Painting One Side of the House per Year

Painting through the no-see-um hour.

My grandfather had a place on a lake and every summer he’d paint one side of it. On a weekend morning he’d go to the paint store for primer and paint (dark red with white trim) and get out his ladder, scraper and brushes. He’d scrape off any little blemishes of loose paint and prime them. In the afternoon he’d get a beer from under the house where he kept them cool, then he’d go inside to watch the Boston Red Sox on TV. The next day he’d spot paint over where he’d primed, then he’d start painting that side and work until the baseball game came on. The following weekend he’d do more of the same and by the time Carl Yastrzemski stepped up to the plate on Sunday one side of the house was done, brushes cleaned and put away and Gramp was in his chair with a Narragansett.
When I tell people I paint one side of our house a year they generally say something like, “That’s ridiculous. You don’t need to paint a house that often.” It’s true enough, there are houses in this town that haven’t been painted since the Nixon administration. Here’s the thing, the longer you let it go the more work and money it’s going to be when you get around to it. The experience of painting a house where the paint is well maintained is totally different than painting a house that has been let go. Our house, when we bought it, was a good example.

Our place used to be orange. People in the neighborhood told us it was so garish that floatplane pilots used it to line up their landings at the cruise docks. The next owners had spray painted a thin coat of two-tone cover; mud brown on the lower half with a flesh colored upper. This change confused the pilots. With many years since a proper painting it took us weeks to prep and paint. Sweeping out under the eaves it rained spiders and flaking latex. Then we debrided most of the body paint with a pull scraper and wire brush. Priming and painting was expensive because it involved the whole house at once. When it was done, it looked great and since then we’ve done a side a year just like my grandfather would do.

Advantages of painting one side per year:

Once a house is well painted, doing one side per year is fast because there is very little prep work. It takes between 24 and 30 person-hours, start to finish. You sweep the walls and under the eves then start brushing. Some people rinse the wall first to remove dust and pollen. I usually omit that because I don’t want to wait for it to dry. Also, the weather regularly gives the house a pretty good rinse and the paint has never ‘not stuck’ because of dust. Most people around here wouldn’t consider starting to paint the house in September but one wall is totally doable in a long weekend.

Painting is one of the most cost effective things you can do to protect your home. A gallon of good paint is around forty dollars. We use about two gallons of the body base color per side and a half-gallon of trim paint. If you paint regularly you can do just one coat, though the weather side will usually want two. If you find rot, a loose board or failing window caulk, they’re easier to deal with than if you let them go for years. Since you’re only doing the one side you don’t gloss over things in the rush to get it all done. Also, you’re not under the gun to get to the next job so you can pick your weather.

Painting biases.

Everybody’s got their own painting biases. Mine are no oil base paint, no power washing and no spray painting. My grandfather used oil based paints. I use latex because it’s less toxic, blisters less, cleans up with water and is able to expand and contract with the house better than oil base paint.
Power washing knocks loose paint off efficiently. The problem is that you inject the wood with water under pressure. Depending on weather and how much shade your house gets it can take between a week and a month for it to dry out enough to paint. The surface may feel dry but the wood inside isn’t. Not many people wait that long so the paint is prone to bubbling up when the sun hits it. Then you have to scrape and paint again.

I don’t spray paint because I don’t think the covering is as good and because prep involves taping sheets of plastic over windows, doors, etc. That’s time consuming and when you’re done the plastic goes in the landfill where it sits for the next few hundred years. Another thing I’ve got against spraying is wind.
When I first moved down to Juneau in the early 1980’s the old Bergman Hotel had live Irish music and a group of Irish guys with great brogues from the ‘auld country’ who hung out there. One of these guys, I’ll call him Tommy Makem, was spray painting the building and asked if I wanted some work. I was a student, it was extra money so I said, “Sure.” What could possibly go wrong?

Next day we started on the front. I should mention here that we were spraying it straw yellow. Things went well until afternoon when the wind came up. There’s us, three stories high on shaky scaffolding, when an upset young woman called to Tommy, “Hey! Your getting paint all over my car!” Sure enough, the wind had blown a fine yellow mist around the corner where we couldn’t see and pollinated not only her car but the whole line of them on the uphill side of Harris Street. Tommy, with his wonderful accent and most winning smile told her he’d be sure to clean her car as good as new. She bought it! She said okay and left. Tommy turned to me enormously pleased with himself and said, “Ah, Richard, sometimes you’ve got to be an awful liar in this world.”

Some essentials for painting:

Designated set of painting clothes: Unless you’re one of those professional painters who can wear a white shirt, white pants and white hat and never get paint on them. If you are one of those, how do you do that?

A 4” brush for large areas and a 1 ½” angled sash brush: Wooster brushes, still made in USA, are excellent. They’re more expensive initially but they can last for decades if you take care of them. With cheapo brushes the bristles fall out and you spend too much time picking them out of the paint and swearing. A roller on a long handle is especially fast on T-111 siding. If you’re in a hurry you can cut your painting time by a third by brushing the grooves and rolling the wide spaces. For clean-up, rinse brushes under running water until water comes through clear. The paint store sells a brush comb that makes getting the paint out of the brush a lot easier. When the brush is clean take it outside, shake it hard about ten times to get the water out, then hang it to dry. That’s what the hole in the handle is for.

Paint: A good paint store will help you estimate how much you need. Plus, they’ll keep your colors on file so that when you want more all you have to do is call them and they’ll mix up an exact match. Remember that everybody in town buys paint when the weather’s good so call a few hours in advance so you can just walk in and pick it up. With primers they’ll give a tint that will be easier to cover than stark white primer. The brush shouldn’t drag as you paint. If it starts to, either the paint needs thinning or the brush is drying out. Usually it’s the brush so it’s worthwhile to stop and clean it completely. When you’re doing a gallon at a time, thinning the paint probably isn’t needed. If you do thin it, go easy. Water thins latex but too much will ruin the paint.

Ladder: Spend the money to get a really good, strong ladder that will reach whatever you need to reach. Just do it. It’s way cheaper than a trip to the ER. Get a hanger for your paint can so you can hang it on a rung. Set the ladder at a proper angle, about 1 foot from the wall to every four feet in height. With your toes at the base, and your arms extended straight in front, your hands should just touch the rungs. If the angle is too steep you could fall over backwards like attackers in those castle storming movies. If the angle’s too low the ladder could buckle or the bottom could slide out from under you. When you’re working up high tie a short piece of rope on the third rung of the bottom half of the ladder and secure it to a stake a few feet in front so the ladder can’t slide out from under you. Use shims to keep the ladder legs level and if you’re working next to a drop-off, secure the upper ladder from the side so it can’t slide off the wall.

Somehow we’ve been handed this rubbish that household chores are what we do when we’d rather be someplace else. I think painting a house that has stood through hundreds of storms (and three small earthquakes), on a nice day, with eagles wheeling high overhead, hummingbirds in the flowers, and neighbors walking by with a nod and a “Looks good.” is an excellent place to be. And when the paint’s drying, even though ‘Yaz’ is long gone from baseball, and the game ain’t what it used to be, there might be a beer waiting under the deck.

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