Make ‘Em laugh! Skill, experience and humor gives Alberta painter a stress-free work life

By Steve Maxwell

When Rick Fowler began painting professionally in August 1973, there was no way he could have known where his career choice would lead. Forty one years later and Rick’s been painting full-time ever since. He also loves his work more than most painters you’ll meet. One part of this is because laughter and enthusiasm are just part of who this man is. Another is because of the unique painting niche that Rick’s skill and experience have led him to.

For the last 19 years Rick has worked for Edmonton-based Spar Construction and is currently their sole painter. He’s part of a 40-man crew that handles insurance work around Alberta, and Rick’s the perfect guy for the painting side of restorations.

I never get bored with my work. How can I? I’ve been on 6,783 different insurance jobs during my time with the company since 1995, and each job has been different.

Rick Fowler

Varied Work Life

“I never get bored with my work. How can I? I’ve been on 6,783 different insurance jobs during my time with the company since 1995, and each job has been different. One morning I might be in a million dollar mansion, then painting a skid row house in the afternoon. Earlier this year I did some stain touch-ups in a 26,500 sq. ft., $15 million mansion with just two people living in it. They gave me a map so I could find the room I needed to work on! There was even a swimming pool on the lower floor.”

On a technical level, few painters could successfully handle the variety of work that Rick does and still consider it stress-free. But that’s where his experience comes in.

“Until 1995 I sometimes painted residential jobs that included subdivision work. On several jobs they were building 80 houses at a time. We also did commercial jobs just about as big as they get. Sometimes I ran crews of 5 to 12 painters”, says Rick. “We did malls, airports, warehouses, schools – lots of really big jobs. Looking back on it now, I didn’t get enough extra money for the hassles of being a supervisor. I got tired of being responsible for everyone else’s work, especially with painters who have limited training. Commercial jobs always involved regular
layoffs, which I also got tired of.”

“I remember sitting back one day and joking to the guy I worked for: ‘Don’t hire anyone with less than a bachelor of arts degree.’ It was really hard to find good painters who worked well and consistently did what I needed them to do.”

Some of the young guys I see on jobs ask why I spend so much time cleaning my sprayer. ‘There’s only one way to make a busy sprayer last 10 years!’ I say.

Rick’s early career wasn’t always complicated. He started off with residential work in Edmonton and Fort McMurray, and traveled back and forth between Canada and Mexico. Back in 1975 he worked in San Francisco painting boats at the St. Francis Yacht Club, right under the Golden Gate Bridge. “I really enjoyed that kind of painting,” Remembers Rick. “I’m always at home with tricky brush work and plenty of colour.”

Colour isn’t always what you might think of when it comes to a career as varied as Rick’s. He once spray painted a slaughter house in full operation, one room at a time. “I slopped around in blood for five days”, says Rick “then threw out a couple hundred bucks worth of bloody drop sheets…yuk!”

Rick Fowler

Technical Skills

The main challenge with insurance work is matching existing surfaces. That’s where unique skills come in. Matching requires a knowledge of materials that goes way beyond what your average painter needs. “I carry about 18,000 colour cards in my van,” explains Rick, “but colour matching is only part of it. You also need to know sheens and textures. Most Canadian homes have an egg shell sheen on walls, but flats are coming on now, too. I keep most every nap length of roller in my van to match wall textures. I also carry a number of primers because of the sheer number of different substrates I can run into in a day. Primers are one of the elements that can make or break a job. Always use appropriate primers whether it’s wood, drywall, plastic, metal, glass – whatever. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you sometimes get to see your own work several times over the years, so you can know what works and what doesn’t.”

When it comes to colour matching samples, Rick relies on a few Edmonton paint stores staffed with real geniuses behind the colour counter. “When I got started in the  business, the old timers used to colour match right in their van, but that’s not practical or necessary any more. The number of colour pots you’d need for this today is crazy. These days I slice a piece of drywall paper off the wall, then take it to one of the paint stores that I know can work with colour. Custom colour mixing is a gift. One guy I know is not only better than the computer, he’s faster.”

Rick’s success comes in part from the discipline he’s learned to apply to his work, and it can help any painter. “Organize your time from the beginning of the job,” says Rick. “Start the most difficult prep work first, beginning with what will take the most amount of drying time. If you touch something with paint that you shouldn’t have, clean it immediately. Keep several types of cleaners with you and know which ones work well on different surfaces. Always keep a brush extender handy, too – it can save you a ton of grief. And don’t skimp on brush quality, either. Be as  dependable a tradesman as you can be. This will expand your business by itself in many ways. People are very receptive to a tradesman who does exactly what he says he’ll do and when he says he’ll do it.”

Rick Fowler

Part Painter, Part Diplomat

As an insurance painter, Rick’s usually the last tradesperson in people’s homes as restoration work is winding down. A major portion of his job is to make clients happy, but that’s not always easy because every insurance job begins with a disaster. “A lot of homeowners I see have put up with workers tromping through their house for months. Clients are nervous too because even the best restoration job doesn’t look good until the paint goes on. That’s why I always show up with a cheerful attitude – clean and professional. I’m a diplomat and try to get the clients laughing if I can. Laughter makes a big difference. Bottom line: If the client isn’t happy, they won’t sign off on the job. That’s why I do whatever it takes.”

Be as dependable a tradesman as you can be. This will expand your business by itself in many ways. People are very receptive to a tradesman who does exactly what he says he’ll do and when he says he’ll do it.

“I had one repeat customer who was obsessive compulsive. She’d see some tiny spot on a wall or door frame and wouldn’t be able to sleep for weeks. Eventually I got her down to once-a-year painting visits from me – sometimes big jobs sometimes small ones. Every time I stepped into her house there were paper towels on the floor for me to leave my shoes on. If I popped out for a minute to the truck to get something, there were fresh paper towels on the floor again waiting for me.”

Sometimes, it takes a lot to satisfy the customer. Once Rick went to see an elderly lady who said that her freshly painted bathroom was in horrible shape. “I arrived and found it absolutely perfect,” remembers Rick. “Nothing wrong, even to my experienced eye. I painted the whole bathroom and got the predicted call-back the next day. When I went back, she told me it was something that could only be seen in the dark, so I turned the light off, looked at it in the dark and agreed with her. I repainted the bathroom and she was happy.”

Rick Fowler

Tricks of the Trade

Patching is something Rick does more than most painters because insurance work often involves fixing up damage left behind by other trades. Halogen lamps, topping mud, fibre tape and a heat gun are all part of Rick’s patching kit. “I like metal and fibre patches for door knob sized holes, and if I’m in an occupied house I build poly barricades to keep things clean. People hate dust so I do, too. Whatever you do, check and double-check that all patching is done properly before spot priming. It’s pretty hard to get it all the first time around, and missing damage just costs you time later on.”

Smoke sealing has been a constant part of Rick’s work since he began on insurance jobs, and it’s the kind of thing that demands exceptional patience and attention to detail. In order to eliminate the lingering smell of smoke-damaged homes, everything
in the house is stripped back to the bare frame. “The average house is completely gutted out”, explains Rick. “There’s just a subfloor, open wall frame, and the attic frame. That’s when I come in. I use my sprayer and I have to coat very surface on everything with an odour-blocking primer. If you miss anything – even one small spot – smoke odours will come through the drywall when the restoration is done and we’ll have to strip it all back and start again.

It’s crucial that you get every last spot. It takes a lot of fooling around and it took years for me to get good at this job. Young guys are almost never careful enough for smoke sealing.”

Rick Fowler

Rick does most of his spray work with a Graco 490, renting a larger machine for those rare times when he needs to work with thicker-than-usual coatings. “A big sprayer is nice to have”, admits Rick, “but big sprayers are also hard to lug around. I’ve owned three Graco 490s over the years, and I’ve gotten lots of work out of them. Some of the young guys I see on jobs ask why I spend so much time cleaning my sprayer. ‘There’s only one way to make a busy sprayer last 10 years!’ I say.”

Last year a client tipped Rick for a job well done with a brand new 4,500 projection system. Before he got into insurance work he painted a large gazebo in San Francisco with 12 colours. Rick once rode an extension ladder all the way down the side of a 2 story house uninjured and didn’t get a drop of paint on the house – only on himself. He once ran a job up north in an isolated region for several months in the 70’s where he had a dozen painters – all away from their wives, girlfriends, and civilization. “Every morning I’d do a head count,” remembers Rick, then track down the missing painters starting with a call to the RCMP, then the hospital. Last week, Rick painted half a McDonald’s restaurant after repairs were made because someone “drove through” the staff lunchroom.

“It’s always amazed me how easy it’s been for me to find work over the years. I’ve never run out. Another surprise is how I can still learn something from someone who is 40 years younger than me.”

Rick makes it a point to have fun every day. “The company I work for is awesome,” smiles Rick “and it’s great to know the guys you work with personally. I head into the shop in the morning, have a few laughs, drink some coffee, then get my  assignments for the day and head out. If we have a problem, we deal with it. My work life is pretty much stress-free and I certainly like it that way.”

Rick Fowler

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