Lead use in pre-20th c. buildings

Questions and answers relating to houses built in the 1800s and before.

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Lead use in pre-20th c. buildings

Post by swdd »

I am looking for information on lead use in American building construction, pre-1900's. History, application, positives and negatives of the material. I would like anybody's output but I need resources. I am taking a course in building conservation and will be writing a paper on the subject. Anybody out there who has a great interest in lead like I?
Thank you,

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Post by HB »

Lead was of course used for paint for quite a long time.

Lead solder was used to join sheets of tin to create raised seam metal roofs.

Lead pipes were in use for a long time, for drinking water and sewer pipes.

Lead solder was used to join lengths of copper pipes for indoor plumbing.

Lead "gaskets" were poured into joints to join lengths of cast iron pipes together for use in sewer and drainage pipes (search lead oakum)

Search the EPA website for lead. There are several research documents available that make note of the many uses of lead in and around peoples homes in the past.

Here's some trivial stuff.....

"White lead" was often used as a base for paint. There are a few publications out there that contain 18th century recipes for paint, when itinerant painters were mixing up paint on the site of the building being constructed.

I've been told by a professional restoration contractor that nearly all window muntins were painted white because that color of paint had the highest lead content and was therefore most able to withstand the weather that the muntins were subjected to.

I am an environmental engineer and I have had a lot of experience painting (water tanks) or removing paint (testing and sampling for lead remediation projects of metal bridge sand other structures) from metal structures. I can tell you for a fact that lead paint is one of the most durable coating systems available for these types of structures. It is probably one of the most durable coatings for wood and other materials as well. New acrylic paints have come a long way, but lead paint was a remarkable substance.

I building restoration, encapsulation of lead paint is an acceptable remediation technique. There are special products out there available for this purpose. I haven;t read the EPA regulations lately, but I don't recall that any special product is required for this remediation method - it's mostly the thickness of the encapsulant that matters. It may be that multiple coasts of your favorite Benjamin Moore color would provide an adequate thickness to consider the lead paint to be encapsulated.

I know, based on soil samples that I took around my house, that lead paint leaching off a painted tin roof is a reality. If children have issues with high lead levels, it's important to look around the exterior of the house for a source as well as the interior.

Certain plants are very good at drawing lead out of contaminated soil. (sunflowers come to mind) The plant's themselves must then be disposed of properly since the lead becomes bioconcentrated in their cells.

Good luck with your paper.


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Post by MrWinkey »

Thanks HB...That is quite intresting on the sunflowers and certain plants sucking the lead out of the soil....My wife loves sunflowers (I personally don't) but perhaps when were all done rebuilding and painting here I will plant some sunflowers in the soil around my turret. Guess you learn something new everyday?
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Post by lrkrgrrl »

Don't forget lead flashing: it's still one of the best materials for flashing. Long lasting, easy to work, flexible enough to tuck in around odd shapes neatly. It will last damn near forever, unless you run into an evil roof gremlin...Like an acquaintance from college who used to like to climb on the roof and play with the flashing....bad, evil roof gremlin....ripping chunks off and rolling them up and throwing them down to watch them go smoosh flat. Even though it is the most expensive for up-front cost, it is, like slate, the cheapest material for the purpose when priced out over functional life.

Lead in the soil also comes from chalking off of paints, bits and chips from scraping over the years, and from burning leaded gasoline. Although, it can also be there naturally, or in some places it is the result of mining or industrial messes...

Lead is like nicotine, really great stuff except that it's so bad for you....

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Post by Texas_Ranger »

Some parts of our house (i.e. apartments that haven't been renovated for ages) still have the old lead pipes, we have lead drains ourselves. The lead pressure pipes are quite porous by now, prior to replacing them with PEx and copper we had frequent leaks. Not to mention the lead values in the water were ten times the max. allowed by law...
Lead pipes are a beast to work with. As a kid I used to watch plumbers a lot when we had one of our annual leaks... There are no fittings. if two lengths of pipe are to be jointed, one is widened with a special tool and then the other one is pushed in and soldered. Soldering lead is an art... maybe my uncle will teach me some time. Still comes handy for drain work.
Back when we had a garage built, the excavators hit the lead water mains with a pick pretty hard. There was an indent almost 3/8" deep,,, but the pipe never broke... benefit of lead being so soft and flexible. A copper or let alone plastic pipe would have sprung a leak the second it was hit.

Edited for spelling
Last edited by Texas_Ranger on Wed Oct 26, 2005 10:15 am, edited 1 time in total.
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lead paint

Post by RosemaryT »

HB, that's very interesting about the lead paint. I know it was very durable and I wish it was still available as exterior house paint.

There's a Sears house in Washington, DC (a beautiful foursquare in original condition) that the National Parks Service bought in 1958 and the last coat of paint that this house received was a lead-based white paint.

Today, the house is getting ready to be torn down by the Feds, but having visited the place, I was STUNNED at the incredibly good condition of that decades-old paint job.

I agree with you, lead was some amazing stuff. It was the original aluminum siding in a can. :)

(Picture of the Sears House in DC that'll be torn down any day now.)

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Post by Don M »

What a shame that the house will be demolished. It is still just as square & solid as the day it was built. What do they plan on using the land for; why not sell it to someone who would appreciate the building? Don

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Not on Topic but...

Post by GLHA-Contractor »

That is criminal to rip that house down. Anyone got two I beams and three axles? I'll drag it back to Michigan and put it on a new lot. Can you imagine pulling up to the toll booth with that in tow? They would Freak!!!! :shock:
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Ralph Slate
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Post by Ralph Slate »

I've been told by a professional restoration contractor that nearly all window muntins were painted white because that color of paint had the highest lead content and was therefore most able to withstand the weather that the muntins were subjected to.

I have to most definitely disagree with this one. I collect postcards of old houses, usually taken within a few years of them being built in the early 1900's.

I would say that 99% of window muntins are painted DARK in these photos. Don’t take my word for it, I have a website with the postcards on it:


When I stripped my 100-year old windows (which were painted white), the base coat wasn't even paint -- it was some kind of stain, almost like pitch, but very, very dark. I repainted the windows dark and the visual difference was amazing.

That's what makes vinyl replacement window so egregious -- they are almost always a bright white, and that is not how the house was originally designed.

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Post by Edee »

Ralph, thanks for sharing the post cards, very cool.
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