Kevin Gray Painting beautifully revives, rebuilds and restores heritage buildings and more in Hudson, Quebec.
The best way to see the work of Kevin Gray Painting is to drive through Hudson, Quebec. “My portfolio is a leisurely drive down Main Road,” says Kevin. “From the town hall to some of the churches, and a few of the most beautiful, stately homes in our community, we’ve had the privilege of working on many of them.”
Kevin officially started his painting business in 1998, but he began painting while doing odd jobs ever since he left school at 16. “My father was doing work for one of the bigger contractors in Hudson,” explains Kevin, “and I started working with his painter. I tried out a couple of different trades, but painting just seemed to stick. After a few years working with my first professional painting boss I decided to go out on my own and 20 years later here we are.”
Although Kevin is a painter, his business is about more than just paint. “Many of the homes in town have been old for a long time,” explains Kevin. “We do quite a bit of restoration. I’d say the ratio is about 25 per cent restoration to 75 per cent just straight paint jobs.”
What does restoration mean in Hudson? It’s somewhat unique to the more than 150-year-old architecture of the area, and it’s also related to an unusual state of the trades’ scene in town. “On exteriors we’re always changing rotten trim boards, siding and decorative accents,” says Kevin, “but we’re always able to replicate trim elements one way or the other because there are so many fine woodworkers and trim mills in the area with talented craftsmen. We rarely have any issues matching old work. As for interior plaster moldings themselves, oddly enough, and perhaps due to the fact that Hudson had its own saw mill for a long time, there are few houses that have them. I’ve only had to do plaster molding repairs, not recreate plaster details.”
So, what are some of the more interesting jobs Kevin and his crew have taken on? He was fortunate to work on one of the old Hudson Bay trading posts in town, restoring exterior trim, plus two of the older buildings in Hudson – Greenwood Centre for Living History, dating to the 1730s and St. James Anglican Church dating to the 1840s. “I’ve worked on the old steeple and original windows of St. James Anglican Church. An ancestor of mine, Robert Gray, one of the first Grays to come to the area from the Orkney Isles, worked on building the steeple of this church in the early 1800s. We’ve also worked on Halcro Cottage, a small building that the town of Hudson bought and moved. Robert Gray, my stone mason relative, lived in that building at one time, too.”
“I’ve always supported both paint shops in town,” says Kevin, “but when the chance came up to buy Centre Décor Hudson, my fiancé Leanne [Durocher] and I jumped at the chance. We met when she was the paint and décor manager at the local hardware store about 15 years ago,” reminisces Kevin. “I needed a colour retinted, I was skeptical, but Leanne matched it perfectly. The client was happy and now we’re getting married. Who wouldn’t want to have their own paint geek on their side?” “My mum really developed my sense of colour and texture,” explains Leanne. “I had phenomenal teachers who took that raw talent and honed it.”
“I’ve always supported both paint shops in town,” says Kevin, “but when the chance came up to buy Centre Décor Hudson, my fiancé Leanne [Durocher] and I jumped at the chance. We met when she was the paint and décor manager at the local hardware store about 15 years ago,” reminisces Kevin. “I needed a colour retinted, I was skeptical, but Leanne matched it perfectly. The client was happy and now we’re getting married. Who wouldn’t want to have their own paint geek on their side?”
“My mum really developed my sense of colour and texture,” explains Leanne. “I had phenomenal teachers who took that raw talent and honed it.”
Tricks of the Trade
“Prep is paramount when it comes to the restoration work we do,” advises Kevin. “We also have to focus more on historically accurate colours than with modern paint jobs, but prep, prep, prep is essential for good looking results that last.”
“There’s something very relaxing about stripping exterior trim with a heat gun,” says Kevin. “I’m also a fan of the paint shaver for wood siding. It can be a total lifesaver on multiple paint layers on older homes when you really have to strip back to bare wood. A good orbital sander and a Fein multitool are my absolute favourites.”
When it comes to primers, Kevin is pretty particular. “Primer choice always depends on the project, but for exterior bare wood I really like Benjamin Moore Fresh Start long oil #100-00. If we’re just talking straight adherence, then Benjamin Moore Fresh Start #24-00 is excellent. For cabinet re-sprays or interior adhesion, Zinsser Cover Stain or B-I-N is great. It’s definitely only B-I-N for knot coverage. I’ve tried others and nothing comes close to beating the reliability of B-I-N for sealing knots.
SPRAYING: “We do spray some exteriors,” says Kevin, “but I’m really picky about the substrates we spray. I’m not a believer in spraying stains or primers on wood siding or decks because it doesn’t drive the finish into the wood. You really need to penetrate wood surfaces and you can’t beat a brush for that. Spraying aluminum siding, metal or stucco then back rolling is my preference.”
PATCHING: There are so many different scenarios with drywall, but for cracks we cut the area back, fill the space with Durabond, apply mesh tape, fill the tape with more Durabond, then finish with plaster. For larger holes in drywall, we sometimes cut drywall pieces to fit, securing them with furring strips, tape and mud.
LEAD PAINT: Most old wood buildings have lead on them somewhere, and Kevin’s approach is to leave it alone whenever possible. “We usually apply B-I-N to cap the paint and not disturb it. On exterior jobs where we chemically strip, we charge an hourly rate that works out to something like three or four times more costly than no-strip prep.
STONE BUILDINGS: Hudson has quite a few stone houses and this means Kevin and his crew need to caulk joints between wood and stone and paint them. Most of the stone houses are called Quarry Point style, built from an old quarry in Hudson back in the day. Kevin’s crew uses a clear thermoplastic caulking so they can paint the gap and the caulking won’t show on the stone.
FINE WOOD FINISHING: About one third of the restoration work done by Kevin and the guys these days is finishing and refinishing fine woodwork and cabinets. “My process is to remove and number the cabinet doors and drawers,” explains Kevin, “transport them to the shop, wash, sand and vacuum them, wipe them down, prime them with B-I-N or Cover Stain, then spray two coats of a waterborne lacquer or pre-catalyzed lacquer. Onsite we paper off the kitchen and cabinets and repeat the same process we do with the doors in the shop.”
Kevin’s team deals with exterior wood surfaces on a daily basis, and this gives him a unique perspective on paint durability. How does today’s best exterior paints compare with the best from the past? “There’s a home I painted in oil over 20 years ago. Up until a year ago, it looked brand new. Latex, acrylics and polyvinyl-mixes have had to go through many reformulations to live up to oil’s durability. Where we are in Quebec, for example, our seasons aren’t the same as they used to be. We get more freeze/thaw cycles in winter and deeper swings of humidity and dry air during summer. This seems to be the new normal and paint has been reformulated to withstand this. On vertical siding and trim we like acrylics for their flexibility. On horizontal surfaces nothing beats a good, old fashioned oilbased semi-transparent or semi-opaque stain.”
As for getting jobs, Kevin relies mostly on word of mouth, but sometimes advertises in the pro section of the local newspaper, too. “I’ve been fortunate enough to stay busy and to keep a few guys occupied through our long winter months,” explains Kevin. “I’m usually booked at least a few months in advance. On a typical summer we can have eight or nine people working with the company on some jobs.
If you ask Kevin what the most important factors have been in his two decades of success, he’ll tell you three things: determination, focus and personality. That last one – personality – isn’t something you hear very often, but Kevin says its key. “You’ve got to be easy-going, confident, friendly and calm. Customers usually tell me I’m always relaxed, happy and able to make them feel comfortable. That’s important.”
Second-Hand Social Media
“We don’t use social media much directly ourselves, aside from maintaining a Facebook page and trying to remember to add some job photos every now and then. But people recommend me in community groups online, and this new kind of social media “digital word of mouth” brings in a lot of traffic.
Right now Kevin handles most office stuff himself, including bookkeeping, bids, payroll and insurance, but will have help from time-to-time from Leanne and an outside bookkeeper. “I’m at the point now where I’ll be looking for someone to take over this aspect of the business. For now, it’s mostly me. All my invoices are handwritten, sometimes scanned and e-mailed if necessary. As I mentioned, I absolutely prefer the face-to-face aspect of the job, including estimates. I use a phone app to help with quotes and I’ll email them if I can’t get together with a prospective client in person. But honestly, most of the time, I just give a verbal number and it works. This is an informal but personal method and it creates repeat, loyal and great customers.”
You’d think that restoration work would make pricing jobs more complicated than straight painting because there’s more to restoration than painting alone. This said, Kevin takes the same approach to estimating for all his work. “Every job is unique, whether big or small, restoration or a repaint. I’ll usually give a non-binding estimate, so clients have a budgetary idea of what a job will cost. We then work by the hour for the most part and present a final bill based on actual time spent on the project.
Despite dealing with paper work and estimates, Kevin still finds time to paint. “This is why I got more into the cabinet painting side of the business. It was tough for me to be on job sites painting, and then put down the brush to run the business, run errands, pick up supplies, check on jobs, work on estimates, etc. Working in the spray shop permits me to pick up the spray gun and shoot a coat, put the spray gun down and leave for couple of hours if need be to run the business. This way the client isn’t upset at me having to leave while no work gets done onsite. I can then get back to the shop and spray another coat.”
Little Things That Matter
Important little things are probably as personal as each painter, but here are Kevin’s favourites: “I really prefer interacting with clients face to face. We also create custom client folders outlining their colour choices, finishes, invoices and any other info we can give them. Success is about building ongoing relationships, especially being in a small town. We clean our job sites and keep them tidy. Clients always appreciate the respect we pay to their spaces. Flexibility is another little thing that matters. I can set a full schedule on Sunday night, but then job timelines change, a painter calls in sick — stuff comes up. Running a business is like managing a living organism. Some of the changes you need to adapt to are immediate, and others are slower and involve changing technologies and methods. Adaptability is so important.”
How have things changed over the two decades Kevin has run his business? “The biggest change is that I’ve been able to expand the services the company offers to include the kind of carpentry and fine finishing people want in Hudson. I’m always fine tuning, learning and mastering my trade.”