When Paint Problems Happen

Written by on September 13, 2014 in Uncategorized, Wood Snobbery with 8 Comments
paint problems

Overuse of caulking is a common paint problem.

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.

paint problems

The author on an exterior paint removal project in 2014.

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

paint problems

Removing paint problems is easiest to do from the edges to the center.

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:

paint problems

Paint is less likely to fail on edges when the edges are lightly sanded to remove sharp edges.

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.

paint problems

The author sites down a freshly painted exterior sill.

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.





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  1. What's Your Problem? : The Blogging Painters | November 16, 2014
  1. Mike says:

    Scott, Thanks for the article. Looks like you like your work to last. That’s refreshing, as most of the guys I come into contact with are pure production. I’ve been painting for a while now, but am self taught, and am always trying to better myself. You mentioned too much caulk being a problem. What do you mean by that? And what are your experiences? I did some research regarding caulking, and found that there is a totally different guideline for Industrial than Home. There are some interesting things that I never considered like only wanting the caulk to touch two surfaces of a cavity rather than all three. There is also some kind of tape they lay down on the surface when caulking between, say a wall and a ceiling to break the surface tension. It’s not even available at most stores.

  2. joe monte says:

    One of my most interesting paint problems was the side of a two story house that was all clapboard siding. It had been painted twice previously and still peeled. The remedy we applied was to sand every clapboard down to bare wood because it had a “mirror glaze”on the wood from the factory knives spinning so fast while making the clapboard. “Breaking the glaze” is what it was called. The process is not done much by painters anymore. Usually it was a rookies job. I am enjoying your videos,especially the air assisted. Thank you

    • Scott Burt says:

      Hey Joe, thanks for your comment. YES, we still believe it is necessary to address “mill glaze”. In fact, we taught a class at a recent JLC Live show and discussed that as a critical prep step. Here is the vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivmXMq8YBCI Our spray expert, Todd, and I launched a paint training program a few years ago called Prep to Finish. So, be sure to subscribe to that video channel (in the link I just gave you) as well, for bunches more of our videos. We teach air assisted a lot these days! Cheers!

  3. Bruce Worley says:

    my email address is Bruce Worley is still working. Actually I retired from my home building company and now preparing to have our 115 year old house painted. is is all wood siding, some 100+ years old and some in place since 1980. I want the old paint removed to bare wood prior to painting. I am looking for a complete set of Specifications to use in the bidding process. There are many paint contractors in our neighborhood but not all are professional and this paint job will no doubt be my last. Am 81 and a Mechanical Engineer and also fell off a ladder 2 years ago and now family insists I am not to climb ladders !. Was lucky. Anyway I’d like to get a hold of paint spects for my next project. House is 2 story.
    Thanks Bruce.

    • Scott Burt says:

      Thanks for writing, Bruce. If you are able to hire a company to strip as you prefer, I would recommend Sherwin Williams Multi Purpose acrylic primer and SW Duration Satin on trim. Siding can be solid stain, such as Woodscapes, or could be primer, then paint, depending on the look you want. Stay off those ladders!

  4. Roger coulter says:

    Love this article Scott , it’s all in the prep… Then a quality Finish will get you the lasting result. Great info

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