Roundtable: Best Practices in Surface Prep

APC is proud to publish the first in a series of periodic round-table discussions. Powered by toolmaker Festool, this discussion invited highly regarded professional painters from around the country to discuss and share their insights on the profession.

In addition to moderator Michael Williams of Festool, the conversation included Warren Nyline of Warline Painting in Vancouver, B.C.; Paul Schmidt of Chicago’s Schmidt & Co. Painting and Decorating; and Nigel Costolloe, of Catchlight Painting in Brookline, Mass. The guys chatted about a wide range of topics relating to surface prep, from preferred primers and project obstacles to common mistakes and education in the craft. We hope you find it entertaining and useful.

Michael Williams: Guys, thanks so much for taking part in this discussion to share your insights. When it comes to surface preparation, take us through your process. How do you go about getting ready, and what aspects of the surface do you examine to understand what steps need to be taken to complete the project successfully?

Warren Nyline: Most of the surface prep we need to do tends to be on wood-surface homes. We see a lot of older homes over here, in the neighborhood of 80-110 years old. Many of them haven’t had any type of painting or prep work on them for the past 10 to 20 years. Sometimes, homes are beyond a state of repair, and when we take a look at these types of projects, we make an assessment: Is this something that we can repair? Or is this something that would be better with siding and wood-replacement on it? If it is a surface that has been neglected to the point where we can’t repair it, we bring our crew in who basically removes it and installs new siding and new trim. When we’re looking at something we can repair, we analyze how much time we need to spend and the proper type of machines to use, and we basically do our repair work to the point where we can then prime and paint it. Every house is different, every project is different and we try to do the best we can with what we have. It’s usually just coming in there and taking a look at what can be recovered and what can’t, and then we present options to the homeowners and go from there.

Paul Schmidt: For me, the level of prep is decided at the sales call. What are their expectations? Are they looking to buy a Rolls-Royce, or are they looking to buy a commuter car with no bells and whistles? That determines the level of prep. But they’re all going to be solid jobs, it’s just the finish, sanding, how smooth they want everything to be. After that, we can determine which direction we’re heading in.

Nigel Costolloe: Working in the Boston area, the blessing for us is that we’re working with architecturally interesting homes – places with a good bone structure. But that means there are usually also several coatings of paint, leaving a pretty high paint thickness. The challenge of that, of course, is working around lead paint, but we see that as an opportunity to upsell what we’re doing, not downsell or create a threat to the customer. We just let them know how safely and competently it can be handled. Also, we try not to replace all old wood with new wood because we find new wood challenging to work with or it can be too soft, and we do a lot of work with epoxies.

Michael Williams: Being from Boston, I imagine you’ve painted some pretty old homes. What’s the oldest home you’ve ever painted?

Nigel Costolloe: We painted an inn, which was one of the first inns Paul Revere supposedly rode his horse past, when he yelled “The British are coming, the British are coming!” It had crooked walls, very low ceilings – there’s even some original, very uneven hand-cut, hand-sawn siding. That was a pleasure to work on. That place probably goes back 250 years.

Michael Williams: When you’re presented with a project where paint has begun flaking off, how do you know what the best way to go about remedial action is?

Warren Nyline: In Vancouver, there are very few companies that do the proper painting work that is required on a house. People will call us and call two other companies to get bids, and quite often, one of the other two companies they’ll look at is one of those companies that are everywhere, these types of college-pro companies, where really they just come in and do a little bit of sanding, little cleaning things up, recoat it and get out. And their quotes are 50%, 60% or 75% less than what our prices are. I sit down and explain to the customer what reasonable expectations are and ask them what are they expecting out of this house. I then talk to them about the whole process and what is required to do the job properly. When we come across houses where we’ve found old coatings of lead paint – and unlike in the U.S., there are zero rules in Canada regarding lead paint – I start explaining to people the dangers of lead paint and what can’t be exposed when you’re sanding or scraping and chips and dust are going everywhere. It opens up an opportunity for us because people haven’t really given it any consideration. It then raises questions in our customers’ minds about the best way of doing this. And if they do have the proper budget for the project, we’ll almost always get hired, even though our costs will be quite a bit higher, because we walk them through what has to get done. So when we see projects where paint is chipping off, we immediately let the homeowner know that we need to eliminate this. We need to sand it; we also need to clean the dust and contain the paint chips, and we explain what’s going to be done. We see it all the time, where guys are working on older homes, and they’re literally taking a hand scraper and the paint chips are everywhere. You see it lying in people’s gardens, and the chips are going inside their homes … it’s quite a significant health issue.

Paul Schmidt: I have made a conscious business decision to avoid as much as possible, within reason, lead jobs. But it is nice to have that ability to do those. We are a lead-certified firm, but being a small company, I try not to take the really big peeler jobs anymore. But I will do the small things. It is nice having that ability to deal with lead if needed.

Nigel Costolloe: We get a lot of inquires about why something is peeling, and most of the solutions are pretty obvious. They tend to have a lot to do with really poor workmanship on the behalf of some painter from some point in the past. We have walked into situations in the past where a paint film looks fantastic and then once we get into it, it just starts rolling off and peeling off on sandpaper, and you realize you’ve just inherited someone else’s mistake. So we always test very aggressively to make sure there are no hidden issues before we start a project. And if a customer balks at the investment we’re going to make into their home during prep, then they’re not the right customer for us, and we’re definitely not the right contractor for them. I’d rather do it the right way, rather than take shortcuts just to sell a job.

Michael Williams: What surface prep mistake do you most commonly see other contractors do, in general, and which steps in the prep phase are most often skipped and cause long-term effects?

Nigel Costolloe: It always comes back to sanding. So someone may have cleaned, used a sanding solution or paint-softening solvent, but had actually not sanded, and there is zero-concrete mechanical bond between the coatings. And that goes back beyond McMansions and sometimes even impacts houses that are 200 years old. I think a lot of painters in the old days expected that if you just put oil on top of oil, the oil did such a good job wetting the previous coating that it would just stick to anything. And I think that probably looked to be the case for maybe up to five years after the job was complete. But over time the oil just becomes brittle, and then the errors start.

Warren Nyline: Regarding mistakes by earlier contractors, we are based on the edge of a rain forest where it’s raining eight months of the year, so there’s a real high mildew issue here, and we don’t see the proper cleaning that gets done. We’ll find various coats of paint that have peeled off, that are not binding quite often when that first paint is flaking off. We can take a look underneath that and the surface below that is completely black with mildew. It’s the cleaning that I think gets zero attention. Guys just give it a quick rinse off, call it a house cleaning and then it’s done. They don’t address the underlying mildew issue.

Paul Schmidt: Yeah, it runs the gamut. I’ve seen how people paint over dirt and hand grease. Some have made the transfer from an oil system to an acrylic system, but still didn’t properly select their primer for the transition.

Michael Williams: So how do you choose the right primer?

Warren Nyline: When we’re going down to any type of bare wood, we tend to stick with more of a slow-drying oil primer. We tend to sand things to a sound level surface, and then we’ll use any number of oil primers, depending on the circumstances.

Paul Schmidt: Yeah, I like the oil primers a lot. But the length of the job comes into play in my primer selection. How long are we going to be on-site? Do we have the time to wait for the long oil primer? While I will use acrylic primers when I need to, I’m not fully sold yet on the acrylic systems.

Nigel Costolloe: I tend to make those decisions with my foreman, who has many more years of painting experience than I do. But we are both firm believers in the advantage that most well-formulated acrylic primers have over the old oils at this point.

Michael Williams: Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known earlier in your careers?

Paul Schmidt: For me, I wish I had gotten into spraying more. I wish I had learned that aspect. I’m a little late in the game as far as my career. I’ve been in the trade for 28 years now, I’ve only been spraying for the last 15, and I wish I had gotten into that or learned more about it. I feel like I’m behind the times as far as keeping up with technology.

Warren Nyline: For us, some of the things I wished I learned earlier in offering a business are more related to the business side of things, more of the management side of things as far as the painting part of it. We do spend some time reading the magazines and looking to the forums, and we get interesting ideas. But there’s room for so much more.

Nigel Costolloe: I will happily add that I was the most ill-informed, uneducated and clueless painter when I started my business. I made every mistake in the book the first 10 years, and there was really no resource for me to turn to. I must have bought 12 different textbooks that had huge amounts of information on carpentry and one book on painting. So I learned more about wood than paint, and it took me a few more years to discover the PDCA. It’s an interesting conundrum, because I think we’d all agree that most painting companies continue to make atrocious decisions, whether it’s training their own people or doing the right thing by the customer and applying paint properly. There really is no barrier of entry to our industry, which can be a challenge.

Michael Williams: Which we will get into during our next round table discussion. Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time and for your insights. I look forward to the next sit-down. APC


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