painting as decorating

We're four months into a major renovation project and the walls (at least) are finished, so we're getting our brains around painting them. So far, one wall is painted so that the radiator can be (more BrE) fitted (in AmE, I'd say installed) this week. I've marked the same space as 'same wall' on the 'before' picture, so you can see the difference, though it's a Ship-of-Theseus question whether it's the same wall...

after before

Because major renovations are not something I've done in any other country, I'm often not sure if the vocabulary I'm learning is (a) trade jargon that lay people don't generally know, (b) words I'd know if I were just a little bit handier, or (c) British words for things that Americans have different (or no) words for. Painting is something I have previous experience of, though, so I'm pretty sure I can make a whole week's worth of Twitter Differences of the Day (#DotD) out of them (#PaintWeek). So, I'm pre-loading the differences on this blog, but I reserve the right to add more painting differences to this post as the week goes on! 

Decorating

When UK friends see the progress pictures I post on Facebook, many say "It's just the decorating now!" By (BrE) decorating they mean the painting, wallpapering and decorative tiling. They've been saying that for over a month even though we don't have (AmE) countertops/(BrE) worktops, a (BrE) hob/(AmE) range top, bathroom plumbing, or a (finished) kitchen floor and soon we'll be moving everything from the living room into the kitchen, so that another floor can be replaced. Other than the one wall painted so that the radiator can be plumbed in, decorating is mostly (AmE) a ways off yet. But my main point is: my American friends don't say "it's just the decorating now!" and I can't think of an exact AmE equivalent for BrE decorating in this sense.

Similarly, the person you hire to paint interior walls (or to wallpaper them) is a (BrE) decorator. In AmE, you'd call them a painter if they're painting. In AmE decorator is not the name of a manual-labo(u)r job, but a creative one—close to being an interior designer, but more focused on choosing lampshades and pictures for the walls than on . This art/design college site describes the difference between interior design and AmE interior decorating as:

Interior design is the art and science of understanding people’s behavior to create functional spaces within a building, while interior decorating is the furnishing or adorning of a space with decorative elements to achieve a certain aesthetic. In short, interior designers may decorate, but decorators do not design.

(In other words, interior designers are not very good at explaining what interior designers are, but they get paid a lot more than interior decorators.)

Paints and their finishes

The paint term you're most likely to find confusing if you move countries is the name for normal wall paint. In BrE it's emulsion and in AmE latex (paint) or just wall paint.

In terms of finishes (there's a chart below), the dullest one is matt in BrE but spelled matte in AmE, in a rare case of AmE spelling being longer than BrE. AmE also uses flat for this finish. Dulux (UK brand) has flat matt as a 'more velvety' kind of matt.

More popular than matt(e) in the US is eggshell, which is promoted as 'more washable'. You get this in the UK, but people seem to talk about it much less and buy matt paint more. 

Both BrE & AmE have paints with satin finishes, though they may be more popular in UK—or there's the possibility that a meaning difference causes the different numbers in the two places, e.g. if UK satin has less sheen than a US satin or something like that. Then again, some of the number differences in the corpus table below may stem from people writing about such things more in the UK than the US. I remember when Peter Gabriel's song D.I.Y. came out in 1978 and Americans had to be told what the initialism meant. DIY is a national obsession in the UK. 

A finish name I've seen in the UK and not the US is silk, "Dr Dulux" tells me that the term silk is used for woodwork paint, whereas satin is for (plaster) wall paint.

In AmE, I'd talk about paint finishes on wood in terms of gloss, a term well-used in BrE too. But it seems gloss finishes tend to be talked about in more hyphenated ways in AmE: semi-gloss, high-gloss.

(Note that the BrE 'matte finish' examples in the table are mostly about makeup, not wall paint.)


Plaster & paint

Last week we had a classic misunderstanding when Spouse kept saying he'd do the mist coat on a newly plastered wall and I didn't know not to hear that as "missed coat". ("If the plasterers missed a coat," I was thinking, "why aren't we asking them to fix that?") It turns out a mist coat is a coat of diluted paint that's used to prime a newly plastered wall. While I have found mist coat in a US paint company's glossary, it offers sealer coat as an alternative, and that term might be more common in the US (see chart), but it's not clear from the data that the examples have to do with sealing plastered walls, rather than sealing something else that's going to be painted further.

(To see more data on these, click here for a Google Books ngram, which shows mist coat looking not-terribly-different across the countries.)

In both countries, this could be called a primer or priming coat too.

In talking about mist coats with Americans, another reason for our unfamiliarity with the term came up: Americans rarely deal with fresh plaster walls these days, mostly using (AmE) drywall (aka AmE sheet( )rock, wall( )board & BrE plasterboard). I've mentioned some of these terms in another post, and remain very bitter about drywall, because at my first UK Scrabble tournament I played DRYWALLS as a nine-timer (i.e. on two triple-word scores) for 171 points and it was disallowed because it was not in the UK Scrabble dictionary at the time. (Today it would be good for tournament play. Waaaah!!!)

At any rate, watching the plasterers' progress has been really impressive. They are GOOD at their jobs. So smoooooooth.

Colo(u)rs 

It's interesting that in our globali{s/z}ed world that paint brands are rather nation-specific (US Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams; UK Dulux, Albany...). Perhaps that's because the materials you're painting and conditions under which you're painting can differ from place to place, and therefore the best formulations for one place aren't the best for another. Maybe they're all coming from the same factories somewhere, but they're branded locally because that's where the colo(u)rs are mixed. I could do some research on that, but I've already spent too much of my Sunday on this post. Whatever the reason, the names of the paint colo(u)rs are going to differ.  I've noted in another post that fudge-colo(u)red paint in one country is a strikingly different colo(u)r from in the other.
 
How you choose a colo(u)r is named differently. In AmE I'd call the things you get from the paint store swatches or paint/color chips. Valdspar Paints from Minnesota has come to the UK and advertises colour chips, but in the main UK paint companies offer colour cards or sample cards.

If everything from our dining room weren't packed up in boxes right now, I'd show you a print  we were given as a wedding present, in which a map of Britain is shaped from paint samples with names based on UK place names, like Dorset Cream and I-don't-remember-what-else.

Dorset Cream, as it happens, is from a paint company that has gone global, trading on its Britishness and therefore sent up in a Saturday Night Live sketch.

 

A verb or two

And I've just noticed this relevant old Difference of the Day:


...as paint 

Finally (if I don't add more), paint similes seem to be much more common in BrE than AmE. I've run across smart as paint before, and Michael Quinion has written about that and other positive comparisons to paint. With smart as paint, it helps to keep in mind the more BrE sense of smart, i.e. stylish and fresh. (I do recommend Quinion's post.) 

40 comments

  1. In this context, I would also mention the AmE word "remodelling". As best as I can recall, the closest equivalent in BrE might be "renovation". In AmE, however, "remodelling" seems to cover anything from just painting to complete demolition and rebuilding. "Renovation" in BrE is (I think) always more than "redecorating".

    Local variation on "plaster". I live near Sante Fe now, and "plaster" here covers a variety of different materials. As a result, you will see "diamond plastering" and "diamond plaster" in connection with contractors, which I believe is to differentiate real plaster from applying anything else vaguely similar (e.g. adobe mud, or even stucco which to many homeowners may seem similar).

    Oil-based (wall/trim) paints have mostly gone away in the US at this point, but for decorating purposes they seem to be termed "Alkyd paint" in AmE, versus "oil paint" or "gloss enamel" in BrE.

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    1. Thanks, I've been seeing 'alkyd' on US sites today and didn't know what that meant. I might add it to the post later...

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    2. I agree about renovation vs redecoration in BrE, when it's on a home.

      Businesses seem to be more likely to talk about "renovations" even when all they're doing is redecorating, but I think this is a deliberate attempt to make it seem more significant than it is.

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    3. Related to the BrE 'Renovation' is one of my favourite Australianisms - over there it's frequently shortened to 'Reno'

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    4. "Contractor" is another North American-specific word, isn't it? I think in the UK and Ireland it would be just "workers", "labourers", "handymen", etc. — or indeed the "painters" and "decorators" discussed in the post! And Americans pronounce "contractor" with the stress on the first syllable.

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    5. @Ian, hadn't known that "contractor" was more common in AmE. But there's a nuance here. MW Unabridged defines "contractor (3)" as ": one who contracts on predetermined terms to provide labor and materials and to be responsible for the performance of a construction job in accordance with established specifications or plans — called also building contractor." To the extent it applies to workers, it's because they're working for a contractor (or a sub, eg for painting, electrical, etc.) -- meaning it's a big job. If I just hire an electrician or a handyman, that's what I'd call them; even if I literally have a written contract with them, "contractor" would sound a bit grandiose in the small-job context.

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  2. Oh why, oh why won't it let me click "notify me" to be able to read all the comments on this post? I really don't want to have to subscribe to every post to get the comments.....

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  3. A warning: don't use matt/matte/flat paint on in kitchens, bathrooms (AmE), or children's rooms, as you can't clean it. Satin will work, but semi-gloss (AmE?) is better.

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  4. Alkyd paints in the US are an alternative to oil paints -- they are water-based, so much easier for clean-up, but they produce a much better gloss or semi-gloss finish than latex paints.

    I saw the tweets about 'mist coat' -- not a term I recognize. I have done a fair amount of plastering and skim-coating (this is in the US) and I just use a general purpose primer (undiluted). I don't know if there is some compositional difference between UK and US plaster that would necessitate different treatments.

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    1. "Conventional alkyd paints dry by solvent evaporation and cure by oxidation in approximately five days to a hard, glossy finish that is simply unmatched by latex paints. This makes alkyds well-suited for interior trim, doors, cabinets and other high-use areas that require smooth durability. When you brush alkyd paint onto a handrail or kitchen cabinet, it can look like it was sprayed.

      Conventional alkyds use petroleum-based solvents and have higher levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They also involve a more difficult cleanup that requires paint thinner. There is a product that puts the best of both conventional alkyds and waterborne-alkyds in practice as the new gold standard for the pro painter. "

      https://www.benjaminmoore.com/en-us/contractors/job-solutions/project-advice/alkyd-paint

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    2. You're right - I was thinking of urethane alkyds, which are widely used. Solvent-based alkyds are not so common, in my experience.

      Alkyds use more volatile solvents than old-fashioned oil-based paints, which as you say are rare these days.

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  5. Also, I share your perplexity at trying to translate BrE 'decorating' into AmE. I think most USians would be more specific in describing what's left to be done. Eg the cabinets have been installed but we are waiting for the countertops, and the painting and trim will be finished after that.

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  6. “Decorate” to me (US) means moving furniture and art around or getting new ones, whereas the type of work shown in the photos looks like “renovation.”

    I am pretty sure that I would only use “remodel” to refer to a kitchen renovation in which old models of appliances such a refrigerators, stoves, and dishwashers are replaced with new ones, in addition to replacing sinks and cabinets.

    My point is that the work shown in the photos seems like a “renovation” and probably a “remodel” but certainly not a “decoration” or “redecoration” to me.

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    1. I believe that in the UK lingo, you can:

      * redecorate without doing any renovations
      * carry out a renovation, which will finish with the decorating

      By contrast, in the US, you "remodel", unless you're literally doing nothing but painting and don't want to make it sound like more than it is :)

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    2. Brits wouldn't call the right-hand picture 'decoration' either. Decoration is what you do once the new walls, doors etc. are in place.

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  7. A couple of things that stand out to me as a Brit:

    • I've never heard of a "mist coat". If you're painting it on plaster, it's a primer; on wood it's an undercoat.

    • You wrote that "Americans rarely deal with fresh plaster walls these days, mostly using (AmE) drywall". This puzzles me. My understanding was that drywall is what in BrE is known as plasterboard, which in all cases needs a layer of plaster to be applied on top of it (in a process known as skimming). So even if you use plasterboard/drywall, the need for fresh plaster is not obviated.

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    1. I agree. I have never heard of a "mist coat" either. Maybe it's just something Lynne's husband made up?
      On a "dry-lined" or plasterboard wall, we would have what we call a "skim" - a very thin layer of wet plaster to give it that smoooooth finish and cover up the joins and nails. Ceilings are also skimmed.

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    2. Upon further investigation, whether or not drywall/plasterboard should be skimmed with wet plaster seems to be a matter of debate. See, for example, here: https://community.screwfix.com/threads/does-drywall-plasterboard-need-to-be-skimmed.173620/

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    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Drywall (US) doesn't need a skim coat. After you've installed it, you go over the joints between sheet, plus screw/nail heads, with joint compound. The bare drywall surface can be primed directly.

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    1. If that's so, then it's puzzling that Lynne listed "plasterboard" as the BrE equivalent to drywall. Also, Simon (next comment after yours) seems to disagree with you.

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    2. It's not clear whether Simon is from the US or the UK. No doubt you can skim drywall if you like, but it seems like a lot of work for no strong reason. It's certainly not routine practice in the US.

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    3. There is a variety of (UK) plasterboard known as tapered edge which is designed to be used like drywall board, that is to say it only required a small strip of finish plaster along the joint and the whole surface then has paint directly applied to it. Ideally the virgin surface should be primed (as should raw plaster) with a mist coat of thin paint or a PVA solution.

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    4. Wouldn’t that be a primer? Depending on the color you may need a primer coat first.

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    5. High end construction will sometimes add a plaster skim coat over drywall.

      Here in Sante Fe, it's very definitely a "look". It originates with the use of plaster over adobe, but even in stick-built houses here, if the builder/owner wants that "Sante Fe" look, they will plaster over the drywall.

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  9. I love your "mist/missed coat" story. That's hysterical. Sounds like it could be the basis for a Laurel & Hardy sketch!

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  10. At $110/USgal, Farrow&Ball is more expensive in the US, as that works out at £22.17 per litre. Here, B&Q sell 2.4l for £49.50, which is only £19.80/l. Still way more expensive than the other well-known leading brand at £12.80/l

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  11. Aha! Here is a page from a US hardware chain that says there is a difference between drywall and plasterboard -- in short, the latter is meant to be skimmed, the former not.

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    1. this was meant to be a reply to the comments above, but the reply function evidently didn't work right (cannot possibly be user error on my part, of course).

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    2. As a UK amateur decorator I can confirm mist coat is a well known term for a dilute sealing coat on new plaster. Just search online for 'mist coat' and you'll find lots of references. I'm still not sure what the difference is between plasterboard and drywall. We had a room with wallpaper glued directly to plasterboard and it's almost impossible to remove as any steam or soaking the wallpaper with water to scrape it off damages the plasterboard. It this a problem with drywall?

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    3. Drywall is also known as sheetrock in the US, at least in certain areas.

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    4. @Anonymous: wallpaper is vastly less common in the US than in the UK. It's not unheard of, but I can't think of more than a couple of houses I've been in anywhere in the US that had it, unless they were historical preservations (which would have had plaster walls)

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  12. I could be a bit behind the times, but I think there may be a difference between what 'swatch' conceptually is assumed to mean in the two countries. Looking it up in a dictionary I got,

    "a small sample of fabric intended to demonstrate the look of a larger piece: colour swatches.
    - a collection of fabric samples, especially in the form of a book.
    - a sample of paint, make-up, etc. applied to a surface or one's skin to test or demonstrate the colour: "
    I think as a BrEnglish speaker I'd assume the essence of what swatches are, are the little strips of cloth as in the first meaning. Using the word to describe samples provided in some other format makes sense but is metaphorical.

    From what Lynne has said, it sounds as though in USEnglish, it may be that the second meaning might be the primary one, i.e. visual samples set out in any way that enables one to sample or compare them visually, of which the little strips of cloth is just an example.

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  13. Forgot to leave myself a comment-catching comment. Alas, Blogger...
    Do carry on without me, though, I'm having an overwhelming work week!

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  14. For anyone who hasn't bothered to watch that Saturday Night Live sketch, I urge you to do so ... it's very funny indeed.
    I particularly enjoyed the "color/colour" business.
    As someone who makes a point of pronouncing "color" as "colore" when I see it spelt the American way, it's most amusing to see it from the other perspective.

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  15. With apologies to Lynne (this is meant to be a language blog, not a home reno blog), I am still somewhat mystified by the mist coat. As I said above, in US it's standard to put a coat of plain, undiluted, general-purpose primer on drywall, joint compound, or new plaster (at least this is what I've always done, with no problems). You can buy 'drywall primer' with (presumably) a slightly different formulation, but I've never seen the need to use it.

    So my question is: why do DIYers in the UK use a mist coat of diluted paint rather than primer? What is the rationale?

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    1. My experience of painting fresh plaster is that it is wildly different to drywall. The standard primers that I would use on drywall work, but not as well as they would on drywall.

      Another possibility might just be that the widespread use of actual plaster in the UK meant that there was never a need to develop a new technique as there was in the US when drywall become the dominant wall material. After all, a literal mist coat won't do much as a primer for drywall at all. Then it turned out that the new drywall primers worked ok on plaster too, and US practice shifted towards using primer for everything.

      Also: re the difference between drywall and plasterboard ... several contractors that I've watched and or know will often just use regular drywall but paint a layer of "render" onto drywall before plastering. This takes the place of the "highly absorbent face surface" that blue pasterboard has, and means you can just use regular drywall (easier to find, cheaper).

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  16. And about paint: You know that in the UK, if a process is really tedious and boring, we describe it as 'like watching paint dry'
    Same in US?

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  17. Eggshell vs matt finish. I think they are marketed differently in UK: eggshell in the trade range, and matt in the DIY range. May be why matt is spoken of more

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)