Paint Buyer Beware

There’s a widespread belief that anyone who can hold a brush is capable of painting. What’s up with the spatters on the baseboard and floor? I asked a painter hired by the woman who’d rented my bungalow back in 2003. “You need to get used to owning a rental” was his response. Translation: Shoddy work is good enough in rental properties. (I strongly disagree.) Between peeling or chipping paint due to improper surface preparation, varying shades or sheens caused by insufficient stirring, drips, spatters and bugs – literal or figurative – in the finish, America’s houses bear witness to generations of humans who should probably never have been allowed to apply paint.

A recent job reminded me that the same goes for those who work in paint stores. There’s a big difference between pressing buttons based on a manufacturer’s formula and understanding color theory, along with the chemical components of contemporary coatings. After days of anxious deliberation and nearly $40 in samples, my client decided on a cabinet color. I called in the order for a gallon and drove to the paint store first thing the next morning to pick it up. Before leaving the store I asked the clerk to open the can – experience has taught me it’s worth taking a minute to check the color instead of waiting until you’re at the shop or jobsite to discover it’s not what you ordered.

Most of the time the color is spot on and I go on my way, but this time it looked off. I asked the clerk, Chris Slater, to compare it to the card. It was not the same color.


Ideal versus reality. The color on the right is close to what it should have been. The one on the left is what the formula actually produced.

Chris, who has worked at the store about 16 years, explained that the cause was likely the colorant; I was buying paint with a different base from that sold for samples, and although he had mixed the gallon with the formula designed for the product I was buying, on rare occasions the shades don’t match. Apparently we were dealing with one of those rogue, hard-to-match colors.

He said he would custom-mix a gallon. He began the process by using the computer to generate a formula for the match based on the color chip. The result still wasn’t quite right; he thought he could get closer with a custom match based on experience and his own eye.

The next morning I picked up the gallon of paint, which seemed perfect.


Chris’s first attempt at a color match is all-but perfect. Aside from the slightly higher sheen of the paint relative to the flat card stock, can you see the paint rubbed onto the “rich cream” chip?

I applied the first coat to the smallest cabinet, just in case it turned out not to be right. Once it had dried, my client said it was close…but still a little lighter and yellower than she was hoping for. Had I been working in Bloomington, I would have run the can back to the paint store, knowing the crew would do whatever was necessary to get it right. But I was 60 miles away. (Fortunately, this is the first time I’ve had this experience in many years.)

The following morning I asked Chris to speak with his rep at Benjamin Moore. This was not the paint store’s fault, but an error by the manufacturers, whose job it is to ensure that each of the subtle gradations in color they advertise is reproducible across the range of bases they sell.


Chris went through his paces, mixing three new gallons of paint at no charge, authorized by the Benjamin Moore rep.


Service with a smile from Chris Slater.

I brushed a sample of each on a section of wall that will be tiled and let them dry. Luckily, my client loved one of them and I was able to finish the job.


The Moral of the Story
This experience cost me several hours of productive work and meant that other customers in the paint store had to wait longer than they should have to be served, while Chris, one of a limited number of employees, was working to make our customer happy. Although it was frustrating for all of us, it was a great example of working together to solve a problem, demonstrating a level of knowledge and commitment you’re unlikely to find in big-box stores. The paint store I frequent, Bloomington Paint and Wallpaper, is family-owned and has been in business for almost a century. It’s still in business largely because, in addition to selling products of high quality, it has a strong service ethic and places a premium on training its employees.


Bloomington Paint and Wallpaper in its former location on the Downtown Square.

I’ve found this kind of service invaluable, so in an era that’s increasingly tough on locally owned businesses, I do my part to keep it going.

– Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work”

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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16 Responses to Paint Buyer Beware

  1. ikustwood says:

    That kitchen is a marvel. Cheers !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. loxmyth says:

    This is part if why one of the first things pro painters do on a large job is mix paint back and forth among the cans, to reduce any possible variation among them. That doesn’t help you match old paint, but it does keep the wall you are working on from abruptly changing color partway through.

    As an amateur, I get to paint entire surfaces formuch the same reason. You can get away with a minor change at a corner of edge, where the angle of lighting changes anyway. When in doubt I feather the new paint out over the old , which also helps hide the transition.

    My problem is more often that a plaster patch doesn’t match the texture of the old wall. I know how to fix that (more skim /sanding) but for my own place I operate on the principle of “nobody but me is ever going to be looking that closely””.

    Some problems are obvious and need to be fixed. But sometimes good enough is good enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. crowldawg says:

    I’m a carpenter/ craftsman. I own a hammer and saw

    Liked by 1 person

    • nrhiller says:

      I’m still trying to figure your comment out. I’m a designer-maker of furniture and cabinetry. I own the tools of my trade and a few that are typically associated with other trades, because I like to do what I can to ensure that other parts of a job are done well. In this case, that meant painting the cabinets myself so I didn’t have to contend with drips or thick rolled edges that would have required a lot more work from me when doing the final door hanging (applying latches, etc.). Cheers.


      • crowldawg says:

        “There’s a widespread belief that anyone who can hold a brush is capable of painting. What’s up with the spatters on the baseboard and floor?”
        I have been a carpenter 50 yrs. Usually painted my own work if I could .I’ ve been asked by painters why I filled in the nail hole,he supposed to do it . Restored an 1765 house down to using one of my many cabinet makers planes to bead the wood work and the watch the whole job be painted with Glidden and nary a hole filled
        I have used nothing but Ben Moore since I was in my twenties.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Neal says:

    The amount of effort you and your paint supplier put into this ought to be written up as a case study for aspiring entrepreneurs in any field. This, my lads and lasses, is what a Master looks like. Bravo.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Choirboy says:

    Usually the contents of a kitchen make me salivate. In this case, that kitchen itself makes me salivate. When the kitchen comes up to its turn in my 1912 foursquare restoration, it will look very much like that one. Beautiful! I’m SOOOO looking forward to your upcoming LAP book!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. James says:

    I read your stuff! I have your books! I own a large construction companying doing new construction.I have a degree in Historic Preservation and unfortunately, feel like I’ve lost my way most of the time. Thank you for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. fitz says:

    I’ve had the same experience, and also with a shade of yellow!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Daniel Williamson says:

    Reminds me of when I was little and shopping with my dad. Whenever we’d be waiting for some unknowledgeable employee at a big box store to help us locate something, he’d get a bit frustrated. When the employee would be out of earshot, he would turn to me and say, “It doesn’t matter what you do in this world, just make sure you’re damn good at it.” Sounds like you’ve found your trusted people who are damn good at it. Keep supporting them!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. David says:

    Thumbs up on Benjamin Moore quality paint. Costs a bit more, covers and lasts a ridiculous amount more. Also iirc they only sell through independent stores, refusing to go the Big Box cost-and-service-cutting death spiral. (And PS double thumbs up on your infallibly interesting and well-told pieces — always enjoyable and thought-provoking.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. bgmillerbrian says:

    A real paint store! I have one in my small town. I even go there to get non-paint items if they have them to give a little extra support. I want them to be around for a long time doing just what they’re doing.

    Liked by 1 person

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