AN estimate of the cost of carrying out painters’ and decorators’ work depends, of course, essentially upon measurement, and while it is very desirable that accurate and exhaustive measurements be made in order to arrive at a correct result, yet in actual practice a great deal of guessing is done, particularly by men of experience.

In the case of small villas and cottage property, this is not very objectionable when it is done by a man whose previous knowledge enables him to gauge the correct figures. In more important work accurate measurements must be made, and calculations be run out in order to find the total. Large firms carrying on business as painters and decorators usually keep one or more clerks whose duties are confined to measuring and estimating.

When plans and elevations are available, the measurements may be taken quite easily; when these do not exist it may in some cases be desirable to make scale drawings. The measurements for the joiners’ and plasterers’ work are often relied upon, some addition being made – say from one-fourth to one-sixth – to cover the increased work of edges, mouldings, etc. The measurements are of three kinds: first – square yards, as in the case of painted walls, ceilings, and woodwork; lineal measure, as in the case of picture rails, iron cresting, etc., and numbers, as in the case of brackets, ornamental rain-water heads, etc.

It is important in taking the measurements to adopt a regular order of procedure, which shall always be adhered to. One may commence at the top or the bottom of the building, either on the inside or the outside; but having settled upon one or the other, the regular rule should never be departed from. In the case of all ‘ peculiar work,’ 1.e. something out of the ordinary, special note should be made of the item in order that due allowance may be made in calculating the cost. Work that is to be done from a scaffold, from a swing boat, or from a painter’s chair, should also be noted, as an extra charge will have to be made for this.

Although the decorator will sometimes have to compile his estimates from plans and specifications, they will more often be based on measurements made in buildings already in existence, and a few particulars of the best methods to adopt with various architectural features should accordingly be useful.

Whenever possible, measurements should be worked out by the square yard – the ‘ yard super,’ as it is otherwise called. To find the total area of a flat surface, multiply the length by the breadth; thus, if a ceiling measures 15 ft. by 12 ft., the area will be 180 sq. ft., which is usually expressed as 20 sq. yds.

Equipment for Measuring

For the purpose of taking measurements, the decorator should provide himself with a rule, a tape measure, and a notebook and pencil. The rule is usually 2 ft. in length, but a 3-ft. rule is preferred by some men, since it automatically provides a yard measure. The tape measure is chiefly useful for dropping from a height and for curved or circular work. Any type of notebook will serve, but experience has convinced the writer that one of the loose-leaf variety, with a sufficiently stiff cover to allow notes to be written while the book is being held in the hand, is the best and most practical.

In addition to the above, a measuring rod is a useful accessory. Builders commonly employ a 5-ft. rod, but one of 6 ft., hinged in the centre, is frequently preferred.

The desirability of keeping to a regular system when taking measurements has already been emphasised, and this applies, not only to the order in which the various rooms in a house are taken, but also to the units in each room; a sound rule, in noting down the figures, is always to put down the long measurement first.


The area of any wall can be found by multiplying the length by the height. Thus, if it is 16 ft. long and 7 ft. 6 in. high, the area is 120 sq. ft., or 13 sq. yds. 3 sq. ft.

Let us assume that the walls of a room are to be painted or distempered and we wish to ascertain the superficial area to be coated. The room has one door and one window and, on the fireplace wall, the chimney-breast projects 1 ft. The height of the room, from the top of the skirting to the picture-rail, is 6 ft.

One wall, 16 ft. long by 6 ft.: 96 sq. ft.

One wall, 16 ft. plus 2 ft. (chimney-breast) by 6 ft. 108 sq. ft.

Two walls, 10 ft. long by 6 ft. : 120 sq. ft. 324 sq. ft. From this must be deducted the areas of: One door, 7 ft. by 3 ft. 6 in. : 241/2 sq. ft.

One window, 5 ft. by 3 ft. :15 sq. ft.

Fireplace, 5 ft. by 3 ft. 6 in. : 17 1/2 sq. ft. 57 sq. ft. 324 less 57 = 267 sq. ft., or 29 sq. yds. 6 sq. ft. (say 30 sq. yds).

Measuring Walls for Paperhanging

This process can be adopted when the walls are to be papered, but as paperhanging is almost invariably quoted at a price of so much per piece, an alternative method may be followed.

In reckoning the number of pieces which will be needed, an allowance must always be made for wastage and matching; this may be considerable, especially when patterned papers are to be used.

If the drop or distance between the picture rail and the top of the skirting in a room is, for example, 8 ft., each roll of paper will, allowing for wastage, provide four lengths. Now go round the room and measure the number of 21 in. breadths which will be required, making allowances for door, window, and fireplace openings. If there are, let us say, thirty of these, then thirty of the 8 ft. lengths will be needed we have seen that four of these go to each roll and consequently eight rolls of paper will be wanted in all.

Many decorators, however, prefer to measure for wallpaper by finding the superficial area of the walls and then dividing the total by six. A roll of English paper should, in theory, cover 7 sq. yds. of surface but, as mentioned above, a fairly generous allowance must be made for wastage. For all practical purposes, therefore, division by six will give the number of rolls of paper necessary.

Ceilings and Cornices

The area of the ceiling is obtained by multiplying the length by the breadth. It is unnecessary to take the measurements on the surface of the ceiling itself; they can equally well be taken on the floor.

Cornices are shown in feet or yards run, measuring the total length by the girth. The latter should always be carefully measured with the tape if it has mouldings or other projections, since these will add considerably more to the area to be coated than may seem likely from a superficial examination.

If the cornice is to receive the same decorative treatment as the ceiling, the two can be measured together and reckoned as one unit. If it is to be treated differently, the measurements should be kept separate.


These also are taken by foot or yard run. The length can be obtained from the measurements of the walls, making deductions for the width of the door or doors and that of the chimney-breast. In measuring the girth, use the tape if there are mouldings or other departures from the plane, remembering that even an inch short can make quite a substantial difference in a room of any size.


Doors of many different types will be encountered, from the more modern flush variety, unrelieved by any mouldings, to the older and more elaborate pattern, with more or less intricate mouldings. In ordinary, everyday work, it is fairly common practice to measure the height and width of the door and architrave, multiply the figures thus obtained together and add from 10 to 20 per cent, for edges and mouldings, according to the character of the door; for most purposes, this system works out quite satisfactorily.

Nevertheless, except for more or less plain doors and architraves with a minimum of deviations, it is strongly recommended that careful measurement be made with the tape, carrying the latter into all quirks and hollows.

The inexperienced decorator will be surprised to find what an increase in the total area of surface to be covered following the contours in this way can sometimes make, and though it may not amount to much on a single door, it may make a great difference in a large building where a considerable number of doors have to be dealt with. As a general rule, the extra time involved in taking more precise measurements will not be very great on such a job, because not more than three or four types of doors will have been used in any one building.


These also vary in size and design, and accurate measurement is sometimes rather a problem. Probably the most satisfactory method is to regard the window and its frame as if it were solid, since the time taken in cutting in is as great as though the entire surface were to be painted, and to add a percentage which will vary according to the amount of cutting in which has to be done.

A simple two-light window represents the minimum amount of work, and if the extreme measurements are, let us say, 6 ft. by 4 ft. 6 in., it may be considered as equivalent to 27 sq. ft., or 3 sq. yds. If, however, a window of the same dimensions contains four lights or panes, this will necessitate additional painting and at least 33J per cent, should be added, so that the total would be increased to 4 sq. yds. Similarly, if the sashes are subdivided into eight panes, an increase of not less than 66 per cent. should be made, bringing the figure up to 5 sq. yds.

The difficulty in measuring windows lies in the fact that the time taken in cutting varies considerably, according to the skill of the operative. Opinions on this point differ, but the scale of increases which are given above for additional panes may be regarded as a minimum.


Generally speaking these, like windows, should be regarded as solid, the extra time required for cutting in being set off against the fireplace opening. Where, however, there is a number of deep mouldings or a considerable amount of ornament in heavy relief, a percentage should be added to the superficial area, but no hard-and-fast rule can be laid down.


While the same principles as those which govern the measurement of rooms apply in the case of staircases, it is not practicable to lay down any hard-and-fast rule where the latter are concerned, because the heights will vary in different parts of the work, and other factors, no less subject to variation, will also be met with. Wall and ceiling measurements may be taken, as described for rooms, but a careful note of the accessibility of different parts of the surface should be taken; in some houses the height of the ceiling or the difficulty of reaching some areas of the walls may involve the use of special plant, and allowances will have to be made for this in preparing the estimate.


Some decorators base their estimates for painting balustrades on the superficial area of this unit, but this is an extremely unreliable method and one more accurate is desirable. The matter is complicated by the variety of types of baluster in use; those of more recent design are usually relatively plain but in older houses – especially in medium-sized and larger buildings of the Victorian age – turned balusters with numerous mouldings and more or less involved shapes are by no means rare.

To arrive approximately at the surface area to be covered, the most simple system would appear to be to measure round a baluster at its widest part with the tape, multiply the result by the height and again multiply the total arrived at by the number of balusters on the staircase.


These again, will vary in type, though the more ornate are less common than was formerly the case. As a general rule, protection of the surface is the principal objective and a meticulously careful finish is not expected. In most cases, in measuring them it will be satisfactory to regard them as a continuous flat surface and thus to find their superficial area by multiplying the length by the height. For the average plain type, from 50 to 75 per cent, may be added to this total as the basis for an estimate for painting both sides, according to the degree of ornament involved.

External Brickwork, Stucco Fronts, etc.

When external brickwork, stucco or compo fronts are to be finished in paint or outside-quality water paint, the superficial area can be found by multiplying the height of the building by its width. The heights of the various rooms will provide a fairly reliable guide to that of the whole front, but a generous allowance must be made for floors. No deduction need be made for window areas, which can be regarded for measuring purposes as solid, to offset the additional labour of cutting in. Careful note should be taken of the accessibility of all parts of the work which cannot be painted from the ground, whether advantage can be taken of any special architectural features (e.g. porches or balconies), the frequency with which ladders will have to be shifted, the necessity for scaffolding or special plant, or other relevant points.


Many men with great experience of measuring develop a remarkable capacity for it and are able to judge heights and widths with considerable accuracy almost at a glance, and – which is far more difficult – to estimate more or less correctly, after no more than a cursory examination, the area to be covered of surfaces characterised by mouldings and projections of various sizes or complicated in other ways. But the ability to do this comes only after long practice and then not to every decorator. The beginner will be well advised to take careful measurements on every occasion and never to trust merely to appearances which are, unfortunately, only too often illusory. While all measurements taken should be as accurate as is humanly possible, it is better, in cases of doubt, to err on the generous side rather than on the reverse.

In making his measurements the decorator should not be content simply to determine the superficial area of the surface to be treated. Reference has already been made to the necessity of taking note of the accessibility of various parts of the work and of making allowance for the provision of special plant and equipment, but he should also have a keen eye for the nature and condition of the surface, so that when the estimate is compiled reliable data are available on these important points and suitable preliminary treatment can be prescribed. On old work especially, a thorough examination of all surfaces should be made, even if it involves a good deal of extra time; in this way, many potential sources of trouble can be detected which, if unobserved, may play havoc with the estimate submitted, though the actual measurements taken may be correct to an inch. It is not much good to provide accurate measurements of the area of the walls of a room if, after the estimate based on these measurements has been accepted and work has started, it is discovered that the existing distemper, which seemed on casual inspection sound enough to provide a good foundation for new coatings, has in reality only a weak bond, tends to shell easily, and must be removed before the new decoration is applied.

The decorator should, in short, keep a sharp look-out for any signs of structural or surface defects which may conceivably affect the execution of the particular job in hand. Discoloured wallpaper or localised flaking of paintwork or distemper, for example, should always be regarded with suspicion, since they are usually due to moisture penetration. It may prove necessary, in such cases, to treat the plaster – or possibly the outer face of the wall – with special damp-proofing material, and this will add substantially to the cost of the work. Failure to take this precaution will often mean trouble within a few weeks or months and the result may be that the decorator will then be called upon to make good at his own expense; thus, a contract, which should have brought him a reasonable margin of profit, may actually involve him in a loss.

It may be objected that this has nothing to do with taking measurements, and this, of course, is true. On the other hand, the sole object of measur- ing is to provide a basis on which an estimate can be drawn up and the treatment of the existing surface has obviously a vital bearing on the cost of the job. The taking of measurements provides an excellent opportunity for noting the condition of the work, and it is only common sense to take advantage of it. Admittedly, it is not always easy on such occasions to form an accurate opinion of the extent of the work which will have to be done. When, for instance, distempered or papered walls are to be stripped, the amount of making-good which will have to be carried out on the plaster is generally problematical and may only reveal itself when the walls are laid bare. It takes a great deal of experience to be able to know at a glance just what treatment will be needed.

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