Top 10 Renovation Books

We restoration professionals make it look easy. To you, it seems like we always know why there’s moisture coming through your chimney walls, what color you should paint your house and where to find replacement tiles for your fireplace. Homeowners think we’re born with this knowledge, but in truth, we’ve just lived through more than our share of renovations. Besides our tools and experience, each of us maintains a reference library that we use constantly.

Victorian Home Fireplace

If your fireplace looks like this and you’re desperate to fix it up, consult these books first. (Photo: Thinkstock)



Here are my suggestions to those starting a library of their own (listed in no particular order).


1. Renovating Old Houses: Several folks have asked me to write a book on old house renovation. When I saw George Nash’s text, I realized that I didn’t have to! Beautifully written, Renovating Old Houses focuses specifically on what goes wrong with vintage structures, and digs deeply into subjects that other construction books skim over or avoid entirely. You may never undertake these tasks yourself, but at least you’ll understand what your contractor is going through. There’s a career’s worth of knowledge in here.




2. Carpentry & Construction:  This is a great comprehensive book on the nuts and bolts of carpentry and construction.  It’s an excellent reference when you’ve got fundamental questions on the whys and hows of your house’s workings. Broader in focus than Renovating Old Houses, Mark R. Miller’s book touches upon every minor and major aspect of any house’s systems and structure.





3. The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors through the Camera’s Eye, 1860-1917: American Interiors through the Camera’s Eye, 1860-1917: 

A revolutionary book when first published, every house museum curator still seems to have a copy.  It’s a brilliant collection of period interior photographs, and one can spend hours leafing through them and discovering new details. A must-have for selecting details for a Victorian interior.




4. Victorian Exterior Decoration: How To Paint Your 19th-Century American House Historically:

Drive through any gentrified neighborhood of restored homes, and you’ll be able to pick out which homeowner didn’t read Victorian Exterior Decoration: an indispensable resource for those wanting to know what their house probably looked like when it was built. It is helpful not only for selecting color choices, but also for guidance in avoiding the overly fussy color and chronological mistakes.





5. Victorian Interior Decoration: American Interiors: 1830-1900:  

A companion to Moss & Winkler’s book on exteriors, this is featured prominently in my library. An invaluable and reader friendly tome that assists one in choosing the appropriate interior finishes throughout the Victorian era. Abundantly illustrated, the book delves insightfully into pattern, color and scale, and stresses authenticity without being stifling. A great all-around guide.





6. Floor Coverings For Historic Buildings:

I’ve been a consultant on and sold historic carpets for years; this is the first book I turn to when a technical or aesthetic question comes up. In Floor Coverings, Helene Von Rosenstiel and Gail Caskey Winkler Wiley clears up so many misconceptions about old houses and leads one down the pathway to authenticity.





7. Lighting For Historic Buildings:

You’d be amazed how many folks are unaware of what was historically accurate for lighting in old houses. Many museums don’t point out that although their house dates from the 18th or early 19th century, it was subsequently piped for gas lighting and then wired for electrical service. Lighting illuminates what is appropriate for your period of interpretation.





8. Fabrics & Wall Papers For Historic Buildings: 

One again, this is the first book off my shelf when I have a wallpaper question.  Everyone involved with reproduction of historic wallpaper uses this text. We each receive frequent inquiries where someone sends in a tiny scrap of original wallpaper that they’ve found under a picture molding. Without this book, we wouldn’t know how to reply. And it’s fascinating to see how patterns, colors and materials evolved through the centuries, which Fabrics places these in a very logical order. Highly detailed, it seems to mention every type of woven good that was produced.





9. Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses:

Many of us are either working on houses that are missing original elements or we are seeking to add accurate embellishments. As such, we are often forced to turn to architectural salvage. Unbuilding shows how to preserve, evaluate and reuse the pieces of old structures that no longer stand. Great for design inspiration and structural knowledge as well.





10. Legal Guide to Home Renovation: Everything You Need to Know About the Law and Insurance, Permits, and Contracts: 

Surviving a renovation is more than rebuilding a bathroom or choosing appliances—the potential for financial liability is limitless. When you consider that even a kitchen can cost more than four years of private college education, one needs to be prepared for every contingency. This book doesn’t cover the pretty side of construction, but it will guide you through any potential legal issues regarding contractors, permits and property rights.




I promise that if you keep these books in your study, the answers to almost all of your aesthetic- and construction-related questions will be at your fingertips. There might be more information than you needed on any given subject, but that’s the beauty of these books. There are times when you will uncover a specific problem that no one locally knows the answer to. With these books, you can read as deeply as you’d like; in fact, you’ll often find yourself reading additional material just to educate yourself.


by Dan Cooper

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