INSIDE A PREP TOOLBOX
Pros are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to prep. How they go about doing it is one thing, but many also differ on the types of tools they use as well. Different climates and job types influence some decisions, then you always have to think about cost and whether that high-dollar latest-and-greatest tool is really worth it for the amount of use it will receive.
Whether it’s coatings, sprayers, brushes or other tools, at inPAINT, we spend a lot of time asking pros about their preferences. Here, we take a somewhat deep dive into the world of prep tools with three pros who kindly handed over a list of prep tools you might find on any given day in one of their crews’ supply bins.
It’s a mixed bag, for sure, but here’s what these pros shared about their prep necessities, and why these items (some of them surprisingly simple and not even paint-industry specific) are key to their companies getting prep right for their valued customers.
Nick Slavik is a craftsman with nearly three decades of experience. Today, the Minnesota native is known for his online training videos and candid shares about do’s and don’ts in the painting trenches. He’s not just committed to sharing knowledge online, he loves to train those new to the field. He also raises his hand to ask other pros about techniques and preferences. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a pro more curious about best and better practices than Slavik.
His company’s workloads tend to follow weather patterns. In warmer months, calls for residential exteriors with plenty of wood clapboard surfaces dominate and in cooler times of year, he finds interior work. Slavik has about 20 painters working for him, ranging in all levels of experience. So, when it comes to prep tools … simplicity, streamlining and minimizing decision-making are the top priorities. He likes to make sure most, if not all, the tools fit into a small storage bin any crew member can carry.
“For me, it’s about simple methods, simple processes … and I’m always looking for that one product that does 98% of everything,” the pro said.
So, when FrogTape released its Pro Grade Painter’s Tape (blue), he loved how it was strong enough to prevent paint bleed but not so strong as to leave a residue on finishes. The versatile new tape allowed him to consolidate his tape needs, too. For a while, his teams used FrogTape’s green tape for interiors and Scotch blue tape for exteriors. Now, he uses the new FrogTape offering for both environments.
“It’s a good feeling to have 20 guys in the field and to know nobody’s going to be grabbing the wrong tape. And when we reorder, it’s just going to be one tape,” he added. 3M Patch Plus Primer is another versatile product that his crews use. It’s resistant to shrinking and cracking and can be painted over in 30 minutes. “It’s nice when it dries fast and you can move on with life,” Slavik said.
Each crew member also carries a can of KILZ UPSHOT Interior Primer (an aerosol), what he refers to as the ‘nuclear option’ for containing water stains.
For floor protection on interior jobs, Slavik’s crews use 3M’s Floor Gripper Anti-Slip Runners. They’re foldable and convenient. For larger spaces and exterior work, he also uses simple heavy-duty canvas drop cloths; he isn’t brand-specific with those.
Many pros also use LED lights to check and see how the paint is covering. Slavik sees large, expensive lighting systems as overkill. Instead, he arms each crew member with small, handheld LEDs he finds at hardware stores. This is something else where he’s not partial to any brand or model.
Through the years, Slavik has also simplified sanding. All his crew members’ bins contain 3M Sanding Sponge blocks in medium grit. The pro says good sanding technique leads to great results and he thinks a lot of pros may over-complicate the process by using multiple grits on basic surfaces like wood or drywall. Instead, he teaches his team how to get the most out of one grit and, as is the case with his tape, he only has to order one product here too.
Last, but not least, microfiber rags are one of the most important tools in his team’s toolbox, he asserts, though he isn’t brand-specific about which ones he buys.
“Especially with cabinets, a little water on a microfiber rag will make them squeaky clean,” he said. “And you really need to make sure everything is clean for that final coating.”
Jay Emery comes from a long line of problem-solvers. His father was an engineer and hardware store proprietor, and his grandfather owned a machine shop. Emery found his problem-solving niche as a painter when he seized the opportunity to land multifamily public-housing painting contracts, which made up the bulk of his early work.
There, his teams would repaint the interiors of both vacant and occupied individual apartment units. The extent of drywall repair and prep work needed to perform these repaints in hundreds of units honed his crews’ skills sharply, providing almost any repair scenario imaginable for practice. Today, his work skews mostly toward traditional single-family residential interior repaints, where he is able to put his repair and prep experience to good use.
His Festool DTS 400 REQ Orbital Sander, which looks like a mini iron, is probably his team’s most important prep tool. Because of its shape, it’s great for reaching corners, he says. The sander is key because, over the years, his company has adopted the practice of sanding all drywall surfaces on interior jobs before painting, no exceptions.
“Repair is also a big part of our business, and we hold ourselves to a very high standard,” Emery explained. “We fix ALL drywall issues before we paint. We’ve found that sanding walls beforehand gets rid of all the imperfections and does away with any runs and sags from other people’s paint before us. After a while, we just adopted this as standard practice.”
With heavy interior sanding, naturally, dust extraction is an important part of Emery’s prep work. That’s why he relies on the power of a Festool CT Mini Dust Extractor system.
From time to time, Emery’s team will also need to degloss surfaces, such as trim boards. Krud Kutter Prepaint Cleaner (a TSP substitute) is a go-to for this work.
For heavy floor protection, he turns to Ram Board, but for simple spill prevention, Trimaco’s Quick Drop folding mat drop cloths do the job.
“It’s nice how they maintain their rigidity for a straight edge, so you can quickly put them right up against a wall,” he said.
For the many different indoor surfaces his teams touch, he also likes to use a delicate surface tape because it can be applied over a relatively fresh coat of paint. So, FrogTape’s Delicate Surface Painting Tape (yellow) is what he uses for all areas of his interiors.
More recently, he also added Everbilt felt/foam furniture sliders to his teams’ prep toolbox.
“I bought a few packages of these from The Home Depot, and I use them all the time. You put them under the feet and one person can move a couch when it would’ve usually taken two people,” he said. “It’s amazing how something very simple can help so much.”
Having worked on many multifamily public housing units where residents didn’t want a paint job disrupting their lives, Emery embraced the thinking that prep tools and practices should support good customer rapport.
“I know it may sound cheesy to say this, but my best prep tool is good rapport,” he said. “With everything we do, we communicate, and we’re always trying to make sure every task is done in the least inconvenient way possible for the customer.”
Dalton Tomlinson has been in the painting business since the mid-1980s and has seen his share of helpful products come and go through the years. While his company covers the gamut as far as the type of work it performs (both commercial and residential interiors and exteriors), residential interior repaints make up about 75% of his current workload. His crews see their share of popcorn ceiling removals, too, he adds, and given the delicate nature of some interiors, his painters are trained to be extra cautious about protecting personal belongings, furniture and floors.
To help them, he uses Husky’s 20′-wide plastic sheeting instead of drop cloths on carpet. He says drop cloths allow dirt and debris from one job to travel to another. He also didn’t like the time he spent washing drop cloths when he used them. In the last couple of years, he’s turned to the plastic sheeting and appreciates its durability and how its 20′ width allows him to cover just about any size room without a seam.
“I found that buying the plastic just works out better. I also like how you can cut it to the exact size of things,” he said.
Sometimes, if a seam on plastic or paper coverings is required, he’ll use Sherwin-Williams Professional Grade Masking Tape (white) to save on costs. But for masking around trim and windows, like many other pros, Tomlinson has switched to the new FrogTape Pro Grade Painter’s Tape (blue) for both interiors and exteriors.
To protect wood and tile floors, he turns to something less conventional for painting professionals— Grip-Rite Synthetic Roofing Underlayment. It prevents slipping hazards, he said, that may arise if using plastic on a hard surface.
For walls with considerable patching, or with removing those popcorn ceilings, minimizing dust is his primary concern. He has a few go-to prep tools to help him with these tasks.
He has been loyal to PORTER-CABLE Drywall Sanders for more than a decade. Tomlinson says the 4′-long angled handle on the model he uses allows for plenty of reach and connects easily to his Dustless HEPA Wet/Dry Vacuum to keep dust to a minimum.
For cabinet work, he’ll often use a ZipWall system to contain the dust while also incorporating a dust-removal system he put together himself using a ventilated exhaust fan with a 32′ hose to move the dust outdoors.
“When we do cabinets, it’s about the only time we spray in someone’s home, so it’s important to have the area closed off and a fan working to filter out the dust and overspray,” he added.
To many pros, prep is often seen as that magic combination of the right tools and technique. With experience and changing job types, prep tool preferences change. Our guess is that if we were to check back with these three pros in a few years, their toolboxes would be a collection of old standbys and a few surprisingly helpful tools they’ve added along the way.