Distemper - problem solving

Summary: Identifying distemper and and how to seal it and other chalky surfaces before painting. How to remove distemper before painting and decorating.

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Distemper, solving problems:

Distemper is an old type of simple paint which consists of whiting and glue. Distemper was used as a wall covering because when it dried, it tightened or shrunk when it cooled down. This gave it the ability to also fill minor cracks and holes while giving a clean surface covering.

  • Whiting: Powdered and washed white chalk or lime.
  • Glue: normally made from rabbit skin.

Generally found in older properties and used commonly up to the 20th century before more commercial easy to produce paints such as vinyl and acrylic arrived.

Distemper is easily identified. It is soft and dusty to touch and will come off the surface of walls onto your hands. The down side to this surface coating is that nothing will stick to it which is a major problem when you want to redecorate with either wallpaper or paint.

There are many granny tales around for dealing with this wall and ceiling coating but to be honest full removal is best. There are several ways this can be done. Either by scrubbing with hot water or wallpaper steamers can also be good for removing distemper. The best way however, to is to soften it and scrape it off. This can be done by coating it with wallpaper paste until it can soak up no more. Paint on the paste for 30 minutes until the last coat you put on stays wet for ten minutes. Leave it for those ten minutes and add some more. Leave for a further ten minutes then start to scrape off with a normal paint scraper.

Sealing is also an option for distemper but the surface must be completely washed down with hot water to remove all of the dusty, loose particles. You can then use PVA or Artex sealer and there are also other proprietary sealers on the market. The reality though is that there is so much work getting the distemper ready to be sealed that you may just as well work a little harder and remove it totally.

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