PaintPRO, Vol. 8, No. 3
May/June 2006
PaintPRO, Vol 8 No 3

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Other articles in this issue:
Washing the Gray Away
Got Rust?
Painting Concrete & Masonry
Business Strategies: Uniforms
Estimating: Attention to Details
Painter Profile: Colin Griffinson
Tech: Biodegradable Paint Removers
Project Profile: Aquarium
Toolbox: Rollers
Product Profile: Spray-Stone
Paint Industry News
Product News

PaintPRO Current Issue — Contractor Profile

Colin Griffinson


Colin Griffinson Inc./
Griffin Decorative Arte,
Vancouver, B.C.

by Elizabeth Gillette

When Colin Griffinson stepped off a plane in Vancouver, B.C., more than 20 years ago, he told his wife he would never lift another paintbrush — that with this new life on a different continent, he would pick up an alternative means of making a living. But Griffinson was next in line after five generations of Irish master painters, and old habits die hard. It wasn't long after he moved to Canada that he took the first steps toward creating what are now three companies that paint everything from houses and furniture to yachts.

Colin Griffinson
Detail of Red Pompeii

One of his first painting jobs in Vancouver, and the source of some favorite stories, was a fundraiser for the city's symphony. Each year, a home was donated and top local designers volunteered their time and skills to decorate rooms. One of the designers hired Griffinson to paint the main staircase using an old English ragging technique he had learned in Ireland, and the room was voted best in the house.

"They had to put signs up on the walls saying, 'This is not wallpaper, do not feel for seams,' Griffinson recalls. "But nobody ever told us that [the project] was to be done for free. So I sent them the bill, and she says 'No, there's no bill.' And I said, 'Like heck there's no bill! I just got off the boat. I've got a wife and kid to support. What do you mean I'm doing free work? Not on your life.'"

As it turned out, he didn't get paid. But the designer referred Griffinson to other clients who did pay for his services, and for years afterward he continued to offer his services — for free — to the symphony's fundraiser. While other interesting scenarios like this followed during his early years, so did a diverse body of work.

"When I came to Canada, I didn't even know what a faux finish was. Never heard of it. But it was what I was already doing for a livelihood," Griffinson explains. He had worked on historic sites such as Buckingham Palace, Dublin Castle and estate houses, and realized quickly that there was a large market in Canada for the craft he had already mastered in Ireland.

Silver/Pewter Notan gilded walls with a lighter warm gilded ceiling.
Silver/Pewter Notan gilded walls with a lighter warm gilded ceiling.
Silver/Pewter Notan gilded walls with a lighter warm gilded ceiling.

What he also discovered was a large market for taking new homes and making them appear like historic residences. It is here that his old world journeyman skills are best showcased. His artisans use period finishes to make doors, windows and anything else in a house appear old. "And that's not to say we beat them up or smash them up," Griffinson says. "We give them this look like they've been around since God was a child. It's old-world techniques of waxing woods and laying on different layers of finishes and building it up. It's not done in an afternoon. It's done over time to get different types of looks and depth."

The company works mostly with oils, varnishes and waxes to achieve this, and also tints all its own colors. "A designer will say 'I want to use this color' and we'll make adjustments to get him exactly what he wants. We have our own tinting machines at our workshops, so we don't just open a can of paint and spray it on. It's very much a hands-on thing with designers and architects. They are looking for something special when they call us."

The company's headquarters houses a 4,500-square-foot showroom with a color shop, sample boards, spray booths and work benches. There isn't a lot of walk-in traffic, as the company focuses on high-end residential work and therefore connects with most of its clients through interior designers and architects. But Griffinson also ends up working directly with clients because these projects often last for years. "You have to be able to go in and say, 'You know what, instead of painting all those windows, I'll wood grain them so they look like mahogany.' Give all the options. That is why [our projects] take so long. The biggest thing we're told when we leave a house is, 'We had no intention of paying this kind of money to have our house painted. But now that you've been here and done it, we have no problem. We're delighted.'"

Glass area with front door entrance doubles as a band stage.
Glass area with front door entrance doubles as a band stage.
Glass area with front door entrance doubles as a band stage.

The company also creates faux finishes on yachts and recently completed a 220-foot yacht. Boats like these are often finished with exotic woods except where steel and fiberglass are necessary, so artisans create a faux wood finish on these areas. "We're always working on one," Griffinson says. "You don't do these in volume. You work on one for a year." Likewise, most of Griffinson's houses take about a year and half to paint, with some taking up to five years. "We'll do the furniture, all the cabinets. We'll do pretty much everything," he says.

Because of the range of techniques and skills the company offers, Griffinson has created three separate companies, each offering its own set of services.

The original company, Colin Griffinson Inc., started out doing only specialty work and is still one of a few companies that use only traditional oils, he says. In the beginning, he says, "architects and designers didn't believe that painters could do special finishes. So they wouldn't ask us to do them. If we did do them, they'd expect us to do them for the regular painter's rates." So, he says, "We got wise to that fact, so we put together a company called Griffin Decorative Arte." This company offers specialty interior finishing and charges appropriately higher rates.

Top: The wall behind this bed is made of broken paving stones and colored plaster. In this non-smoking building, the cigar-smoking CEO requested a nicotine ceiling.
Above: Large great room adjoining kitchen. Bird's eye faux wood on ceiling, Tuscany plaster on walls.

The third company caters to those with a less lavish budget. "We got such a reputation for being higher-end that when our builders and designers and architects would say to clients, 'I'd like to use these guys,' the client would say, 'But they only do high-end stuff and we want somebody a little cheaper.'" So they started another company for budget-based projects and named it Color Masters.

In all, the three companies employ about thirty painters and ten artists. Griffinson offers an apprenticeship program and most employees have been with the company over ten years. They use traditional methods and tools to stay genuine to the heritage restoration work they do, and to Griffinson's old world roots. As far as advice for those looking to do this type of work, he says you better be able to produce what you say you can. "If you don't pull it off, you're in trouble. If you tell a client who has more money than God that you're going to get this for them — that you're going to make their walls look like their burgundy shoes — you better be able to do it or else they're not going to pay you."

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