I spend a lot of my time as a professional painter fixing paint problems that were caused by people. Sometimes their choice of paint was a problem. More often, the way they painted was the bigger problem.
If you paint at any kind of level, you likely understand that the proof is in the pudding when it comes to creating nice results. When you get really skilled at painting, it doesn’t matter whether you are spraying, rolling, brushing, or any combination thereof, the application method is just the medium – the thing standing between you and the result you seek. The goal is to be able to use whatever means at hand to get there.
Renaissance men in literature were revered for being “skilled in all ways of contending”, and the romantic in me holds the art of finishing to that same standard.
I am lucky to be able to work on all types of interior/exterior finishes and see how paint problems happen, and which ones cause failure. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to fix finish issues. Working on exterior surfaces in the summer gives me the “bulldozer” perspective on painting. Exterior paints have to hold up to the elements, which is no small feat. While interior finishes are more Porsche than bulldozer. The sequencing of prep and painting for exterior trim is not all that different from interior, just different products. But, of course, product drives process. So while similar, everything is different.
Professionally, I am either taking finish off or putting it on most of the time.
Each process comes with a sequence of steps requiring consistent habits to eliminate paint problems.
What are paint problems?
On exterior surfaces, paint problems are those technical things that happen during application that prevent paint from remaining intact on the surface over time. Think flaking or peeling paint as obvious examples. Interior finishes fail in different ways, and it is usually not the fault of the product, but rather the application process. Dramatic interior failures are rare, and more subjective.
If you take finishing seriously enough to continue chasing the dragon of perfection, then you might at times feel like anything short of perfection was a failure. And perfection is elusive.
Number One Cause of Finish Failure…
Without doubt, the biggest way that people create paint problems that lead to finish failure is by over applying paint: putting too much on at once. It is counterintuitive, I know, and almost like some stubborn vestige of good old fashioned common sense. More paint will hold up better, right? In the old days of old products, sure. And again, regardless of your particular finishing discipline or interest, the same basic truths seem to hold.
As products continue to move toward EPA compliance, less is definitely more in the application of finish. Creating thinner layers can help with adhesion, but can make smooth lay down of product more difficult. In spraying, we refer to the thin coat build technique as “tack coats”. It is easier to get a thin coat of finish to adhere (hold) to a thin layer of itself than to get a heavy coat of the same finish to hang on the substrate.
Where Finishes Fail the Most
The most common problem I see in the entire range of paint jobs that failed is the user tendency to apply way too much material on the edges of wood surfaces. It is not a conscious decision, it just sort of comes with the lack of control of the application tool and the finish.
It is the “eye” for finishing that I talk so much about. We call them “fat lips” or “fat edges”. They are common on large and narrow surfaces. They happen both vertically and horizontally.
Attitude: Still Everything
Let’s face it, most people don’t really enjoy preparing surfaces, and consider painting a necessary evil at best. Both of these traits breed paint problems that often lead to failure. I have written in the past about how to trick yourself into learning to love the things you hate about your projects. It is a mind game. The hate of certain aspects of a project is usually rooted in fear. Mastery creates the confidence that eliminates fear.
If you hate to paint, don’t paint. Hire someone who is good at it.
You are probably expecting me to reveal some esoteric finishing tricks or tips, like some Zen “don’t be there” when failure approaches, but it is really the most incredibly basic practices that create success. Easy to say, harder to do.
Finishing is different every time. And you have to make it more the same, by being regimented in everything from your basic habits, to workshop/jobsite environment and processes. The best finishers I know are highly ritualized, almost instinctual. If something does not look or feel right, they will NOT proceed. Keep in mind, finishes are really only to be appreciated by the tactile and visual senses. It is subjective appeal. Their performance is the only big picture concrete evidence of how you did as the finisher, and believe it or not, that too is detectable by the senses. You can tell when you nailed it. But you have to nail it a few times consistently to know what you are looking at.
Tips for Avoiding Paint Problems:
Easing edges – This is where good “edge hold” begins. Breaking, or easing, wood edges is essential to the tactile experience of those who might appreciate your results, and the finish also appreciates having a bit more surface on the edge to hang onto. In a nutshell, those are the reasons to do it. It is detailed work, and has to be done with precision, because those edges define the “lines” that your piece will take, the form.
Sometimes just for fun I hack into a maple log with a grinder just to see what form the rough grain wants to take. Do this for an hour and you will learn to love the simple act of edge easing as part of your surface preparation ritual on wood trim.
Working from the Edges In – When finishing, whether by brush or sprayer, try focusing on the perimeter of the piece first, then blow down the middle. This is the same mindset for me as a day on the mountain with my snowboard. First couple of runs, I will noodle the edges, then I want to cruise the middle. Use the whole mountain, with discretion. The finish applied to the edges first helps to “frame” what you will fill in the middle with. Of course, keep it all wet at the same time for uniform laydown.
Sighting Down – In any phase of finishing (removing undesired finishes, applying new finishes, or scuffing in between coats), always be feeling your surfaces and sighting them down from different angles. In the shop, we use LED inspection lights from all different angles. It is important to do this constantly so that if you see any issues, you can address them during the limited window of opportunity presented by wet finishes that are trying to tack up. Same premise holds on exterior, just using natural light and different products.
This is a lot to think about, especially while finishing. That is why it is critical to make them habits, so you don’t have to think about them. It is much more fun when you can just appreciate what is happening at your fingertips.
Plug in some of these habits, even if you already know you should be doing them, and especially if you think you already are.