When preservationists approach the full restoration of the kind of historic homes that make New Orleans special, a comprehensive approach is key.
No detail is too small to overlook. Antique millwork, wooden floors, specific colors of brick and much more need to be matched perfectly to orchestrate a stunning restoration. But what about the paint?
In today’s world of quick-drying paints, which are specifically engineered to make it easy for busy professionals to spread a new color across a few walls over the weekend, choosing the right type of paint for a restoration may be more complicated than one would think.
“In terms of preservation, you don’t have very many options nowadays,” painting contractor Jason Bertoniere said. “If you want to try to keep the same look that your house had for the first 100 years of its life, you have to be very careful with your selection.”
Bertoniere was the craftsman behind the unbelievably glossy white walls in the living room of the St. Charles Avenue home that served as the Traditional Home Southern Style Now Showhouse, hosted in partnership with the Preservation Resource Center, this past May and June.
In much the same way that preservationists seek out carpenters and masonry workers that specialize in time-honored techniques, Bertoniere has built his business around a dedicated effort to carry on the techniques and methods that have guided European painters for hundreds of years — and were utilized by master craftsmen of New Orleans’ past.
“When I got into the business in 1997, the guy that I was working for was still brushing walls” in the old way, Bertoniere said. “I got in at the very end of the old timers with their techniques. I was indoctrinated by brush techniques, if you will.”
But it’s not just the technique that has changed — the actual paint itself has been dramatically altered.
“Domestic American paints have changed,” Bertoniere said. “[Paint companies have] added extenders, they’ve added fillers, they’ve put more water in the cans. The paint cans get heavier every year, and it’s not because the paint is getting better. They’re adding more filler and more extender, and they’re taking the resin out, because it costs money. Europe doesn’t do that. They refuse to diminish the product.”
All paint is made of tinted resin, which makes it easy to apply to a variety of surfaces. “Paint is basically glue,” Bertoniere said. Traditionally, paints can be judged by the quality and quantity of resin present, except for the American paints of the last 60 years, which have all been designed for ease of use instead of quality.
For the kind of paints that were used in historic homes when they were constructed, Bertoniere turns to the brand Fine Paints of Europe — which many visitors saw in the Southern Style Now Showhouse living room, designed by Shaun Smith.
Bertoniere painted that living room with at least 10 coats of lacquer paint, sanding in between each coat, to achieve the glossy, mirror-like effect.
His mix of craftsmanship and classic technique lends itself well to the application of Fine Paints of Europe’s lacquer, which also happens to be perfectly suited for the heat and humidity of New Orleans, even when applied to exterior doors and bathroom walls.
“In Europe, they also use it on boats, if that tells you anything about how durable it is,” Bertoniere said.
Much like many other aspects of historic preservation, more time and effort can go into something as innocuous as a paint job than you may initially expect. The key to success sometimes lies in the smallest brushstrokes.