Painters and Decorators - What They Do

Painters and decorators apply paint, wallpaper and other finishes to interior and exterior surfaces of buildings and other structures. They are employed by construction companies, painting contractors and building maintenance contractors, or they may be self-employed.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Read specifications to determine quantities of materials required
  • Prepare and clean surfaces using methods such as scraping, sanding, sandblasting, hydro-blasting and steam-cleaning; remove old wallpaper and loose paint; repair cracks and holes in walls; and sandpaper and apply sealer
  • Mix and thin paint to obtain desired colour and texture
  • Apply paint or other materials, such as stains, lacquer, enamel, oil, varnish, fibreglass, metal coating or fire retardant using brushes, rollers or spray equipment
  • Measure, cut and apply wallpaper or fabric to walls
  • Assemble and erect scaffolding and swing stages
  • May advise customer on selection of colour schemes and choice of wall coverings
  • May provide cost estimates to clients.

Job titles

  • painter and decorator apprentice
  • paperhanger
  • maintenance painter
  • construction painter
  • painter and decorator
  • painter
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • Completion of secondary school is usually required.
  • Completion of a three- to four-year apprenticeship program or Over three years of work experience in the trade is usually required to be eligible for trade certification.
  • Trade certification for painters and decorators is compulsory in Quebec and available, but voluntary, in all other provinces and the territories.
  • Red Seal endorsement is also available to qualified painters and decorators upon successful completion of the interprovincial Red Seal examination.

Essential Skills


  • Read notes and memos from the company detailing such things as changes in company and safety policies. (1)
  • Read labels on equipment such as spray equipment. This is especially important when troubleshooting, setting up equipment, or operating equipment for the first time and may require background knowledge from technical training or company training. (2)
  • Read paint labels to determine the type of thinner to use, square footage per gallon and opacity. They may compare one product to another to determine which one would be the best to use, for example, primer has the best adhesion. (2)
  • Read permits specifying where workers can and cannot be because of the general contractor's policies and safety regulations. (2)
  • Read MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) in order to understand the safety and personal equipment requirements when using a particular material. (3)
  • Read the instructions that come with equipment such as mask filters and products to ensure the correct filter or product is being used for the situation. These require information from MSDS sheets. (3)
  • Read Occupational Health & Safety Regulations to determine correct and safe procedures, for instance, fall protection and proper ladder use. This requires the ability to locate, skim, scan and synthesize information from several sections of the regulations. (3)
  • Read Hazard Assessments detailing all possible hazards that may be encountered and how they should be handled. This may require looking up specific MSDS information, equipment manuals and pamphlets from WCB, and then synthesizing the information. (3)
  • Read Occupational Health and Safety Regulations and safety handbooks on topics such confined space, latex allergies and chemical substances. (3)

Document use

  • Read lists of materials. (1)
  • Record lists of materials used on the job site for accurate record-keeping and future reference, for example, maintenance work. (1)
  • Complete time sheets on a weekly basis including job site, amount of time spent and may include a record of the tasks completed and the time spent on each. (2)
  • Record batch numbers, temperatures, drying times, weather conditions, humidity levels and wind direction on industrial job-sites because all of these factors affect how the coating dries. These records may be used to settle future problems. (2)
  • Use graphics and illustrations included with instructions for mask filters and other products to ensure the product has been assembled correctly. (2)
  • Read tables to determine exposure limits to different chemicals and to choose filters for a respirator. (2)
  • Refer to colour codes on blueprints to determine what coating in what colour goes on specific walls, doors, trims, ceilings, etc. On a large job, there may be 21 different materials being used. (2)
  • Refer to blueprints to determine what colour and type of covering is going to be used. This requires knowledge of blueprint symbols and numbering systems. (3)


  • Sign for materials received. (1)
  • May write a list of tasks that need to be completed and sequence them. (1)
  • Sign and complete time sheets which may include a record of the tasks completed and the length of time spent on each task. (2)


Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Measure out quantities of paints, thinners, solvents and epoxies. (1)
  • Add up hours on a time sheet to ensure everything is correct. (1)
  • Convert within the metric or Imperial system to calculate area, taking into account doors and windows, number of coats, and/or type of repeat on the wallcovering, so that the amount of material needed can be calculated. (2)
  • Use ratio to calculate the weight that can safely be taken up on a swing stage or manlift. There is a formula, but many painters are able, with experience, to accurately estimate. (3)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate the amount of paint or stain needed to complete a job. (1)
  • Estimate how long it will take to complete a task or an entire job. Complexity increases with the size of the job and the size of the crew. (2)

Oral communication

  • Talk to co-workers to determine who will complete which task, in what order and how it will be done so that work is completed efficiently with little or no downtime and no repaints. For example, if several painters are painting a number of doors the same colour in the same hallway, they will decide whether to use a brush or a roller so that all the doors will look the same. (1)
  • Ask other painters and/or the foreman questions as well as respond to questions from apprentices and coworkers about materials, preparation methods and application procedures. This could mean explaining a new procedure or why one product was chosen over another (e.g. shorter drying time, application over an oil-based product). (2)
  • On rare occasions, talk to the architect and/or client to explain what has been completed, a process or to receive a directive, for example, "This is approved. It's a go". (3)
  • May present safety information to small or large groups, depending on the size of the group, to teach safety information, how to use a new product, or a new process. (3)
  • Talk to members of other subtrades (e.g. tilesetters, glaziers, floorlayers) to determine when a task will be completed so other tasks can be co-ordinated. This may require some negotiating depending on how smoothly the work is going and if tasks are being completed on schedule. Miscommunication means work has to be redone costing a great deal of time and money. (4)


Problem Solving

  • Learn to expect the unexpected, for instance, a member of the crew doesn't show up, or the paint doesn't match exactly, and need to be able to apply background knowledge, and knowledge gained from other painters to the situation at hand. Background knowledge includes such information as knowing how different materials perform, mixing glazes, and using the colour wheel to alter colours. It also includes jargon, for instance, knowing a "fiver" is five gallons. (2)
  • Troubleshoot problems with equipment, for instance, if an air compressor "goes down" the procedure may be check the line, check the equipment, check the person using it. Often there is a list to follow and past experience helps as well. (2)
  • Figure out what to do if their respirator mask is leaking. This includes checking for a proper seal to their face, ensuring the correct filter is being used and determining if it is possible the chemical is being absorbed through exposed skin and causing the reaction. (3)
  • Figure what to do when the product doesn't perform as expected, for instance, doesn't cover properly, bubbles or cracks, or doesn't dry in the time stated. While past experience and background knowledge help to solve the problem, it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the failure because there are so many factors to consider: temperature, humidity, wind direction, application procedure, how the coating was mixed or thinned, how long the paint stirred, and even how the coating was made. (3)

Decision Making

  • Decide what to do next when a task has been completed so there is less downtime. (1)
  • Decide how to prepare the surface for painting. The decision is not easily changed and costs time and money. (2)
  • Decide whether to fix equipment, for example, a spray machine even if it is temporary in order to get the work done on time or call someone in. Wasting time on repairs means deadlines aren't met, at the same time, waiting for another machine to be sent over also increases down time. Options have to be carefully weighed and good judgement used. (2)
  • Decide whether or not the colour is a good match, making a wrong decision costs time and money. Depending on the type of job, the error may or may not be easily fixed. Complexity increases with the type of project, for example, a heritage project requires knowledge of how coatings age and how to make a coating look aged. (3)
  • Decide when a new drywall surface has been sanded and prepared properly and whether or not to notify the foreman. Once the decision has been made to begin applying the coating, any surface problems (e.g. repairs, repaints) become the painter's and not the drywaller's. (3)
  • Decide how to approach a job including surface preparation, application, and cleanup. Depending on the company and the size of the job, the painter may be responsible for all of or part of a job. Making the wrong decision increases downtime and costs to the company. (4)

Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking information was not collected for this profile.

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Painters and Decorators are given finish schedules and tasks by supervisors. The size of the company and the size of the job determine the amount and level of planning/organizing. In some companies, the supervisor/foreman is responsible for all the planning and organizing. In other companies, workers are given a finish schedule and are then responsible for determining the best order to carry out the job tasks with as little downtime as possible. For example, ensuring there is enough of a colour to complete the area or using the right surface preparation for the product being applied. Painters and Decorators plan at least a day in advance. This includes preparing for the unexpected such as bringing your own rags and sandpaper as well as some of your own tools. Work days and schedules are often revised or interrupted and the worker may or may not be able to return to a prior task. In general, tasks are ordered as follows: surface preparation, priming, final coat, and touch-ups. However, the materials used may dictate the organization of the tasks. For example, alkyd products need a longer drying time, generally overnight, while water-borne products do not.

Planning and organizing access to a work area is of prime importance. What type of staging, planks and ladders or scaffolding must be considered and may have to be requested. Consideration must also be given to whether or not another trade is finishing up in an area, or is behind schedule. Planning includes both time and safety considerations. Industrial settings require even more planning depending on where the job site is. Detailed hazard assessments including MSDSs, information about materials and chemicals which may be encountered on site, type of hearing and respiratory protection required and company policies, are part of the planning carried out by the foreman and one or two painters. Planning may be done as far in advance as one month and schedules are constantly interrupted and changed due to problems with coatings, changes in weather conditions and what the crew is actually capable of once on site. Schedule changes could mean working a 10-hour shift or changing to three shifts. Problems with meeting the projected time table affect everyone and cost the company a great deal of money. (3)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember how different products behave in different situations and how the application of one product or surface preparation affects what can be applied next and when it can be done.
  • Remember which colour or material goes on which wall or trim.
  • Remember past experiences of self and co-workers when problem solving a situation or making a decision. "We talk jobs all the time - what went wrong, what worked, why things happened the way they did."
  • Remember information from technical training about surface preparation, wood finishing, coating applications and spray systems.
  • Remembers how jobs and tasks have been organized in the past decreasing the amount of downtime and the possibility of having to do some of the work over again. For example, remembering to paint the trim on the windows after the surface preparation person has taped the windows.
  • Remember "recipes" for glazes and colour mixing.

Finding Information

  • Ask each other and the foreman and/or supervisor questions about products, application procedures and solutions to problems. (1)
  • Contact paint stores and salespersons for information about products including availability, proper selection of materials and new products on the market. Often the information is compared to the information received from another company. (2)
  • Occasionally use the Internet to research specific product information. (3)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Painters and Decorators are part of a team made up of apprentices, journeypersons, supervisors/foremen and so on. Regular toolbox meetings are held to discuss safety issues, changes in work orders and problems with materials. Painters and Decorators often work independently on a specific task, for example, surface preparation, and what one worker does affects the other workers. For instance, the team of three painters may decide which one will be responsible for which task, the order the tasks will be carried out in, and in what direction they will actually move around the room or floor. If a member of the team doesn't follow the plan, other tasks may be delayed and increase the amount of downtime.

Depending on the type, amount and level of experience, Painters and Decorators may "run a job". This may occur for the entire length of a job or part of a larger job and often depends on who has the most experience or skill in a particular area. For example, a painter with a great deal of experience in faux finishing may supervise that portion of the job, including organizing materials, order of tasks and assigning of tasks. When the faux finishing portion of the job is completed, someone else may supervise the application of wall coverings. Painters often discuss the best way to approach a job and take into account individual skills, preferences and experiences.

Continuous Learning

Painters and Decorators learn through on-the-job training and observation of co-workers. Product knowledge is kept up-to-date by talking with salespersons and reading pamphlets and other literature. Training, for example, faux finishing, can be taken through the Union Training Plan. Some Painters and Decorators use the Internet to access paint company literature. Other informal training is available.

In some provinces, Industrial training is completed after becoming a journeyperson.