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  • Lisa Gardener

How to find a great decorator

The humble decorator is a "Cinderella" trade, often forgotten about or even dismissed until it's nearly the end of the job. In the unofficial hierarchy of the building site, painters and decorators are often considered close to the bottom, and their levels of remuneration reflect this fact.

Many self-builders choose to undertake this build themselves, and some make a pretty good fist of it. Others realise quickly that this is a complex and important trade that can make or break the final finish and enjoyment of a home.

When are you going to need them?

You might not need the decorators until very close to the end of the job. But it's equally possible, if you're installing timber fascias, soffits or bargeboards which need painting, that you're going to need them as the roof goes on, before any guttering or downpipes are fixed.

Internal timber should be primed and undercoated on the rear side before it's fitted and, if the decorator is early on site, space should be set aside for skirtings, architraves, window boards and the like to be laid out and treated. External joinery should also be treated and decorated on what will be the hidden or built-in faces.

What do you need to provide?

In almost all respects, decorating is a labour-only trade. Therefore, it will usually be your job to provide the majority of the equipment and materials your decorator needs, including brushes, abrasives, fillers and all of the paints, stains, preservatives and cleaners they require.

Most, but not all, decorators will possess their own hard tools such as scrapers and pallet knives. It's also imperative that you provide them with the correct environment for their work. A building site is a very messy place, with dust, dirt, detritus and off-cuts all over the place. Asking a decorator to work among all of that is a recipe for trouble.

Very few trades take any responsibility for clearing up the mess they make, and there isn't a specific trade for clearing up on site. When there is a main contractor the job can fall under general labour, but where direct labour is employed cleaning can fall between the cracks. On a self-build site it's often the self-builder who ends up taking on this responsibility.

Before a decorator starts work, the whole house should be cleaned from top to bottom. It's no good just clearing one room at a time, dust will migrate from room to room. Even after you've cleaned, other trades will make more mess and you'll have to clean it up again. The decorators themselves will make clouds of dust as they rub things down and that'll have to be cleaned up before they start to decorate the very surfaces they've prepared.

It's an ongoing task. Dust sheets can be put down, but they are all but useless unless they are regularly taken out, shaken and then re-laid.

Material choices

For the first decoration of a home, it's recommended that walls are decorated with trade emulsion that lets moisture out of the structure. This is fairly economical stuff, so long as you stick to off-the-shelf colours. If you start to mix your own colours, the prices will double or even treble, and the same applies to gloss paints or finishes.

Newly plastered walls should be left to dry out and then painted with a mist coat or a dedicated bare plaster paint, before top coats of emulsion are applied.

Be careful about mixing natural timber with products such as MDF. The former will shrink while the latter remains stable, so if they adjoin cracks will appear.

All buildings dry out and cracks will become apparent after they have been occupied for six months or so. Using the correct scrims when plastering and the correct chalks when decorating will help to limit the scope of the inevitable redecoration, but there's no way to prevent this happening altogether.

Where to find a good decorator

Just as with every other trade, the best way to choose a decorator is to follow the recommendation of another self-builder. The usual websites will be full of names, and most local papers and freebie publications will have advertisements from painters and decorators. However you find your decorator, it won't negate the need to see their previous work and talk to their previous clients.

What to pay

A painter and decorator will usually expect to get between £130 and £150 per day, making them one of the cheapest trades, obviously subject to regional variation.

The average time taken, including the bits and pieces early on in the job, is around four to five weeks and, once again, the mark of a good tradesperson is their ability to amortise their expected time taken for the job and express it as a lump sum price.


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