On painting houses



According to Ed Breslin, completing the job provides an exhilarating feeling


In the case of actually having to paint your own house, you may at first feel the urge to kill. This impulse is especially common when the house is an old clapboard Victorian. In underworld jargon, the question “Do you paint houses?” is code talk for “Are you a contract killer?”

If, when faced with a daunting task, you’re prone to melodrama and self-pity, the person you may feel like killing is yourself. This probably does not apply if you’re in the growing movement of people living in “tiny houses.” Such houses are defined as being 400 square feet or less, about right for a dachshund. It wouldn’t work for me.


Twenty-five years ago I was faced with the task of painting our Victorian, reputedly built around 1845. It has 1600 square feet and lots of scrollwork and gingerbread. The contractors I talked to about doing the job were unfortunately operating under a pay scale out of sync with my wallet. I decided I’d do it myself.

I had of course to bone up on things. I went to the hardware store, where the people were incredibly helpful and patient. I bought an orbital sander, a caulk gun and tubes of caulk, various grades of sandpaper, two scrapers (one large, the other small), wood putty, a palette knife, and of course cans of primer and cans of finish coat. When we bought the house, it had been painted with Sherwin-Williams English Ivory, which we liked so much we stuck with it.

I fell in love with the names decorators come up with for paint. I’ve always had a secret ambition to name a racehorse because I find their names so poetic and evocative. Now I think I’d like to name a paint color, too. Then again, I fear I’d be hopeless at it. Still, the names for paint are also poetic and evocative.

painting-VRTAt any rate, my wife and I decided to retain the original color scheme the house had when we bought it, so I would at least have the considerable advantage of painting over old paint of the same color. “Cover,” as painting contractors call it, would not be a problem. That is, the old color would not show through and spoil the new color, necessitating an extra coat.

The trim was named simply Exterior White, the pedestrian winning out over the poetic.

I had to buy ladders, too. We already had a six-foot stepladder. But I had to buy a twelve-foot stepladder and two extension ladders, one 24 and the other 28 feet long.

In trying to hire the job out, in addition to talking to painting contractors I had spoken to several handymen. As with cleaning women who don’t do windows, handymen set limits on painting and on climbing ladders. The ones I tried said they didn’t do any work involving ladders or any outdoor painting because it was “dirty work.” I didn’t know then but would soon find out only too well why they felt as they did.

There was one other ominous word of warning issued. This came from my wife. She is an artist and paints away blissfully in her studio behind the house (I also have to paint this 500-square-foot studio). She said: “Painting is 90% preparation.” This is a classic example of understatement.

No one warned me about being up on ladders — especially extension ladders — when bees and wasps come to call. Also, no one told me wasps like to build nests under eaves and in attic vents. I had realized in my tutorials at the hardware store that I would be on a steep learning curve, but no one forewarned me of the incidental hazards to overcome. I was like a neophyte golfer never warned of the rough, of sand traps or of water hazards, or of obtrusive trees complicating your lie after a wicked pull or a berserk slice.

In my youth I had to do dangerous construction work and even more dangerous demolition work. Though depressed at the prospect of this daunting paint job, I was nevertheless determined to face down the challenge. Some readers, I know, would consider me brainless for this. Probably they’re right, but bear in mind I am still here to tell the tale.

I plunged in. The “prep work” was brutal. The orbital sander threw off paint over a century old and loaded with lead. My wife ran to the hardware store and bought me facemasks to thwart lung cancer. She also insisted I wear goggles, and with dirt and debris flying off the clapboard I soon found out why.

Not only was the work dirty, it was exhausting. My arms, shoulders, back, knees, feet and legs soon ached. I could only do six hours a day. This shocked me. In my youth, without fuss or trouble, I routinely did eight hours of construction or demolition work and took my wife to dinner and a movie that night. Now, when finished for the day, I soaked in a hot bath for 30 minutes and then took an Aleve and a two-hour nap.

The sun was yet another hazard. I wore a floppy hat, long-sleeve shirts and pants, and sunglasses under the goggles to protect me from sun poisoning and blinding glare. My hands had calluses, cuts and torn fingernails, but these were minor in comparison, as was the fine dust accumulating in my ears, nose, hair and eyes (despite the goggles).

Painting my own house was indeed arduous. I was soon fantasizing being cast in low-budget remakes as an inadequate substitute for Dustin Hoffman in Papillon or for Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. I skipped Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy on the grounds it was too preposterous a stretch, even for my outsize solipsism and paranoia.

Even as such paranoia hectored me, my denial sustained me. At some level I still think I’m 20 years old, lopping off decades in my delusion. I’m now approaching the age where you’re supposed to ask your doctor if your heart is safe enough for sex, yet I still think I could pin The Hulk at arm wrestling. The sad truth is, though, that on an off day when my arthritis is acting up the effort of opening a bag of chips can wind me.

But here’s the kicker. When it comes to painting our old house I’m addicted to the thrill of the “finish.” Once you’ve done the weeks of prep and then applied primer, finally comes the ecstasy of the finish coat gliding on to the boards as easy and satisfying as slathering a cake with icing. Then you stand back and admire your work after enduring phases of seemingly endless torture.

What was even better than gloating over your work was discovering a hidden lesson in all this. The experience of painting a house replicated for me the act of writing. This was a good thing. Every time I start a book I feel overwhelmed. Yet the satisfaction of standing back from finished work is the same, whether it’s a freshly painted Victorian pile or a pile of manuscript. Your patience has paid off, your persistence has prevailed. The finished product more than justifies the effort.


Thoreau remarked in Walden: “There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?”

I could never build a house safe for habitation, I fear. Yet painting my house gives me as close an approximation to that sense of accomplishment as I’ll ever get. When the work is finished, the satisfaction is exhilarating, a real killer of a good feeling.