Period restoration: most satisfying renovation is an inside job

Part four of this series looks at working on the delicate interiors of older properties

The internal restoration work on a period house is arguably the most satisfying. Once the structural work is complete and an external repair and maintenance programme is in train, homeowners are usually ready to face the more delicate and rewarding aspects of restoring internal joinery and plasterwork. It is, after all, these aspects of your home that you interact with most. The subtle enjoyment gained from opening and closing sash windows and shutters or walking up a restored historic staircase is why most owners bought these properties to begin with.

Retired lecturer in construction technology at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Peter Clarke, is an expert in historic internal joinery – staircases, windows, doors, skirting boards and wall panelling. He is adamant that restoring internal joinery is a far better option than putting in new staircases, windows and doors.

With a staircase, for example, the key is to draw on the skills of a conservation joiner, who is willing to put in the painstaking work of repairing any damaged treads and risers, balusters and handrails. The conservationist’s mantra of doing “as much as necessary but as little as possible” applies to internal restoration works as much as external. Conservationists are also adamant that any new works are reversible, so that in the long term, the original building materials are recognisable and retrievable.

Take, for example the bullnose (the edge of the tread on a stairs), which often gets damaged over time and use. “You can bore a hole into it with a jig saw, cut back at an angle and take off the damaged piece, remake a new piece and put it back in,” says Clarke. Damaged balusters can similarly be repaired. A conservation joiner will take care to use appropriate glues and woodworking adhesives, as many of the modern off-the-shelf ones are not suitable for conservation joinery.


Original examples

The key with all restoration work is to seek out original examples – if they are still available – so that you can know what you aim to achieve. The style and design of front doors and fanlights is a case in point. If you’re lucky, there will be some original examples of both fanlights and panelled doors on your street or square.

Doors were handmade by joiners until the early 19th century and it’s fascinating to observe the different raised or sunken panelling styles with mouldings and learn how each panel was carefully fitted into place on the door – allowing the wood to expand and contract over time.

“Original doors are perfectly restorable. Old timber is much better quality than modern timber. Cleaning down and painting doors keeps them well maintained for a long time,” says Clarke.

What to do and not to do in terms of window restoration is a widely debated subject amongst period homeowners. Conservationists are usually adamant that single-paned sash windows should not be replaced by double-glazed windows – even if the double glazing is fitted into original window frames. A practice called secondary glazing – where an extra panel of glass is fitted onto the windows for the colder months of the year – is what’s preferred. Some people are also very attached to the original handmade glass – which refracts light in exquisite patterns in a way that more modern glass can never do.


“Historic windows have an irreplaceable quality and are vital to the character of historic buildings. They will outlive any guarantee given on replacement windows,” says Nessa Roche, architectural conservation adviser and author of

A Guide to the Repair of Historic Windows

, published by the

Department of Arts


Heritage and the Gaeltacht

, downloadable free on

Some local authorities have stricter rules than others about whether single-glazed windows can be double glazed in listed buildings. A consultation with the local authority conservation officers will clarify matters and help you work out your options for repair and restoration.

The cornices, friezes and decorative panels on walls and ceilings are often the most treasured internal feature of 18th and 19th century homes in Ireland. The quality and quantity of decorative plasterwork in Dublin is unrivalled by any other European city, according to art historian, Peter Pearson. Decorative plasterwork was a feature in modest Georgian houses, although much of it hasn't survived.

In houses that haven’t been cared for, the plasterwork is often incomplete and needs the attention of a plasterwork restorer, who will remodel replacements by hand. Before this can be done, however, the exact original materials will be analysed. Over-painting, which obscures the original details of the plaster, is one of the most common problems in Georgian houses.

Once the layers of paint are removed – using solvent-based paint removers – any defects will be seen. Andrew Smith is a historic plasterwork conserver. Once the location of the missing elements on ceiling or wall panels is identified, he begins the repair.

"I model a core coat, which is a bit coarser, and leave it to dry for up to a week. Then, I finish it off with a smooth coat of lime and plaster," explains Smith. Two coats of distemper paint are added at the end. If the damaged area is a repeated geometrical pattern, a mould can be used for the repair work. The Irish Georgian Society has a register of skilled conservation craftspeople who have expertise in internal joinery, plasterwork and other restoration skills for period houses. See Hands On: The Art of Crafting in Ireland by Sylvia Thompson (Liberties Press) has a section on restoration and conservation crafts

Passion for the past: restoring a Dundalk Georgian house

Stephen Hickey set out to restore a Georgian mid-terrace house in Dundalk within a year of its purchase for €45,000 in 2012. Now, almost three years later, he is still in the midst of a massive restoration project but remains passionate about the detail of everything he tackles. He is recording the work in progress on his blog.

The three-storey house on St Mary’s Road – one of the oldest streets in Dundalk – is within a few minutes’ walk of the town centre, has a private back garden and off-street parking in a mews, for which Hickey got planning permission to create a wider entrance.

Working with a conservation architect, Hickey set out all the proposed works to the house in a 60-page method statement. “We decided to submit everything together – all structural reinforcements [there was one large crack in the external wall from top to bottom of the house], electrics, plumbing, adjustments to the rooms [the front reception rooms were divided but an earlier arch connecting them was re-discovered],” explains Hickey.

As the house is on the record of protected structures in Co Louth, Hickey consulted with the local authority conservation officer to check what would and wouldn’t be allowed before submitting the planning application. So, for example, double-glazing in windows were ruled out so Hickey opted for replica simple glazed sash windows for the front and reused original single-glazed sash windows in the back, drawing on the skills of conservation joiner Pat Lynch. All the original shutters were kept. A 1960s fireplace was removed, a fireplace dating to 1900 was kept and another bricked-up fireplace opened up again. He has since sourced an original 1820s fireplace for the first-floor sittingroom.

Work is now complete on the second floor with a bedroom and bathroom fitted out. Lime plastering has been put on the walls of the first floor and the ground floor level has new flooring – complete with under-floor heating.

Johnny Duffy, Eco Isle building contractor is relatively new to conservation building methods but embracing the techniques as the job progresses. “We saved all the floorboards, skirting boards, doors and architraves to see what’s salvageable. Recognising that breathability needs to be maintained throughout the building is new for us, but lime is nice to work with,” says Duffy.

Removing paint from stairs, doors and shutters is a job that Hickey is taking on himself. “Stripping paint is an absolute torture but if you want a proper paint finish, it has to be stripped back,” he says. He removed tongue-and-groove floor-to-ceiling panelling from the original bathroom and stripped, sanded, primed and painted it himself before having it reinstated in the new bathroom on the second floor. He also had replica skirting boards made for the second floor bedroom.

The stairs is a labour of love. He estimates it takes about 45 minutes to strip one baluster on the stairs. He has also commissioned a joiner to carve and fit in place the 14 missing balusters. “The monkey tail at the end of the stairs is missing and I’m getting one copied to put in place,” says Hickey.

Meanwhile, Hickey has taken photographs of the work in progress and chronicled each major task. “The blog has really exploded in the last few months. I’ve had about 21,000 views in total.”