Schooling Doesn’t Teach You Everything; How I Learned to Paint

I never thought taking a job as a construction engineer would provide me with skills that I would use later in my home life. The plant in North Carolina was built literally from the ground up. What once was a field became a producing chemical plant. (You know, there was a time when that was a good thing.)

Being involved in the different construction stages, from concrete to steel structures to piping, equipment and control room, the skills that could be learned on the job translated not too shabbily to the home front. Sure the materials are completely different, a homeowner would go broke trying to build or repair a home with plant quality materials, but the basic construction techniques translate very well into the home.

Take painting, for example. The paint used in the plant environment is epoxy based to withstand weather extremes and chemicals from the environment. Wood isn’t used much in industrial applications; steel, aluminum, cinder blocks, concrete, or brick are common materials. These things are just more substantial.

I was in charge of overseeing construction of the control room, the nerve center for monitoring the chemical processing. In an attempt to decorate the control room, we were allowed to put a set of stripes across a wall in the colors of the product that would be produced here, Roundup©. The block wall was uneven and although I was quite young and unexposed to painting any kind of room, I thought it would be near impossible to keep straight lines across the room.

Enter the painter. I don’t remember his name, but he was a much older man. It was rumored that he had a drinking problem. I’m not sure it was from any alcohol as much as from the paint fumes. In the early 1980’s paint smelled really bad and using it in a well-ventilated space was a must or else headaches or worse ensued.

I watched as he first laid out lines on the wall using the line chalk that I had seen used to layout the concrete slabs. Amazed that he used no masking tape, he took to work with only his paintbrush and a steady hand keeping the paint inside the lines. It looked perfect. Intrigued, I finally asked him how he was able to paint without the numerous aids that now fill the shelves at Home Depot’s paint department.

I think he appreciated me for asking about his expertise. He showed me how to paint a straight line. How to ‘pump’ the paint up to the tips of the bristles and then ever so slowly, drag the brush, held with a firm grip while angling the brush to the line. Time after time this guy drew the straightest lines. I watched him each day as the striping came to life on this wall. Each stroke was meticulous and accurate.

He never let me try to paint the line; I guess my enthusiasm for his trade wasn’t enough to chance an error and the rework that would most likely have followed my attempt.  But years later, I can tell you that I paint with little masking tape or straightedge devices. My lines, while not perfect, allow me to paint a wall to the ceiling with very little ‘mistakes’.

The engineer and the tradesmen can have a tenuous relationship unless both recognize they bring something for the other to learn. There was another construction engineer, a few years out of college like me, but the attitude he portrayed was one that he had all the smarts.

I couldn’t believe it when one of the welders told me that this engineer had actually tried to tell him how to weld. This welder had over twenty years of experience and yet this engineer had the audacity to put his book learning over the tradesman’s real world experience.

It’s a wonder his tires weren’t slashed after that. It wasn’t long before this engineer quit. His dad had a big business in Chicago and that easier life beckoned. Too bad; he missed out learning how to paint and much more. He missed out on learning from the best.



About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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2 Responses to Schooling Doesn’t Teach You Everything; How I Learned to Paint

  1. homeisaname says:

    Loved this!!! Operators taught me how to use a wrench and do plumbing in the field…. after all, chem.e s are just basically plumbers, right? I was horrified the first time an operator asked me for a 1″ nipple, but I picked it up pretty fast from there.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I can remember laughing with a friend over the names that were obviously given to different fittings, like the nipple. When I realized why female and male connectors were so named, I couldn’t believe that one either! How about an effort to rename? Or should we just shrug and grin? I think the latter!

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