Spick and Span*

Despite still feeling grotty, the opportunities presented by a weekend of unbroken sunshine were too good to miss. I had been waiting months for a spell of fine weather to start repainting my exterior woodwork, and here it was, in mid February, just when I least expected it. I needed to put my lethargy aside and seize the moment. The paint had been sitting in the workshop for nearly 10 months (why did I buy quite so much?) so all I needed was some sandpaper and sugar soap to get going. Thank goodness for Harringtons**, our local hardware shop, which always come up trumps when I get the urge to DIY.

There is a lot of painted woodwork at The Watch House, mainly in the form of doors, window frames and cladding around the garden’s boundaries. The woodwork has always been painted in Farrow & Ball’s ‘Vert de Terre’, an easy, muted pale-green that complements plants and does not offend humans. I use ‘Railings’, which is just off-black, for copings, railings and fascia-boards. I prefer an eggshell finish so that the paintwork has a subtle sheen and have never deviated from that. Farrow & Ball paint is a joy to work with, being free of horrible chemicals and rich in pigments. It goes on like a dream, even when the weather is touch cold to be decorating. Such is the quality of the paint that some sections of panelling have not needed redecorating in 12 years. Others benefit from a refresh every 3 to 4 years, especially where the effects of repeated wetting and drying are at their most severe. ‘Vert de Terre’ keeps its soft colour brilliantly, fading very slightly in bright conditions after 8 to 10 years: one really can’t complain about that.

I learned a long time ago that the success of a paint job is all in the preparation. I start by washing down the woodwork with sugar soap to remove any dirt and algae. I follow by rinsing with fresh water, allowing to dry and then touching up any areas of bare wood with a combined primer and undercoat. Once that’s done I lightly rub the surface down with fine sandpaper and use a damp cloth to remove any dust before I start painting. This often means that at least half the time taken to complete the job is spent preparing. As in other areas of my life, I am a perfectionist when it comes to decorating.

For ease, speed and to prevent me from getting paint where I don’t want it, I remove all the stainless steel in the outdoor kitchen before I start. I give the metal surface a good rub down with an abrasive cleaner (I like Astonish) to remove any rusty smudges. These are usually superficial in my experience and easily removed. I take my hat off to Ikea, who’s shelves have endured over 10 years outside despite not even being designed for that purpose. They are as strong and as sound as they were the day I purchased them. Meanwhile a large enamel thermometer with French text is starting to rust around the edges, but this only adds to its charm.

Late winter and early spring present the only viable opportunity for me to complete outdoor decoration. Later in the year the garden is too congested and I am preoccupied with splashing water everywhere – not conducive to decorating. Knowing the paintwork will be sound for another season is a big weight off my mind. Now I’d appreciate another two or three warm, dry weekends to complete the workshop doors, paint the front doorstep and start on the Gin & Tonic garden, but what are the chances of that? My suspicion is that we’ve had our taste of spring and will soon be back to winter again.

Although maintaining woodwork can be hard work, it’s easier if I keep on-top of it. Too many times I’ve let a soft patch develop and then regretted it. A bit of wood hardener followed by a good filler is usually enough to avert a major problem, and starting with tanalised timber is a must, especially in exposed gardens like mine. Although I don’t always relish the thought of it, I find the process of decorating very satisfying. Like many jobs in the garden it’s fun when you are doing it of your own volition, not so much so when you’re under duress. TFG.

* The term spick and span (shortened from spick and span-new), meaning ‘made clean / as good as new’ is a combination of the Dutch spiksplinternieuw (meaning splinter new) and Old Norse ‘spán-nŷr‘, (meaning chip new). The term has its origins in the late 16th Century, when Sir Thomas North translated a passage from Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes’ thus:

“They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe”

** You may not be personally familiar with Harringtons, but you will know it if I tell you the humble hardware shop was the inspiration for The Two Ronnies’ iconic Four Candles sketch. Ronnie Corbett had a holiday home in the same street and his comedy partner Ronnie Barker was said to have been inspired by an encounter at Harringtons which he went on to develop into the famous sketch. The Two Ronnies, if they were able to return to Broadstairs today, would find Harrington’s little altered and just as quirky.