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Scottish paint companies (part two)

Scottish paint companies (part two) Posted on 19 April 2023

Ian McAslan from Glasgow-based paint company Smith and Rodger

Specialising in a niche product can mean a long life for a paint company. Neil Braidwood speaks to Smith & Rodger which has been going since 1877 and Mac & Brush which launched last year.

I am driving through central Glasgow, heading for the Smith & Rodger paint factory. Shiny new buildings tower above me and I know that the Hydro concert arena is nearby. But as I turn into Elliot Street, where the company is located, it’s as if I have travelled back in time. 

Firstly, the whole street is empty and I have my pick of parking spaces. And secondly, because the Smith
& Rodger factory looks like a relic from a bygone age. 

The company has been headquartered here since 1902, when the business expanded from its original home in Bridgeton, in the east end of Glasgow. The red brick building sits cheek by jowl with another factory, long since abandoned by the owners, William Cook & Sons, the painted name on the wall just visible, like a ghost sign. Buddleia grows from the gutters and the windows are boarded up. 

Next door, it’s a hive of activity. The lights are on at Smith & Rodger and I can hear a forklift truck whirring around as I announce myself at reception. 

I am shown through to meet Ian McAslan, MD of the company and the fourth generation of his family to sit behind the leather-topped wooden desk in his office.

The company’s moustachioed co-founder, Daniel Rodger, stares benignly from a framed photograph above the desk, as though still keeping an eye on proceedings.

“He was my great grandfather,” explains Ian. “He started the business in 1877 with partner John Smith. Both men were very religious and Daniel used his profits from the company to build the Rutherglen Evangelical Institute. In the early days, the business manufactured varnishes for French polishers to use, and even set up a methylated spirits factory along the road.”

French polishers use shellac – essentially a resin secreted by the female kerria lacca or lac bug in India and Thailand. The dried flakes are dissolved in methylated spirits to create the liquid which is used to polish wooden surfaces. In the Victorian era, there was a lot of wood, especially in churches and the business took off. 

Shellac was also used to manufacture 78 records for the phonograph industry and is still used to coat some confectionery products.

Ian became Managing Director in 2000, but never actually intended joining the family business. 

“I was planning to become a PE teacher,” he tells me. “I loved sport, but teaching wasn’t really for me.
The company secretary here was going to retire, so my dad suggested that I come into the business and he would train me up with a view to taking over that role. I was 18 at the time and I had no clue what it was my dad did, let alone what a company secretary did, but I went for it and I’m still here.”

During both world wars, Smith & Rodger was crucial to manufacturing paint for the war effort, producing camouflage paint for armoured vehicles. 

The company stopped making traditional paint in the 1970s when larger multinationals began to swallow up the smaller manufacturers. The secret to the company’s longevity may be that they kept producing niche products made from shellac. 

“Blockade is a product that we have been making since the 1930s,” says Ian, “but under a different name. I rebranded it as Blockade a few years ago and we relaunched it into The Paint Shed.
A decorator got hold of a sample can and posted something on Twitter about how great it was and before we knew it everyone wanted some! I had never seen anything like it.

“In one week we had orders from 70 customers and before long, Crown had got in touch to say they wanted to see the product.

“I was initially quite wary, as we had limited resources here at the factory and couldn’t scale things up that quickly. However, we took on Coleman Brothers and Tradex Supplies, as wholesalers, to service all the shops that wanted to take orders and the product is now available in more than 450 shops across Great Britain and Ireland. 

“The reason it’s so popular is that it bonds to almost any surface, but it’s particularly useful for new wood. It seals the knots and stops any bleed through. It dries in 15 minutes and you can recoat in 45.”

Smith & Rodger has eight staff, some of whom have worked for the company for more than 40 years, including Technical Director Drew Findlay, who started in 1979. 

“Drew has been here the longest, but some staff have clocked up around 25 years. We are all working at full capacity. 

“Rocktop is our other leading product,” Ian continues. “It’s beginning to gain traction too. It is an incredibly durable clear multi-surface coating that protects painted surfaces from marking and scuffing. It is also used on timber floors, worktops and doors along with brick walls. We’re about to launch a 500ml tin for the DIY market, aimed at furniture upcyclers. If they are using Frenchic chalk-style paint, that would benefit from a sealer such as Rocktop.”

We go for a tour of the busy factory and I see sack loads of shellac granules piled up waiting to be used. Ian explains that there are different colours of shellac, creating different intensities of polish. 

The factory is like a rabbit warren and Ian reveals that we are now in the vacant building next door. “The company that owns it, Cook & Sons, is still in business – they manufacture saw blades. They lease this part of it to me as warehousing and they plan to restore the factory to its former glory at some point in the future.”

As we carry on through the factory, Ian points out the new wiring. “We had the whole place rewired about nine months ago. We used John McNicol Electricians which is based in the same street and has been here as long as we have. They might have wired the factory up when it was first built!”

Ian has two daughters. I ask him whether they might take over the business in the future. 

“Anything’s possible,” he says, but they are still very young at 12 and 10 years old. Smith & Rodger will be here for them if they choose to become involved when the time comes.” 

The team from new paint company Mac & Brush

Mac & Brush

It’s a cold, wet and windy day as I pull into the yard at Mac & Brush. The fledgling paint company shares offices with RetroWorks Scotland – a Land Rover garage – and there are at least three vintage vehicles in the car park, one of them painted with the Mac & Brush logo.

It’s warm and cosy in the garage reception area thanks to a roaring wood burning stove. I introduce myself to Graham Archibald and James Black and the kettle goes on. Biscuits are offered. Tess the dog yawns and stretches out in front of the stove.

Mac Hutchison – the Mac in Mac & Brush – comes in and sits down with her tea and tells me of the moment that the three of them decided they should start their own paint company. 

“Graham, who owns the Land Rover restoration business, is my partner too. It was April 2022 and he had just hired James Black as a front of house for the garage. It helps that he is also a trained mechanic, but in his previous jobs he worked in automotive paint for more than 10 years. 

“I am a signwriter, and I had been doing some research into the various paints on offer and found that many of them are similar in makeup to paints used in the auto industry. Hard-wearing, gloss, enamel paint.

“James still had contacts that could help us develop our own paint – so we thought, ‘why not?’”

Graham takes up the story: “We were driven by cost but also the convenience of having our own product. We get through a lot of paint in the workshop if we are touching up the paintwork on vehicles, but Mac also wanted a range to use in her signwriting business.

“We trialled lots of different versions of the paint – and Mac was instrumental in that. She knew what she wanted in a decent signwriting paint. The key is coverage – you want to be able to take one stroke of the brush and not have to reload it too often to finish what you are working on. The drying time is crucial too. You want the paint to dry quickly as you will most probably be working outdoors, but you also want a decent working window where it is still wet. It thins with white spirit too so no need for any special products like some paints.” 

“I don’t want the paint drying on the brush either,” puts in Mac. “It takes between two and four hours to dry and 12 hours to cure properly.”

Graham continues: “Currently, our paint is made in a factory down south, but the ultimate goal is to have our own plant here, next to the garage. That way, we can have full control and maybe even employ some local people.”

“We did lots of testing to make sure it was exactly what we wanted,” says James. “We also started with a range of 30 colours, but our ambition is to do a limited edition signature range at some point in the future. For now though, the basic range allows most signwriters to be able to mix the colour they want and work from there.

“Most of the paint that signwriters use is from the US,” continues James. “It’s coming a long distance, whereas ours is made in this country. That way, we can stay competitive with the pricing. The other thing to bear in mind is that the US paint comes in 4oz and 8oz cans – that’s 118ml and 236ml. Our paint is in 125ml and 250ml cans – so you are getting a bit more paint for your money!

“We are not making huge amounts of the paint to start with, but now that we have properly launched, it’s interesting to see the buzz that has been generated around the brand.

“Currently, we sell direct, but there are a couple of art shops in Edinburgh that stock it. We also had an enquiry from a graffiti shop in the Republic of Ireland, but sadly, it’s difficult to send stock there due to the change in customs regulations brought about by Brexit.

“We are also sending samples of the paint to the painting and decorating colleges across Scotland. Signwriting is part of the curriculum, so if we can show the students how good it is, then maybe
they will continue using it throughout their careers.” 

“And why wouldn’t they?” pipes up Mac, “it’s brilliant!”

Read our interview with Mac here