Color Me Victorian

Painted Ladies
Painted Lady

Tricks of the Paint Trade

By Lance Waring
Photo by Doug Berry
Summer/Fall 2009

As career ski bum who’s lived in Telluride for 25 years without a trust fund, my resume is lengthy and diverse. Along with the usual retail and restaurant jobs, I’ve taught at the high school, worked in festival production, guided peak ascents, coached young athletes and served on town council. It may appear that I have a touch of occupational ADD, but I tend to downplay the one common thread in my working life. It isn’t glamorous—and I’m certainly squandering an expensive college education—but the truth is, I keep body and soul together by painting Telluride’s multicolored Victorian houses.

Over the years, I’ve dipped a brush in every shade of the rainbow. I’ve painted a house to mirror the delicate colors of a high-country columbine blossom and another to match the russet shades of the valley’s sandstone walls. My favorite was when a homeowner selected the color “atrium white” for the entire house—both inside and out. Painting the place reminded me of winter, which is always a pleasant thought for a ski bum. Telluride’s designation as a National Historic Landmark District doesn’t mandate specific paint colors on the exteriors of Victorian structures, though there is a list of historic hues for those who are interested in adhering to the look of the 1800s. Instead—and rightly so, I believe— color choices are left to the aesthetic tastes of each homeowner. Some are decisive; others need time and a series of test patches to choose the proper shade. Color selection can be the most difficult phase of the entire painting process, and I try not to offer my opinion. Only when coerced will I step in as a reluctant color consultant. I say “reluctant” because there are two mantras for a painter: First, it all paints the same; and second, it will look great from my house.

With that said, I confess that the finish I do see every day at my own residence is a mottled mess of intermittent opaque stain and exposed wood. The last time those weathered walls saw color was in the late ’70s, when the structure was expanded from the original miner’s cabin to its current shape and size. A fullscale paint job on the ramshackle house would require two months of hard labor. To protect the wood, I chose a simpler approach. By lightly sanding the cedar siding to remove loose flakes of old stain and then brushing on a moisture-and-UV-repellent clear stain, I sealed the entire house in only two days.

I’ve learned other tricks of the painting trade. Perhaps most importantly, I refuse to paint with oil-based products because I care about the environment and my health. Lead-based paint was outlawed in 1974 for home use, but only recently have paint manufacturers recognized that volatile organic compounds—VOCs—also cause cancer—and not just in the state of California where they were first outlawed in 2003. Five years ago, I resolved to work exclusively with VOC-free interior paints. They perform just as well as traditional formulas and are less toxic. And all major paint manufacturers now offer no-VOC options. Nevertheless, these formulas may still include toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, ammonia, ethylene glycol and crystalline silica. I look forward to the day when we use exclusively biologically inert products. Natural colorants were common in the past and give me hope for the future.

No matter what product I’m using, the act of painting is Zen-like—a time for me to quiet my mind through repetitive, focused motion. First, there’s the critical prep phase: Grit and meticulous determination are the foundation of a fine finish. Then comes the ghostly primer coat; now all the flaws and imperfections stand out. Every dark gap needs a smooth bead of caulk, and each nail hole begs for a dab of spackle that requires a light sanding after it dries. Finally, when the wood is prepped and primed, it’s time to lay down the topcoats.

A multi-colored paint job is nothing more than a series of carefully overlapping layers of paint. For the high-volume field coat, I prefer a stiff, blunt four-inch brush to work gallons of paint into the siding with long smooth finishing strokes. A nimble threeinch tapered brush works best when cutting in the trim around windows and doors. And sometimes I pull out a tiny half-inch brush to carefully follow the intricate curlicues of Victorian gingerbread with an accent color. When there’re multiple accent colors, I usually lay down the lightest color first and cut the finishing lines with the darkest shade. This saves time, as does cutting lines with only a brush, as opposed to using painter’s blue tape. Tape, admittedly, has its applications, but a good painter can cut a straight line with only a welldipped brush. I save high-traffic spots like doors and handrails— places where paint is quickly marred by day-to-day use—for the end of the job. Even though I know it’s fleeting, I like to present the temporary illusion of perfection while I pack up my tools.

That’s the flow of painting historic Victorian houses in Telluride, and most days at work are fairly predictable. At least they were until last summer, when a client asked me to distress her home’s exterior to match that “cute green shack on Pacific Street.” I assured her I knew the house well and was certain I could replicate the weathered finish. Who knew my own slapdash home could provide inspiration? Hiding my smile behind a dust mask, I picked up my orbital sander and got to work.

A Dozen Paint Tips

Many years ago, on my first day as an apprentice painter, I was assigned to paint a walk-in closet. I struggled mightily with the unfamiliar roller and brush in the cramped space. When I emerged, I’d learned the golden rule of painting: paint the house, not yourself. over time, I’ve learned a few other tricks:

1. Always carry a rag to keep hands and tools clean while working.

2. Purchase good-quality brushes. clean them well at the end of the day, and they’ll cut sharp lines for years.

3. Keep a paint file on record to facilitate ordering touch-up paints. in addition, label the lids of stored paint cans with indelible ink. include not only the name of the color, but also where the paint was applied (e.g. “exterior window trim” or “master bathroom”).

4. If the job lasts more than a day, wrap the rollers tightly in plastic bags and store them in a refrigerator overnight.

5. When pouring paint from can to bucket, use the brush to clean the lip of the can so that the lid will reseal tightly.

6. Avoid adding to the world’s vast supply of unused paint: Purchase paint locally and buy only the amount needed for the job. Underestimate your needs: a final quart or gallon is always available if necessary.

7. Roll first and then you’ll have a better feel for how much paint is required to edge.

8. High-quality paint covers better and lasts longer. this is also true of primer and stains.

9. Tinting the primer to a similar shade as the paint improves coverage and expedites the job.

10. When taking a break, cover the paint bucket with a plastic bag or damp rag and place it in a cool spot.

11. Use VOC-free paints indoors. Use water-based paints and stains outdoors. (the longevity of today’s waterbased products is usually equal to—and sometimes better than—oil-based finishes.)

12. Even with these tips, quality painting is harder than it looks. For a clean and efficient paint job, hire a professional.

Exterior Paint Versus Stain

When considering an exterior finish on raw wood, stain has many advantages over paint, especially in Telluride’s intense sunny, alpine environment. When paint dries, it creates a thin, protective membrane on top of wood, and after a few years, that layer will crack and peel. once paint has failed, it requires extensive sanding and careful priming before recoating. In other words, paint is labor intensive and short lived, Stain, on the other hand, penetrates into wood, thus preserving the timber. There are two types of stain, both of which are available in a water-base mix: solid body or semi-transparent (also called opaque). Solid-body stain can be mixed to any color, and the coverage is nearly indistinguishable from paint. Opaque stain has less pigment than paint, which allows the texture of the wood to show. Neither type requires an initial primer coat, so after the top layer of pigment fades and breaks down—a process that happens more slowly than with paint—stain doesn’t require as much work to recoat. Ultimately, stain lasts longer than paint and is quicker to reapply.