Painting your house and buying paint in Minneapolis

When Bob Kieca recently spoke of retiring some time in the next few years, I was suddenly overcome with a sense of mild panic.  You see, Bob and his wife, Charlotte have run their small mom-and-pop paint store in Minneapolis for more then 40 years.  I have known them and been a customer for about ten of those years. Minnesota Paint and Wallpaper has been in the area for over eight decades, even before much of the Windom Park and North East Park neighborhoods in Minneapolis, as well as the northern part of Audubon Park were developed. 

Bob and Charlotte purchased the store around 1960.  During that time they have seen many changes in their industry and have held their own through the many changes in the nature of small retail businesses in general.

We have all seen the replacement in recent years of so many friendly, small businesses by large retail chains and conglomerates.  I myself have lost touch with so many small business proprietors who I had come to call friends while they were still in business.  So when I think of Bob and Charlotte retiring and closing their store, I shudder and selfishly consider my own loss.

Being involved in restoring old homes, I have depended on Bob Kieca, not only to sell me paint, but to give me loads of good advice and personal service. I learned the paint trade nearly 30 years ago and for these past ten years, I have relied heavily and often on his expert advice.  Having specialized as a colorist for ink manufacturers before he entered the paint business, Kieca is an expert at matching paint colors.  Many contractors and old house restorers have relied on him to match historic paint colors.  Dozens of homes and architectural landmarks here in Oak Park and River Forest and indeed, throughout Minneapolis have had successful paint restorations due to his expertise as a color expert.

When I started restoring my own house here in Oak Park, I assaulted Bob regularly with my questions about historic paints and finishes.  How were they made?  How were they applied?  How do modern paints and finishes compare to the older ones?  What are appropriate modern substitutes for old finishes and techniques?  I pestered him incessantly, keeping him late at his store on more than one occasion.  He would either be matching a color for me or just giving his advice about getting more exercise, eating a healthier diet with less fat and no alcohol.  The no alcohol advice I have not been able to take – an occasional cold beer at the end of a long days work in the hot sun seems a birthright for a house painter.

But the exercise and healthy diet part of his advice has certainly had an influence on me.  You see, Bob just turned 70 last year, swims and works out regularly and plays a good game of golf.  But now that’s part of my present problem.  The golf part, I mean.   Bob is an avid golfer and often contemplates how he might like to spend more of his time on the golf course and less time in his paint store.  He has been spending so much of his time indoors when there is beautiful golfing weather outdoors.  Bob is also an amateur musician.  He is self taught on the electric organ and piano, and would like more time to pursue that hobby and attend concerts.  He’s been itching for a long trip West with Charlotte, and knows that he shouldn’t postpone it for too much longer.  I’ve been trying my best to convince him that retirement is not in his immediate future, but I’m afraid he will only postpone it for a few short years.

So I recently began to take stock in my relationship with Bob Kieca, making an effort to recall some of the best pieces of advice that he has given to me over the past years.  He has always been liberal with his advice to his customers.  If one was receptive, he or she would always leave the store with more confidence in the job that they were about to tackle.   Customers have often left his store with more than just a can of paint and some supplies – whether it’s a brochure on safety, dealing with lead paint on an old house and how to protect yourself, or a printed sheet describing the effects of sulfur dioxide (caused by pollution and car exhaust) and how to easily remove it for a better and longer lasting paint job.

I went to see him at his store again last week to find out if Kieca had any more sage advice for me or any homeowner who might be getting ready to have their house painted or is planning to do it themselves.  If he could only give the three or four most important snippets of his counsel, what would they be?

The first thing that Kieca advises is to be as knowledgeable as you possibly can before hiring a professional contractor or doing the job yourself.  The second is proper planning, when you do the job yourself. 

When hiring a professional contractor, Kieca insists that a clear, detailed, written proposal or estimate is essential (including specifying the particular brand and types of paint to be used).  He also warns, “Make sure that the contractor is fully insured for himself and his employees.  The next most important thing you can do is to ask for references and then to check them out.  If a contractor can’t or won’t provide you with such a proposal, references and a certificate of insurance, you shouldn’t hire that contractor.”

When doing a paint job yourself, especially on the exterior of your house,  Kieca says that “nothing is more important than proper planning and the allocation of enough time to do the job correctly”.  Kieca tells me that too often a home owner decides on a Saturday morning that he wants to paint his house that weekend, then goes the paint store to buy some paint and a brush.  To Kieca, there is nothing worse than when that same homeowner shows up a few hours later, on Saturday afternoon, in total frustration after realizing he bit off more than he could chew.  His return trip to the store is often the first time this home owner decides to ask for some advice.  Kieca says, “We’re all looking for a successful result when someone decides to paint their house.  I want my customers to be satisfied with the whole job.  I want give them all the advice they need to complete the job well.”  He continues,” My job, if they ask me, is to guide them through the conclusion of a successful job”.

Another important tip:  Kieca says that maintaining the exterior paint on your house does not always have to be a big job.  “Most often you can maintain the paint finish by doing small sections as needed, or doing spot repairs such as after storm damage, or one area that has weathered more than others.”  Many people devote each summer to only painting one side of their house.  “As long as you write down the color formula and the kind of paint, you will always be able to buy more at the paint store and have it matched correctly”.  Another hint that Kieca  has; “On a big job, buy an extra quart of paint for every color you use (whether you do it yourself or hire a contractor) and don’t open it, but just store it properly for future reference.  It only costs about eight dollars and will make it a lot easier in the future to match color.  That’s like buying a little insurance”.

Lastly, don’t skimp on the quality of paint because of cost.  Kieca says that “many people buy inferior or lower grade paint because they believe they are saving money.  They forget that the greater part of the job is what they pay for labor, or their own time spent.”  He explained that to paint about a 2500 square foot house, for example, an average contractor today will bid about $5000 for the job.  Assuming he uses 20 gallons of paint, and that lower grade paint costs $17 per gallon, top quality paint $25 per gallon, you would save $160.  The extra money spent to have good paint would amount to than 4 percent of the entire job.  The life expectancy of inferior paint is less than half that of the good stuff.  According to Kieca, “it just doesn’t make any sense”.

Upon reflection, I now realize how much I have learned from Bob Kieca and should be grateful for it.  Because he is so skilled (he is truly an artist) at color matching, I’m a bit worried about finding someone in one of the big chain stores who will provide that service now.  When someone with such special skills retires, in any field, we go to others with great expectations and unfairly expect them to fill the shoes of a rare craftsman.

But I’ll lose even more than a craftsman when Bob Kieca retires.  When he retires, who will interrupt their own work day to greet my by name whenever I enter their store.  Who will always find some time to chat about the weather, to ask about the health of my family or show me pictures of their grandchildren?  Who will talk with me about how we both enjoyed last Friday night’s concert in the park, how to avoid back problems caused by heavy lifting, or how to improve ones golf swing?  I need that kind of break in my work day.  I think we all do.

Bob and Charlotte. (Still in love after 50 years!)

Bob Kieca – Paint Expert (2)

Are you a homeowner like me who has been trying to ignore the peeling paint on your house’s exterior for way too long?  Have you been warning your spouse that if he doesn’t take care of it soon he will be getting an unpleasant visit from the Oak Park Paint Police?  (I’m pretty sure that there is no such entity as the “Paint Police”, but it sounds good, and if your spouse believes you, then go ahead and use it.) 

But seriously, now is a good time to paint the outside of your house before another Minneapolis winter approaches.  If it makes you feel any better, I can tell you that you are not alone if you feel confused about how to approach this daunting task, especially when it comes to choosing the right paint for the job.  Not to mention finding the right painting contractor or preparing to do the job yourself.

With all the new products, the scores of brand name paints out there, and each one claiming to be a superior product, I’m often as confused as anyone about what choices to make.  I’ve been surrounded by paint all my life, and if I’ve learned anything, it is that paint products and technology keep changing and it’s hard for anyone to keep up. 

Things have really changed dramatically, especially in the last forty years or so that I’ve been around; As a boy, I remember my grandfather, who started as a house painter in 1920s.  He would show me how he’d mix his own paint using linseed oil, turpentine and finely ground white or red lead.  I shudder when I recall the clouds of dust generated as he scooped powdered lead pigment from a large drum into a paint bucket.  I can still vividly recall the smell of my grandparents’ house.  It was always of my grandmother’s wonderful cooking combined with the odor of turpentine coming from my grandfather’s basement workshop.  The faintest whiff of turpentine still makes me nostalgic.

The old lead did make good paint and had some qualities that still cannot be equaled by today’s paints.  As we know today though, lead paint was far from environmentally correct.  These days, latex paints (most today are actually acrylics) have been developed to have a number qualities that far outstrip the few advantages of older oil based paints.  (However, latex primers are still not up to the task, and using oil base for primer under latex paint is preferred.)

As the technology and methods continue to change, I’m still trying to learn.  My best source of information for the past ten or so years has been my guru, paint and color expert, Bob Kieca.  Kieca and his wife Charlotte, have owned Minnesota Paint and Wallpaper in Minneapolis for more than forty years.  He also worked as a colorist for an ink manufacturer for many years.  Kieca’s advice to me over the years has not been limited to only the paint business, but extends into subjects like eating a healthy diet, how to improve ones golf swing or how to relieve back problems caused by too many years of heavy lifting. 

Kieca, who just turned 70 last year, swims and works out regularly and plays a good game of golf.  Unfortunately for me, that’s a problem.  The golf part, I mean.   Bob is an avid golfer and often contemplates how he might like to spend more of his time on the golf course and less time in his paint store.  I suspect Kieca is only a few short years away from retirement.  I don’t really blame him, and am hoping for a few golf lessons when we both have a little more time to spend on a golf course.

Anyhow, I got to wondering where I would go for painting supplies and advice if and when Bob Kieca does retire.  Are there other paint stores in the area that would be able to satisfy my desire to find the perfect paint in the perfect color for every one of my projects?  I knew Bob would not object, and so with his encouragement I set out on a small quest.  I interrogated a few of my neighbors and some local painting contractors about where they had bought paint for their most recent projects.  The names of four local stores came up most often and I decided to check them out. 

In the most unscientific manner possible, I decided to visit the stores, to purchase a couple of quarts of paint from each store and rate their service, their price and their paint.  Also, to make it a bit more interesting, I chose to take with me two color samples from a couple of local historic buildings to see how well each store could match them.  The first sample was a flat, reddish tan from the interior plaster surface of the River Forest Women’s Club.  The second was a more challenging semi gloss, deep tone green from some exterior trim of my own house. 

I ambushed each store (including Kieca’s) with my two samples in hand and asked them match my paint as best they could.  I asked them to sell me a quart of their best paint for each color .  Afterwards, I returned to Kieca’s store and two others, to talk to them and ask if they had some general advice that might help the unfortunate homeowner who might still be procrastinating getting her house painted. 

Following are the stores I visited and the results of my (not so scientific) survey:

J.C. Licht is on North Avenue in Oak Park.  I got help right away when I walked in the store.  But then it took three polite and eager employees together, about twenty minutes to botch their attempt at matching my green sample.  After discarding the ruined quart, they gave me a factory color off the shelf and said that was the best they could do.  After some trial and error, they came moderately close with the tan.  A good paint, but not a color I was completely satisfied with.  They charged me $12.99 for the green quart and $10.99 for the tan – both were two dollars higher than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.  Both paints were Benjamin Moore and of very high quality.  Many professionals use almost nothing else.  I’m one of them.

Sherwin-Williams is on Harlem near North Avenue in Minneapolis.  Bob McDonough, Assistant Manager did the color matching and mixing for me.  McDonough said that he has more than ten years in the business.  He attributes his skill and experience to many years of trial and error, and ruining many cans of paint in the process.  It was an education that seems to have paid off, because he did an excellent job at matching both my samples.  The brand of paint was Sherwin-Williams.  Both quarts were very good quality paints at $10.29 for the tan, interior flat, and $8.54 for the green, exterior semi-gloss.

Dressel’s Ace Diamond Lake hardware on near Nicollet Ave.  Dressel’s is a small family owned business that I really like.  They don’t specialize only in paint like the other stores, but have a great staff of pleasant and very helpful employees to assist you with all your handyman’s needs.  Someone is always around to help you select and mix a can of paint for you.  As for accurate color matching, Chuck Dressel, the owner, says that without a color-matching machine, he is reluctant to deviate from the color cards.  He said that perfect color matching without a color-matching machine is more trial and error than anything else, and he seemed dubious about anyone who might claim otherwise. 

 Unfortunately, with only the color cards to choose from, I was able to come up with only moderately close matches.  The paint is Ace’s own brand (made in their own factories, Dressel told me).  I thought the paint quality was pretty good, especially for the price.  I paid $9.99 for the quart of green and $6.99 for the tan.

The Home Depot on New Brighton Blvd is in Minneapolis, between 18th Avenue and on the southeast by Interstate 35. There, the young man who assisted me was obviously taking more interest in the parade of women shoppers walking by than in selling me my paint.  In between gawking at the young females, he tried to use a color-matching machine for my samples, but it would only read one sample properly – the green.  The computer provided a formula that matched my sample, in hue, quite well.  Unfortunately, that formula gave me a paint that was much too saturated with pigment.  The paint had a grainy texture and was muddy in appearance after drying.  I therefore had purchased a quart of paint that I could not use for any quality job.  The message is this;  A color-matching machine is useless in the hands of a non-professional, and is no substitute for experience.  The brand of paint was Behr and was $9.97 for the quart of green.  The label on the outside of the can looks impressive and I like the bear.  Not so for what is inside the can.

For the tan sample, the guy who assisted me tried to find the closest match from a color card.  Not close enough.  This quart of Glidden interior paint was too dull and cost me $6.97.  Its quality:  You get what you pay for?

Minnesota Paint and Wallpaper.  I can state unequivocally that Bob Kieca is an artist at color matching and he has a pretty good golf swing.  He sells Benjamin Moore paint and charged $10.99 for the quart of green and $8.95 for the tan.

Finally, some advice to any homeowner who might be getting ready to have their house painted or is planning to do it themselves. 

The first thing that Kieca advises is to be as knowledgeable as you possibly can before hiring a professional contractor or doing the job yourself.  The second is proper planning, if you decide to do it yourself. 

When hiring a professional contractor, Kieca insists that a clear, detailed, written proposal or estimate is essential (including specifying the particular brand and types of paint to be used).  He also warns, “Make sure that the contractor is fully insured for himself and his employees.  The next most important thing you can do is to ask for references and then to check them out.”  If a contractor can’t or won’t provide you with such a proposal, references and a certificate of insurance, you shouldn’t hire that contractor.

When doing a paint job yourself, especially on the exterior of your house,  Kieca insisted that “nothing is more important than proper planning and the allocation of enough time to do the job correctly.”  He said, “We’re all looking for a successful result when someone decides to paint their house.  I want my customers to be satisfied with the whole job.  I want give them all the advice they need to complete the job well.”  He continued,” My job, if they ask me, is to guide them through the conclusion of a successful job.”  At both Sherwin Williams and at Dressel’s Ace Hardware, there is also always someone around to offer good advice.

Everyone I talked to agrees that preparation is the most important part of any paint job.  Good preparation still includes lots of hand scraping and sanding.  Using the proper tools and sharp scraper blades will make the job much easier.  (By the way, on an older house, always check for lead paint and take proper precautions if it exists.  And most important, never use any kind of electric power sander on lead paint.  It is illegal and your neighbors will not appreciate it!)

When the scraping and sanding is done, the next step is rinsing or washing.  Bob McDonough at Sherwin Williams emphasized a good washing.  He recommended, “Wash [the exterior of] your house before painting, using TSP (the newer formulas don’t actually contain phosphates which harm the environment) or a non-sudsing cleaner like Soilax.”  Never paint over dirt.

Most experts agree that even though washing is very important, don’t use a power washer to clean the exterior of your house.  They usually do much more harm than good.  Besides other problems that power washing can cause, it often leaves more paint lifted than when you started the job.  Then you’ll need to go back and do more hand scraping and sanding to get a good result.  Kieca recommends using no more than a garden hose with decent pressure for rinsing.  It’s the most force with which you should apply water to a house.

Another important tip:  Kieca says that maintaining the exterior paint on your house does not always have to be a big job.  “Most often you can maintain the paint finish by doing small sections as needed, or doing spot repairs such as after storm damage, or one area that has weathered more than others.”  Many people devote each summer to only painting one side of their house.  “As long as you write down the color formula and the kind of paint, you will always be able to buy more at the paint store and have it matched correctly”.  Another hint that Kieca  has; “On a big job, buy an extra quart of paint for every color you use (whether you do it yourself or hire a contractor) and don’t open it, but just store it properly for future reference.  It only costs about eight dollars and will make it a lot easier in the future to match colors.  That’s like buying a little insurance”.

Lastly, don’t skimp on the quality of paint because of cost.  Chuck Dressel at Ace explained that you are not saving money by buying cheap paint.  He stressed, “The biggest cost of a paint job is in the labor.”  “We don’t even carry Ace’s lower grades of paint” he told me.

That is some good advice from a few experts.  I hope it helps a bit when that inevitable day comes to get out the ladders for another round of painting, or searching for a qualified painting contractor.  If you plan your job well, you should have a little time and money left over to maybe join Bob and me on the golf course.

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