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Cinderella Trade

By John Adair
From NZ Painter and Decorator Journal April 1965, reprinted with permission of Master Painters New Zealand

The man who first described the painter as “the Cinderella of the building trade” may have had his tongue in his cheek when he said it but, all the same, there have been less fitting comparisons. True, the dictionary definition of Cinderella as a ‘beauty in humble disguise or surroundings’ seems a bit wide of the mark but to most of us the heroine of Perrault’s fairy story is essentially someone who was continually despised, exploited, treated with little or no consideration and blamed for faults she had not committed. On this basis, the metaphor is not inapt.

She was, you will remember, a patient, long-suffering creature who never complained – possibly because she felt it would be useless or only make more trouble if she did so. In this respect the painter behaves differently but as such protests as he makes are generally ignored, it comes to much the same thing in the long run. There are plenty of architects, surveyors, building contractors and clients who could be cast for the roles of the ugly sisters. Only the fairy godmother who brought about Cinderella’s transformation and was the means of raising her from rags to riches, seems to be missing from the picture.

Unreasonable demands
There are very few decorating contracts free from any element of uncertainty. Surfaces which seem sound enough may have hidden snags and the whims and eccentricities of specifying authorities and customers are unpredictable. Then, too, there are always the vagaries of the British climate to contend with. These and other difficulties are all in the day’s work. They can be classed as occupational hazards and if he had nothing else to worry about, the master painter could take them in his stride. But he has also to cope at times with demands which are unreasonable and which, in justice, ought never to be made on him. All painting contractors of any experience are familiar with them but no excuse is needed for listing some of them again for though they are grievances of long standing attempts to get satisfaction for them have so far proved unsuccessful. The fact that any objections to these demands are usually over-ruled is some indication of the contemptuous opinion of the trade held by those who have dealings with its members. It is mostly in work on new buildings that the painter is made the victim. He has the disadvantage of being the last man on the site. He is thus a natural scapegoat for the faults or omission and commission of other trades.

No co-operation
In an ideal building project, the various trades involved would consider themselves as a team whose efforts were, in some degree, dependent on each other’s work. In practical, they rarely do anything of the kind. If a number of sub-contractors are engaged, each is concerned only with his own particular part of the job and he is largely indifferent to what happens to the rest of it or to any complications his workmanship may cause to those who follow after him. The carpenter, the joiner and the plasterer are obviously aware that their work will be finished in paint or some other form of applied decoration and they are apt to take advantage of that fact. If any kind of team spirit existed, they would see to it that they left surfaces in such a condition as to enhance the appearance of the finish. Instead, it seems at times as if they regarded it as something expressly intended to cover up defects due to their own carelessness or lack of skill.

Inadequate specifications
Many of the decorator’s problems are due to faulty or inadequate specifications. To those responsible for the latter, the word ‘prepare’ is a convenient, overworked and elastic term. It may mean nothing more than superficial cleaning to remove dust or efflorescence and, if that is all, there can be no complaint. But here are some of the things which some architects and other specifying authorities seem to think it ought to cover, even though no mention if made of them in the tender documents:

  • Removing splashes of plaster which have fallen on woodwork or other surfaces and eliminating the resultant stains.
  • Stopping and filling cracks and other imperfections left by plasterers in walls and ceilings.
  • Stopping gaps left between skirtings, door frames and architraves and the plasterwork.
  • Glass-papering woodwork which has been insufficiently planed.
  • Filling rough surfaces to provide a perfectly smooth ground for paint.
  • Stopping joints of woodwork in frames and architraves.

The painter has a right to expect that an architect, surveyor or clerk-of-the-works will see to it that all surfaces are in a fit state to be decorated without these preliminaries. They seldom do so. Perhaps, like the carpenter and plasterer, they believe that these faults will not show when the decorator has finished the job.

The painter’s predicament
Remedying these defects can cost a good deal of money. He can, of course, make allowances in his estimate, for contingencies of this kind, in which event he stands a chance of losing the contract. Or he can go ahead, ignore the shortcomings of other trades and carry on with the painting. If he does so, the result will be unsatisfactory and he will be taken to task for bad workmanship. His protests that the plasterers, carpenters or joiners are really to blame will probably be brushed aside. Every specification for new work should make it plain that the onus for making-good such faults is on the tradesmen guilty of them in the first place and that, if they have failed to correct them, the decorator is entitled to compensation for the extra work he has had to carry out, This rule has been enforced on Government work in New Zealand and in certain other countries. The very knowledge that such a clause had been included in the specification might help to make the culprits more careful.

The Standard Method of Measurement requires that “bills of quantities shall fully describe and accurately represent the works to be represented,” and that details of all preparatory work to be done shall be provided in the tender documents. Yet again and again there are cases where, although no such particulars have been given, the painting contractor is expected to do a considerable amount of unspecified preliminary treatment without additional payment.

Unrealistic attitude
The average architect’s ignorance of paint and painting frequently makes him unreasonable. The painting of new exterior woodwork is a case in point. In most cases it is given a coat of shop primer and it is notorious that, more often than not, this is of poor quality and has been applied by which it would be charitable to describe as semi-skilled labour. All the decorator is required to do is put on a coat or undercoating and one of gloss finish. If the paintwork break down prematurely he can maintain, usually correctly, that the trouble is due either to the priming or to the moisture content of the wood, which in many instances has been left lying about for weeks, inadequately protected on the site by the main contractor. He will be lucky if this explanation is accepted. By some curious reasoning, even though he is not to blame for the state of the timber and has only done part of the work, he will be held responsible for all of it. Many architects seem to take the line that either the paint or the painters must be to blame. The paint manufacturer, approached on the subject, can usually show there was nothing wrong with his products. Therefore, says the architect, it must have been the fault of the painters. The same sort of unrealistic attitude occasionally reveals itself where the treatment of other styles of surfaces is concerned. Instructions that, in the preparation of ironwork, all traces of millscale and rust must be removed by wire-brushing and the metal left bright before priming, are not unknown. Manifestly, anyone responsible for such a specification has no idea of the labour involved if this clause is to be taken literally.

Faulty plastering
It is common knowledge that efflorescence is liable to develop on new plasterwork and that this can lead to serious trouble if an impervious form of coating is used. In the last 12 months, two cases of failure of a gloss paint finish from this cause have been brought to my attention. The architect would not admit that the cracking and shelling of the paint were due to efflorescence though the appearance of the back of the flakes showed fairly conclusively that this was the explanation. The decorators protested that they had followed the specification to the letter but this did not exonerate them. Both were informed that they were expected to make-good at their own expense. A substantial proportion of present-day plastering is open to criticism but the plasterer usually manages to get away with it. He nearly always does so when the fault is not apparent at the end of his work but develops only after the finish has been applied, as may happen in the case of a ‘dry out’. It is not normally the function of a building paint to act as a detector agent of other people’s mistakes but this is what, in effect, it does in such circumstances. Yet the decorator who succeeds in convincing an architect that the fault lies in the surface and not the finish will have to be remarkably persuasive.

Schemes in many colours
Another familiar bone of contention is the failure of architects to give full particulars of colour schemes for interior work on which several colours are to be used or even, at times, to indicate in their specifications the number of colours which will be needed. The usual excuse put forward for their inability to do this is that every detail of a colour scheme cannot be decided upon on the drawing-board, that schemes crystallise as the job proceeds, that the exact effects cannot be judged in advance and that lighting and other considerations may make changes or modifications essential. This argument may, or may not, be justifiable, but it is poor consolation to the decorator.

In such circumstances, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for him to price a job accurately and, on a contract of any size; it can make a big difference to his margin of profit, on a large building, with the cost running into five or six figures. The expense of additional colours may seem trifling to the architect. To the decorator, they can be a very serious matter. Few architects seem to realise that such items as cutting-in and waiting for one colour to dry before an adjoining but different colour is applied take time and pile up the costs. Many of them are not only annoyed but are – or profess to be – astonished when the decorator has the temerity to ask for extra payment.

The decorator who claims this payment from the main contractor will almost certainly be referred to the architect who will probably send him back to the main contractor again. He may or may not be reimbursed in the end; in the meantime he will get some idea of what it feels like to be a shuttlecock between two players.

Making a stand
It would be easy to give many other examples of inequitable treatment but enough has been said, perhaps, to justify the assertion that too often the decorator has ample cause for complaint. To their credit, it must be said that there are firms and individual decorators who are not prepared to take this kind of thing lying down and who make every effort to obtain what they consider is due to them. Those who are bold enough to make a firm stand must reconcile themselves to the possibility of weeks or even months of correspondence and argument which is likely to end, at best, in some sort of compromise not very satisfactory from their point of view. Meanwhile, payment will be withheld from them, even when the terms of the contract make no mention of retention money. But most decorators cannot afford to be so strong-minded. Apart from the question of payment for the work they have done, they have their eye on future contracts from the same source and they are unwilling to get the name for being awkward or difficult, thus prejudicing their chances of work to come.

So, though they grumble and protest after a fashion, they find it more politic to toe the line. They can hardly be blamed for taking this course but they would do well to remember that every time they do so, they are making themselves and other decorators still more open to unreasonable pressure.

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