John W. Dee,
Painting and Decorating,
by Stacey Enesey Klemenc
, those before-and-after photos that everybody is always harping about have paid off in a big way.
As he tells it, back in 1995 he was working on a show house for the Junior League of Boston. The mansion, located in an old Brahmin neighborhood, had once been home to the notorious James Michael Curley, an over-the-top glad-handing Irishman who served four terms as mayor of Boston and then became governor of Massachusetts.
Part of the job entailed cleaning up, stripping, restoring and repainting a Greek revival portico on the front of the house. “There was so much paint on the columns that the details of the capitals were completely obscured,” Dee recalls. He says he stripped the columns and painstakingly excavated the paint out of the capitals with dental tools. And all the while, he documented the extensive steps by taking lots of pictures.
For the show, he posted the pictures on a presentation board and displayed it on an easel so that everyone who entered the show home could marvel at the transformation. But he didn’t stop there. “I had taken such a beating on this job because I had low-balled it in exchange for potential exposure,” Dee explains. “I was determined to get every ounce of PR out of this job that I possibly could, so I called and wrote a letter to This Old House pitching myself. It was a real exercise in self-promotion.”
His timing couldn’t have been better, he says, as the TV show had just finished its winter project and was on the prowl for a new spring/summer undertaking. Bruce Irving, the producer for This Old House, met with Dee and loved the process he used to refurbish the portico. “And the rest,” Dee says, “is history.”
He was signed on to do work for a Salem, Mass., project that would involve restoring a portico using the same techniques he had so meticulously photographed earlier. “It made for good TV,” Dee says about the process he used to remove the heavy buildup of paint.
Since then, he’s worked on four other projects featured on television, is interviewed for and featured regularly in This Old House magazine and has written a few articles for the magazine and This Old House online.
Dee, a native of Concord, Mass., admits he’s come a long way since he began moonlighting as a painter in the ‘70s, when he could be seen tooling about Cape Cod carrying a 40-foot ladder on top of a Volkswagen bug.
He got started in the painting business working as a stock boy for Sherwin-Williams while attending community college on Cape Cod. Before long, one of the painters offered him a job that paid better and off he went, working on new construction that involved a lot of staining and woodwork, a task that remains a favorite.
By 1977, he had formed his own company that today offers an array of services, including interior and exterior painting, wallcovering installation, natural wood finishes, and faux and decorative finishes such as wall glazing, wood graining and distressed finishes. He also restores and refinishes a variety of architectural components, specializing in restoring old doors and window sashes. In recent years, he’s added consulting services and speaking presentations to his offerings.
At one point in his life, he aspired to build guitars, even going so far as to attend the School of Guitar Research and Design in Vermont. “I loved the guitar but it just wasn’t a practical way to make a living,” Dee says. “I took copious notes while I was there and maybe when I’m 64 …
“But all the while, I kept painting. It was something I was quite good at and at some point I made the decision this is what I’m going to do. I’m not sure when it happened. I guess you could say I evolved into the trade. Since then I’ve aspired to be the best at what I do.”
In the ’80s, Dee attended evening classes at the New England School of Art and Design to learn about trompe l’oeil, color theory and drawing. He’s also taken dozens of decorative paint classes through the years.
“After you take so many, the classes become redundant,” Dee says. “You realize it’s all about understanding viscosity and knowing that it’s not always as simple as it looks. With multiple coats, it’s all about controlling and producing a film that allows other colors to pass through it. It’s about being creative and resourceful with techniques and sequencing. You need to know what’s compatible and why or why not. And once you get the basics down, then the sky’s the limit.”
The best way to really learn the trade is to have a mentor, Dee says. “If you can find somebody who’s free with information, it’s invaluable.” During his formative years, he says, he learned much from the “old-timers” at the Painting & Decorating Contractors of America events. Although the father of five says he’s not very active with the association anymore because he’s just too busy with work and family, he still enjoys an occasional local meeting and regional trade show.
“And they keep telling me I’m one of those ‘old-timers’ now and I should come back on board to share what I know with others,” Dee says.
And he knows plenty about woodgraining. With decorative finishes, he says he relates better to wood than stone. “I’ve done some marbling but I really like rendering and refinishing old wood,” he says. And one of his favorite materials is making his own shellac mix from flakes.
“Whenever I can use shellac, I do but it’s not always practical. It may not be the most durable finish but to the eye and touch, it’s exquisite. It’s so far above polyurethane and conversion varnishes as far as looks go.”
His relationship with This Old House is such a good fit because he loves to do transformations. “I like taking something ‘left for dead’ and giving it a new lease on life,” Dee says. “If I can bring back an old sash by channel-routing the joints and restoring with epoxy, that’s fulfilling to me. But woodgraining an MD particle board door into something that looks like real mahogany or oak — that’s the ultimate! Rendering woodgrains and producing quality clear finishes for real wood are among my favorite tasks.”
He admits that it’s challenging to deal with lead paint on some of his renovation jobs, but he uses slow-acting chemical strippers to prevent the lead from going airborne and takes the necessary safety precautions. Lead aside, he loves the challenge of resurfacing or fixing buckled plaster or dealing with calcimine in old homes. “I’ll take that any day over walking in and painting drywall,” Dee says. “I love the preparation process, no matter how extreme.”
The thing he says he likes the most about painting is the diversity. “There’s something new with each project,” Dee says. “One moment I’m tasked to make something old look brand new and the next they want something new to look old.”
And so far, that hasn’t gotten old for John Dee.
Check out more of John Dee’s work.