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A brush with something other than fame

Appeared in Register-Guard newspaper, June 5, 2016

I was high on a ladder, doing something I’d vowed I’d never do again, when a neighbor in his car pulled up to the stop sign below.

“Bob, I would rather change my car’s muffler in sub-freezing temperatures than paint a house,” he yelled up at me.

Do I live in an eloquent neighborhood or what?

But, then, I knew exactly where he was coming from.

“Never again” I’d said 25 years ago after painting our house. And the same thing 15 years ago when paying one of our sons to do it, then winding up doing much of it myself when the kid couldn’t get out of bed before noon. (When I was a teenager we’d walk five miles in waist-high snow to paint a house.)

And yet here I was, not so much like an addict who needed a fix but like a guy between book projects who figured painting a house by himself would almost be like having a real job, complete with benefits. (Constant raises, for example, courtesy of extension ladders.)

I should have fired myself.

But we’ve become such a pay-others-to-do-it culture that I saw it as a challenge — if not quite back to nature, then back to sweat equity.

“You’re spraying, of course,” a friend said.

“No, brushing.”

I might as well have told him I was carving a turkey with a pocket knife.


“Yep,” I said, after already having painted a test area, crunched some numbers and confidently ordered 20 gallons of siding paint to go with primer and trim.

I was far less concerned about the grind of hand-brushing a house than about hurting myself. And I said as much to another neighbor, an emergency room doctor, days before I popped open my first can.

“So, what’s the most common household injury you see?” I asked.

“Probably people falling off ladders.”

Spoiler alert: I never fell off a ladder.

I always anchored the legs of my extension ladder with foot-long spikes in the grass or with wood blocks in other places so it couldn’t slip. And I designed rope systems so the ladder couldn’t sway left or right when painting “on high.”

That said, I did get momentarily trapped while painting an arbor that resembles a jungle gym.

And while at the foot of an extension ladder, I did have my bucket of paint 12 feet up tilt and pour African Gray onto a tarp at my feet like Sahalie Falls. Having never experienced this, I panicked, grabbing the ladder and trying to un-tilt the tilt in the bucket.

Nothing doing. So I scrambled up the ladder and saved the day, though any smugness vanished half an hour later when I accidentally stepped in that glob of paint.

That alone wasn’t so bad, but then I forgot about it and started picking up junk on the bottom of my right shoe: bark chips, paint brushes, screw drivers, etc.

By far the most frustrating part of painting a house is doing the nooks and crannies. And the dab of white trim that accidentally gets splotched on the African Gray. Then you’d cover up the white with gray and accidentally get some of the gray on the white trim, meaning you’d have to hit the white with more gray, only increasing the potential for more gray on the white.

If you want what my neighbor called the “Zen” aspect to my experience, yeah, there were lots of moments when I was one with my brush. Quite literally.

In 15 days of painting over a month’s time, I washed my paint clothes only once. That turned out to be a blessing; eventually, my pants stood up by themselves and I could just lower myself into them from my garage’s work bench.

Even though I washed my latex-paint brushes regularly, between spring heat and Bob forgetfulness, some became so stiff it was like painting with frozen trout. Late on warm afternoons, if I’d leave the paint unstirred for five minutes, it morphed into something akin to gumbo soup.

If you want the numbers, I spent roughly $1,500 on paint, brushes, rollers, buckets and more, and saved about $4,000, based on three contractor bids I’d gotten. In essence, I was being paid more than $30 an hour.

But, then, what price can you place on glory? On early morning doves cooing your praises while you are high on a ladder? On putting the last of an estimated 216,000 brush strokes on your house, washing out your brushes one final time and dropping them lightly to your tarp.

Only to have the white trim splatter onto our gray siding like toothpaste residue on the mirror?

Easy? No. I put at least 100 hours into the effort, 30 alone on the arbor. Satisfying? Yes.

And I’m sure I’ll find a use for that five-gallon can of African Gray that never needed opening.

Welch writes books, teaches classes and gives inspirational talks. He can be reached at

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