Cover Up 

How to avoid painting mistakes.

It's hard to screw up something as simple as painting, but a few people still manage to do it. For instance, in our little home-inspection business, hardly a day goes by that we don't find most of the windows in a house painted shut.

Granted, people don't open their windows much anymore. In our climate, we might get a few days in the fall or spring when it feels good to have outside air in the house. But windows aren't there just to let air in. They're also there to let people out if the house catches on fire. Sure, you might think flames and smoke would give you the strength and motivation to break out the glass and crawl across the razor-sharp pieces left in the window frame, but it probably wouldn't work out that way. It's better, I think, to make sure the windows open before you have to leave in a hurry.

If your windows aren't already painted shut, you're way ahead of most people. All you've got to do is not paint them shut yourself, or, if you hire any window painters, don't let them go home until they've shown you that all the windows open and close. It's actually very easy to paint windows without getting them stuck -- all you have to do is not slop paint into the gaps between moving and nonmoving window parts. And even if you do slop paint in a gap, you can just cut it with a razor blade while it's still soft. Anybody capable of opening a can of paint and wetting a brush ought to be able to do this.

While I'm thinking about it, here's a quick test that'll help you know if a person is a real painter or an impostor: If he holds the brush like a hammer, he's a fake. Don't let him paint. Anybody who can paint a lick knows to hold the brush like a pencil. Also, be wary of anybody who wants to use a spray gun in your house. Spray guns have their uses, but as a general rule, people who use them to paint inside a house are either inexperienced, in way too much of a hurry, or both.

Now, back to painted-shut windows: Fixing them is simple work, and you can do it. First, put on a long-sleeved flannel shirt, a pair of jeans, then coveralls over that. Now slide on a pair of steel-toed work boots, two sets of leather gloves, a hard hat, and a full-face respirator with a shatterproof face shield. (The lawyers make me say all that. I do all my work in gym shorts and a raggedy T-shirt, barefooted.)

If there are storm windows or screens on the outside, you start by taking those off. Then, you use a box cutter, a putty knife, or a pizza cutter to cut through the paint where the windows parts are stuck together. You'll have to do it inside and outside. This will make dust and bazillions of tiny paint chips. If your house was painted before 1978, the dust and chips will almost surely contain lead. People can get sick if they eat lead. Young children are particularly susceptible. Pregnant women shouldn't go near the stuff. So keep children and pregnant women away from a window-liberation job, and make sure you clean up any messes before kids or mamas-to-be get into them.

If the windows are still stuck after you've cut all the paint film, use a Stanley Wonder Bar to nudge the windows open from the bottom. Don't use much pressure, or you'll destroy the window sash and break the glass. Never push hard on the top piece of a window sash. On old windows, those top pieces can come right off in your hand. If you can't get the windows open with the Wonder Bar, just give up and call in a professional.

As if sticking your windows shut isn't bad enough, here's something else that unskilled painters routinely do to screw up a house: They get paint in all the outlets and ruin the electrical system.

It pains me to say that I see these messes fairly often. Some knucklehead-in-a-hurry will pick up a paint roller -- or worse, a spray gun -- and get paint into the wall outlets. The problem with getting paint into an outlet is that the paint will get on the metal contacts and increase resistance between the contacts and any plug that gets stuck in there. Resistance means heat, and heat can start a fire.

If you've got paint in your outlets, there's no digging it out. You'll have to get the outlets replaced. That's a job for an electrician, and it'll probably cost about $30 to $40 per outlet.

The best cure for these problems is to fight off the urge to hire some ultra-cheap fringe-of-society handyman who paints just because he enjoys the mineral-spirits fumes. Instead, hire a real-enough professional painter, somebody with a clean truck and references. Pay the going rate. I promise, it'll be cheaper in the long run.

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