Country houses for sale

Restoring period interiors: woodwork

This article aims to give a brief overview and some pointers as to how to approach the maintenance and repair of period woodwork.

Craftsmen Terms

Carpenter: Site based woodworker, who constructs roofs, partitions etc and installs joinery items. The term Carpenter is taken from the French word “charpente” meaning structural timber.
Joiner: Workshop based woodworker who constructs cupboards, kitchens and purpose made joinery items, such as doors and windows.

Cabinet Maker: Workshop based, a cabinet maker is skilled in designing and making cabinets and furniture to the highest standards.

Conservator/Restorer: Can be found both in a workshop and on site. In additional to having a wide range of skills and knowledge on different materials, techniques etc they will also understand the principles & philosophy of conservation and restoration and be able to advise / execute works accordingly. When choosing craftsman to carry out work on your period home, make sure you are confident they have these qualities.

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Authenticating original features

Simple observation, exploratory work and research will reveal  what are the original features and what are later editions. With a listed building, the features introduced that are not original are deemed part of the listing, although in some cases, with permission, these can be removed in favour of returning to the original.

Discovering the Past

Over the years, many older houses will have been subjected to major alterations, conversion, refurbishment or inappropriate modernisation (particularly notable in the 1970’s). Where missing features have been removed you may be faced with the task of restoring the original character and authenticity of your home. Here are some ideas to help draw up a picture of what might have previously existed:

* Inspect door architraves which can often show an outline of the profiles of a moulding.
* inspection behind old wallcoverings/paper will often reveal the ‘ghost’ of a shape, showing the original positions of mouldings
* Visit  similar neighbouring houses to see what features exist of their interior
* Employ the services of a consultant like Charles Brooking of The Brooking Collection, who will offer advice and advise you as to the best way to reconstruct an authentic ‘in period’ interior.

Bespoke Joinery

If there are elements of woodwork missing or in need of complete replacement you will need the services of a specialist joiner or cabinet maker.

To faithfully replicate period woodwork, takes a high level of skill & knowledge. Nothing is ‘standard’, and all items will be made individually to suit your property. In addition to reproducing period features, they will also be able to design and make new work like kitchens for example, which are in keeping with the period and tailor-made to fit your home. Contrary to popular belief, this is not as expensive as might be supposed, and can often be considerably cheaper than opting for a fashionable high street brand.

When it comes to historically accurate mouldings, it is often thought that these are widely available through builder’s merchants. They are not. There are literally thousands of different mouldings designs, no one is identical – even the same ‘shape’ moulding in one room of a house can differ slightly in another room, due to the fact that many of them were produced by hand using traditional wooden moulding planes. When a particular moulding needs to be replicated, a joiner will skilfully measure and produce unique cutters to suit that individual profile.

Up to now, no one in the UK has produced an ‘off the shelf’ range of historically accurate mouldings. However, recently in collaboration with Charles Brooking of The Brooking Collection (which is an archive of salvaged architectural detail, including over 20,000 sections of joinery from the Tudor period onwards),  Atkey & Co now offer a broad range of authentic interior doors and timber mouldings from the Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and Edwardian periods.

Complying with modern building regulations

If a building is being significantly changed, added to, restored etc. permissions will need to be applied for, and works carefully specified to satisfy not only the modern building regulations, but also the local conservation officer whose primary interest is making sure that original features and the integrity of the building is maintained.

To strip or not to strip?

In recent times, it has become fashionable to strip previously painted woodwork for so-called aesthetic reasons. Softwood joinery was almost always intended to be painted and so historically, inferior grade timber was used. Stripping off paintwork will only serve to expose a large number of knots and timber defects which were never supposed to be on show. Only Oak, Mahogany and other expensive hardwoods were left exposed and polished.

Finishing Woodwork

Choosing the right paint to finish woodwork (or any other surface for that matter) is important and should be carefully considered. There is now a blistering array of different paints available, with manufacturers often describing their products as eco friendly, genuine, traditional, breathable, sustainable, natural & environmentally friendly to name a few.

The important point is to choose paint that is suitable for the purpose, with a range of finishes and colours that are appropriate. The main practical considerations are:

* Cost
* Longevity
* Compatibility with existing finishes
* Application – how easy are they to apply?
* Number of coats required to get a good finish
* Preparatory work required, for example, do you need to remove existing finishes?

If the project is of an extensive nature, or you want to determine an authentic paint scheme for your property, it is well worth considering employing the services of a paint analysis expert.  By taking samples and analysing the different layers of paint, they will give you a record of the different paint schemes adopted over the years & advise on a scheme which is historically appropriate for your home. For expert advice, speak to a specialist paint supplier, such as Papers and Paints in Chelsea in London, who will be able to advise & supply you with suitable paint for the purpose.

If the woodwork requires a polished finish, this task should only be attempted by a traditionally trained French polisher, who will have the ability to colour and match existing finishes.

The interior environment

It is worth considering that excessive shrinkage, cracking and distortion within the interior of a building can be caused not only by the obvious – presence of damp, subsidence and movement, water leaks etc; but also from a badly positioned radiator, strong sunlight , lights, wall heaters and heating systems that are not controlled or monitored properly. All these factors need consideration to make sure that the restored interior remains stable for the future. Something as simple as introducing a window blind, can stop strong sunlight causing distortion and fading of finishes. Most problems occur with the expansion and shrinkage of timber.

It is therefore important that whatever heating is present is suitably controlled with this in mind. Buildings that have undergone extensive restoration or have been unoccupied for long periods are often unheated and damp. Dehumidifiers can sometimes be utilised and any heating should be introduced very gradually, a few degrees higher each day to avoid rapid drying out.

Regular maintenance

A simple visual survey of an interior done regularly will reveal any issues had have surfaced and can be dealt with to avoid permanent damage. Because of the nature of timber which shrinks and expands with changes in temperature and humidity, a newly fitted fire door for example, may need adjusting within 6 months so as to work properly.

Keeping up to date with touching up and re-coating paint work will avoid the need for a major repaint and French polished surfaces finished with wax should be regularly waxed to maintain and build a patina. Simple, regular maintenance will keep the interior of your historic building looking and functioning well and will be enjoyed for generations to come.

James Mott is the founder of which is home to the Heritage Register of vetted Craftsmen, Contractors and Consultants.

Useful links:

Papers and Paints:

The Brooking Collection:

Atkey & Co: