5 Things I Wish I Would Have Known as a Rookie Painter
We talked to a painting pro to learn five things that rookie painters should know before kicking off their career.
Nick Slavik has been in the painting industry since he before he graduated from middle school. That’s not a typo. He started working for his dad’s painting company at the young age of eleven years old. Nick started his own painting company fourteen years later, and has been active in the trade ever since, learning a lot along the way. We talked with Nick to find out five things he wishes he would have known before making painting his career of choice.
Understand that a painting career means potential freedom
For some, working as a painter might seem like a back-up plan for your back-up plan, something you fall into rather than actively plan as a career path. Nick understands this point of view, and when he was younger he saw the job as an inevitability simply because it was what his dad did. Now, he realizes that he just was not seeing the full potential of a career as a painter.
“I wish I would have known how much freedom you can have working in this profession,” Nick said. “I grew up in this, so it was like, yeah, I guess I’ll be a painter because my dad’s a painter. I had no idea that if you applied business principles to this and pay attention to things like client satisfaction, you can turn this profession into a freedom-generating machine for you and your family.”
Don’t be intimidated or put off by grumpy coworkers
On your first day on the jobsite, there’s a fairly good chance you will run into someone who, well, doesn’t smile a whole lot.
“Most of my father’s generation of contractor’s are beaten up and grumpy,” said Nick. “You’d look at them and think, why would I ever do that?”
From Nick’s perspective, being a painter is what you make of it. If you spend all your time wishing you were somewhere else instead of engaging with your work, neglect taking care of your body, and put off investing in quality safety equipment (more on that below), the years as a painter will begin take their toll. But it does not have to be that way. In fact, Nick would argue that being a painter can be just as exciting as a job in the tech industry.
“If you think of the juxtaposition of computer coding… in Silicon Valley, one of the sexiest jobs on the face of the planet is computer coding. They’ve got prosperous young people being happy and doing exciting things in open offices with bean bag chairs and foosball tables. They make such a good argument for being in the tech industry. But if you think about that job… is there anything more boring and mundane than computer coding? And on the opposite side, we’re restoring historic homes, and people love that stuff. People who don’t even like old homes get a kick out of seeing a before and after on a historic home.”
Constantly question what you are doing
Nick never had any formal training as a painter. He learned on the job through years practice and always trying new things. This has led him to believe in a principle of constant improvement.
“You’re doing a job in a certain way now, but how could you make it better?” said Nick. “How could you make it faster? How can you serve your client better?”
You are not going to have all of the answers, especially just as you are starting out. Do not be afraid to experiment at least a little, especially early on. If you make mistakes, learn from them. If you have successes, learn from those too.
“If you have to wing it, make it an experiment. Learn from it and then consciously make improvements the next time you do it.”
Invest in your knees (and your general health)
The best way to avoid becoming a grumpy veteran in the painting industry is to take care of your body right from the start.
“Fifty years down the road, that stuff will pay dividends, especially if you get a good pair of knee pads,” Nick said. “Honestly, the knees are the first thing to go with tradespeople. You buy yourselves an extra two decades of work with a good pair of knee pads.”
Here are the four things that Nick thinks rookie painters should invest in at the beginning of their career:
- Quality knee pads
- Noise cancelling work headphones
- Good eye protection that doesn’t fog up
- A good pair of work gloves.
Work with the tradespeople around you
Sometimes the construction trades can be a strangely competitive world, where pros treat the things they have learned over the course of their careers like closely guarded secrets. Nick is not a fan of that mentality, at least not anymore.
“Do what I didn’t- and what almost no other painter did- and reach out to other painters and start collaborating with them,” he said. “In the early years of my career, I thought all other painters were my sworn enemy. Turns out, I reached out to a few of them and now we openly shared our processes, our systems, our pricing… we collaborate. That’s been the biggest growth for me personally and professionally.
In the age of social media, there are plenty of places you can go to become part of a community. Reach out to your fellow painters both online and in person, and be open to the idea of working with people instead of against them.
About the expert
Nick Slavik is the owner of Nick Slavik Painting and Restoration Co. in New Prague, Minnesota. He has more than 25 years experience as a professional painter, has served his country through two tours of duty in the Middle East, is a contributor to “This Old House,” and produces a weekly Facebook show called “Ask A Painter.”
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