, such as hand sanding and scraping to prepare surfaces. Proper care needs to be taken, if stripping is absolutely necessary, not to damage the timber. Heat guns, used so as not to burn timber are the preferred method of removal. Chemical strippers can open up the grain of the timber and cause other visual or physical damage. The chemicals need to be fully washed out of the timber or neutralised to avoid further problems. It is acceptable to ask Tradespeople for examples of their work before allowing them to strip paint.

Avoid stripping timber to bare wood when applying clear finishes or stains in order to create a 'natural look'. This would be unsympathetic to the historic character of a building which originally had painted finishes.


Good housekeeping on the exterior surfaces of a home can delay the need for full major re-painting.

Repainting should only be necessary every five to ten years – allow existing paint to wear away rather than using harsh preparation methods. The use of premium paints, rather than trade paints or other lower quality paints or finishes, is highly recommended. Though initially more expensive, premium paints provide a better finish and colour retention and will generally last longer than cheaper paints. Professional painters should supply small jars of each colour for regular touch ups.

Timber surfaces should be cleaned annually with a gentle brush and cleansing agent such as sugar soap. Some walls may require cleaning more often, for example shady southern walls are more prone to fungal growth and may require cleaning twice a year.

Renew or reapply paint or special coatings only when necessary – when paint has become blistered, cracked or flaked and timber no longer has full protection against weathering. Touch up small damaged areas of paintwork as they appear, before they have a chance to allow moisture into adjacent timber and cause greater damage.

Repair or replace any deteriorated timber. Remove the minimum amount of original material and splice in new timber. Match timber species if possible to maintain the visual appearance of surviving timber.

Examples of alternate colours schemes can be found in Colour Schemes for Old Australian Homes by Ian Evans. A copy of this book is available for loan at the Toowoomba City Library.

Before you buy the paint and contact a painter, double check that you are happy with the colour scheme you have selected.

Roessler, D. 1997. Some notes on your exterior colour scheme, Toowoomba City Council Heritage Advisory Service.
Evans, I. Lucas, C. and Stapleton, I. 1984, Colour Schemes for Old Australian Houses, The Flannel Flower Press Pty Ltd, Queensland.
Evans, I. Lucas, C. and Stapleton, I. 1992, More Colour Schemes for Old Australian Houses, The Flannel Flower Press Pty Ltd, Queensland.