To make a complete success of his business, the master painter and decorator must produce regular profits, give satisfaction to his customers, and enjoy an increasing amount of trade. This can be achieved only by imparting efficiency to all sections of his work. Advertising, the methods employed in dealing with enquiries, office routine, competitive estimating, and the satisfactory execution of work are all matters of vital importance, and although this post deals almost exclusively with estimating, it will be seen that each of the factors enumerated above is inter-related to the extent that inefficiency in any one of them must have an adverse effect on the rest.

Estimating cannot be undertaken with any degree of confidence unless the decorator is perfectly satisfied that he possesses a comprehensive knowledge of his craft, is able to form an accurate idea of the probable prime cost of many different kinds of work, is aware of the exact amount of overheads and establishment costs, and can relate all these items to the individuality and development of his own particular kind of business. No two master painters have an exactly similar type of clientele, and although running costs may be, and often are, alike for jobs of the same nature, there is frequently a considerable difference between the total sums of the estimates, though each firm may have given what is, in fact, a fair price.

Much will depend on the reputation of a firm and it is not always the lowest estimate which secures the order. People may be impressed by the work of a particular establishment, or with the tone or appeal of its advertising, and may consider that a few extra pounds are well worth spending. Strictly speaking, the most efficient and reliable firm should submit the lowest figure; that this is not the case in practice, is due to the fact that inefficient concerns often under-estimate or purposely undercut prices. Everyone is familiar with the cut-price firm and its efforts to keep up its profits by means of’ scamping.’ Such methods are profitable only for a limited time, after which the ill effects of disrepute are bound to make themselves felt.

It is usual for a single individual to compute estimates, and although he cannot be held wholly responsible for the profitable outcome of jobs, he is bound to be regarded with disfavour if losses continually recur. The confidence and ability of the competent estimator can come only from the experience gained by long practice, sound knowledge of the current prices of labour and materials, and the convenience of being able to refer to the records of jobs carried out in the past.

Experience is the great teacher, but it is not the only one, for we can 85 learn a great deal from other men. So the writer believes it will prove helpful to those with little or no experience in estimating if he outlines his own, summarising the methods he has found to be most convenient and satisfactory; these should enable them to start with some assurance that the prices they quote will not be in too marked a contrast to those of their competitors.

Average Prices

At the first glance, estimating for painting and decorating work appears simple enough. From time to time current prices for most of the more familiar processes are published in year-books and similar publications. It must, however, be emphasised that these are merely average prices and that they may bear little relation to a particular job.

If, for instance, a decorator is invited to submit prices for the painting of a large, empty warehouse, in one case, and, in another, for doing similar work in a busy factory which contains a great deal of delicate machinery and is working at full pressure, he cannot rely on the information given in such publications and quote identical prices at so much per square yard. It is obvious that the average price will be too high in the first case and too low in the second.

Again, suppose that he receives two more enquiries, one for the complete decoration of a fine country house, and one for the painting of several canal bridges. It may happen that the same number of coats of paint are to be given in each instance. Can he therefore give the same price for an equivalent amount of work ? Most assuredly not, for here we have not only to compare the wide difference in the class of work but also the peculiar conditions which pertain to each job. Expensive materials, first-class labour, and considerable supervision must be allowed for on the country-house contract, whilst such factors as the conditions of traffic and the accessibility of the work will play their part in costing the work on the bridges. Other aspects which will have an important influence on the prices of both jobs will be the relative amounts of travelling time taken, and the sum total of the country expenses involved; while again, entirely different types of insurance may also be necessary.

Average prices for painting and decorating are useful up to a point, since they provide some sort of a check on the reasonableness or otherwise of the contractor’s charges. But it will be seen that no hard-and-fast rule can be laid down; each individual job must be judged separately.

Two Methods of Estimating

There are two main methods of taking estimates. The first is by carefully measuring every part of a job and basing the estimate on the cost per square yard – or, in some instances, per foot run – of each process involved. The total gives the prime cost, to which must be added overhead charges, establishment charges, and profit.

The other method is by judging as accurately as possible the time which will be taken by labour and the quantity of material which is likely to be used. This method is often described as ‘ spotting.’ The total of the two items gives the prime cost.

Each of these systems has its own particular advantages and disadvantages. The first is more suitable for contractors who carry out a great deal of work, since the average price tends to assert itself in the long run. If a loss occurs in one process, it is more than probable that it will be counterbalanced by a better return than was anticipated on another. The profits shown will not be on the same scale for each job, but, granted a steady stream of contracts, average profits will be maintained. This method does not, however, take into consideration the peculiarities of individual jobs to any great extent, nor does it allow for the widely differing standards and working speeds of operatives.

The second system, which may seem to be rather haphazard at first glance, is practised mostly by the owners of small businesses and can be very sound when it is used by men of great experience, who have a personal and intimate knowledge of all their men and who can judge to a nicety what a certain man will do in a given time. He does not, as a rule, employ much casual labour, as do the larger painting contractors, and when it becomes desirable for him to take on fresh labour, he is able to observe the men’s capabilities at first hand and, if necessary, to vary his future prices on these observations. In the matter of materials, the experience gained by the smaller man comes from actual craftsmanship; his data are not merely a collection of quantities and prices for specific areas, but such as are derived from working on innumerable jobs and using all kinds of materials on all kinds of surfaces. How often has he put out in a paint kettle the exact amount of paint required for, let us say, the woodwork of a room, or again, when paperhanging, trimmed one roll of paper less than has been supplied and found that he has been right almost to an inch ? On such occasions long experience has made almost instinctive the correct estimation of quantities. Thus, an estimate based solely on the probable time taken and materials used is not necessarily guesswork and, from the right man, is just as reliable as the method founded on exact measurement.

The Ideal Method

The ideal method, in the writer’s opinion, is to combine the best of both these systems. The work can be carefully measured, first going through it methodically, so as not to miss any part ; this will resolve the job into various areas with specified processes. The prime cost can then be worked out. We can then go over the complete job, calculating as carefully as possible the time which will probably be taken and the amount of materials likely to be used. When thus engaged, concentrate on one room at a time and base your judgment, not on the time you would take to do the work yourself, but on that which the average man would require.

As a rule, it is better to estimate the amount of material which will be wanted for the whole job, but this depends upon the size of the latter and must be left to your own decision.

Prime Cost

Having thus gone through the whole of the specified work, a price can be found for the prime cost. This, of course, is the amount of money the job will cost the contractor and is quite separate from profits, establishment, and overhead charges. These items are added to the prime cost and give the total figure for the estimate. The prime cost arrived at by computing on a time and materials basis can now be compared with the first figure. Many contractors are content to take the higher figure and let it go at that, but this is not sufficient.

If there is a marked difference, the competent estimator will find out exactly how it has occurred. Measurements must be checked in any event. If the sum arrived at agrees with the first calculation, the difference must lie in the time and material estimate, and this can be checked item by item. We are now certain that our figures and calculations are accurate. If the price found by measurement is still the higher, it is probable that the condition of the surface is such that it needs less than the usual amount of preparation, in which case a lower figure may be considered justifiable. But if the time and material figure is considerably higher than the measured price, it proves either that more than the average amount of preliminary work is necessary, or that there are a substantial number of more or less complicated surfaces as, for example, iron sashes or ornamental details.

It will be appreciated that these instances do not by any means cover the possible ways in which divergencies may occur, but they should be sufficient to illustrate the principle. If the time and material figure proves to be the higher, it should be quoted as being the more applicable to the work.

When the prime cost of the latter has finally been decided, the percentages for profit, overhead, and establishment charges must be added.

This, then, is the broad outline on which to work; what follows in this post is an enlargement of it, with a consideration of trade practice, to indicate how to get the very best from labour and materials, and how the many and varied processes used in the craft can be related to current prices, thus enabling the decorator to keep his estimates to a reasonable figure.


Except on the smaller type of domestic jobs, estimates are usually based on specifications supplied by an architect. There may be a separate specification for painting and decorating work – under the heading of ‘ Painter ‘ – or the decorator may have to sort his part of the work from a general specification. If he is acting as a sub-contractor, he must send off the separated part to the main contractor for approval. The specification which the foreman receives is usually a carbon copy of the estimate, but with the prices omitted.

To the experienced tradesman there should seldom be anything difficult to understand in a specification, though at times it may be out of the ordinary or require a certain amount of clarification. Each room or each portion of the work is dealt with separately, and full details of each process are, as a rule, set down reasonably clearly and concisely. Full measurements are often included. The wording of an estimate taken from a specification should be precisely the same, stating neither more nor less. It is hardly necessary to add that the specification should be very carefully read and studied, and that the price ultimately submitted must include everything mentioned in every particular.

Specifications vary to a considerable extent. Some give special instructions regarding the paints, distempers, and other materials which are to be used, while others are less explicit. The decorator will often find products with which he is not familiar specified; proprietary brands, the very names of which are new to him, may be demanded and, in this case, it is wise to make certain in advance that the material is available and, if it is, that it can be supplied at the same price which his competitors will have to pay for it.

A specification can be full of jargon, or again, it may be full of abbreviations; compare the following examples:

A. WOODWORK. Knot, stop, Prime r. lead, paint two oils one gloss Blank’s green (2).

B. WOODWORK. Carefully sandpaper all woodwork, paint all knots and resinous places with two coats best patent knotting varnish. Prime, including all edges before fixing, with twenty parts genuine white-lead paint to one part red lead, thinned with best raw linseed oil and genuine American turpentine. Rub down with middle two glasspaper and stop with white-lead stopping. Paint one coat lead colour oil paint made with genuine white lead, paste driers, and thinned with one part best raw linseed oil to six parts genuine American turpentine. Paint one coat Blank’s green underrating, as supplied. If thinners are necessary, genuine American turpentine only will be used. Rub down with No. 1 glasspaper, dust and leather the surface. Paint one coat Blank’s ‘ Glosso-glit’ Jap Green, Mo. 2. Finishing coat must be applied as sent out by the makers. No thinners of any kind will be used.

Some Snags

Look out for snags in specifications; for instance, give careful thought to such items as this:

All windows and glasswork will be left perfectly clean on both sides. All floors will be protected and left in a clean, polished state.

Such a clause might prove very expensive if it were treated too casually. Glasswork of all kinds, other than perfectly plain, is very difficult to clean ‘ perfectly.’ If floors are to be left clean and polished, it is as well to find out in advance what other trades will be working on them and for how long.

Again, take the following, which actually appeared in a recent specification: All flats to be decorated to the choice of occupants.

Naturally, it was quite impossible to try to estimate for this item until it was ascertained that the occupants in question were given the choice between washable distemper and a limited selection of wallpapers, and were allowed to determine for themselves the colour of the hard-gloss paint for the woodwork.

Make sure that all unfamiliar or unusual jobs are feasible. The following, for instance, could be both troublesome and expensive :

Clean the stain off oak, now black, and finish in a natural waxed effect.

The decorator may, at times, be called upon to estimate from the plans of a proposed new building, and terms which are strange to him may be used as, for example, in connection with constructional ironwork. It is much safer to enquire, if he is not quite sure of their precise significance, than to be afraid that his ignorance may create a poor impression.

Time Limits

Time limits are often imposed upon work, especially on public buildings, theatres or cinemas, when an opening date has been anounced. These limits are the subject of a special clause in the specification and are beneficial in one respect – that they keep the contractor ‘on his toes ‘ – but are often unreasonable in that they do not allow the decorator sufficient time to follow up other trades. When penalties are quoted for exceeding the time limit, the motto should be: ‘ Proceed with Caution.’ He should make some provision, when estimating, for the possibility of overstepping the period allowed and try to foresee delays in his own work due to other trades becoming behind schedule. There is always the chance that he will be granted an extension if it is clear that circumstances make it impossible for him to carry on with his own work. He should never allow penalties to be inflicted through no fault of his own, but apply for extra time while it is still obvious which trade is responsible for the delay.

Notes on the Time Factor

The painter and decorator must be prepared to estimate for widely different types of work, and for this reason he should cultivate the habit of noting down the length of time taken to complete all manner of jobs. It is seldom satisfactory to rely simply on memory for this kind of thing. As a matter of fact, the estimate of probable man-hours is one of the easiest things to miscalculate. Work has a tendency to take longer than is expected, and most decorators are rather too optimistic when reckoning up the time likely to be taken on a job, especially in the case of small items. The reason is that snags which it is difficult to foresee will keep cropping up and add to the cost. Not only will odds and ends of work, such as touching up damaged places, cleaning oak floors, removing paint spots or water-paint splashes from windows and linoleum, and refixing electric fittings, replacing door and window furniture, cleaning out paint kettles, and the like, take up a considerable time, but if they are left until the job is almost complete, they will certainly involve extra journeys to and from the work, and these would otherwise have been unnecessary. If such items have been overlooked, the decorator should not be surprised if the expected profit proves disappointing, for a far larger sum than is commonly anticipated can be quickly swallowed up in this way. Moreover, when these odds and ends are finally carried out, the workmen become bored, the client impatient, and the master painter is spending additional money which benefits nobody.

Where Under-estimating may Occur

Some other things which are easy to under-estimate in terms of man hours are: painting steel sashes, ornamental metal work, certain types of gutters and cornices, dormer windows, and roof work of all descriptions. Roof work in particular almost always involves an extra man’s time to be spent in addition to that of the one actually doing the painting, and it is a wise precaution to make an allowance for just this amount when estimating for this type of job. When exteriors in busy streets have to be painted, a man’s time for footing and helping to rear and strike ladders must be taken into consideration.

The time factor for burning off and preparing woodwork is another point in which miscalculations on the wrong side often occur, though the habit of being thorough when examining old work will go far to prevent mistakes of this kind. On a job recently timed by the writer, one man took two hours and a quarter to burn off, rub down, knot and prime a door and frame which measured 7 feet by 3 feet 9 inches. Though this is given as an example of what may perhaps be regarded as the average time for an average job, it would be unwise to accept it as a standard on which an estimate for this type of work could be based; the condition of old surfaces varies to so great an extent that the only safe method is to judge each individual job on its own merits and peculiarities.

Extra Coats of Paint

Generally speaking, extra coats of paint on prepared and stopped surfaces are comparatively inexpensive, and it is often better policy to run over work with an additional coat, even when this has not been specified, than to spend a great deal of time on the finishing coat of what may prove to be a rather transparent enamel. To be compelled to go over work which is supposed to be completed is a much more expensive business in terms of both time and material.

It is worth while adding a few words on finishing coats which are disappointing. It not infrequently happens that the finished job, as specified, is unsatisfactory and the master painter may decide that it is politic to give the work, or part of it, an extra coat of paint or distemper. In such cases, a thin wash is applied with the intention of effecting an improvement. This is seldom, if ever, successful, and is, in fact, just so much time and material wasted. It is far better in every way to give the surface a generous coat. If, in an unusual case, the contractor comes to the conclusion that he had better apply three coats to a surface where only two have been specified, he should make the second coat a thin wash, if thin washes there must be. It is a good rule always to be generous with final coats. To ease out gloss paint, or to give a wall a final coat of flat paint which hardly covers, is false economy.

Varnishing and Special Finishes

Varnishing, on the other hand – and particularly flat varnishing – is hardly ever under-estimated by the man of any experience. It is a job which is quickly done and on which comparatively little material is used. All the same, it pays to allow a little extra time for rubbing down lightly, dusting and leathering the work.

When estimating for graining, marbling, scumbling, and colour glazing, it should be remembered that, as in the case of paperhanging, the specialist is very much quicker than those who do this kind of work only occasionally. The cost of materials for such finishes is negligible compared with that of the time involved. Much will depend, of course, on the class of work required.

Taking Notes

It seems timely here to enlarge on the subject of taking notes. A thumb-indexed note-book kept for data on out-of-the-ordinary work, will prove extremely useful and should be kept solely for this purpose, as though it were an address-book. It needs a little self-discipline to avoid employing note-books , intended for special usages, as scribbling pads, and it is not necessarily advantageous to devise too many forms of manuscript books , job sheets, work sheets, and so forth, with the idea of promoting efficiency. Most master painters would be well advised to stick to the standard forms of time sheets; more complicated systems work well enough for a time, but unless a man is exceptionally methodical, negligence creeps in and the system becomes, if not unworkable, at least unreliable. If true efficiency is maintained in some recognised method of book-keeping, there is no reason why the exact state of every part of a business cannot be checked at any time.

Business Individuality

Every painting and decorating business develops along individual lines; much will depend on the class of work for which the employer’s staff is best fitted. It is not an uncommon experience to find that the quality of his operatives determines that of the orders which come in. Skilled craftsmen will attract commissions worthy of their abilities, and when workmanship is only of a mediocre standard, the work which is entrusted to it will usually not be of a very exacting nature. There is nothing surprising in this. Not only does good work recommend itself to the client’s friends, but ideas are assimilated by them, and when they in turn want decoration carried out, they not only desire results which are equally satisfying but frequently try to go one better. The master painter should consequently make up his mind on the class of job he is capable of doing, and once this has got to be known, the task of estimating is simplified because the size of the contracts and the character of the work tend to be more or less similar.

When we ‘ talk shop ‘ in an unfamiliar town, we probably find that Badger and Sons decorate all the ‘ big houses,’ Sable and Company carry out most of the lower middle-class work, Fitch Brothers are usually engaged on housing estates, and Scrubb and Sons concentrate on the more humble homes. This indicates that various standards do exist. On the other hand, large painting contractors may be called upon to estimate for all classes of work, from dockyards to cinemas, or from gasworks to churches, but even in their case there is a tendency for a firm to find a certain level. Unusual work is often sub-let to specialists.

It must not be taken for granted that the better class of work undertaken, the higher will be the profits. Fine-quality work certainly costs more, but more time must be spent on it. Profits should therefore always be reckoned as a definite percentage added to prime costs in every case, and those of any firm should be higher when a larger quantity, rather than a better quality, of work is clone.


The bigger the contract and the less personal contact the master painter has with his employees, the more important efficient supervision becomes. In the case of old-established – and, possibly, old-fashioned – firms, who have retained the same decorating staff for a great number of years, supervision does not assume such importance. This observation should not be misunderstood; it simply implies that known qualities are the more easily handled from the point of view both of estimating and supervision, and does not alter the fact that, no matter how much the craftsmen can be trusted, wise supervision is a matter of the highest importance.

To exercise it perfectly needs most of the qualities of a superman, and those who imagine that the job of a walking foreman is an easy one would probably be surprised at the amount of really hard work it entails. Energy, enthusiasm, tact, reliability, and the ability both to think quickly and to assume responsibility, are only some of the essentials of the able supervisor, and he should, in addition, be punctual, possess an excellent memory, and have an agreeable manner. He must be able to get the very best from the operatives by gaining their confidence and friendly co-operation, and he must win their respect by his obvious knowledge of the trade. On the other hand, his friendliness must not lead to laxity, which will develop quickly if he gives the impression of being too easy-going. He must know exactly how long to spend on a job, so as not to waste his own time and that of the foreman painter.

Since a great many master painters supervise most of their contracts themselves, in addition to carrying on most of the office work, visit actual and potential clients, take measurements and get out estimates, interview travellers and order materials, to say nothing of fitting in visits to decorators’ merchants and showrooms, it is clear that to run a decorating business with any degree of success is far from being a restful occupation.

Supervision may seem superficially to have little connection with estimating, but a moment’s thought will show that if the supervision falls short of what it should be, prime costs will be higher than necessary and part of the establishment charges will be wasted. Whether the supervisor is master painter, walking foreman, or foreman painter, he must keep in the forefront of his mind the profitable completion of the job. On his judgment will depend the number of men to be sent to it and the number, too, to be retained as the work proceeds. The men must be kept fully employed throughout their working hours; they must not be kept waiting for materials or instructions regarding the nature of the decorations to be done, and they must be wisely dispersed at the end of the job. The foreman painter must be given clear and unequivocal details in good time about the various finishes to be used, or the possibility of expensive mistakes will be continually present. The supervisor should also be responsible for the delivery of plant and material, and must bear in mind that though the distribution of gear to other jobs may not seem of great importance at the time, it may be a serious matter when regarded from the point of view of transport.

The cost of supervision should, in all cases, be covered by establishment charges; this will prevent possible complications in working out the time taken in this manner, since the charge will automatically become part of a definite percentage on the prime costs.

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