What is the best way to lighten beams?

Learn how to tackle dark beams for brighter interiors that celebrate the beauty of wood

How easy is it to lighten a wooden beam? Black-painted beams, once the finish of choice for every rustic country cottage, are now rather out of sync with our love of exposed wood grain and light-filled interiors. We ask the experts how best to reveal the beauty of wooden beams…

What is the best way to make painted, varnished or stained beams lighter?
The most practical option may be to paint over a dark finish on beams with an appropriate coating, for instance, a pale soft distemper. This traditional water-based paint – the precursor to modern emulsion – has a velvety matt finish and the advantage that it can be washed off easily with warm water if desired in the future.

How easy is it to remove an existing finish from beams?
An alternative approach, which demands more effort, is to strip off the dark finish. It’s vital not to act in haste otherwise you could unwittingly harm the timber or obliterate any traces of early underlying decoration, the presence of which isn’t always obvious (particularly with plainer schemes). Be aware that many old coatings are lead-based and that you must ensure you don’t expose yourself or others to hazardous dust.

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Are there any methods that can cause damage to beams?
Harsh paint removal methods, such as aggressive sandblasting, can ruin the surface of the beams and reveal unattractive beetle runs. Wire-brushing is inadvisable too, as is the use of any secretive process, the results of which have been known to leave beams with a phony appearance.

Are chemical strippers suitable?
Chemical strippers are often effective for removing build-ups of black coatings, gloss paint or other oil-based finishes on beams. Always conduct a small trial first in a discreet area before carrying out paint removal wholesale.

What’s the best thing to do once the beams have been stripped?
Newly exposed timbers can be treated with a beeswax and turpentine polish or micro-crystalline wax. Where timbers are badly disfigured by small shakes, nail holes and so on it may be better to apply limewash or a liming wax to unify them. Alternatively, you could use soft distemper or an appropriate eco-paint. Avoid polyurethane varnish, stains or modern gloss paints, which are generally out of keeping with old interiors.

Where is the best place to go for advice?
If you uncover traces of anything that may be of value as you are working, stop immediately and, if in doubt, contact The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings or your local conservation officer. Be aware that if your house is listed, listed building consent for such work may be needed from your local council.

With thanks to Douglas Kent, Technical and Research Director, The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB).

Let us know if you have any further questions in the comments box below…

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