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How Crazy People Paint a House

By Bill and Janet Rigby

How Crazy People Paint a House
Illustration Courtesy of Barbara Quinn

People do crazy things for love, and when it came to working on our old house, there was a bit of romance involved. From the start we were determined to do things right, in-cluding the exterior paint job. As with many love affairs, those outside the loop don't always grasp what's going on.

The day we arrived in Cooperstown, New York, we were awestruck by a monstrous, run-down, grey Italianate on Elm Street. As we looked for a house to own, we'd walk by, dreaming it could be ours. When we discovered the house was unofficially on the market, we jumped at the chance to buy it.

We spent a year living in a rental as we repaired the house's structural problems. We worked like madmen on the interior, but our neighbors' questions were always the same: When will you paint the outside? We joked that our house should be called Nightmare on Elm Street because the ancient, dowdy-grey paint job was failing fast, and years of spot repairs with rusting squares of sheet metal gave it the look of a bandaged prizefighter. We removed the delicate porch skirting to jack up the framing and left the sheathing exposed when we replaced the porch roofs. By the time we were ready to paint the exterior, the house looked worse than when we started. Of course, the project dragged out for six years and if nothing else, gave the neighbors something to talk about. Now that we're finally finishing, we enjoy looking back at their most common questions.

Why are you painting the back of the house first?
People love to see quick results, and we've seen many great paint jobs that started on the front of the house and never made it to the back. We took the worst-first approach. Because the back of our house faces south, the sun's ultra-violet light had destroyed all of the paint and most of the siding there. It was also a safe place to road-test the new color scheme.

Is the scaffolding permanent?
Before we started, we bought 42 used scaffold frames at auction. Because the house is huge and we were removing all the old paint and then repairing and prepping the siding before we applied the new coats, we could only manage to complete about one side a year. One friend suggested that if we had rented the scaffold, the work would have gone a lot faster because the meter would have been running on our dime.

As the seasons wore on, we draped our scaffolding with Christmas lights and made wreath bows out of bright-yellow CAUTION WORK ZONE ribbon. (You have to keep a sense of humor about these things, although I can't say our neighbors always laughed with us.) We're pretty proud of the fact that since we finished painting the house, we've sold the scaffolding and gotten all our money back, even while keeping 12 frames for future maintenance.

Um... are you going to use those colors on the whole house?
We live in a white clapboard and black shutter type of town, so when we began duplicating the house's original color schemeÑyellow ochre body, dark brown trim, red highlights, and green shuttersÑmany folks around us were taken aback. Most grew to accept it. Only two people hated it outright and told us so. One of them moved away and the other one died so it's no longer an issue.

When you're done, won't you have to start all over again?
Paint is as important as roofing for protecting a house. As the skin, it needs to be whole to shield the siding from the damaging effects of sun and water. For many people though, a paint job is just a color change, so these folks are sentenced to endless cycles of scraping and repainting. The first side we painted in 1999 looks as good as the one we just finished. We used the same thorough approach to paint our former house, and it held up so well that, after 13 years, all it needed was a gentle washing and another coat of paint.

What will you do with the rest of your lives?
I guess we've been a little too focused on this project because we don't have a pat answer for this one. Maybe we'll reconnect with the kids. Maybe we'll take a real vacation next summer.

For now, I think we'll just sit back with our gin and tonics and do something crazyÑlike watch our neighbors paint their house.

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