Paint Technical

May 10th, 2009 | | Paint Technical | 30 Comments

The Problem with "Distemper"

Sherwood's Distemper

Having been involved with Historical and Traditional colours for many years, we are frequently asked for advice on traditional paint.

Every day my team and I at Papers and Paints see confusion amongst members of the general public who come in clutching articles torn from the lighter weight “House Wonderful” type magazines, which urge them to create a “period feel” using “traditional” paints compounded of such things as whiting, buttermilk and a bit of PVA to make it stick. Furthermore every kind of surface can, it seems, be given this sort of treatment in order to create the “distressed palazzo”, “Mediterranean”, “Colonial”, or “Country House” look – all of which seem to be associated with the term “traditional.”

There is confusion, too, over the incidental cross-over between several of the traditional coatings and those that may be regarded as ecologically friendly. Certainly, a white lime wash and a soft distemper may be so regarded, but these qualities are often automatically extended to include all of the less modern paints, no matter what type or colour.

Unfortunately, because of the large amount of money tied up in this area of the decorating industry it is very difficult to find clear dispassionate advice shorn of profit-mongering. The merchants of snake-oil (or should that be peanut oil?) are still very much with us.

Perhaps it is the word distemper that causes the most confusion. Few are aware that this is a generic term encompassing several different coatings. There really is only one type that is of relevance to historical buildings – or any building for that matter.

Soft Distemper, as it is more commonly called, is excellent for the coating of elaborate decorative plasterwork or ceilings. Washed, finely-ground chalk, known as whiting, forms the main constituent. This is loosely bound with a water-soluble glue size usually made from animal bones, horns or skin, often nowadays going under the name of rabbit skin glue.

This is a coating that is made up by the decorator shortly before carrying out the work. In view of the animal glue content once it has been made it has a very limited shelf-life, going rancid after a short time even if refrigerated. By definition, therefore, one cannot buy a true soft distemper in a tin.

Soft distemper is applied by brush and can be removed with a wet sponge when dirty or in need of recoating. Its great advantage is that when applied to ornate plaster ceilings, for example, the detail is not lost as it must be removed before redecoration. An emulsion paint, on the other hand, would add yet another disfiguring layer that will eventually require removal.

As well as its permeability to moisture vapour, which makes it an option in areas inclined to mild damp, soft distemper has the added bonus of being cheap. It is easily made and applied, and can be laid on quickly, provided that an experienced decorator is at hand.

It is not durable however and is neither washable nor suitable for areas of heavy traffic, hence the modern name of soft distemper. As a result, in the nineteenth century, various binders were added to increase its resilience. The additives varied in type and efficiency, and would often have had a profound effect on the technical properties of the paint. One wonders how “breathable” Morley’s Rubber Distemper would have been?

One of the most common sorts of ‘improved’ distempers were the primitive emulsions known as Oil-Bound Distemper, Casein-Bound Distemper or more properly Water Paint. Note here the use of the word ‘emulsion’ to indicate a mixture of two liquids that normally cannot be combined – such as oil and water. It may come as a shock to learn of the very fine line between a bound distemper or water paint and an emulsion paint, as found on the shelves of many builders’ merchants.

Globules of oil suspended in water

By “oil-bound”, it is meant that the paint was an oil-water-emulsion, in much the same way that milk is. Water and oil were combined with a solution of soap or a caustic alkali (such as lime) which saponified the oil, and the mixture was agitated until the oil broke down into tiny globules which remained in suspension as an emulsion.

These early emulsion paints were generally supplied in a stiff paste, which was thinned with water to a brushable consistency for application. On evaporation of the water, the paint dried to a porous film, with the glue – often in the form of casein – acting as a temporary binder during the drying of the oil, which finally hardened the film so that it became moderately wipeable. One of these early brands, Alabastine, was also used as a plaster filler – a questionable advantage as far as a paint goes.

The current trend for labelling or referring to these primitive emulsion paints as distemper is storing a problem for the future. Lulled into thinking that the substrate can breathe under an historically appropriate and pleasingly matt coating it is frequently specified or employed by well-meaning house-owners. Unfortunately, these early form of emulsions had a number of weaknesses. Certainly they had a matt finish and some did have a degree of permeability to moisture, however they did not have the key advantage of soft distemper, and that is its reversibility.

Some years ago, when the Journal of The Traditional Paint Forum, commissioned the Paint Research Association to make comparisons between a typical trade emulsion paint and a Water Paint that was being sold as a distemper, it was found that there was scarcely any difference in the moisture vapour permeability of both systems.


These Water Paints reached their heyday in the mid twentieth century and are best remembered under such brand names as Walpamur and Duresco. Unfortunately, these early form of emulsions had a number of weaknesses.

As the ‘improved’ distempers cannot readily be removed, further coatings tend to be applied on top, and then within two or three schemes of redecoration the problems can start to occur.

The strength of the bond of water paint is less than that of oil paint and, although the coating has some resistance to water, it is absorbent nonetheless. The liquid in a new coat of paint applied on top will soften it to some extent and cause it to swell. Water paint, moreover, is applied in thicker and heavier coats than oil paint. In drying, the paint contracts strongly and, in doing so, exerts a considerable pull on the underlying film, weakening the grip of any parts which are not firmly attached to the surface.

Bound-Distemper causing Problems

A substantial strain is placed on the bond of the old coating, and this cross section vividly shows the problem – the dark line towards the top and marked with an ‘X’ is a layer of a “bound distemper”. Two, three, or even more coats can be safely applied on occasion, but there comes a time when the weight and stress are too great and cracking and flaking take place at the weakest points in the system. Local repair and making good is of no help and wholesale removal back to a sound base is the only way to tackle the problem.

Unfortunately it is not possible to lay down any rule or even give any indication of when failure is likely to take place and the appearance of the old finish is not necessarily a reliable guide to its stability. Much will depend on the quality of the old coating and the number of coats on the surface. The atmospheric conditions to which the finish has been exposed may influence its behaviour; in a room subject to a certain amount of condensation, for instance, the repeated wetting and drying of the surface will progressively weaken the binder of the water paint.

Is it worth taking the risk merely for the appeal of using a product with an esoteric or rose-tinted name on the label? Surely the decoration and protection of the building is worth more than allowing oneself to be manipulated by the marketing man?

Perhaps the last word should go to Noel Carrington, the author of books on design and on recreation:

Distempers are sold as washable and they will wash and not wear off in the wash – not at first, but they will not scrub, and in a year they will have absorbed a good deal of the atmospheric dirt that fills a room. To render distempers really washable you can apply a varnish. The varnish will slightly affect the colour and even a matt varnish will change the surface, but you then have a really washable wall which will last as long as one treated with oil paint. It is a worthwhile extra operation. It is seldom done by decorators, perhaps because it lasts too long. The new emulsion paints are gaining in popularity. They are easy to apply and will certainly take far more wear and cleaning. Some decorators with whom I have discussed these new paints are so enthusiastic that they foretell the disappearance of distempers. Perhaps it is still too early yet to judge by results.

Sixty years later emulsion paints are still with us and have demonstrated good service, being easy to apply, washable, long-lived and not requiring coats of varnish. If that is the case one is surely tempted to ask whether an emulsion paint might not be a better option than a bound distemper.

This is the sort of information that customers of Papers and Paints can expect to be given if they seek our advice. During our fifty years of trading we have built up a considerable knowledge on this and other decorating issues. We may not be able to offer you a “lifestyle” but we can certainly help you decorate your house.

Noel Carrington. Colour and Pattern in the Home. 1954 (pages 123 & 128.

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Comments (30)

Steve KnightNo Gravatar » 21. May, 2012

Having problems painting Polycell Textured Paint to a ceiling. After reading your comments now think there is a layer of distemper on it. House was built in the 50′s. Do you now the best way to get rid of it. Have heard that using a oil based undercoat to seal it will allow me to over paint with the textured paint. What are your views as I am running out of patience having sanded the ceiling 3 times now and nothing sticks.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 22. May, 2012

Your first port of call should be Polycell, who will have a technical advice line. It is possible that you have a ‘distemper’ on the ceiling. If a ‘soft’ variety this can be removed by sponging. If a ‘bound’ variety, sponging will have little effect. You might find that one of the products made by Zinsser will do a better job than an oil-based undercoat.

Rik TyeNo Gravatar » 25. Jun, 2013

Hi I am on a job at the moment (grade B listed church) where in the past the walls have been emulsion, now the architect wants distemper/lime wash put back on.
Now I know u should was distemper off b4 painting but how about the opposite ??? Can u lime wash over emulsion?????

PatrickNo Gravatar » 26. Jun, 2013

Thanks for getting in touch. No, I’m afraid that one cannot apply a conventional limewash over emulsion paint.

Lindsay McDonnellNo Gravatar » 26. Jun, 2013

Hi Patrick,
I would really appreciate your advise.
We are renovating a grade 2 listed stone farm house and have replastered internally with lime plaster. What should we be using to paint the walls with? I was considering a lime wash, but there is considerable discolouration in some areas which I’m not sure will be covered by a lime wash. We also have the added issue that Gypsum has been used (by a previous owner) on some walls- which obviously Lime wash is not suitable for and I am concerned about continuity of colour.
What would be the best paint to use on the Lime plastered walls and is there anything I can get that would be suitable for both those and the Gypsum walls? This is a family home, so obviously we would ultimately require a something that is both breathable and durable- and the two (as far as I can see) seem to be mutually exclusive.
Thanks in anticipation

PatrickNo Gravatar » 26. Jun, 2013

Thanks Lindsay. You are absolutely right – breathable and durable are almost contradictory. I think that I would use either a cheap Trade emulsion, such as Dulux Supermatt or Classidur Golden Classic. Some years ago when editor of the Traditional Paint Forum journal I commissioned a comparative study of Trade emulsion vs a bound distemper (more properly called ‘Water Paint’) and the emulsion was found to be superior, cheaper and not prone to the terrible problems that the ‘distemper’ will give you.

Matthew WilliamsNo Gravatar » 14. Aug, 2013

Excellent article on ‘distemper paint’- I’m helping redecorate/restore a Victorian house, and finding paint crumble away onto the roller. This article explains why- though the solution will take days of scraping a 3m high ceiling with decorative cornice..! The room has had some damp through a damaged bay too, which presumably has acceclerated the old paint decay. We inend to use modern emulsions to decorate- budget is modest, though would like to restore the plasterwork at some point. Also, theres a stone fireplace but Im worried about exposing lead, theres kids in the house, Ive tried the chemical peels but they still leave crumbling dust and residue.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 14. Aug, 2013

Thank you Matthew. Yes. I understand the situation. I am afraid that you are faced with the problem that many other houses threw up twenty years or so ago – how to deal with old distemper. There really is only one way, and that is with damp sponges and lots of elbow grease. You need to take off as much as you can. You might then use a primer sealer of some kind and apply the emulsion to that. There is unlikely to be lead paint on the ceiling, but you will have it elsewhere. There shouldn’t be a problem, provided that you wet-abrade, clean up the residue immediately and Hoover regularly to eliminate dust. You must then ensure that the bags of dust are disposed of following your Council’s guidelines. Good luck.

NickNo Gravatar » 28. Mar, 2018

I had same problem. Ceiling and wall of old Victorian house have distemper buried under many layers of paint. About 8 years ago I repainted the room, and recall the occasional bubble appeared, particularly after using roller, but generally got away with it. Now come to redecorate and found quite a lot of – not sure of the technical term – but paint part peeling mainly at joins between walls and ceiling. Attacking with a scraper very easily pulled this away. I used a stanly knife to cut back to more stable parts of the paint, then rubbed away distemper with sandpaper and skimmed over with tetra to flatten back to wall. Ideally I would have stripped off the wall paint but this would have been a massive job, and no time. I reckon next decoration will do this.

However ceiling was a write off, and any attempt to roller would have pulled most the old layers off. I scraped off existing paint which literally taken 10 mins, except parts that much more stable (presumably already had distemper removed) and then used a wall paper steamer and scraper to get rid of distemper, then scrubbed, then sanded a bit, then washed. It revealed a well plastered ceiling! coated with PVA before painting. Whilst a horrible job, a mid size room ceiling taken maybe 6-8 hours. Whole room estimate 2 days, but unlikely wall would be very neat after this and then needed skimming. Removing is definitely a more reliable and long term than any “fixing” solutions. I now have this in back of mind that will need to sort wall in next round of decorating in 8 years or so.

Another option for ceiling (or walls) could be to add a layer of plasterboard. Cost more but cleaner job.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 28. Mar, 2018

Thanks Nick,

Exactly. I am sorry that this has happened to you. This is why I have no time at all for so-called ‘bound distempers’. You have described the knock-on problems very well.

Incredibly, it seems to be a very emotive subject and tempers sometimes quickly flare up when the subject is discussed. It’s the usual head / heart problem.

Jenny MeehanNo Gravatar » 17. Jan, 2014

This is a brilliant read! I love the historical images too! I am an easel painter/fine artist, and have spent a lot of time researching both silicate mineral paints (modern and old), casein painting (in a fine art context as well as buildings) and recently distemper, as part of my teaching…artist’s watercolours, gouaches, and poster paints, of course, all being forms of distemper, (though without the rabbit skin glue of traditional decoration/fine art painting!) Thanks for putting this together! May I include a link to this on my blog? It’s one of the best things I have found on distemper? Jenny Meehan

PatrickNo Gravatar » 17. Jan, 2014

How kind of you Jenny. It’s proved to be a very controversial subject. I’m afraid that some people do not like having their rose-tinted spectacles removed. Yes, please do link to it. Thank you.

sarah russellNo Gravatar » 27. Jan, 2014

Hi I’m having a few problems with distemper at the mo in in an old council house I’ve already had it confirmed the it is in my kitchen because it is green can you possibly clear up an argument I am currently having about 2 other rooms. Does distemper always have to be green as in the 2 other rooms the paint is flaking away and underneath it it is more of a beige colour and when touched leaves a chalky layer on your hand and they are trying to say it doesn’t have the same characteristics (all because it’s not green) I would very much appreciate it if you could help clear this matter up please. Thank you

PatrickNo Gravatar » 27. Jan, 2014

Thanks for writing in, Sarah. The colour is no indication of whether it is a distemper (soft or otherwise). If the surface is chalky the chances are that it is distemper. Subsequent paint will not ‘stick’ unless you remove this.

sarah russellNo Gravatar » 27. Jan, 2014

thank you for clearing that up for me it is chalky and paint just flakes off of it thank you once again ill be able to get it sorted alot easier now thank you

Ian WrightNo Gravatar » 01. Aug, 2016

Hi, We have exactly the same problem in a house built by the M.O.D in the mid 50′s. After reading your article and this response in particular I am sure we have distemper. We have tried complete removal in one room but this is week and weeks of work so I would be grateful for any advice to seal or bind it back so that it is suitable for emulsion paint over. Also what about skimming over it once a suitable primer has been applied?

PatrickNo Gravatar » 01. Aug, 2016

Ian, you should try to wash off as much as you can, otherwise it is likely to cause later problems. Once you are happy that you have removed as much as you can, a primer-sealer, such as one of those made by Zinsser should be applied. There should be no need to skim over this.

Aida ButlerNo Gravatar » 14. Apr, 2014

The house next door has an extention which forms part of my Patio.It is a brick wall and I would like to paint it White I am in a Basement,which does not get much light.Thank you for your help Aida

PatrickNo Gravatar » 14. Apr, 2014

You certainly could paint it with a masonry paint, but bear in mind that once painted brick can seldom be stripped. You would also have to maintain it.

margaret saliskeNo Gravatar » 29. Jun, 2014

I am attempting to clean a stenciled 19th century ceiling that I have taken samples of and had examined under microscope. It seems to be a distemper. No oil only protein in the layers. The surface is very matte and fragile. It stains with solvents. I am attempting to use dry cleaning methods. Have you had any success with cleaning accumulated dirt off these surfaces. There is very little damage overall from water/ cracking/flaking so would like to avoid removing and repainting such a complex decoration that unfortunately is very dark with soot.

Would appreciate any input.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 02. Jul, 2014

Margaret, thank you for your interesting question. The best and only source of information that comes to mind was written by Morgan Phillips twenty years ago in a chapter entitled: ‘A Victorian Trompe l’Oeil: The Restoration of Distemper Paints’ this was published in Moss, Roger W.(ed.). Paint in America. The Colors of Historic Buildings. The Preservation Press. Washington, D.C., USA. 1994. I hope that this is of use to you.

Usman sheryNo Gravatar » 10. Aug, 2014

I’m having a problem, we painted house about a year ago and it is falling off the walls by swelling. It looks wet at those points where it detaches from the wall. Any help there please? And walls were not wet when we painted but now they feel like wet. And these are cement-brick type walls. Thanks

Joe O'DonnellNo Gravatar » 04. Mar, 2015

Perhaps this explains why what I thought was distemper under emulsion on my plaster worker is proving to be very resistant to removal with water and tooth brush.

Thomas CorcoranNo Gravatar » 07. Oct, 2015

Patrick, I am putting the last touches on a long historical novel about the reunion of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on May 31, 1897, thirty-two years after the American Civil War, on the occasion of the unveiling of Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common.

As a kind of rebuttal to the Shaw, two of my (fictional) characters are painting a mural to be displayed from the Massachusetts State House across the street. Because of the requirements of the story, they have to do a rush job: begin on Friday, May 28 and finish not later than noon on Monday, May 31, including time to dry.

In my current draft the mural is eight by thirty feet on ten-ounce canvas, and the image has been painted in oil; for permanence and because it will be displayed outdoors. My eagle-eyed wife points out that this would not give the oil enough time to dry. I have been researching other types of paint available for the job in 1897—casein, tempera, distemper—without seeing an obvious candidate. Can you tell me if there would have been a method in 1897 to paint, dry, and loosely hang, with ropes and grommets, such a mural, vivid enough to be seen from a distance (say, fifty feet)? Unfortunately, I have no latitude on the timing of the mural’s construction, the need for hanging it outdoors (on a rainy day), and the general size of the mural; I could certainly change the medium to another weight of canvas or to another material altogether, like muslin; and because, as I understand it, artists of that era mixed their own paints, my fictional artist could have come to Boston with any kind of paint and binder you’d like to suggest for her.

One last point, in an overly long comment: the canvas is being painted in a warehouse, laid out on the floor. My wife wonders if the artists would have needed to stretch it to get a better image and whether it could be rolled up afterwards.

Thank you for your time, expertise, and patience.

David PorterNo Gravatar » 08. Dec, 2016

Hello Patrick, we have a large amount of yellow casein distemper left from painting a bedroom. We’d like to use it up somewhere in the house. Can we add a colour to change the yellow to green, with perhaps poster paint powder?

PatrickNo Gravatar » 08. Dec, 2016

You would need to check with the manufacturers, to see what they recommend as a compatible tinter.

RachelNo Gravatar » 09. Sep, 2017

Hi Patrick
Thank you for your article – I’ve been researching “soft distemper” as I have recently bought a Victorian house and am trying to bring it back to its former glory. The original ceiling roses were covered in years of gunk. I have removed the paint, under which there was thick layers of chalked substance (blue/grey). It’s taken days but The detail of the rose is now beautiful. There is still some of the bluefish chalk in places. Do I need to remove it all? My big concern is what paint to then use. I want it to be thin enough to see the detail, but not harm th o iginal plaster rose and be able to be “washed off” so that if I need to paint again I don’t lose the detail I’ve just discovered. Searches suggest soft distemper, others say to prime. Do you have a view? I’ve found a couple paint companies which selll “distemper” in 5 litre tubs and an art supplier (koh-I-nor) which sells in 250ml tubes. Do you have a recommendation on brand? Many thanks for any guidance.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 09. Sep, 2017

Thank you for getting in touch. If you read my essay again you will see that anything that is labelled ‘Distemper’ and comes in a tin is not Soft Distemper and has problems. You need to read another essay on the subject which will show you how to make up the sort of coating that should give you what you want

Simon NewtonNo Gravatar » 15. Dec, 2018

I have just read some of your paper and was wondering if it would be ok to use a good quality emulsions paint such as little Greene o fats and ball on my freshly lime plastered wall as you seem to be saying take it is not much less breathable that a modern bonded distemper. I have small children and like the fact that you can scrub some paints
Please advise me.
Many thanks

PatrickNo Gravatar » 15. Dec, 2018

Thank you. You would have to contact the proposed suppliers directly. I am saying that a simple emulsion, such as Dulux Supermatt, is almost as permeable as a ‘Water Paint’. I am not saying that a Vinyl Matt or an Acrylic has the same properties. I certainly wouldn’t apply any of these to ‘freshly lime plastered walls’. One must allow the plaster to cure first. What have your plasterers advised? If you want a scrubbable paint, that sits at odds with lime plaster. This is a complex situation not best dealt with using these means.