Coupling & Crosstalk: Painting Lessons

Joseph and Della Ready to Paint

Coupling & Crosstalk is my new column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Fall 2012 edition on page 10.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column by mixing technology and general observations is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions like this one may deliver a message closer to home!

Painting Lessons

It is time for our nine-year old twins to have their own bedrooms. The first step was to paint the rooms since the last time they were painted was well over ten years ago. Throughout the process I was reminded of many management and life lessons. Is this a worthwhile do-it-yourself (DIY) project? Does this first question set off the alarm bells? Can you do it better, cheaper, or in an unique manner that adds value? Is this exercise in handyman-ship worth two weeks of home disruption versus two days for an outside professional?

A good manager sizes up the needed resources by determining skill, knowledge, and motivation required. I have plenty of experience painting, however it has mostly been for theatre sets where the key requirements are fast and cheap. The only quality standard is known as the “forty-foot rule”, i.e. that is the closest an audience gets to the set. We also envisioned this being a family project, engaging the children as a learning experience, so it quickly became clear that as do-it yourselfers we would all need on-the-job training.

First the technical description of the project: a conformal deposition of a water-born dispersion of polymer particles (“latex” paint) which cures by the evaporation of water followed by the coalescing of the solvent which irreversibly binds the polymer particles into a networked structure. The resulting film has a thickness of approximately 100 µm per application. As an engineer, I know what this means but I didn’t fully understand the implications resulting in brush marks and peeling until the painting was well underway.

When compared with the technology we work on every day, how hard could painting two rooms really be? I’ve done plenty of work depositing very uniform thin films of precious metals through complicated processes of sputtering and electro-deposition. Gold, platinum, and rhodium all cost more than $1000 per ounce. How difficult could the application of a $30 per gallon paint be? (Yes, you can buy lower cost paint but you get what you pay for and the cost of the paint was cheap compared to our [unpaid] labor.) The answer, like many things in life, is it depends…

After consulting the staff at Home Depot, Do-It-Yourself guidebooks, my father, the paint manufacturer’s support line, and finally the Internet, I decided there are very few “best known methods” (BKM). Everyone had differing opinions on everything beyond the simple basics. Yes, there is consensus that you should start with the ceiling but beyond that the orders of the walls and trim are subject to debate. Even the pattern in which you roll paint – overlapping W’s or up/down – seems to be a matter of religious conviction not subject to debate for some. So figure out which materials and techniques work best for you and stick with them.

Given our lack of knowledge and experience, why did we decide to undertake this project ourselves? Beyond teaching our children that they should not put their dirty feet or greasy hands on walls, we tackled this project since we haven’t been impressed with many of the paint jobs we’ve seen recently (mainly done by do-it-yourselfer friends whom we planned to out perform).

We did consider hiring a “pro” but realized that the classic project manager’s triangle of cost, quality, and time where only two of the three parameters can be optimized also applies to painting. Since we were naïve about the effort required at the start, we jumped into the project instead of spending considerable time to find and hire the right painter. And we justified this by the desire to “do it right once” as we are likely to paint a given room roughly every ten years. And the downside risk was that we would have to hire someone to repaint the rooms if we botched the job. In the end, it took far more time than we had estimated.

Two lessons really stood out: First and foremost is that proper preparation is critical since paint is conformal and it does not hide surface defects nor does it bond well to dirty or incompatible surfaces. Though some say preparation is over half the work, I would argue preparation done right is closer to 90% of the total effort. Applying paint is easy – even my children can roll paint well – and fairly quick once the preparation is complete. What takes time is the washing, masking, sanding, and cleaning up. (What, you are one of those painters who shamelessly paints over nails and picture hooks?)

Secondly, there are many unnecessary tools and gadgets marketed to DIY’ers. They claim to make things easier, but in the end may be a waste of time and money. Friends offered to lend us their power roller but in my experience these devices take longer to setup, make a bigger mess, and take longer to clean up than a basic roller. Similarly, power sprayers are great if you have a whole house to paint but are overkill for two rooms. It is essential to determine the true requirements of your project while ignoring the marketing hype.

As with many things in life, rolling up one’s sleeves and learning a new skill gives satisfaction and greater insight into managing others. You may not quickly become an expert, but the experience will help you judge quality and the work done by others. And it may teach you that it is not as easy as you think.

A successful project: the color choices and the painting of the two bedrooms turned out great! If you visit my house though, please remember the forty-foot rule before commenting on the finer details of painting.

Let us continue the discussion below. I welcome your comments!

One thought on “Coupling & Crosstalk: Painting Lessons”

  1. I saw this last week, but saved it until I had some ‘fun reading’ time. I can relate to this ALL – we have taken on so many DIY projects that next time, I will splurge and pay a professional, because time IS money! My twins just had to paint their own rooms back to the original white when we moved, but at 18 they’ve done it enough times now to be experts – all I did was provide the supplies.

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