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Choosing a Career in Painting

The History of Kitchen Cabinet Painting

 Some studies show that the painting industry needs to grow by 12,500 to 15,000 workers per year. That includes a career as a kitchen cabinet painter. There has been a significant influx of cabinet refinishers in the North America kitchen cabinet painting market over the last 10 years. A career in the painting trade, including the niche market of kitchen cabinet painting, can be financially rewarding and provide satisfaction for the skilled painter who takes pride in a job well done. Work on the job, combined with the appropriate formal training, provides numerous career paths for professional growth in this thriving, technical industry. Kitchen cabinet painting is a very technical process that attracts some of the best painters in the entire industry. This article introduces the painting trade with some specific thoughts about kitchen cabinet painting and refinishing in the Vancouver, British Columbia market.  A brief history of the painting trade is covered first, followed by a description of the jobs and career path opportunities within the trade. The work ethics and attitudes of the successful painting/decorating and kitchen cabinet professional are also covered.

Trade History

Craftspersons in the painting trade have a long history. Paint has been used as a form of decoration since prehistoric times. Early cave dwellers used plants, clay, and water to make paint. They used this paint to decorate their bodies and the walls of caves. Most of what these early people painted were lines that formed pictures. The people of ancient Egypt used to paint in tombs, palaces, and on temple walls using colors which they prepared from the soil. By 1500 B.C., they imported dyes such as indigo and madder. From these they made blue and red pigments. Pigments impart color and other properties to paint. The Egyptians were the first to use protective coatings They applied forms of pitch and balsam to seal their ships. They also developed and used water-based paints produced from freshly- burned lime (whitewash) with milk curds as abinder. A binder serves to bind or cement the pigment particles together upon drying of a paint.

The Greeks, Romans, and others copied Egyptian painting practices. The early Greeks developed painting into an art form. They not only decorated flat surfaces, but painted human beings, wood panels, and vases. The paint was widely used by the Romans, who are credited with the introduction of white lead as a pigment in 430 B.C. The ancient Romans used stencils to paint borders on wall surfaces. They also painted stone and plaster to look like marble and granite. The Roman Empire collapsed in the 400s A.D. After that, the art of paint-making became lost to the western world until the middle ages (500 to 1450 A.D.) when the English and other Europeans began making and using paints to paint churches, public buildings, and the homes of the wealthy. By the time America was discovered at the end of the 15th century, most of the Indian tribes used dyes and pigments to color baskets and rugs. Early painting methods and materials first used by the settlers of America were influenced greatly by the methods and materials used in the European countries from which they came.

In Asia, the first pigment was developed before 6000 B.C. Coloring components included natural ores and organic pigments. Binders included color crayons sometimes made from boiled rice. Vehicles, the liquid part of paint in which pigments are dissolved or dispersed, were made from gum arabic, egg white (albumin), gelatin, and beeswax. The Chinese are credited with the use of lacquer as early as the Chou Dynasty (1122 to 221 B.C.). They used lacquer to decorate carriages, harnesses, and weapons. By the second century B.C., the Chinese were decorating their buildings inside and outside with lacquer. Among other Asians, the Japanese and Koreans also used lacquer extensively. During the Ching Dynasty, the Chinese developed iron oxide to produce the color red.

Paint manufacturing began in Europe around the 1700s. Then, manufacturers ground pigments and oils on a stone table with a round stone. This method was also used by early American colonists. These early paint manufacturers tended to be independent and worked secretively. Their paints were made for limited private use. The Industrial Revolution in England changed this. In the late 17th century and early 18th century, power-driven machinery was brought into the paint-making process. At this time, white lead, a white pigment obtained from lead sulphate, became more widely available. These new machines and white lead allowed for the development and production of protective, anti-corrosion paints used for protecting metal structures such as bridges. The first varnish factories were started in Europe beginning with England in 1790.

In the 18th century, there was a general increase in the availability of vehicles and pigments. White lead was put to more uses. Also, there was an extensive extraction of linseed oil from the flax plant. Paint grade zinc oxide was also developed. During this period, paint ingredients were mixed and used on the job. By the 19th century, paint manufacturing changed. For the first time, the two basic ingredients, vehicle, and pigment, were mixed together before distribution. For the remainder of the 19th century, no significant changes occurred in paint formulas.

Recent History

The evolution of materials technology throughout the 20th century has produced a proliferation of paint and related products. Materials technology began to advance during the first half of the century primarily as a result of World Wars I and II. World War I caused major changes in the manufacture of paint because linseed oil was restricted to military use. This drove the paint industry to develop new coatings that were not based on linseed oil. Today, linseed oil is found in only a few paints and in some putty and caulking compounds. World War II also resulted in numerous new materials being developed for use in military equipment. These required that chemists find new finishes for use in painting and protecting these materials. During this same period, the dye and plastics industries also began extensive research and development of new painting-related products. The dye industry created new pigments; while the plastics industry developed new polymers. Polymers are substances in which the molecules, consisting of one or more structural units, are repeated any number of times. Synthetic resins were produced as new binders for paint that provided a significant improvement in weathering, water resistance, toughness, elasticity, and resistance to chemical exposure. These binders included alkyds, phenolics, chlorinated rubbers, vinyl, latexes, and acrylics. Resins are natural or synthetic substances which, when heated, are soluble in drying oils and solvents.

Shortly after World War II, new paints containing epoxy and urethane resins and zinc-rich coatings began to be produced in the United States. Over time, these coatings were enhanced by the development of hie quality solvents and additives that improved their application and performance properties. Solvents are liquids used in paints to dissolve pigments and other materials. Solvents evaporate during drying. These high-performance materials became the main coatings for protecting steel in industrial environments. Waterborne (water- based) coatings using acrylic latex binders were first introduced in the early 1950s. Their use gained popularity during the 1950s and 1960s because they were easy to use and non-toxic.

The introduction of numerous new paint materials during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s meant that the painter had more choices and, therefore, more difficulty in selecting the right paint for the job. This greatly increased the need for professionalism in the trade and placed an increased emphasis on the painter’s need to acquire knowledge and skills about the characteristics and use of these new products. The use of high-performance paints also meant a high degree of difficulty in the application of materials. The painter had to learn how to mix and catalyze chemically curing paints; how to work within the limits of pot life (useful life once activated); how to apply paints at extremely tight tolerances of thickness, measured in the thousands of an inch; and how to perform numerous other tasks more technical in nature than ever before.

During the latter half of the 20th century and up to the present, advances in painting materials and methods of application have been driven by increased concerns about health, safety, and the environment. In the United States, the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, and its amendments in 1990 mandated the containment of all sources of air pollution, including carbon-based solvents generally classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Oil-based paints use VOC solvents such as mineral spirits to keep them liquid until they are applied. Upon evaporation into the atmosphere, VOCs react with nitrous oxides (combustion compounds from automotive emissions and the burning of fuels) and sunlight to form ozone and air pollutants. Ozone is an unstable form of oxygen that is highly reactive. Ozone in the Earth’s upper atmosphere (stratosphere) protects the earth and its inhabitants from harmful ultraviolet radiation. However, ozone trapped within the Earth’s troposphere contributes to smog that can be hazardous to humans, animals, and plant life. Emissions of VOCs from painting and various other sources can also contribute to poor indoor air quality.

Today, because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring the elimination of air pollution, the environmental laws and regulations that limit the amount of VOCs in paint are increasingly restrictive. This has had some affect on the kitchen cabinet refinishing market as cabinet refinishers in Vancouver (all over North America actually) started to shy away from the toxic solvent based lacquers that were typically used to refinish cabinets.  This means that less VOC-type solvents can be used, causing the focus of most new materials technology to be toward the development of better waterborne paints. Today’s waterborne paints and coatings are made in a variety of resin types, such as epoxy, polyurethane, alkyd, vinyl, latex, acrylic, zinc-rich silicate, and others. They are as effective on outdoor surfaces as they are on indoor surfaces. Special coatings are made to protect metal, concrete, and other industrial substrates (surfaces being painted) in mildly harsh environments. Other types developed to comply with the air pollution laws include high solids and 100% solid materials. These are often difficult to apply, resulting in a number of paint manufacturers training and licensing painters to be exclusive applicators of their product(s). Fortunately for kitchen cabinet painters great improvement was made for cabinet coatings with Industrial Waterborne Pre Catalyzed Epoxies being introduced into the kitchen cabinet painting market.  These are extremely  thick and bulky products with the temperamental characteristics of solvent based lacquers. 

Health concerns about the harmful effects of lead on our environment and bodies have also caused many changes in today’s paint. Several decades ago, it was found that lead and chromate pigments contained in paint products are hazardous. Brain and organ damage can occur in children who play with or eat chips of lead-based paint. Because of this, lead abatement laws introduced during the 1970s restricted the use of lead in many materials, including paint. In 1978, the Consumers Product Safety Commission banned the use of lead in all household paints. Paint manufacturers responded to this ban by developing numerous waterborne and other types of paints as replacements. Currently, lead-based paint is only being used on bridges and other special industrial applications where its ability to inhibit rust and corrosion is still needed. Most industrial coating manufacturers are working to reduce or eliminate the use of lead in their paint.

Wallcovering History

The history of wall covering is much less detailed than that for painting. The use of woven grasses or animal hides hung over openings is an ageless practice. Early forms of wall covering made of woven grass and fiber materials were used to both decorate and protect walls. The Chinese made use of painted rice paper. In some areas, they covered windows and doorways, like draperies, to keep out the cold. Decorating using hangings dates back to about 200 B.C. The wallcovering industry progressed slowly. Weavers produced handmade tapestries. Artists painted pictures. In the early 1400s, people in several countries began making “Dominos.” These were rectangular pieces of paper or fabric printed with colored paint and glued to the walls. The designs were prepared on wooden blocks. Today, we call this block printing. Dominos and stencils, along with hand painting, became a very popular paper-decorating practice. Flocking dates back to France in the 1600s, when imitation velvet cutouts were bonded to walls. The next advancement bonded the flocking material to the paper first, then the paper was bonded to the walls. This was an early form of textured wall covering.

Up until the 1500s, all wallcoverings were hand painted. The textile and paper industries became involved with wallcoverings as people began bonding decorative paper, cloth, and other materials to walls. Inventions in the printing industry aided the wallcovering industry. In America, the first wallpaper printing machine was used in 1739. In 1839, a four- color press was introduced that needed only one machine setup, rather than the four previously required. Development of continuous roll printing machines, refined inks, and improved papers also aided the advancement of the wallcovering industry. Americans made wallpaper very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Following World War II, numerous other materials were adapted to wallcoverings, including plastic, vinyl, and mylar sheeting.

Careers in the Painting Trade

Recent technological advances in both materials and equipment have dramatically changed the craft of painting and decorating. Because of these changes, many of the methods and equipment used just a few years ago no longer apply. Today, the painting trade is more focused on the application of machine technology. Current advances and those that will occur in the future require that the painting craftsperson is knowledgeable about and possess the skills to use an ever increasing range of technologically advanced materials and equipment.

Careers in the painting trade are many and varied. There is a large existing base of structures that need painting or decorating. In addition, every time a structure is constructed, it needs painting or decorating. To get an idea of how vast the painting trade is, picture the city or town where you live. Then think about the fact that every building is usually painted on the inside with many painted on the outside. Expand that view to include the entire country. New buildings and structures that need painting and decorating are being constructed every day; the existing ones need periodic repair and repainting and/or decorating. From this perspective, the opportunities in the trade appear limitless.

Who Employs Painters/Decorators?

In general, a painter (painter/paperhanger), or one with knowledge of painting/wallcovering materials and skills, will find employment in one of four different areas. During a painter’s career, he or she may change jobs several times and may move from one area into another. For example, a master painter/paperhanger who has been working for a painting contractor may take a job as a paint and/or wall covering manufacturing representative or applications engineer. In this new position, representing the manufacturer, the craftsperson provides assistance to painting contractors by recommending products for specific applications or by solving problems encountered with existing or new painting systems. The craftsperson may also move on to become a contractor or start a business that sells painting/wallcovering supplies. Regardless of the area of employment, the successful craftsperson will have considerable knowledge of painting/wallcovering practices, tools, materials, and supplies.

Advancing in the Painting Trade

Some people have learned painting simply by working for several years as a helper to an experienced painter. However, those responsible for training painters recommend a formal apprenticeship program. The apprentice trainee can move up through several levels in the painting trade:

  • Apprentice
  • Journeyworker
  • Master
  • Supervisor
  • Manager/Administrator
  • Estimator
  • Contractor/Owner

Apprentice And Apprenticeship Program

This training program is part of a nationally-recognized apprenticeship system approved by the U.S. Labor Department. In combination with your on-the-job training, it will help you learn the skills you need to qualify as a journeyworker in the painting trade.

Apprentice training goes back thousands of years; its basic principles have not changed in that time. First, it is a means for individuals entering the craft to learn from those who have mastered the craft. Second, it focuses on learning by doing; real skills versus theory. Although some theory is presented in the classroom, it is always presented in a way that helps the trainee understand the purpose behind the skill that is to be acquired. That is why this program, and others in the Wheels of Learning series, are said to be “competency-based.”

Apprentice programs as they exist today have some specific characteristics:

  • Apprentices must be no less than 16 years old.
  • Opportunities must be available to all.
  • The program must incorporate both training and on-the-job experience.
  • A minimum of 144 hours per year of related training is given.
  • There is a progressively increasing schedule of wages.
  • There is proper supervision with adequate facilities.
  • Job performance and related instruction are periodically evaluated.
  • Successful completions are formally recognized.

A Youth Apprentice Program is also available that allows students to begin their apprentice training while still in high school. A student entering the program in eleventh grade will have completed one year of the Wheels of Learning three-year painting trade program by graduation. In addition, the program, in cooperation with local craft employers, allows students to work in the trade and earn money while still in school. Upon graduation, the student can enter the industry at a higher level and with more pay than someone just starting the apprentice program.

This training program is the same one used by National Center for Construction Education and Research learning centers, contractors, and colleges across the country. Students are recognized through an official transcript and can enter the second year of the program wherever it is offered. They may also have the option of applying for the credits at a two-year or four-year college that offers a painting/decorating-related degree or certificate program.

Journeyworker Painter/Paperhanger

After successfully completing an apprenticeship, a trainee becomes a journey-worker. Theme term journey-worker originally meant to “journey” away from the master and work alone. A person can remain a journey-worker or advance in the trade. Journeyworkers may have additional duties such as supervisor or estimator. With larger companies and on larger jobs, journey-workers often become specialists. Some may become proficient in applying high- performance coatings. Others may install special wall coverings or fabrics, or paint graphics or murals. Still, others may specialize as abrasive blasters.

Master Painter/Paperhanger

A master craftsperson is one who has achieved and continuously demonstrates, the highest skill levels in the trade. The master is a mentor and teacher of those to follow. Master painters often start their own business and become contractors/owners.

Supervisors And Foremen

Large painting projects require supervisors or foremen who oversee the work of crews made up of apprentices and journey-workers. They are responsible for assigning and directing the work of the painting crew members.


Management and administration deal with controlling the scope and direction of the business. Larger contracting firms may have one, or several, manager/administrators. A production manager sometimes called an expeditor, controls, and guides the production of the painters. This person is responsible for worker output and must determine the best methods to use and the way to apply workers to accomplish the job. The production manager is often a troubleshooter and problem solver. An office manager is one who is responsible for a contractor’s support operations, such as accounting, finance, and secretarial work. If a contractor has a retail sales branch, a painter might become a sales manager. A sales manager is responsible for managing all the sales personnel and decides where and how to best sell paint, wallcoverings, and related materials.

The administrator’s function is to decide the direction and method of doing business. An administrator might determine the amount of work to be done by a business and the overall methods of achieving it.


Estimators work for painting contractors. They make careful estimates of the materials and labor required to do the job. Based on these estimates, the contractor submits bids for jobs Estimating requires a complete understanding of both paint/wall covering application and the materials and supplies required. Only experienced painters who possess good math skills and the patience to prepare detailed, accurate estimates are employed to do this work. This is a highly responsible position since errors in estimates can result in financial losses to the contractor. Depending on the size of the business, the job of estimating is often done by the owner, manager, and administrator.


Painting contractors/owners are master painters or others who have established a contracting business. Generally, they hire apprentices, journey-workers, and master painters to work for them. Depending upon the size of the painting business, contractors may work with the crew or they may manage the business full-time. Very small painting contractors may have only one or two people to do everything, including managing the business, preparing estimates, obtaining supplies, and applying the paint or wall covering systems on the job. If an individual owns the contracting business, it is called a sole proprietorship. If it has two or more owners, the company would be a partnership. Large contractor organizations are often organized as officially state-chartered corporations.

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There are many crafts in the construction industry. All are important, but almost none require more professionalism than the painting trade. Successful painters are those who believe in themselves and what they do for a living.

Productivity and Trade Ethics

A professional painter performs on the job at a high level of productivity. In order to be successful, the professional must have the skills to use current trade materials, tools, and equipment to produce a finished product of high quality in a minimum period of time. A painter must be adept at adjusting methods to meet each situation. The successful painter must continuously train to remain knowledgeable about the technical advancements in trade materials and equipment and to gain the skills to use them. A professional painter never takes chances with regard to personal safety or the safety of others.

Honesty and personal integrity are important traits of the successful professional. A professional pride himself or herself in performing an honest day’s work for a day’s pay, and by striving to always be punctual and dependable. Each job is completed in a professional way, never by cutting corners or reducing materials. A valued professional maintains work attitudes and ethics that protect property such as tools and materials belonging to employers, customers, or other trades from damage or theft at the shop or job site. A professional never use alcohol, drugs, and/or profanity on the job.

Customer Relations

Appearances Count

When people meet you for the first time, they form their critical first impression of you based, to a large extent, on how you look. Industry studies have shown that personal appearance is a factor that most employers and customers consider important. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you get enough sleep and look alert?
  • Do you practice good personal hygiene?
  • Do you wear a neat, clean uniform including a hat, proper safety shoes, shirt, and pants/ coveralls?
  • Do you smile, display confidence and polite respect for your employer, the customer, and fellow employees?

If your answer to each question is “Yes” – Congratulations! You are well on your way to consistently making a good impression of both you and your company. If you answered “No” to any of the questions, you have identified an area that can change how people feel about you and your company. Get to work on making an improvement. You will be glad you did.

In addition, your vehicle is a traveling billboard for your company. How it looks and how you drive it can greatly influence the public’s impression of your company. Make a positive impression on the road.

  • Is your truck clean and in good repair?
  • Are your driving habits courteous?

Treat Your Customers With Respect

Treating customers with respect is always important, but in residential work it is even more critical. Admitting you into their home or business is a gesture of faith by customers; faith that you will do no harm, and that you will treat the premises and occupants with respect. Do you agree? Think about the people you invite into your home. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you refrain from smoking?
  • Do you remember to protect the work area?
  • Do you carry rags and carefully clean up after yourself?
  • Do you have drop cloths to protect hardwood floors and carpets?
  • Do you respect the customer’s home by not tracking in dirt?
  • Do you return the home to its original condition? (Replace covers, wipe off dirty fingerprints, clean up drop cloths, etc.)

As the number of homes with more than one income has increased, the need to arrive on time has become more critical than ever, since in these cases someone has to take off from work to wait for the craftsperson. Be on time. Call if you are going to be late. Show the customer that you realize their time is valuable.

Customers notice if you arrive with a full set of tools, neatly packed. Using a wrong tool not only leaves behind poor results, it tells your customer that you are unprofessional. They notice your attitude, and whether it shows a good work ethic. They can see if you neatly repack your tools when you finish the job, too. It’s part of how they judge you and your company. It’s also a large contributor to whether they call your company back for more work.

Review these questions. Any “No” answers indicate areas that need work.

  • Are you on time and prompt to start work?
  • Do you arrive fully informed and prepared to do the job?
  • Are your tools a full set, and neatly packed?
  • Do you tackle the job promptly?
  • Do you politely avoid general social conversation while working?

Finally, remember that your customers appreciate a positive attitude. For example, it’s always best to be professional and avoid “bad mouthing” different products and/or competitors. Likewise, if for example, you are late-but it is not your fault-focus on the positive, getting the job done, rather than blaming someone else. Say something like: “I understand how you feel. I’m sorry. Please know that I will do my best to have your room painted as quickly as I can.”

Vancouver’s Best Painters: © 2017. All rights reserved. Do Not Copy: Copying content will result in criminal prosecution.

Working With Other Trades

Painters working on a construction job involving other trades should treat the craftspersons in the other trades with the same courtesies given their own trade, employers, and customers. In order to maintain job site harmony, painters should always work closely with the other trades to coordinate and schedule their painting tasks so as not to hold up the other trades, and vice versa. A close relationship between the trades is also important to make sure that all trades fully understand their responsibilities on the job as defined in the job contract and specifications. This is necessary to prevent failure to complete a task, duplication of effort, and/or needless rework.

Employer Teaming or Partnering with Other Organizations

Employers often team with facility owners, other painting or general contractors, material manufacturers, or material distributors. Some benefits that can be derived from such teaming or working relationships are:

  • Provides a way for supplying the manpower needed to accomplish larger jobs when an organization does not have adequate manpower to accomplish the task within the organization.
  • Provides a way to acquire needed skills not possessed by one or more of the organizations.
  • Provides for better coordination among all parties involved with a job, usually resulting in more efficient scheduling of the job.
  • Provides for lower prices.
  • Provides for timely delivery of materials.

Employees working for employers involved in such teaming relationships have a responsibility to cooperate and work with all persons from other organizations and do everything possible to help make such teaming agreements work. The main benefit derived by employees involved in such teaming relationships is more stabilized employment. This is because teaming usually results in more opportunities to work than might otherwise be available without teaming. Other benefits are the friendships and relationships developed with others both inside and outside the painting trade.

Vancouver’s Best Painters: © 2017. All rights reserved. Do Not Copy: Copying content will result in criminal prosecution.