Decorating: Favourite Failures

My partner and I are renovating an upper floor maisonette, within a converted Edwardian school teacher’s house (if you’re curious, I’d recommend starting here). It’s been a while since I wrote an update – to be honest, my pride got in the way. Every little step of progress has been achieved through several mistakes. The more things went wrong, the less I felt qualified to write about it… Until I re-framed the question: what are my favourite failures?

Here are my top stories to tell. Whether you’re repainting a room, or have moved into your first property, I hope this might help…

Drifting

After we first moved into the flat, we spent a few months just living in it (amongst the wood chip wallpaper and artex). Looking back, I would still really recommend this – if we’d redecorated straight away, we wouldn’t have realised certain features were waiting to come out. The first big step we took was to get the walls and ceilings re-plastered, about 6 months in. As I’ve previously written about, this was a chaos of dust and disruption. When the work was finished, we needed some financial and emotional recovery time! So we focused on more contained tasks – like gradually working out colour schemes, ordering a sofa, and doing other things…

We waited a few weeks, then a few more, and became increasingly used to living around bare plaster walls and half unpacked boxes. We drifted into a halfway state and settled there.

This had a detrimental effect on both myself and my partner. We were getting frustrated with each other – everything about our lives seemed to reflect the temporary campsite we were living in. We couldn’t focus on anything. Even when we became aware that we should push on, we found reasons to wait, like our varying work schedules. We were holding out for a solid block of free time to make progress together, so we didn’t make progress at all. 

We all need recovery time, especially for our finances. But saving up still has a feeling of controlled forward momentum: building up a fund, finding options in budget, marking dates in the calendar to work towards. There’s a clear, structured reason for waiting…We just fell into apathy.

Our solution came from little prompts that made us actually want to talk about the flat: a paint colour in a cafe, a picture in a magazine, a particularly good attic hatch in a pub (yes really). These details helped us re-imagine the big picture.

Going All-In

To compensate for losing focus, we then ran headfirst into full decorating mode – covering the hallway and study with an undercoat of white, watered down, water-based emulsion. Then the problems started.

If you’re planning to paint on newly plastered walls then, hopefully, you’ll be aware that you should do a first coat of watered down paint (and this paint must be water based). Advice on the ratio of paint/water varies – some sources say 50/50, 60/40 or 70/30. You can buy ready mixed primer, but our plasterer recommended that we make up our own to save being charged for something that’s so easy to mix. We bought a 10 litre tub of a main brand white water based paint (the kind you see stacked up by the entrance of your nearest DIY store). We went with a 60/40 ratio, mixing this carefully in a big tub, and then rolling and brushing our way through the rooms. When this undercoat was dry, we focused on finishing the ceiling. We painted our chosen colour on top – Farrow & Ball’s Wimborne White emulsion. We applied two coats.

They promptly fell off.

The paint quickly peeled, cracked and flaked away from the ceiling – if you ran a hand over the surface, it’d fall like confetti. I don’t need to tell you that Farrow & Ball isn’t cheap, and this was devastating. I couldn’t bare to take many pictures…Here’s just a few of the flakes.

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I quickly assumed that the “[insert curse here] Fancy Paint” was the cause – it was sensitive, many decorators don’t use it, this must be why. My partner was quickly onto the Farrow & Ball online chat help, and our nearest stockist where we bought the paint. Both were really helpful, we returned that tin for testing and were given a new tin free of charge.

We didn’t fit the usual causes for this problem – our plaster wasn’t recently done, we had followed all mixing guidance. My (calmed down) approach was to explore the problem scientifically, by testing variables.  The culprit proved to be our self-mixed undercoat. The paint washed clean off the surfaces with a wet cloth; it simply hadn’t stuck to the plaster. The very time consuming solution was to chip off the remaining Farrow & Ball paint on the study’s ceiling, and scrub the other surfaces where we had applied the undercoat to remove all traces.

Long story short, my bitter lesson here is please (please!) do a test area. Treat wall paint with the caution of make-up – pick a discreet area, let it sit for a while, consider how well it layers, watch for reactions, go slow before covering everywhere with it. This may feel like a waste of time and money, but it’s worth it to save a horrible reaction.

I still don’t know exactly why this problem occurred and I still trust the plasterer’s advice. Perhaps we just went a bit too basic with the type of white emulsion. Perhaps the plaster soaked up the water and just wouldn’t take the paint…

We have now successfully finished painting the study, watering down the Farrow & Ball paint as the undercoat (as this is very water based already, they recommend 80% paint to maximum 20% water). You can also buy a primer from them if you wish. We did our plaster coat and then two further coats on each surface (also with very lightly watered down paint to build the colour gradually).

A note on Farrow & Ball: we went with this brand for multiple reasons (and no affiliations). My partner’s parents have loved using it, it’s low odour which was important to us living round it, it’s easier on allergies, and we loved the colours. They were great when there was a problem and we’re still pleased that we’re using it.

Keep Rolling Ones

After drifting, and then rushing, we found our happy compromise. We painted the study and the bedroom, simply by giving it small amounts of time in our day. Think of a board game when you keep rolling ones: you make frustratingly small steps but you’re still going forward.

So, I would get up early to do an hour of decorating before work, and often do an hour after work. My partner would slot in an hour around work. I’d decorate during the weekends he played cricket, he’d do his turn over the weekends I was in Glasgow. We’d paint together occasionally but mostly pick up the slack when the other wasn’t available. We made progress by carving out scraps of time from our own routines. This sounds anti-social but, in fact, it made us more of a team. We discovered this method in the process of removing the failed undercoat paint (silver linings, as they say…).

The ‘I Don’t Mind’ Dare

My final tip is a big one, and it applies to so much more than decorating:

Admit what you want. Just say it.

Like many people, I have the habit of saying “I don’t mind” when I actually do. Whether it’s takeaway options, or film viewing, or weekend plans, or paint colours, fabrics and furniture…. It’s too easy to stifle your own preferences at every opportunity. I think women often get labelled with this tendency but, especially when it comes to decorating, men can fall into this trap too. There are plenty who let their partner’s style rule their surroundings, rather than admit to having an opinion.

I learnt this awful phrase in childhood, relied on it through friend and romantic relationships, and have reached the point where it’s a default response. But I’m trying to stop – and you should do.

On the surface, we say this to be liked. To be easy going. To not rock the boat. Secretly, the reasons are a bit more selfish. When we say this to someone, we hope they’ll prove to be psychic and pick our preferences. Translated, it’s ‘prove you know me’. If they pick your choice, there’s a rush of power and pleasurable compatibility. If they don’t (which is often, they’re only human) then we get to enjoy being a teeny bit passive aggressive, with gently sighs over the thing we didn’t really want to eat/watch/buy. At its worst, it’s a way to constantly hurt ourselves, to thwart, and punish. All through an unaware accomplice, often someone we love. “I don’t mind” isn’t a nice or bland statement, it’s a low one. It’s beneath us. Decorating has made me even more aware of how insidious it is.

For example, we finished painting the bedroom and ordered blind samples. From the start, I had my eye on an Indian fabric printed with little elephants. Part of me enjoyed hiding how much I liked it. My partner liked it too, amongst a couple of other options. Every time I admitted that I liked this particular fabric, I hastily blurred my opinion – saying I didn’t really have a preference or listing something good about another sample. Reader, there was no point to this – it just wasted time. I got over myself and we picked the damn elephants.

Let’s enjoy owning our opinions and tastes! The sadistic and scared part enjoys holding them back… But who actually gains? Even the dark part of me is miserly – I don’t want to spend reasonably large chunks of money on something I don’t actually like. This flat – and my life – should be a happy, proud place to occupy. Not a site to sabotage myself.

So, I am daring myself to admit when I do mind. Which has actually made it easier to compromise in the areas that I genuinely don’t care about as much as my partner does. We went with dark skirting in the study – this came from my partner’s tastes rather than mine, and it makes him really happy.

Basically, decorating has been a useful lesson in honesty and communication. With a few rooms to go, there’s plenty more time to practice…

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A peek into the (successfully) painted study – paint colours are Wimborne White (ceiling), Shaded White (left wall), Inchyra (right wall) and Railings (wood work) – all Farrow & Ball (purchased, not sponsored).

Flooring, finishes and further updates to come…

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