House Doctor

"TAKE HALF a kilo of rabbit skin glue. Soak in water overnight. Meanwhile dissolve 10 kilos of ground chalk whiting in five litres of water. Melt the rabbit skin glue over a bain marie and stir into the whiting. Add earth pigments to colour."

So far, so good. We have prepared distemper in the same traditional way as our forebears, and are about to paint the bedroom using a material with a thousand year history.

Unfortunately, the next bit, which may be roughly translated as "slap two coats on walls and go down the pub", does not work out quite so smoothly. The people who wrote the glossy book on period finishes did not, apparently, try it out for themselve; or, if they did, didn't have the same experience as me - the whole thing congeals into a thick gelatinous goo which laughs at my feeble attempts to brush it onto the cottage walls.

Obviously, the drawback with distemper - and it doesn't tell you this in the glossy book - is that it has to be kept warm to stop it congealing. It was only while I was standing there, vainly trying to smear a brushload of chalk and rubbery snots of glue onto the wall, that I realised for the first time why the metal tins that professionals pour their paint into are called "kettles". Obviously, in the good old days, it must have been common to apply paint warm, so the paint kettles were floated around in a bath of hot water, probably stirred and tended by the painters' apprentice or labourer.

My own labourer having unaccountably taken early retirement, I opted for a bit of improvisation, as follows: "Pour half-a-litre of the mixture into a sawn-off plastic water bottle and microwave for two minutes until smooth and useable. Don't hang about. Slap it on and if it starts stiffening in the pot then microwave it again."

I'm all for traditional materials but I see nothing wrong with a few modern tricks to help things along. So why bother with a warm water bath when you can stick your distemper in the microwave to keep it flowing?

The final result is brilliant; soft pastel shades of colour and a thick chalky texture that covers up all the dents and imperfections in the battered surfaces beneath. My first attempts were a bit too chalky - the distemper came off when I rubbed my hand over the surface - but an increased dose of the rabbit skin glue seemed to do the trick.

Real paint enthusiasts can join the Traditional Paint Forum and attend their conference in London in November. Call Una Richards on 0131 226 3345. You can get all the ingredients for distemper by mail order from IJP Building Conservation, 0118 969 6949.

Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon. co.uk

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