Readers’ Questions Update.

Left to right: The north storage building (here, not yet painted), main Armoury building, and kitchen. The storage building is painted with a (simulated) whitewash, the Armoury with white oil paint, and the kitchen with tar paint, reflecting differences in their periods of construction and status.

At the end of November, as the north storage building was receiving its final touches in view of the webcam, Kerry commented:  “Nice to see the paint on the new storage building. My question is:  did smaller structures not use beaded siding like those of larger ones?  Also there was much activity about the paint on the kitchen. Is the white correct for these small buildings? And what color will the tin shop be?”

Edward Chappell, the Shirley H. and Richard D. Roberts Director of Architectural History, supplies the following answer:

The varied finishes on the outside of buildings in the Armoury and Tinsmith shop complex reflect the varied dates and functions of the original buildings.  Hand-manufacture and importation of materials made oil paints expensive in the 18th century.  Pine tar and limewashes were more economical choices.

Pine tar strengthened with iron-oxide red pigment was a common choice for riven (split) clapboards and shingles.  We have found it microscopically on the earliest frame parts of the Thomas Everard kitchen, applied before the walls were rebuilt with brick in Everard’s tenure.  The only painting contract to survive from early Williamsburg calls for tarring the roof of St. George Tucker’s kitchen with pine tar and iron-oxide pigment.  Applying this information to the Armoury property, we know that the tinsmith shop and the [Anderson] kitchen were built before the Revolutionary War and the rest of the Armoury complex.  They are the kind of ancillary buildings most likely to have been tarred.

The main Armoury building and workshop (not yet reconstructed) are perceived as being better-built during the Revolution than the smaller contemporary buildings like the storehouses.  Here there is a distinction is between higher and lower status, with oil paint on the principal buildings (the main Armoury building) and whitewash on the smaller and more cheaply built ones (the storehouse).

You may read more about the use and study of early paint in Williamsburg in the three first chapters of Architectural Finishes in the Built Environment, edited by Mary Jablonski and Catherine Matsen (London:  Archetype Publications, 2009).  The story of Williamsburg paint will be given more attention and broader context in The Chesapeake House, a book by Colonial Williamsburg architectural historians on early building in the region, to be published by University of North Carolina Press in March.

                                                                                     –Contributed by Edward Chappell, Director, Architectural and Archaeological Research




  1. Christine Hansley says

    Good morning Meredith and Ken,
    Jim H. and Dave S. beat me to the punch with their questions. Thanks for the great information.
    While Spring in CW is stil a few weeks away, can you tell us what to expect this year in the way of archaeology and building at the Armoury site?
    Again, thanks for all the great informative answers you give those of us far away in body, but there in spirit.
    Have a great Spring.

    • Meredith Poole says

      Good to hear from you, Chris!
      Spring is not too far off for the archaeologists. We plan to return to the Armoury on March 4, and to be there until mid-April (~ April 19). After a short break, we will be back around June 17, and will be on-site until sometime in early August.

      There will be plenty of building going on this spring, as well. The Tinsmith Shop, as you can tell from the Roving Webcam, is moving right along. That building should be finished, furnished, and opening to the public toward the end of April. Next up are the Workshop and the South Storage building, both of which are underway. Lots to see…thanks for keeping up with it all!

  2. Margaret says

    another question, why do the shingles on the kitchen roof appear to be different colors? It is a rainy day; does the moisture make a difference?

  3. Dave S says

    Very informative article as usual.

    Are the chimneys efflorescing? I see what appears to be white on the new chimneys. Or is it the angle of the sun? If the brickwork is efflorescing, was it common in the colonial days or is it due to a modern factor such as the environment?

    Please settle a bet. Are the blacksmiths making hardware for gates? From my vantage point, they could be working on palates or gates.

    We are looking forward to a fall visit.

    • Kenneth Schwarz says

      Dave- The chimneys are indeed efflorescing. According to Colonial Williamsburg brickmaker and brick mason Jason Whitehead, this is a common occurrence in masonry work. In this case, moisture in the mortar dissolves salts from the lime and leaches through the bricks. As the moisture reaches the surface and evaporates, salt from the solution is deposited at the surface of the bricks leaving a white powdery deposit known as efflorescence.

      As for your bet- I hope that you voted for gate hardware. We are indeed making and installing gate hinges for pasture gates. These hinges are not surface mounted, but rather pass through the heavy framework of the gates. The hinges have a square shank, so we bore a round hole, and burn them out square to receive the hinges. You can see the stack of gates in front of the shop.

      The only palates currently on our site are the ones that we bring into the kitchen for our rations at the dinner hour.

      • Chuck Trefz says

        When I asked about the efflorescence in November, I was told that the mortar used may also be a factor. Hopefully the efflorescence will dissipate soon, as the mortar cures.

  4. Jim H. says

    Thanks for the answer Meredith. You did understand my question. I knew the white lead paint was expensive (and restricted in use during the war), so I was wondering about the selection of white for the interior. Makes sense to add light on the interior, just was wondering if that was period correct for the Armoury. Having whitewashed an old house in the past, I can appreciate its use based on expense. Never thought about whitewashing the inside, that’s all. Thank you again.

  5. Kerry says

    Thank you CW staff for bringing us up on such good and interesting facts about paint and structure in CW.
    In my 40 years of visiting Colonial Williamsburg I have seen many changes due to constant research .If sometimes you all feel, do they really care? I can tell you we do. I hope the Armoury project will be part of your live school telecast. I have seen a few of our youth lately who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  6. Jim H. says

    Fascinating answers….it is always interesting to read about how the finishes were determined to be correct for the buildings. I look forward to reading “The Chesapeake House” when it is published to learn even more. Thanks for taking the time to post these answers….But I do have a question – is the finish the same on the inside as the outside? For example, the Armoury was painted white inside and out. Was the type of finish the same “white” during the period or was there a different derivation of the color for the different applications?

    • Meredith Poole says

      I hope I understand your question. The white oil paint (requiring white lead) used on the exterior of the Armoury’s main building–aka the blacksmith shop–would have represented a rare and significant expense (see posting from March 12, 2012: “Cream or White”). That expense was not likely repeated (or necessary) on the interior of the building. The same brightening effect could be achieved by applying whitewash (a cheaper alternative), as we have done. Whitewash was, according to Architectural Historian Jeff Klee, a kind of default finish on plaster, but could be used on other surfaces (sheathing or brick) when it was important to increase light levels inside a building. Of course many more humble buildings had no interior finish at all.

      We have elected to use whitewash inside the blacksmith shop and the tinsmith shop (a tar-painted building) to increase the interior light. We have also used whitewash (over plaster) in the kitchen, but there we have archaeological evidence for its use. Excavation in 2010 resulted in recovery, outside the kitchen foundations, of chunks of plaster with multiple coats of whitewash on the surface.

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