Painter & Decorator – A History

By Michael J. Butler (E-Z Painting Inc.)

A painter and decorator is a tradesman responsible for the painting and decorating of buildings such as houses, and is also known as a decorator or house painter.

History of the trade.

In England, little is known of the trade and its structures before the late 1200s, at which point guilds began to form, amongst them the Painters Company and the Stainers Company. These two guilds eventually merged with the consent of the Lord Mayor of London in 1502, forming the Painter-Stainers Company. The guild standardized the craft and acted as a protector of the trade secrets, in 1599 asking Parliament for protection, which was eventually granted in a bill of 1606, which granted the trade protection from outside competition such as plasterers.

The Act legislated for a seven year apprenticeship, and also barred plasterers from painting, unless apprenticed to a painter, with the penalty for such painting being a fine of £5. The Act also enshrined a maximum daily fee of 16 old pence for their labor.

Enforcement of this Act by the Painter-Stainers Company was sought up until the early 1800s, with master painters gathering irregularly to decide the fees which a journeyman could charge, and also instigating an early version of a job center in 1769, advertising in the London newspapers a “house of call” system which to advertise for journeymen and also for journeymen to advertise for work. The guild’s power in setting the fee a journeyman could charge was eventually overturned by law in 1827, and the period after this saw the guild’s power diminish, along with that of the other guilds; the guilds were superseded by trade unions, with the Operative United Painters’ Union formed sometime around 1831.

In 1894 a national association formed, recreating itself in 1918 as the National Federation of Master Painters and Decorators of England and Wales, changing its name once again to the British Decorators Association before merging, in 2002, with the Painting & Decorating Federation to form the Painting & Decorating Association.

Tools of the Trade

The brush and the roller are the tools most readily associated with the painter. Recent advances in manufacture have led to a standardization of brushes, with many older brushes falling from fashion.

The airless spray gun is the latest tool in the painter’s closet. It’s powered by an electric, pneumatic or fuel powered motor which pumps paint through a hose into a gun which atomizes the paint to a fine spray. Graco is the leading manufacturer of this type of spray gun and equipment for contractors. With the airless spray gun it’s possible to paint extremely large areas of surface in a short time.

The ground brush, also known as a pound brush, was a round or elliptical brush bound by wire, cord or metal. They were generally heavy to use, and required considerable usage to break them in. These brushes were predominantly used in the days before modern paint manufacture techniques; hand mixed paints requiring more working to create the finish. These brushes still have use in applying primer; the brushes are useful in working the primer into the grain of the wood. Pound brushes required an even breaking in to create even bevel on both sides of the brush minimizing the formation of a point which would render the brush useless.

Sash tools were smaller brushes, similar to a ground brush, and used mainly for cutting in sash or glazing bars found on windows.

Sash tools and ground brushes generally required bridling before use, and a painter’s efficiency in this skill was generally used as a guide to their overall ability. Both these brushes have largely been superseded by the modern varnish brush.

Varnish brushes are the common flat brushes available today, used for painting as well as varnishing. Brushes intended for varnishing typically have a beveled edge.

Distemper brushes, used for applying distemper, were best made of pure bristle and bound by copper bands to prevent rust damage. Styles differed across the world, with flat nailed brushes popular in the North of England, a two knot brush (a brush with two ovular heads) popular in the South of England, and three knot brushes or flat head brushes preferred elsewhere. In the United States distemper brushes were known as calcimine, kalsomine or calsomine brushes, each term being the U.S. variant of distemper.

  • Fitches are smaller brushes, either ovular or flat and 1 inch wide, used in fine work such as to pick out the detail on a painted molding.
  • Stipplers come in various shapes and sizes and are used to apply paint with a stippled effect.
  • A duster or jamb brush was used to dust the area to be painted before work commenced.
  • Limewash brushes were large brushes with a triangular head used to apply limewash.
  • Stencil brushes, similar in style to a shaving brush and used for the purpose of stenciling walls or in the creation of hand-made wallpapers.


Brushes are best stored in a purpose made brush keeper, a box on which a wire could be suspended: the wire would be threaded through the hole in a brushes handle so as to suspend the brush in a cleaning solution without allowing the brush to sit on the bottom of the container and thus cause spreading of the bristles. The solution would also prevent hardening of the brushes and oxidization. These were generally rectangular and stored several brushes. A lid would enclose the brushes and keep them free from dust.

Surface Protection Dustsheets or self-adhesive protection film (Packexe Ltd the leading manufactures) are required to protect surface areas where decorating is being done.

Activities of the Trade

Historically, the painter and decorator was responsible for the mixing of the paint; keeping a ready supply of pigments, oils, thinners, driers and sundries. The painter would use his experience to determine a suitable mixture dependent upon the nature of the job. This role has reduced almost to zero as modern paint manufacturing techniques and architect specifications have created a reliance on brand label products.

Larger firms operating within the trade were generally capable of performing many painting or decoration services, from sign writing, to the gilding of objects or even the finishing or re-finishing of furniture.

More recently, professional painters are responsible for all preparation prior to painting. All scraping, sanding, wallpaper removal, caulking, wall or wood repair, patching, stain removal, compound, filling (of nail holes or any others with patch or putty), cleaning, taping, preparation and priming are considered to be done by the professional contracted painter.

Professional painters need to have keen knowledge of the tools including sanders, scrapers, sprayers, brushes, rollers, ladders, scaffolding, in addition to just the paint in order to correctly complete work. Much preparation needs to be considered before simply applying paint. For instance, taping and drop cloth techniques, sizes of brushes or rollers, material types or dimensions of rollers or brushes (there are different sizes or types of brushes and rollers for different paints), amount of paint, number of paint coats, amount of primer, types of primers and paints, certain grits and cuts of sandpaper, trim cutting (the act of painting with a brush on the outline of baseboard, moldings and other trim work), wallpaper removal, and nail hole filling techniques just to name a few.

Today many painters are attempting to break into the field of faux painting, allowing them more creativity and access to a higher end customer base.

See Also
Coating Adhesion Tester

^ Alf Fulcher (2005). Painting and Decorating. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1405112549.
^ The Modern Painter and Decorator volume 1 1921 Caxton
Categories: Painters | Interior design | Construction trades workers

About Author:
EZ Painting, Inc. – The #1 painter serving Miami, Chicago & Surrounding suburbs, Westchester County, NY/New York City with quality and dependability. We provide painting and wall repair services to residential, commercial and industrial clients.

If you have an article that you would like to publish, then you may submit an article and it will be listed on this site.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>