Use Whitewash Instead of Paint for Traditional Look and No Toxins


House down the road from us

Brian KallerOur homes might be made of brick and plaster, our cars of metal and plastic, and our sheds and coops of lumber, but their surfaces – the part we see – are usually paint. Those flashy colours, though, often contain an alarming stew of ingredients – benzene, tricholoroethylene, formaldehyde, and many others – all of which flake off over time but never, of course, truly leave us. That’s not even counting the lead, now long banned, but which lingers in soil for generations.

So when our chicken coop needed some brightening, we took the old-fashioned route and whitewashed. Whitewashing was used on buildings here in Ireland into the late 20th century, only recently replaced by more dubious alternatives. Whitewash can consist of as little as two short ingredients – lime and water – that can be mixed and prepared with almost no energy in a few minutes. It is non-toxic enough that animals can actually lick it off with few or no ill effects, but antiseptic enough to discourage bacteria in the coop or dairy.

Lime refers not to the fruit or unrelated tree, but to a product made from burning limestone in a kiln. Limestone is mainly coral and shells of long-extinct sea creatures, squeezed over aeons into a solid mass of calcium carbonate, or CaCO3. When burned it vents carbon dioxide (CO2), leaving behind the volatile calcium oxide (CaO) or “quicklime.” When combined with water – hydrated or “slaked” – it becomes calcium hydroxide or Ca(OH)2, or simply called “lime.”

Humans have been creating lime this way for several thousand years, putting it to many uses; as a mortar for building, as an early form of cement, as an antiseptic ointment for animals or an anti-fungal coating for trees. A bit of lime could help remove hair from hides, sterilise water, bleach paper, deter slugs from a garden, or preserve eggs for months. It could be worked into boggy and acid soils to increase the fertility many times over. Also, it colours walls.

Its brilliant whiteness was valued here in Ireland, an island a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle where the winters grow very dark indeed. Cottages here were traditionally whitewashed in spring, as the rainy season gave way to the slightly less-rainy season, and again as part of the ritual leading up to Christmas.

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