atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#3973: Sometimes I think I have paint thinner rather than plasma in my blood

Og complains about painting not being one of his favorite things, and I posted a comment over there about it and decided I ought to write a painting post, too.

I understand where he's coming from. Masking is a pain in the ass, and it is especially a pain in the ass if you do it right. You must mask, because no matter how careful you are you will get paint places you don't want it if you don't. (This is also why my paternal grandmother took my paternal grandfather to task for attempting to paint the porch in his best pants.)

But when I paint, I take the time to mask correctly, and simply don't think about the tedium--and realizing that led me to realize that my family history has quite a lot of paint in it.

In the first place, my maternal grandfather owned a paint store. I'm not sure exactly whether it was a family business started by his father, or whether he started it himself, but I'm inclined to believe the former. Why? Because the upright piano that graces my living room once graced the living room of an apartment above the paint store, and my maternal grandmother-to-be would play it, and one afternoon my maternal grandfather-to-be went upstairs to see who was always playing all those sad songs....

At the appropriate time he took over the paint store and ran it until the Depression had had its way with small businesses in the United States. That's why I keep finding all sorts of antique painters' and paper hangers' tools in the garage, including a dispensing and measuring device for wallpaper. That's why there are so many antique wood crates with the names of various paint manufacturers on them. That's why the drawers I threw out a couple of weeks ago had brightly-colored insides; the wood was stained with the dry powder pigments that had once filled them.

My maternal grandfather was a naturalist before such things existed. He wrote, painted landscapes, played the violin, and was a pillar of his community; it's not stretching the point to call him a renaissance man...and he had perhaps an eighth grade education. Yeah.

On the other side of the family--well, my paternal grandfather wound coil springs for locomotives for Alco. But his son, my father, went to college and got a degree in chemistry, and ended up working for Montgomery a paint factory.

On the strength of his intelligence and hard work he rose rapidly in the ranks; when he retired in the mid-1990s he was one step shy of a vice-presidency...and the only reason he didn't make it there was because he was too good at his job to be taken out of the product development process.

For many, many years, Montgomery Ward had the best house paint in the business. Their exterior latex paint had everyone beat in weathering and longevity. Dad kept getting offers from other companies--nice offers--but rejected most of them out of hand because of his loyalty and his innate need for security of employment. He'd lived through the Great Depression and had seen what it was like, and I think that was a large component of his loyalty to the company that had hired him in the middle of a recession in the 1950s. (Also, he had an amazing work ethic: he hardly ever missed a day of work because of illness.) There were a couple of offers that made him think twice, but ultimately those were rejected, too.

Dad's technical expertise was one of the major reasons M-W ended up with industry leading paint; his bosses knew he was good and they listened to him...most of the time.

Under Dad's guidance, his lab developed a fireproof interior paint. It went on like regular paint and required no special tools or surface prep. When exposed to high heat, it would expand into an insulating foam, and fire retardants in the paint itself would keep it from catching fire. It would char, but not burn, and the heat would not transfer to the substrate (whatever it might be--gypsum, wood, plaster, what-have you) and the fire would be confined. It wasn't even much more expensive than regular paint was; it sold at a premium but only about what you'd expect for a paint with an additional safety feature.

M-W offered it in two colors, both hideous: pepto bismol pink and electric baby blue, on the theory that people would want to paint their nurseries with extra-safe paint. It did not sell very well.

Besides that, though, Dad's passion for safety led him to develop new coating technologies. He was instrumental in the shift away from oil-based to water-based paints; also he was working on lead-free pigments before the government mandated the change. Making house paint safe was what made him a leader in the field.

And then, in 1975--to get ready for the Bicentennial--NASA wanted to put a flag on the Vehicle Assembly Building:

Guess who's paint they picked?

Around here somewhere I have some photographs from early 1976 when Dad took a business trip to Cape Canaveral to consult on the painting. Mom went with him, and they got the whole VIP tour. There's a picture of Mom sitting in launch control; there's another of her atop the VAB with a NASA guide; there are assorted other pictures, including one of the scaffold that held the men doing surface prep on the VAB, and the beginnings of the flag itself.

The flag and the logo were only required to last a year. Instead they remained brilliant for more than two decades; NASA decided to replace the star with the NASA logo and repaint the flag in 1998 and had to do it again in 2007 because of sun fading.

In fact:

That's when they were first painting the flag--further along than is shown in my album--and still setting things up for the Bicentennial exhibition. (Notice, in the foreground, the Saturn V first stage being delivered for its new duty as a lawn ornament. *whimper*)

And here, then, is what it looked like in 1998:

Have a look at the flag, especially the blue field. The nice thing about that image is that you can see some fresh paint in the upper left corner--the stripes have already been repainted--so you can tell exactly how little the paint faded in the twenty-two years between 1976 and 1998.

They bought that paint from the lowest bidder. I don't know how much promotional consideration M-W got out of the deal, but considering I--in 1976--was full-on-ga-ga for space exploration I find it hard to believe I could have missed it. I don't think M-W capitalized much on the obvious PR angle.


Countless times in my life I listened to my Dad talk about paint, so I learned a lot of things through osmosis about paint and coatings that many people never even think about. How many times does the average kid hear the phrase "flourescent whiteners" before he reaches puberty, much less get an explanation of what they are and how they work? I learned other things, such as the latin name of black mold--aspergillus niger--and the fact that it is everywhere and there's nothing you can possibly do about it, so you have to add antifungal compounds to paint to keep it from turning into black-polka-dot paint. I learned how it works, about polymers and solvents and pigments, and what the function of each component is. I learned about hiding and why you can't expect a light paint to cover a dark paint with just one coat.

...and I learned that surface prep is the most important factor in ensuring that your paint job comes out right.

Dad painted the exterior of this house twice in the 42 years he lived here. He used M-W 17-year exterior latex paint and both times it looked good far longer than it was supposed to. The last time was 1982; with the exception of weathering on the north side of the house it looked fair enough to casual inspection even though the paint was twenty-six years old when it was covered with vinyl siding. Yeah.

But you can't get M-W paint any longer since M-W got run into the ground; the paint store was closed decades ago and the street it was on no longer exists, much less the building.

Even though I have gone into an entirely different field, the reminders are still there; when I see white lines running down brick from the white-painted boards above it, I think about chalking and weathering. I think about colors the way Dad taught me: school bus yellow has more red in it than lemon yellow, for example.

Paint is part of who I am. That's just how it is.

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