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Primer Problems

Recently there has been some discussion about the proper primer to use on drywall and the primer’s effects on a Level 5 finish. The Drywall Finishing Council is currently working on a document to help remedy this situation. This is not an issue isolated to the United States; New Zealand and Australia are also having problems with the quality of paint. Some of the paint being used down under is literally falling off the ceiling. Ian Swann, executive director of the Association of Wall and Ceiling Industries Australia and New Zealand recently asked if we knew of any documentation by microscopic photography of paint film in place. He also included a photograph of paint peeling off the ceiling in sheets. He suspected that the paint never took hold of the paper due to the lack of solids.

Paint has undergone a major change in recent years primarily due the reduction of volatile organic compounds in paint chemistry. Ideally, a good drywall primer will have high solids content. This component helps produce the “tooth” that ensures the paint film will adhere to the surface and also produce the illusion of a monolithic surface under normal lighting conditions.

When last I wrote about the quality of paint, one of our members, Joe Beedy of Acrylic Technologies, Inc., contacted me to discuss the article. He lamented that I was correct in my assumptions, and he invited me to visit him the next time I was in the Northwest. Joe had been a drywall contractor, but he now operates a paint manufacturing plant in Portland, Ore. He offered a tour of his facility and an opportunity to talk with his chemist.

I took him up on the invitation in September, and I must say that I was impressed with his operation. While small in size, his company has the capability to produce a significant quantity of paint with the use of automated equipment as well as manually operated equipment. In the course of discussions with Joe and his chemist, I asked about what I can tell AWCI members and the readers of this magazine to look for in the chemistry of paint. The answer was that it is almost impossible to collect this type of information primarily due to the proprietary nature of the mixes used by paint manufacturers. (There are ASTM Standards used to establish certain properties of paint. I’ll save that discussion for another column after I have had the opportunity to study the standards.)

Joe and I did discuss ways to produce a good Level 5 finish. As most of you are aware ASTM C840 allows the use of an alternative material and is stated as follows form Article 22.6.6 Level 5: “As an alternate to a skim coat, a material manufactured especially for this purpose shall be applied.”

There are several manufacturers of this product with very good track records, and it is well worth investigating its use on future projects were there might be a potential problem with the expectations of the owner and architect. Part of the problem in using this material is that it is not always specified by the architect. If you happen to conduct business in a region with labor agreements, you may encounter resistance from the painting contractor as well since in all probability if the material was not specified, the painter did not include it in his price.

A method suggested was for the drywaller to agree to purchase the material and provide it to the painter to apply. This is one way to ensure that the correct material is used to produce the expected results of the illusion of a monolithic surface under normal lighting conditions. Being proactive (while it may cost a few dollars) is much better than ending up in the usual finger-pointing contest that ensues after the fact and requires the involvement of senior managers to resolve the conflict.

While it will take time to develop a standard for a proper drywall primer, this scenario might help fill the gap and keep the finger pointing to a minimum.

Just as an aside about my trip to Portland: I drove from Portland across Oregon to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for AWCI’s fall conference. Unfortunately I did not have anyone to share the beautiful scenery with. The trip takes you along the Columbia River gorge and then up through Oregon farm country. I do not often have the opportunity to enjoy the countryside on my many trips on behalf of AWCI, and this is one trip I will not soon forget.

Donald E. Smith, CCS, is AWCI’s director of technical services. Send your questions to, or call him directly at (703) 538.1611.

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