Catchlight Inc., Brookline, Massachusetts
Specializing in restoration painting isn’t simply a business decision. Just ask Nigel Costolloe, president of Catchlight Inc., Fine Residential Painting, in Brookline, Mass.
For Costolloe, restoration painting is a calling — a mission, if you will — to preserve, protect and return historic buildings to their former glory. There’s something about old buildings that captivates him. Older materials and older buildings have soul, he says. “Old growth wood, generations of history in each home — they are lovely to restore.”
But restoration work isn’t for everyone. Careful research is necessary. There’s a lot of prep work and problem-solving involved. And that’s all before you actually get to apply the paint. And along the way you become an expert at paint stripping, why paints fail, and restoration, of course.
Because of his love of old buildings, Costolloe did make a conscious business decision more than 15 years ago to specialize in restoration work. In New England, the prospects were promising for targeting such a narrow niche market.
The decision to follow his passion has resulted in many rewards, he says, beginning with the clientele. “You generally find more appreciative clients. Because they choose to live in old buildings we meet on a common theme, and we can present ourselves professionally and sympathetically.”
This shared love for old buildings alters the typical contractor-client relationship right from the start. “Those initial prospect meetings are more about working together than a simple sales situation. And we can develop long-term relationships that work to our advantage and theirs,” Costolloe observes. “Consequently, much of our work is by referral.”
And unless a prospective client is referred, Catchlight Inc. charges for estimates. The fee is deducted from the final job cost if they get the project, which is more likely than not, as the company has a 75 percent to 80 percent closing rate with new customers.
Costolloe says the skill-set his company has developed for restoration painting came from practice. “You have to honor the bones of the structure,” he explains. “Beyond that we just enjoy the work and reading about materials used in the past.”
He also turns to the experts. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities is one such source of information. Costolloe attends tours of older properties and takes seminars presented by the society. This organization has done a lot of historical research, Costolloe reports, including pulling out what paint colors were used in different periods of history in New England. Seeing a need for historically accurate colors, a number of paint manufacturers, such as California Paints, Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams, have developed specialized color lines that make it easier to find off-the-shelf products for restoration projects.
Another benefit of working on older homes, Costolloe explains, is working with old-growth wood. He enjoys the challenge of exposing the grain, determining the species and then working on it to save it. “Old wood is more stable than wood available today. Splicing in new wood, which is much more elastic, results in a higher incidence of failure at the joints.” So, whenever he can, Costolloe uses epoxy fillers and consolidants engineered to work with wood to fill fissures, smooth the surfaces and to consolidate remaining wood fibers. “We want to save as much as possible before calling in the restoration carpenters,” he adds.
This focus to save the original surfaces extends to wood window restoration and failed plaster. The art of applying plaster is a dying art, Costolloe says. Still, “we would rather affect a proper repair of failed plaster using plaster buttons, rather than resort to drywall.” He points out that in most instances it is less expensive to repair the plaster than to go through total demolition; especially considering the cyanide issue (cyanide was once used in tanning horse hides, which shows up in the horse hair in the old plaster walls). And if you use a drywall overlay you’ll begin to lose the detail and reveal at crown molding and such.
“Paint failure really gets my creative juices flowing,” Costolloe admits. Because paint restoration is as much science as art, a bit of a sleuthing and deductive reasoning are required.
Technology helps too. Costolloe uses digital moisture meters to check the moisture content of plaster and wood.
To determine the cause of a failure, Costolloe removes a sample of the failed paint and looks at the back to discover the problem. He offers several examples: When you remove the paint sample, if there is paint on the chip and paint remains on the wall it is likely an adhesion problem. If there is a powdery substance on the back of the paint chip there might be some efflorescence indicating a moisture problem in the plaster. Or, if there is a nice layer of plaster on the back of the paint chip, the problem is likely an adhesion problem between the skim coat and the scratch coat, a plaster failure.
Another test is the cross-hatch adhesion test, whereby the paint film is scored using a sharp knife or razor blade and then masking tape is pressed over the cut and quickly pulled away. This reveals intercoat adhesion integrity.
“Ninety percent of paint failures are the result of application errors — typically not the paint or the plaster, but the applicator,” Costolloe explains.
Paint stripping and preparation is dirty and dangerous work, especially when old paint products are involved. You can count on toxic dust and fumes, so doing it right is of the utmost concern for the clients as well as the crew. Costolloe insists on meticulous housekeeping and uses the technology necessary to manage air quality. For paint stripping, rather than using direct heat methods, the company uses non-toxic chemicals and an infrared method that heats the substrate, not the paint.
Costolloe, like many professional contractors, began painting part-time as a summer job in high school, and continued painting part-time while he was in college. Eventually, with a political science degree in hand, he went out into the world ... and became a painter.
“I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in political science,” he says, but he knew he wanted to start his own business. What he knew was painting. But he also eventually realized that, while he was a competent technician, he was not a businessman.
Learning how to be a businessman became part of his job. By taking seminars and workshops he has learned the nuts and bolts of business, and he applies them every day. He describes himself as now “on target.”
“As a liberal arts-educated person I thought profit was a dirty word. Now I understand that profit is a key to maintaining and growing a successful business,” Costolloe says.
He has also implemented other solid business-management strategies, such as hiring the right people and keeping them. “We take pleasure in sending the same painters back to our customers year after year. Respect and familiarity is good.”
Good wages and a generous benefits package, including paternity leave, paid vacation and holidays, retirement and medical, help ensure his crew are well compensated for the professionalism they are known for. Costolloe uses a mentoring/buddy system for training new crew members, and requires performance reviews before a raise is allowed. It seems to work well for him, he says.
Through the years Catchlight Inc. has developed a reputation for exceeding client expectations. As a result, the company has worked on some of the most historic and prestigious residences in the Boston area.
The oldest house Costolloe has tackled so far was a farmhouse — one of the original governor’s residences — in Sherborn, Mass., dating from the 17th century. Current projects are an 1860 brick townhome with limestone accents in Boston and a Federal-style home that in the 1800s was rolled a quarter mile — on logs — to a more desirable location.
Bowing to numerous requests, Catchlight Inc. is expanding its services on a limited basis into exterior painting and restoration work, and taking on high-end new construction painting projects that involve salvage and restoration of older homes.
But for Costolloe, restoration painting will remain more than just a business decision. It’s a passion. And that shows in the artistry of his company’s work.
For more information on Catchlight Inc., visit www.catchlightpainting.com.