for People with a Passion for Period Property
Ask an Agony Uncle!
Stephen Boniface - Stephen Boniface specialises in building conservation providing multi-disciplinary consulting services. He is Chairman of the Building Surveying Faculty and member of the Residential faculty. He serves on the RICS Building Conservation Forum Board and is the 'Agony Uncle' on the Period Property UK website (

Ask our Agony Uncles ...

You can write to our panel of experts free of charge on any subject, providing it's got something to do with Period Properties.

Our experts are all specialists in matters directly involved with older properties. So, if you have a problem with an older building - or if you think you might have a problem - ask an Agony Uncle...

o Damp Proofing a Cellar Janet Morgan (Preston, Lancashire)
o Breating Basements Karen McHugh (Matlock, Derbyshire)
o Lime Wash and modern plaster Ben Knibbs (Carlisle, Cumbria)
o Making New look Old Kate Scott Thomas (Malmesbury, Wiltshire)
o The dreaded cement render Vernon Adams (Bideford, Devon)
o Preparing for limewash Dave Goodman (Newbury, Berkshire)
o Persistent Damp Tracy Knight (Thornton Heath, Surrey)
o Crumbling Pre-cast stone bay Peter Charles Crew (Petersfield, Hampshire)
o Defeating penetrating rain Glyn Strong (Churchdown, Gloucester)
o Returning wood to a lighter stain Anna Rossiter (Hexham, Northumberland)
o Unreliable surveyors' diagnoses Maureen Wilkinson (Norwich, Norfolk)

SUBJECT: Damp proofing a Cellar
FROM: Janet Morgan (Preston, Lancashire)
We are due to move into a Victorian property in the next few weeks and are hoping to convert the cellar and adjacent coal store into a study and utility room respectively. Can you foresee any problems with using an area below the level of the drains for a utility room (to house washing machine, dryer etc.) Will a pump have to be installed to remove water from the machine up to the drain level and if so would we be well advised to install the washing machine at a level that will not require this?

Janet Morgan

Janet, for advice on creating a damp proof cellar read the answer to Karen McHugh's question on Breathing Basements below. I trust that this will help you with your question. Also if the coal store is separate from the main house I have seen numerous examples where couples have connected the two with a sun room which provides a wonderful environment to undertake the ironing or have a romantic evening meal.


SUBJECT: Breathing Basements
FROM: Karen McHugh (Matlock, Derbyshire)
We have a large 1902 terraced house. The basement is quite large and we would like to damp-proof the entire area to make it more habitable. It has been partly finished already. Is tanking the floor and walls to the level of the soil the best remedy you know of. We will be putting in air bricks and enlarging windows in the cellar to increase air circulation "down there"! Thanks for any advice you can offer.

Karen McHugh

The present issue of 'Preserve' (the journal of the British Wood Preserving and Damp-Proofing Association) has a feature on this very matter Karen. You may be able to get a copy from them by contacting them on 01332 225 100.

Whilst I do not always agree with the views of BWPDA, this article is helpful. My view is that in many instances its is better to let a basement breathe and therefore to use traditional lime renders, limewash etc. The lime used would probably have to be a semi-hydraulic lime. However, to 'ensure' that the basement is damp-proofed my preference is for a drained cavity system. This technique leaves a gap between the existing wall and the new surface and at the base of the gap (across the floor, etc.) there is a shallow drainage system. This does not prevent the passage of moisture, but allows the moisture to escape. There are a number of systems on the market. According to the 'Basement Waterproofing Design Guide' - produced by the British Cement Association with the British Structural Waterproofing Association - such a system carries the lowest risk of failure of all possible basement damp-proofing systems.

Finally, when installing larger windows in your basement please ensure that they are properly protected from the dampness in the walls by placing damp-proof courses around them to isolate them from the dampness. Also ensure the window fittings themselves do not create a passage for moisture.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface from Boniface Associates for answering this question.


SUBJECT: Lime Wash and modern plaster won't go
FROM: Ben Knibbs (Carlisle, Cumbria)
We have recently moved into a 250-year-old stone farmhouse and there is an 1860s addition which has a lime-washed bedroom. Unfortunately this has been partly painted and some areas have been rendered with cement rather than lime. What is the best way to re-paint the walls? It seems lime-washing is out as it will not adhere to modern plaster and new paints will not go over lime-wash.

Ben Knibbs

Ben, as explained to David Goodman below the best option, although the most time consuming, is to remove all the paint and areas of cement render and do the job properly with lime. Fortunately, because you are talking about a single room you are able to section it off therefore minimising the impact on your homelife. Now, if the paint is flaking it is either the wrong type of paint or past its useful life. Therefore it would be best to remove all signs of the present paint (even where seemingly sound) and start again. This avoids the risk of getting it wrong by leaving the incorrect type of paint in place. Perhaps the key question you should be asking yourself here is 'why a cement render was used to patch the internal walls'. Perhaps it is advisable to investigate what lies behind the render to ensure the stone walls or timber frame are in good condition and do not require further attention. SPAB have produced an excellent leaflet called 'Removing Paint From Old Buildings'. They can be contacted on 020 7 377 1644.



SUBJECT: Making new woodwork look like old
FROM: Kate Scott Thomas (Malmesbury, Wiltshire)
Dear Malcolm, we are in the process of buying a house which was built on the site of an old barn. So it's a relatively new property - 13 years old or so, but it's faced in the barn's original brickwork. So it looks old from the outside but on the inside, it looks very new. We want to 'de-stress' it a bit - make it look older, and one of the things we are keen to do is to change the woodwork - window frames, doors and bannisters are all 'fake' mahogany. Can we dip these? Or can we just paint straight over the varnish? If so, what kind of paint / primer do we need? Can you advise?

Kate Scott Thomas

Kate, because the timber used within your barn is likely to be new any attempt to remove the mahogany stain is likely to reveal new wood which does not quite have the same appeal as oak, elm or pine which have developed a warm patina over the centuries. In a bid to provide your property with a well-worn and traditional appearance look at those pieces of wood which can be removed fairly easily e.g. doors and door frames. A quality carpenter would be able to construct new door frames using reclaimed materials from a local salvage yard and traditional ledged & braced doors using re-claimed pine floor boards. If your windows are traditional-styled casements with small panes of glass paint them in a off-white gloss and fit traditional ironmongery. You could even have pine shutters made for the windows just to add a touch of 'olde world' charm. Another alternative is to rub the fake mahogany down with sandpaper and then apply limewash. The limewash finds its way into the fissures of the wood leading to a traditional distressed look. On the door front, you could simply have them dipped in a well used caustic soda tank which will help age and distress the wood. Simple solutions as suggested, matched by the use of rugs to add a splash of colour can work wonders. If you are looking for further inspiration contact Hugh Lander on 01209 217 557 and purchase his book called 'House & Cottage Restoration' for 10.95. This will provide you the Dos & Don'ts for creating your desired aesthetic. Finally, try all of the techniques out on selected areas or small sections of wood to find a look and technique which you feel comfortable with before attempting any wholesale changes.


SUBJECT: The dreaded cement render
FROM: Vernon Adams (Bideford, Devon)
Hi Malcolm. I have bought a early C19 house in North Devon. The internal render is clay/earth based with a lime topcoat. There has been some damp damage in the house (the dreaded cement render again!!) and a lot of the clay render needs re-doing. I am wondering whether to re-use the original render or re-render with lime; which would give best 'breathability' for the house? I trust the lime more but also like the idea of re-using the original materials. Any advice ?

Vernon Adams

Vernon, before moving onto your initial question you say your property has a clay render. What is your property constructed from? I only ask this question because Devon is famed for its use of earth (Cob) in the construction of properties. Therefore your property may well be made from cob with a lime topcoat.

One of the features of the work I undertake on historic properties is the re-use of the materials within them. For example when working on a timber frame property we would remove the daub and lime before repairing the frame. Then the daub would be reprocessed, mixed with some new straw and water, and then re-applied to the same property. Organic building and organic materials are all about recycling materials. The same goes for the lime render. This can be removed in sections and then nailed back into position before a final limewash is applied. The biggest problem you face concerning the daub is to get the new mix to adhere to the old mix. If it does come away during the drying process traditional nails can be used to fix it in position before the lime is applied to the surface.


SUBJECT: Preparing for limewash
FROM: Dave Goodman (Newbury, Berkshire)
We are just about to complete on purchasing a Grade II Thatched cottage in Berkshire which needs much work due to lack of maintenance and care. The cottage is painted white inside and out which is showing signs of peeling (outside). Can you tell me how if it is possible to tell if the paint used both inside and out is suitable to let the house breathe or just modern emulsion. We are keen to use traditional lime white etc. If the outside paint has to be removed what is the best way to do this without damaging the brickwork which is traditional red brick intermixed with what appears to be flint sections.

Dave Goodman

Dave, before turning to your main point, watch out for any advice you get on the thatch itself. There are many in the thatching world with vested interests and you must be careful to ensure you get independent advice and seek the views of more than one thatcher. I would always suggest you start with the local Master Thatchers Association - which should be part of the National Council of Master Thatchers Associations. As an owner of a thatched property you might also like to look at joining the Thatched Owners Group

Now for your main point. If the paint is flaking it is either the wrong type of paint or past its useful life. Therefore it would be best to remove all signs of the present paint (even where seemingly sound) and start again. This avoids the risk of getting it wrong by leaving the incorrect type of paint in place. Then once the paint is removed use a good quality limewash, and to get a consistent colour (limewash plus pigment) always get enough made up as it is very difficult to get different batches to match. As a general rule if you apply a small amount of water to the paint surface, a limewash will absorb it before drying out, while a synthetic exterior paint will reject it resulting in it dripping down the waterproof surface.

To remove the paint DO NOT use an abrasive system ( e.g. sand blasting). There are many chemical systems that would be appropriate. I suggest you contact 'Strippers' - see paint removal on the services & suppliers section of the site - who provide a range of such products together with lists of contractors for your area.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface from Boniface Associates for answering this question.


SUBJECT: Persistent Damp
FROM: Tracy Knight (Thornton Heath, Surrey)
I have a 1912 house built from flint and brick. We have lived in the house for the last 8 years and we have always had damp problems. The main one we have is that part of the interior lounge wall has patches which look damp but when you touch them they are just cold. A couple of them don't exactly grow green mould but a white fluffy, crumbly substance. We tried to stop the problem by investing in a air purifier which is installed in the loft. We were told by the manufacturers this would cure the problem but it has not. The main area is the interior side of the flint wall and it gets so bad sometime I literally have to remove the wallpaper and then re-decorate. We have tried various paint on solutions but none of these have worked. Can you please advise what we could do?

Tracy Knight

Tracy, when rain falls on the outer surface of your property's wall it would have normally been absorbed to some degree. If the wall is of sufficient thickness and the joints are sound, the water will be drawn back to the surface of the wall and re-evaporate once the rain has stopped. The same goes for moisture in the ground. It will simply rise in the wall to a height at which there is a balance between the rate of evaporation and the rate it can be drawn up by capillary forces. The existence of a white fluffy substance (efflorescence) on the your lounge walls suggests moisture within the wall is being drawn from the soil into your wall and then drawn to the surface of the inner wall. Essentially, your problem can be solved by finding out why moisture is getting into the fabric of your wall.

  • Check all the earth levels in your flowerbeds to ensure they are below the interior floor level of your property.
  • If you have a concrete path surrounding your property and it is higher than the interior floor level, remove it and replace it with a new path, but lower down.
  • Please check all of your guttering and down pipes to ensure they are not blocked or cracked leading to water flooding the surrounding footings or simply running down the side of your property's wall.
  • If cement has been used on your flint and brick wall it should be removed and repaired with lime.

Internally, the existence of salts in the plaster results in moisture from the air being absorbed into the plaster. Therefore even if you stop damp penetrating the fabric of the wall the salts will ensure moisture is absorbed creating further damp areas. Personally, I would remove the wallpaper, hack off the old plaster and replace it with a lime render and then paint with limewash/distemper. This will ensure any moisture in the wall will simply evaporate. Such a move with have more impact than your humidifier which has been installed, following an incorrect diagnosis of your problem, to help reduce condensation.


SUBJECT: Crumbling pre-cast stone bay
FROM: Peter Charles Crew (Petersfield, Hampshire)
I have a late Victorian terraced town house with a pre-cast stone decorative bay painted with exterior paint. This is crumbling in places and I would like guidance on the best materials to use to repair the damage. Neighbouring houses have been repaired with sand and cement materials, however the repair only appears to lasts about a year. Many thanks

Peter Charles Crew

Peter, a cement based repair will not allow the material to breathe and that is probably why it fails so quickly. A lime mortar with stone dust should be suitable if the bay is built with a form of reconstituted/cast stone. However, if natural stone has been used, you will need a stone mason to cut in a piece of suitable stone. The Building Conservation Directory - - contains information of various suppliers and contractors who should be able to assist you.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface from Boniface Associates for answering this question.


SUBJECT: Defeating Penetrating Rain
FROM: Glyn Strong (Churchdown, Gloucester)
I live in small converted coach house (maybe formerly a Cider House?) dating back to circa 1600. The walls are thick and made from solid brick. When I bought the house 4 years ago the external paint was badly flaked and many of the bricks had rotted. The upstairs (living room) had no liner plaster and rain had penetrated the brickwork. I was advised to have the internal walls lined with impermeable plaster which I duly did. I also had some basic pointing and brick replacement work done before having the external walls repainted with white outdoor paint. The house is now generally snug and dry apart from around the bedroom windows which are clearly affected by penetrating rain. The exterior paint is now beginning to flake again and I must make a decision about how best to protect my home from the elements. A local builder suggested masonry paint and a pushy salesman a tried to sell me a exterior wall coating, but I had reservations about both due to their suitability and price! More recently I have been reading abut limewash - and am utterly confused about the best course of action!

Glyn Strong

Glyn, please take sometime to read the following link - Jeff Howell's description of the problems relating to damp and the mis-use of textured wall coatings provide an excellent insight into the particular problems you face. On a more practical note, ensure your gutters, rainwater downpipes and drains are clear. Check the windows fit snugly and tightly into their surrounding brickwork. In the long-term you would be advised to return the property back to its original state and use limewash to provide a breathing protective surface to the exterior brickwork. Finally, you mention some of the brickwork has already been repointed. If cement has been used you should aim to have them re-pointed with lime in the future.


SUBJECT: Returning wood to a lighter stain
FROM: Anna Rossiter (Hexham, Northumberland)
I live in a converted barn with exposed beams and a gallery landing in the living room. Unfortunately, many of the beams and the wood round the gallery has been stained in a reddish woodstain. Is there any way of returning the wood to a lighter or at least less red colour. The wood is, I think, pine - some original but some replaced. If you have any suggestions I would be very grateful.

Anna Rossiter

Anna, there are many substances which can be used to remove woodstain from wood. But, you are faced with two key problems, firstly the extent of the problem and the time it would take to remove the stain, and secondly the possibility the stain has been absorbed into the surface of the wood. I've mentioned it on many occasions that the most appropriate action is to simply sand down the timbers and paint them with a white emulsion or limewash to give it a traditional utilitarian barn look. Such a look can be stunning if used with soft furnishings to add further interest. Then simply add further character by using reclaimed timber in areas of the barn e.g. doors which can easily be removed and changed to provide warmth and character. Please also note, some traditional lead paints when removed leave a reddish stain on woodwork. Therefore it is very important to wear facial mask when undertaking any sanding.


SUBJECT: Unreliable surveyors' diagnoses
FROM: Maureen Wilkinson (Norwich, Norfolk)
There has been a lot on TV and in the newspapers recently about damp, and how unreliable surveyors' diagnoses (and damp-proof guarantees) are. I understand that the proper course of action is to establish and then deal with the cause of the damp, but where do I go to get this information?

Maureen Wilkinson

Maureen, your first port of call is to visit Jeff Howell's website - and read the articles on rising damp and textured wall coverings. Both articles provide a humorous and consumer friendly explanation of damp. I thoroughly recommend them. Dealing with damp centres around ensuring all of your rainwater goods and drains are working effectively, and making sure that any concrete, brick or flagstone pathways/patios are clearly below the floor level of your property's interior. If your property is of brick construction and has been painted with a non-breathing paint then the best course of action long-term is to remove the paint and return the property to its original state. This may include removing cement pointing and replacing it with lime.