Posted in Features

Painting outdoors

Painting outdoors Posted on 4 November 2021

painting outside

Outdoor maintenance should be done every few years – weather dependent, of course. Neil Braidwood gets the inside story on the outside jobs.

It’s been a busy summer with many decorators in demand for exterior house painting. After months of furlough and the inability to work on domestic properties, there were full order books for a lot of SDF members. 

The weather has helped. It’s not often we get more than a few days of sunshine in a Scottish summer, but the high pressure has meant that lots of jobs were completed on time.

The heat is generally not a problem when painting outside in Scotland, with temperatures barely making it above 20ºC on a normal summer’s day. However, if you are painting in full sun, be aware that the surface you are painting can often be from 10º to 20ºC higher than the air temperature. Best to follow the shade if you can and stay out of direct sunlight. Most paint companies state that you should not be using paint in temperatures above 32ºC. 

Of course, we do have cold spells in Scotland, and paint companies also advise against painting in temperatures below 5ºC – especially when using water-based paints.

The logistics of painting outside can also give decorators a headache. Access, especially at height, can mean ladders are needed, or perhaps scaffolding. That can increase the costs on a job and price you out of the market. Cherry pickers are popular now, with many companies putting employees through a course to get them qualified to use one. The advantages are that these machines can get into difficult spaces without too much disruption. 

Neil Braidwood, Editor of Decorating Matters, visited two SDF member companies at two very different outdoor sites in Edinburgh to see how they approached the work.

Head for heights

First up was a relatively modern housing complex in the north of the capital. 

Borthwick Decorators Ltd had won the tender to complete the exterior painting on the flats, and there were four tradesmen and four apprentices on site when I visited.

Rab Melville is in charge – he’s been in the decorating business since he left school at the age of 15, and he is now 64. “I couldn’t actually start my apprenticeship until I turned 16,” he remembers. “So I ended up doing an extra nine months until I came of age.”

“These windows haven’t been painted for 14 years,” he says, shaking his head. “They should be done every four or five years. The paint is just flaking off.”

It means more preparation – in this case a sandpaper block is all that’s needed to take off the flaking paint – but at least there is no filling required. 

Two painters are on cherry pickers dealing with top floor windows, while Rab and a colleague tackle the doors on the ground floor.

The four apprentices are working on a bike store and the metal railings. 

Rab explains that the building’s factor has given a detailed account of what is to be painted, and they often even specify the paint (in this case Dulux). Some windows have been replaced with UPVC by the owners of a few of the flats, so these are not to be painted, but it’s not that obvious which ones these are until you get close to them. The downpipes are also plastic, so there is no need to paint these. 

“It’s not just the windows,” explains Rab. “We’ve got the doors, Juliet balconies, railings and even a few ornate lamp posts to be painted. We have two cherry pickers on site just now, and they’re great for getting into small spaces without damaging the grass, but we’ll need scaffolding for the front. That goes up next week,” he says. 

None of the decorators are fazed by heights, and two of the apprentices are getting their certificates to operate a cherry picker next week.

“I can’t wait to get my ticket,” says Kara Ashton, 17, who is a first year apprentice at Falkirk College. “I hope to get mine soon.”

Her classmate, Sean Elvin, 18, is just happy to be working outside.
“It’s great being in the fresh air, but I’ve got to be careful when it’s sunny, or I’ll burn!” he says.

“Everyone thinks I’ve been to Spain,” laughs Rab. “But there’s no need to go abroad, I’ve always taken a tan, it’s just working outside that does it.” 

Summer is traditionally the time for decorators to be taking on outdoor contracts, and Borthwick is no exception. The company has a few inside jobs on the go in Edinburgh, so if the weather does get too bad, Rab and his team can be relocated to that job to help out there.

Of course, even in Scotland, the weather can get warm, and that can make painting challenging, as it can be dry before you get it on the surface! That doesn’t happen very often, but it is a consideration. The paint Rab and his team are using is water-based, and dries quickly anyway. That is preferable, especially when you are working where the general public might come into contact with a wet surface. 

For this job it’s pretty much woodwork and ironwork only, and the render on the walls doesn’t need to be done. However, some jobs do require masonry painting, and that’s when spraying comes into its own.

“You have to spend time masking off the windows and everything,” explains Rab, “but even doing that, it’s still quicker to spray. If it’s roughcast render, then it’s even better, as you can get the whole surface done more easily. Of course, sometimes we’ll roller it, but spraying is becoming more popular.”

Masking surfaces can be fiddly and time consuming, but there is no masking needed when painting with a brush like today. “You’re not doing your job right if you have to mask a window to paint it with a brush,” laughs Rab.

Historic cottage 

My second site visit was in the southside of the city at Colinton. George Nicolson Decorators had been contracted to paint the inside and outside of a renovated historic cottage dating from the early 1800s. Most of the interior had been painted by the time I went along, and painter Neil Buchan showed me around. 

“I’ve been with Nicolsons for more than 14 years,” he explains. “When I started out, I worked with my dad, who had his own firm. I did a five-year apprenticeship, as I never went to college. I did the extra year on the job.”

The other painter on the site is mature apprentice Alasdair Kelly, who, at 23 years old, only needs to do three years of apprenticeship, as he has what Edinburgh College calls  ‘life skills’. He also worked for nearly a year with his uncle who is a decorator. He is four weeks into his first year, and enjoying every minute. 

I find him rubbing down railings at the front elevation of the house, which is next to a busy road.

“These railings haven’t been painted in years,” he says. “Being next to the road means they are really dirty too. What I’m doing is rubbing down the loose paint, spot priming the worst bits and then painting with Dulux Trade Metalshield. It’s an oil-based paint and it’s expected to last 15 years.”

Neil is painting the harled walls with a jumbo roller. “This is Sandtex masonry paint we’re using. It’s going on a treat, and the walls are in great condition, so they just needed a brush down. Some walls, especially where there are trees nearby, are covered in lichen and moss, so they need to be power washed and treated with a fungicide before painting,” he explains.

“The woodwork and drainpipes are all getting painted in the same grey colour, and because all the windows and doors are new, they are a dream to paint,’ he continues. “It’s all quick drying too. They say it’s showerproof in 40 minutes, which is great for us.” 

If it does rain, there are still a few things inside the property to complete, so the guys are always busy.

I ask Neil whether he’s had challenging outside jobs to do in his career. “Oh, I was working at the head office of the Royal Bank of Scotland at 36 St Andrew Square in Edinburgh,” he says. There’s a big crest of a lion and a unicorn on the front of the building, right at the top. I spent two weeks preparing that for gilding, and it looked amazing when it was done. I went past it the other day though, and instead of regilding it, they’ve just painted it with gold paint. It doesn’t look as good as it did when I did it.”