The GOS is a man who likes to wear a number of different hats (though Mrs.GOS says he looks daft in every one). The other day he donned his British Railways engine-driving cap and went to B&Q to buy some nice red paint for the buffer-beam of a steam locomotive. Like you do.
Now our local B&Q is a very large one, with numerous aisles devoted to the sale of a multiplicity of paints. Unfortunately they're nearly all subtle shades of beige. Would you believe that this entire DIY emporium could only offer one single, very small, tin of proper gloss red paint?
So when last week's Sunday Times carried this plaintive missive by Charles Clover, the GOS knew exactly what he was talking about ...
It seems to be a general rule that manufactured goods, such as cars, dishwashers and electronics, go on getting better. It seems also to be a general rule that things nobody has much control over — rainforest cover, the amount of insects and flowers in the countryside, fish in the sea and pollution in the atmosphere — go on getting worse. When something bucks the trend, you tend to notice. Have you seen what has happened to paint lately? Unlike other manufactured goods, it has got worse. A lot worse. That is the gossip among builders’ merchants, retailers and decorators.
Our decorator, a man 50 years in the business, has just spent a few days redoing a kitchen because the paint had come off. “Come off?” I asked. “Isn’t that the last thing paint is meant to do?” Paint is everywhere — there is almost certainly paint within inches of where you are reading this — and sticking comes high on the list of attributes we expect of it. If paint starts coming off, doesn’t that say something? What’s next — the lights going out?
Our decorator is not a man who flaps. He remembers the fuss when lead in paint was banned in the 1980s. It just went away. But he took one look at the tin of eco-friendly, water-based eggshell I had just brought back from Homebase (I tried to buy the oil-based version but it disappeared off the shelves halfway through the job) and said that if he painted the stuff over the old oil-based paint on our woodwork, it would scratch, particularly around door handles, on cupboards and in heavily used areas. If he did use it, it would also mean two more days’ preparation.
We took the water-based eggshell back and chose an “eco-friendly” oil-based eggshell in a similar colour made by another firm. It cost £84 for five litres. Ouch. It looks fine but it doesn’t seem to have dried yet.
That was our introduction to “2010-compliant paint”. What’s that, you ask? In 2004 the European Union passed a paint directive that forced manufacturers to reformulate paint to cut the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) it contained. This happened in two stages, the more stringent of which came into force on January 1 this year. VOCs, which come from the white spirit in which the solids are suspended, help to form low-level ozone, a constituent of smog, and in the home cause respiratory problems, not least for decorators. Some paint manufacturers, faced with the January deadline, decided to move to water-based paints entirely.
What then happened is that manufacturers seem to have conned themselves into thinking their new, reformulated paints were just as good as the old ones. That isn’t the case. Patrick Baty, an acknowledged expert who runs a shop called Papers and Paints in Chelsea, west London, says there is no doubt that the 2010 oil-based paints are slower-drying, softer and inclined to show brush marks and leave an uneven finish.
In fact, they are like the paints of 80 years ago. Is this progress? He thinks not.
Water-based paints have just as many problems. Five years ago, knowing all this was coming, the National Trust painted 13 garage doors with different kinds of 2010-compliant paint. Five years later some of it is in good condition, some is cracked and discoloured and the paint on two of the doors rubs off in your hands. The trust won’t say whose paint does what. My sources say the stuff that still looks good is made by high-street names; the stuff that comes off is from the eco end of the spectrum.
Just to make things difficult for the poor consumer, experts tell me that some water-based exterior paints last longer than the brittle glosses we have been used to for 30 years, which are prone to cracking. We won’t know which new paints last better, though, until the National Trust and other bodies have repeated their experiment with the Paint Research Association. This will take years.
We are confronted with a classic case of unintended consequences. Did anyone negotiating the Gothenburg protocol, a forerunner of the new rules, say, “This will mean paint won’t stick and will cost more”?
No, they didn’t. Officials remarked on how few responses there were to the public consultation on the paint directive. I guess that is because officials didn’t spell out what it meant and ministers didn’t ask.
For once, I don’t think you can blame Brussels politicians and bureaucrats. Paint is nasty stuff and in a few years’ time I suspect we will conclude, rather as we did with lead, that reducing the pong from eggshell and cutting the amount of white spirit that finds its way down the drain were good things. They have been using what they call latex paints in California for 20 years, and very good they are too.
What I think the manufacturers have to rectify are their continued and misleading claims that the new paints are just as good as the old, whatever you use them for. As Tina Sitwell, the National Trust’s adviser on paintings as well as paint, put it, anyone familiar with art could tell an acrylic from an oil painting. Why — may I ask — did the manufacturers think they could get away with claiming the new paints would have the same finishes and perform as well as the old ones? The fact is they are different and painted surfaces are never going to look the same again.
The GOS says: Especially if they're bright red, apparently.
Actually I have to take issue with Mr.Clover about one paragraph, the one that reads “For once, I don’t think you can blame Brussels politicians and bureaucrats. Paint is nasty stuff and in a few years’ time I suspect we will conclude, rather as we did with lead, that reducing the pong from eggshell and cutting the amount of white spirit that finds its way down the drain were good things. They have been using what they call latex paints in California for 20 years, and very good they are too.”
For a start, it is never true that you can't blame Brussels. It just isn't, all right? It doesn't matter what they do or what they say at the EU, they will always be wrong. They always have been, so why should they change now?
And paint is NOT nasty stuff. It's bloody brilliant. I used to keep a boat on a salt-water mooring. It sat there all year round, come rain come shine, soaking up the hot sunshine reflecting off the water, lashed by salt spray and bitter winter gales, shat on by seagulls, nibbled by fish, with barnacles and other nasty creatures fastening their little bums onto it.
And what do you suppose protected its vulnerable plywood skin? Paint, of course. Two coats of primer, two coats of undercoat and two of top coat, a quick rub down with wet-and-dry and a fresh coat of gloss every two years. You show me anything else you can buy for a few notes that would be so tough! And the great beauty of it is, it comes in a tin: you don't need a degree in quantum mechanics, a risk assessment, a team of specialists and a licence from the local authority to apply it, you just give it a stir and slap it on with a brush. Then all by itself, it dries and turns into a miracle. See? Brilliant!
And while you're at it, show me one single person (since Napoleon, anyway) who has been killed by paint.
But that's not the point, is it, to these Brussels bureaucrats? It's not important whether or not a thing really is harmful. All that matters is that by a considerable stretch of someone's over-active imagination, in certain circumstances however far-fetched, it just might be just the tiniest bit undesirable. Because we're all so stupid, we're all so completely incapable of working out for ourselves that chewing dirty paintbrushes or necking the odd half-pint of turps might possibly be a bad idea, we're all such sad victims that Auntie Brussels recognises her God-given responsibility to take care of us and keep us from harm.
Nothing to do with keeping themselves in a cushy job, of course. Perish the thought.
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