Post 40: A Fresh Code of Paint

One afternoon when my former mother-in-law was still my mother-in-law, we were hanging out in my kitchen. She was cleaning my refrigerator–she was always looking for ways to help out, so I started making sure I saved some dirt and grime for her when she visited–while I was painting the door frame.

“Why are you painting that the same color?” she asked. “Why don’t you just scrub it?”

“Well—it’s easier just to paint over it. The dirt’s all oily from people’s hands and hair, hard to get off.”

I thought I was so much smarter than her generation, always housecleaning in spite of so many modern developments.

Well, I look at modern developments differently now. Especially paint.

On my lot, I have two small houses. One needs to be repainted every few years and the other doesn’t.

The one that doesn’t is a tiny house I built myself out of mud and old, unfired adobe blocks from a house about to be demolished. Walls of dried mud can’t really be painted, but when exposed to the weather for a time, they gradually develop little dents and holes and gullies, and need patching—or even resurfacing—using mud or natural plaster instead of paint.

The painted one is a conventional house made of slump block. To me the term sounded tired, even related to slums, but actually these concrete blocks are purposely taken from their molds before they’re quite dry in order to let them sag slightly, so they look like adobe. But since they’re concrete, they need paint to satisfy today’s aesthetics, and also because concrete has its own problems withstanding the elements.

The slump block house was built in 1949, three decades before lead in paint was outlawed. So the first thirty years of paint on its walls, inside and out, almost certainly contain lead. Flakes and escaping dust from that old, dried paint need to be kept under control. They need to be covered by strong coats of newer paint—unleaded, but still petrochemically based.

About a dozen years ago, when I found myself obsessively picking at the paint curls coming off larger and larger patches on both sides of the front door, I realized that it would soon be time to paint the house again. The last time, fifteen years earlier, I’d had it professionally painted. White over white. That colorless color was best for reflecting sunlight, I’d heard, and who didn’t want to do that, in this hot desert city, in this era of things warming up?

But in the meantime, the trees around the house had grown, shading most of the walls, most of the time. I decided I wanted the house to be orange, or—to sound a little less garish—a medium shade of pumpkin. It didn’t occur to me to do anything other than collect those fun, striped color samples from paint and hardware stores, and spend some time selecting a swatch that wasn’t peach, wasn’t neon, wasn’t overly pastel, and wasn’t dark enough to absorb a lot of sunlight where it did fall. Once I picked the color, I looked for exterior grade, with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), good value, dependable coverage, etc.

At least this time I would skip the professional. I belonged to a small, informal group of friends who met monthly to help each other with home improvement projects. When my turn came, I handed everyone scrapers and brushes and rollers. Magically, scrapers got sharpened, and brushes cleaned beyond my standards. The house’s trim was still good; we went around it. We broke for lunch and got back to it. We talked and laughed and moved the drop cloths together. By the time the sun set, as beautifully orange as the paint, we’d finished two walls: half the house.

I had already painted part of the back wall when I’d set up the laundry area—an earlier shade of orange I’d gotten somewhere. It didn’t match, but it didn’t clash, either. It looked purposeful. So I kept it. In a day, I finished what was left of the back wall by myself. Done! The east wall, however, was still an ugly white. I didn’t care. It could wait. If you drove past, you’d see an unpainted wall. But only if you were looking. Trees were in the way; more probably you noticed a couple white patches, or nothing out of place at all. Wasn’t it my right to leave the job until I felt like getting around to it? I didn’t feel responsible for the aesthetic experiences of those who drove past with their woofers pounding or their engines maxed out. And the elderly woman next door didn’t care what I did in the side yard. She had assured me of that many times, until I quit asking.

So it was probably almost a year until that wall got painted—by a houseless man I hosted temporarily in a tent in the back yard. He had come with references, and was indeed an interesting, intelligent, funny guy who listened to jazz and Terri Gross, and got the wall done in no time. That was easy.

Painting the whole house had cost me nothing but the price of a couple buckets of new paint.

My daughter, needing to paint her larger house, has approached the project from a smarter, even more adventurous angle. From the outset, she nixed the idea of hiring professionals and took on the job herself—even without a home improvement gang to help. She spent more time than me researching paint and found a source of recycled paint for big jobs: Throughout the country, Habitat for Humanity accepts leftovers, mixes them, and repackages them for sale at their Habistore outlets. They made it easy for her to avoid buying new paint. (These days, there are various paint-recycling outfits cropping up everywhere, especially state programs. Staying local avoids shipping costs.)

As for me, I haven’t bought much new paint since the pumpkin. There’s the ReStore by my house, which sells leftover paint in the cans they were left in—making the consumer do the mixing for any large job, but still offering an on-demand supply. I’ve bought from them, but lately I’ve been coming across a lot of free paint while biking around town. (See Post 34 for one fortuitous find.) It’s often white or earth-toned; I’m usually willing to pay yard-sale prices for primary colors or black because I see them less often. In other words, I’ve been building my own on-demand supply. Because I can’t just go out and get sky-blue interior by the roadside when I want sky-blue interior.

Storing stuff is an imperative, unfortunately, for a new-stuff-sucks lifestyle, not just for paint but for lots of things. (See Post 9, Nuffi Stuffi.) t may be the biggest barrier to living that life. When we need something, we need it, and are used to getting it. I’ve been known to go out and buy something I already have at home, but don’t want to spend three hours looking for. It’s challenging to have an inventory—to keep track of where things are, and to have space for them in the first place. I make good use of outdoor spaces that are not (I realize) available to everyone. There’s skill and time involved in self-storage—and I don’t mean the kind you pay for and drive to. Why not just let the big box stores keep a general “inventory” for you, so you can pop over whenever you need something from it? Well, because it’s more expensive, and it also funds the giants that are screwing us all.

I keep my paint and supplies in a metal file cabinet just outside the back door. I wanted to paint it pumpkin, like the walls, but I’d already used the last of it. Paint sellers do such a great job of matching, nowadays, and exact matching is notorious for being impossible for the do-it-yourselfer to pull off. It was the only reason I bought new paint anymore. So when I got ready to do the cabinet I took a sample chip from my pumpkin wall and gave it to the hardware store guy. After mixing, he dripped a tiny drop of his mix onto the paint can cover. At that scale it looked fine, but when I opened the can, I could see the color was off—more like a pumpkin left behind in the field from the year before. Unable to believe the technology had failed, I swiped an old board with the new paint and waited for it to dry. It was definitely last year’s pumpkin.

I could have taken the can back to the store, but remember, I don’t have a car. I decided to give mixing my own a try. It was remarkably easy. I had exterior white, gray, and a bright shade of reddish orange in my stash, and added different amounts of each until the match was close, drying each swatch before comparing. After six tries I had an exact match.

And that was the last time I bought new paint. I didn’t have to anymore. Leftover paint was everywhere. I bought it at yard sales. Friends and neighbors gave it to me. Local building supplies stores sold it. A lot of it got put out on curbs. It reached the point where I snubbed the whites and earth tones and took home only the less ubiquitous blacks and bright colors. Into the outdoor file cabinet they went, the one that matched the house wall behind it—perfectly, because I had done the matching.

Paint can as a vase
This small can was a smooth black underneath its label. I had leftover beige paint on my brush, so I swiped it vertically, then made a few scratches for a wild texture. It took less than three minutes.

One curbside offering really impressed me. By weight I could tell the cans weren’t full, but they had no drips and no evidence of lids being opened and reset. Apparently these people not only wanted their leftovers to be used, they wanted to make sure the containers were airtight so the liquid stayed liquid and the paint stayed good. Kudos to these exceptional types of humans. I’m not one of them.

But I do try hard to keep my paints from solidifying. Since I’ve never been able to recreate airtight cans by avoiding drips on their rims or bending their lids out of shape, I have another method: I spread plastic across the totality of the paint’s surface, going right up the can’s sides so I create a seal all the way around. I still pound the lid down as tightly as possible for insurance. And I’ve kept years-old paint fresh that way. When I need to use the paint again, peeling off the plastic can get messy. But the goal is to lay it flat, sticky-paint side up—and that’s where my brush goes to load up first, so I don’t step in the residue. I’m always shocked at how far that residue stretches.

Paint brush
Brush doesn’t fit in the smaller can? Squish it. Use less water.

 Residue on plastic. Residue on the can sides that will harden if I don’t use it. Residue on brushes and rollers. It goes a long way if harvested. When I get close to finishing a paint job, I look around for something to wipe my brush onto, the last streaks and flecks—something useful, maybe the bare handle of a shovel or rake that’s getting ready to send a sharp sliver of wood into my hand. I might wrap the brush it in newspaper or rag, and step on it with all my weight, till most of the paint is out of it.

Then I have to consider how much paint-water I’ll contaminate my yard with. I have a spot by the house’s foundation—it’s already been assaulted by concrete runoff and termite treatments—where I dump these pollutants. In as scant a volume as possible. I want my soil to sprout edibles, not mutant ninja turtles. So it’s always fun to find—or adapt—containers that hug their brushes.

Decorated bucket
Decorated bucket with large saucer. I guess the pot it supported broke?

But the most enjoyable post-job activity is rescuing the empty containers—not so much the smaller ones (though they can come in handy as plant risers) as much as the five-gallon buckets. When the last of the clinging paint is fully dry, start peeling! It comes off in a most satisfying way, revealing a brand new bucket. I’ve been known to keep working, unable to stop, when I’m called to dinner. If you don’t have the time or energy, involve your kids in the peeling. They can decorate the outside, too, and when that large glass circle or huge plant tray shows up at the thrift store, you suddenly have an outdoor storage table that will really protect its contents.

Undecorated bucket
Undecorated bucket with perfect marble circle, an alley find.

These eccentric little paint-saving and paint-recycling habits are next to meaningless compared to the incomprehensible volume of the stuff the world uses—for that matter, even compared to the amount I had to roll onto my house. But while we’re trapped into using the plasticky material in so many ways, recognizing its preciousness is a critical step toward minimizing its use. Even in these modern times, there are natural paints and stuccoes that can be made or purchased, and countless ways to build with earth. None of these will last forever in the face of weather. But do we want them to? Do we want to cover the globe with indestructible rubble? It’s not like there aren’t paintless buildings all over the world that have stood for centuries. They feel different, smell more natural, and are doubtless less offensive to our chemical sensitivities.

Come have tea with me in the casita sometime and I’ll show you what I mean.

But that’s another story. And a new-old direction to walk in, with hope.

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