The Importance of Preparation in Painting and Decorating
By Ian Stokes of Nouveau Decor
Let me start by asking a simple question: Why do we paint?
There are three main reasons that have been taught to generations of apprentice painters.
- Preservation and protection of the building fabric. That outer coating is the first line of defence against the elements or internal environment.
- You have a clean and cleanable surface keeping moisture and dirt out of the building façade, inside or outside.
- Aesthetics are all about appearance, blending into the surrounding environment, introducing colour to previously bland surfaces with the potential to inspire, enhance and uplift.
However, the final application, the finished product if you like, is merely the flourish – the hard work is done long before you even contemplate the finale.
To ensure a long-lasting and professional finish, the coating needs to adhere to a clean, consistent, stable surface – and you only get that from painstaking preparation and attention to detail.
I am not talking about a quick rub down and dust off here. I approach every job in the same meticulous way, starting with protecting the surrounding area, ‘sheeting up’ and the removal of as much furniture as possible. This is not just about protecting the client’s things but also saving my time and making the working environment as safe as possible. Cleaning up afterwards is thus much easier and it wastes less time if you start with a clean slate.
Then it is time to turn my attention to the surface. The final finish and the longevity of the job is entirely dependent on the quality of the surface I have to work on, but there are some important health and safety issues to consider too.
I know that sounds a bit boring but renovation can turn up some fairly alarming things. In older properties, if I am removing old paint, I have to careully consider what I am dealing with. New synthetic coatings are noxious enough, full of a cocktail of chemicals, but older variants can mean dealing with extremely dangerous chemical content such lead. And I have to be aware of asbestos too. I have to be sensitive to these dangers and the strict regulations surrounding them, not just for my own health but for that of my clients and other trades working on the property too.
Like many people, I used to use a blow torch, but these days I use Infrared speed heaters to peel off the layers. These work at lower temperatures which do not vaporise any lead content, making them much safer to use. I have a large one for bigger surfaces such as doors and cladding and my favourite ‘The Cobra’ for smaller areas and detailed stripping such as window frames. I have used them with great success on both metal and wood. I then have a trusty Mikra dust-free sanding system to achieve the smoothest possible finish.
Again, these are not plug and play machines. You have to think about what you are doing all the time. For instance, I always work on one metal panel at a time, on garage doors for example, because the metal does expand with the heat, quickly returning to its original shape as it cools. Do two adjoining panels at the same time and things may not line up quite as well as you hoped. An additional benefit of using these heaters is that they kill off mildew and mould spores, whilst pulling any moisture out of timber.
Removing old defective layers is vital. Every coating is only ever as good as what it is on top of, if that fails so does the new coating. So I always recommend where necessary stripping right back and starting again from scratch, so that you can get all the basics right.
Filling in is a skill, not a quick fix. Ready mixed, slap it on fillers are a disaster. Over the years I have tried dozens of products, but the important thing is to build up the surface, little by little, to prevent ‘slumping’ and give the filling more integral strength before sanding down. It takes time, and I have to be sensitive to the budget, but this approach delivers the best results.
This is where many DIY enthusiasts make their biggest mistake. They are in a hurry to start painting. They choose products that give them a quick fix, such as ready-mixed fillers and paints which need no undercoat or primers, and they do not remove all the old layers. It may save time but it does not deliver the finish or the stability of coating that a professional job will achieve. There are no short cuts, everything you leave behind will undermine the integrity of the finished job.
A professional needs to know the surface in detail and identify problem areas. Spot priming and abrading may be necessary, even between coats. It is not just a question of slapping on the colour and hoping for the best. Not if you want the job to last.
Lastly, dust, which is where my dust-free sander comes in. No matter how good your sheeting is or how efficient you are with a vacuum cleaner, dust is the biggest enemy of a good finish. The sander helps greatly but you always need to be aware and get the area as clean as you can before you start, and leave it clean when you finish.
Preparation is all about patience and attention to detail. Especially in older properties, every wall can be different and you never really know what you will find when you strip off the old paper.
Ian Stokes started out as an indentured apprentice with a local authority, where he spent eleven years as a direct labour painter and decorator working on all sorts of projects. He then moved on to a local authority for ten years in a similar role before setting up on his own in search of new challenges.
Along the way, Ian started lecturing in painting and decorating, gaining a teaching qualification, and dedicated a lot of time to learning about sustainable, natural and traditional paints. As you will see from his articles, he is passionate about natural restoration and a true master craftsman.