Fixing Painting’s Image Problem – How a Painter Becomes a Craftsman Part 3 Technical Know-How

By Mario Guertin-President
PDCA Craftsmanship Forum President
Painting in Partnership, Inc.

Steve Scanlan
Decorative Finisher
Painting in Partnership, Inc.

This is the final part in a series of articles which has been dedicated to helping painters identify and sharpen the 3 main skill sets that lead someone to develop as a true Craftsman, well deserving of society’s respect and appreciation. The first article focused on the notion of Vigilance and how a painter must engage one’s MIND to successfully complete projects from beginning to end without any snags. The second article was dedicated to Aesthetic Appreciation, which is the ability of the human EYE to distinguish what enhances the beauty of something. The article focused the reader on simple ways painters can use to educate themselves in the artistic aspect of painting. This final article will focus on the aspect of painting that has to do with the HAND; we call it Technical Know-how.

Defining Technical Know-how

Technical know-how is an awareness of the chemical nature of painting, the ability to choose the right tool for each situation and the mechanical skill to execute professional work.

Technical Know-how Separates the Pros from the Amateurs

Vigilance is a good habit to practice and will ensure smooth completion of projects. Aesthetic Appreciation is a source of inspiration and pride in ensuring beautiful results. Technical Know-how is what separates the pros from the amateurs in our increasingly high tech painting industry. We like to make fun of homeowners who paint semi-gloss latex paint over stained trim because they want to brighten their homes or we laugh when we see a neighbor remove wallpaper and paint right over the remaining adhesive. But what is so amusing about it? We laugh, but what exactly is going on? They aren’t showing respect to painting. They just pick up the paint, dip in the brush and go to town without regard to the technical aspects of what they are dealing with. Maybe painting isn’t like writing software, but it has a strong technical component, and the chemistry involved needs to be considered. A craftsman is always conscious of the fact that he/she is dealing with chemicals and will handle them appropriately and carefully.

Keeping the Chemistry Simple

The purpose to most of the products we use as painters is to repair, protect and beautify surfaces. What do we use mostly? Compounds, caulks , stains, varnishes and paints. I think it is fair to say that most painters do not carry around the MSDS sheets for every thing they use and that most painters use their experience and what other painters have told them works. Its not vital to know the ins and outs of the chemistry, but it is important to know why one product might be more suited for a situation than another. The key to the chemistry of painting is to understand what the needs of the situation are and to find the right product to fulfill those needs. Keep in mind that many intelligent scientists are constantly experimenting with new coatings and that the products available to painters are always expanding.

Using your Imagination when Choosing a Tool

It might seem ridiculous to imagine painting without any tools with you, but it is an excellent exercise in determining what would be the right tool. Imagine you have a gallon of paint and you need to paint some walls, doors, windows and trim, but you have zero tools. Now use your imagination and think what’s the best way to get this stuff from the can and onto these surfaces. Perhaps you picture some type of device that can hold the paint for a short period of time and then release it onto the surface. Your first thought might be something like a sponge, but you need to have control so that you can paint straight lines and spread the paint with a consistent thickness. Lucky for you that you have been exposed to brushes and rollers, and sprayers, and know that it is what you use when painting.

However, if you are a true craftsman you will still continue to engage your imagination and picture the perfect brush for the paint you are using. So for the ceiling and walls you’ll need something big which holds a lot of paint and enables you to cover a lot of square footage quickly, but for the doors, windows and trim, maybe you’ll seek out a brush that is smaller and more refined that allows you precise control and the ability to lay out the paint more smoothly and evenly. It seems silly since most painters figured out what type of brush they like to use in the early days of their painting, but its amazing what you can come up with if you use your imagination in choosing your tools. The goal is to always find the ideal tool, and usually that begins with thinking about what you want to accomplish. For instance if your are painting trim with oil paint you most likely will prefer a natural fiber brush with the perfect combination of stiffness and softness in the fibers, like an ox-hair china bristle blend, so that the paint can be spread evenly without brush strokes.

Sometimes things appear obvious to us only because of repeated exposure, but opening our minds to the possibilities of other ways of doing things is vital. So next time you are about to do something, whether it is staining a door, painting a window, patching a wall, or doing a decorative finish, look at your hand and ask yourself “is this the right tool for this situation?”. If not, imagine the best one and go find it, since more likely than not someone has already invented it.

Technique is Set by the Medium, the Tool and the Desired

Result Three factors are at work in the act of painting. One is the Medium being used, whether it is stain, compound, paint, glaze, varnish etc. The second is the Tool. And the third is the Technique. Most painters would agree that the Medium and the Desired Result determine the Tool, but they might not realize that these three elements, together, determine the Technique required. The Technique to be used is dictated by the other 3 elements.

For example, rolling a wall with latex paint will require that a particular technique is used so that an even stipple is achieved and that no “ropes”, “flashing”, or “holidays” occur. Again, this will all seem obvious to painters with experience, but the principle is similar to the notion of imagining the perfect tool. When thinking about Technique, it is crucial to consider the material being used, the tool being used and the desired result. It is important for the Technique to be in sync with the circumstances. For example, you don’t brush latex paint onto a door the same way you would if the paint was oil, and you better not use the same brush. In fact, every brand of paint , especially the waterborne enamels require a slightly altered technique in order to ensure a successful application. A Craftsman gets feedback from the material and the tool being used. Questions like these will come to mind:

  • How fast is this drying?
  • How much time does he have to “play” with the paint?
  • Is the brush handling the paint properly?
  • What adjustments do I have to make with my Technique?

These questions and concerns become very important learning tools during the execution of painted finishes. They are the questions a Craftsman lives with every moment during the execution process. A Craftsman’s objective is to always get better at using one’s hands to accomplish beautiful results. Time and resources are spent daily by the Craftsman in the pursuit of that objective.

The Master Craftsman does it Effortlessly

Did you ever notice how a really accomplished musician can produce beautiful sounds from his instrument and make it look it easy? Many “talented” people make what they do look easy, but the fact of the matter is that practice makes perfect. Nothing comes for free and if you want to become skilled at something you need to put in the time practicing. The same goes for painting. You have to put in the hours if you want to make it look easy. And just like everything else you learn with your body and hands (music, dance, sports etc.) you need to pay attention to proper form. Its been my experience that many painters have naturally good coordination, many were good athletes or martial artists, and if, they are open to learning the right form, they can become masters at what they do. A stumbling block towards becoming a multi-talented Craftsman occurs when a painter stops building his/her skill set and is content to excel at only a few aspects of painting. A true Craftsman NEVER STOPS LEARNING!

Hiding the Hand in Decorative Finishing

As painters grow into their natural position as skilled craftsmen, an increased demand will be placed on them to execute more sophisticated and difficult finishes. Often, it is the case that these types of finishes look best when they look organic, and that the way they are accomplished should not be readily discernible to the eye. To accomplish this, many hours of practice are needed to hide the hand and disguise the use of the tool. Also, at this level, an intimacy with the chemical composition of the material being manipulated is vital. An alkyd glaze mixed with linseed oil and kerosene will behave differently than a modern-day water-based glaze. Again, it is not important to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements, but to be aware of the chemical components of the product and how that determines its varying properties (working time, viscosity, adhesion, sheen, surface toughness etc.).

Teaching the Hand to Read the Mind

There are no limits to what the imagination can conceive in terms of painting, but unfortunately our wildest dreams still need to be executed by a hand that needs to be trained and developed. A Craftsman is committed to building a strong connection between his mind and his hands and knows the importance of expanding one’s Technical Know- how. This can be accomplished by realizing that the hand fulfills the wishes of the mind and that an ever subtler and nuanced touch can be developed through conscious effort.


In this series of articles, we hope to have shown you that becoming a true Craftsman is the result of a very conscious and deliberate process. Becoming masterful requires discipline and consistent effort. It also requires the engagement of one’s whole being, not just a few parts. The reward for that passionate pursuit is awesome: Self-respect, Pride, Satisfaction, Recognition, Status, Fame and MONEY! How far do you want to go?

Below is a self-assessment tool that was designed to help the readers get a quick feel for their (or one’s employees’) Technical Know-how. This tool is intended only as a teaser exercise.

Technical Know-how Self-Assessment Tool

Understanding the Chemistry of Paint

Y      N
___ ___ 1 Did you know that all paints are composed of four main ingredients: solvent, binder, pigment and additives?
___ ___ 2 Did you know that the role of the acrylic emulsion binders in paint used to be supplied by the actual sap from the rubber tree plant?
___ ___ 3 Did you know that pure acrylic emulsions are the premium binders on the market due to the following reasons: good adhesion, excellent durability, water resistance, vapor permeability, stability to UV, heat and alkalinity?
___ ___ 4 Did you know that you can buy siliconized acrylic latex caulk which possesses the superior qualities of silicon caulk, yet can be painted?
___ ___ 5 Did you know that shellac is produced from an insect secretion and that it takes half a million bugs to produce a quart?
___ ___ 6 Did you know that denatured alcohol is just ethanol (ethyl alcohol that we drink ); it has been altered so that its unsafe to consume?
___ ___ 7 Did you know that the sheen level of a paint finish is determined by the pigment to binder ratio? (Flat=70/30, Gloss 20/80)
___ ___ 8 Did you know that titanium dioxide is the strongest most brilliant white pigment ever available to artists through history and provides the opacity to all paints?
___ ___ 9 Did you know that exterior paint peeling can be due to poor ventilation of interior humidity?
___ ___ 1 Did you know that the new ergonomically designed “cut pots” are intended to reduce wrist injuries by extending the stress up the length of the arm?
___ ___ 2 Did you know that the Sherlock extension poles allow quick adjustments of length, which enable safer and easier painting of large rooms?
___ ___ 3 Did you know that the use of a plaster’s “hawk” when applying patching compounds or textures will eliminate the strain and hassle of holding a mud pan?
___ ___ 4 Did you know that a nine inch roller sleeve is almost too small for use in a lot of the new large homes, and that larger sleeves are available?
___ ___ 5 Did you know spring loaded nail punches exist which eliminate the use of a hammer when sinking nails in trim?
___ ___ 6 Did you know that the green sandpaper from 3M will resist gumming up with paint?
___ ___ 7 Did you know that the use of a foam roller when painting doors and trim both increases speed and improves the uniformity of the coating?
___ ___ 8 Did you know that the use of knee pads will greatly reduce the damage from repeatedly kneeling?


___ ___ 1 Did you know that you can avoid carpal tunnel syndrome by using all your fingers in the gripping of a tool and by using all the muscles of your arms, shoulder and back thereby reducing the stress on the wrist?
___ ___ 2 Did you know that you can significantly improve your rolling skills by paying attention to form and using your legs?
___ ___ 3 Did you know that being relaxed in body and having a good mental attitude will greatly aid your energy and overall productivity?
___ ___ 4 Did you know that locking into a rhythm and letting your momentum pull you along will positively impact your productivity?