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Farrow and Ball paint

1/8/12-update: This update on Farrow and Ball paint explains a couple of ongoing issues. The second part of the article was originally written in June 2010.

None of this criticism of Farrow and Ball eggshell paint in particular, is in my commercial interest. Quite the opposite. If I drank the marketing kool-aid and threw myself into Farrow and Ball mode and advertised that Estate eggshell is the greatest paint for your kitchen and furniture, I would generate a LOT more enquiries for work. However, on new work, fine, but it still isn’t a proven product with reliable tech support for those of us refurbishing kitchens and renovating furniture with a hand-painted finish.

Many expert decorators including the specialist kitchen painters associated with Traditional Painter have used F&B estate eggshell over the past 2 years. Plenty of good feedback, and I agree, you can achieve a lovely finish, and it does dry hard, BUT, I am still to be convinced that this paint works reliably enough on problem surfaces.

On new timber, or on previously painted surfaces with no stains, knots or flaking issues, you will probably be very happy with one or two coats of F&B primer and 2 coats of F&B estate eggshell.

The new Estate eggshell is a superb paint to apply and is a little bit sheeny shinier than traditional eggshell, but still, it is possible to achieve a wow factor finish. However, you may be ruing the day you ever got involved, where the surface needs preparation beyond a good sanding. If you do the right thing and use a tried-and-tested problem-solving primer, you may hit an issue with drying. The key word is MAY.

Problem-solving primer-undercoats are essential when treating stained, knotty and flaky surfaces before painting. Many industry-leading products mentioned on this site are proven problem-solvers, some have been around for decades before F&B estate eggshell ever appeared on the scene. No single primer is ideal for every scenario.

Not surprisingly, F&B will only recommend their own primer basecoat as a base for their eggshell. That is all well and good. (Dulux are the same. Their tech support for instance, wouldn’t recommend a Zinsser primer, even though it is recognised within their circles as an industry-leading performer.) However, since adopting their new formula waterborne paint system, F&B have dumped two potential problems on the end-users’ laps, two problems, still unresolved.

1 – F&B Estate eggshell has a drying problem when applied over some 3rd party primers. (This may have been solved, but if you seen any slow drying issues in 2014 though, it would indicate it is still ongoing.)

Zinsser BIN, Coverstain, Bullseye 1-2-3, Blackfriars Problem Solving Primer, Mythic Multi Purpose Primer have been designed to accept ALL water based or oil based paints.

(Running through a mental list of eggshell paint brands, I can’t think of any where I would think – if I paint brand xyz eggshell over any one of the above high performance primers, I may get in trouble. They just work – at least they dry quick and can be overpainted with eggshell that will dry as expected.)

But after applying F&B eggshell over a non-F&B primer or basecoat, you may still have a tacky finish 36 hours later! This makes sanding down problematic, makes door-stacking hazardous, door-sticking likely, and although inconvenient for all, it is particularly unhelpful (and costly) to a professional decorator who will be working to a schedule, expecting the advantages of quick drying, only to find the drying time is even longer than oil paint.

2 – F&B primer may be good, but it is not Tikurilak Otex, Mathys Pegaprim, Zinsser BIN, Coverstain, Bullseye 1-2-3+, Blackfriars Problem Solving Primer, Mythic Multi Purpose Primer, Sikkens or factory high build primers all rolled into one. Each of those primers has its use. Not forgetting some are pungent and not user- or homeowner-friendly, none are the ideal product for every single scenario. So unless you believe that F&B have trumped the whole paint world with a one-primer-solves-all problems, if you follow their spec of F&B basecoat plus topcoat, you run the risk of not properly solving the problem surface.

How to ensure reliable performance with F&B eggshell?

The obvious answer to bombproof preparation and no incompatibility issues between F&B eggshell and basecoats is to solve surface problems with 3rd party products, then apply F&B primer before applying the estate eggshell!

I think it is outrageous by the way – the cost of extra paint and the extra labour, maybe not much to worry about for a couple of door frames and a window, but across a whole kitchen refurbishment, that isa big ask!

But not as outrageous as the extra cost of receiving a new luxury kitchen from a workshop, beautifully spray primed dead flat ready for hand-painted eggshell topcoats – only to have to specify that, if you are to follow the F&B spec to the letter, the painter has to apply a further F&B primer-basecoat over that beautiful primed surface, before finishing with F&B estate eggshell.

Options to convince me that Farrow and Ball Estate eggshell is reliable

F&B need to specify alternative problem-solving primers to their own brand, (never going to happen)


F&B need to eradicate the compatibility problems between F&B estate eggshell and myriad residential and commercial premium primers, (ie nail once and for all the issues related to ridiculously extended drying times)

Do this, bring F&B eggshell into line with I don’t know how many other eggshells currently on the market , and I will gladly eat every critical word of this and the original article below.

Every product has its quirks, but how many hoops do folks have to jump through, to use a paint, really? Especially a product aimed at home users.

Further discussion about Farrow and Ball paint

And if you aren’t sure what I mean about drying issues, here are two threads on our little forum covering this issue, one towards the end of 2011 closed because nobody was talking about drying problems, and one re-opened recently because the self-same non-drying issue resurfaced. Remember, these are discussions between specialist kitchen painters and decorating specialists with more than a passing understanding of how things work, so if they are experiencing the famed “user error” it makes me wonder how some DIY are getting on.

I am happy to learn some more paint science, so if there are any paint chemists who think there is an obvious reason why Farrow and Ball’s “alkyd-based waterborne eggshell” won’t perform reliably over certain proven primers, please let us know. I have also asked F&B nicely, several times, to let us know where we stand with drying and primers, but the promised phone call reviewing their outside-the-lab test results never came.

Original article about farrow and Ball paint

Over the years, I have decorated a lot of period properties, listed buildings and all manner of residences where clients have requested Farrow and Ball paints. Mainly, because I think Farrow and Ball are dominating the marketing race for traditional colours and the flatter, matter finishes on walls and woodwork.

However, Farrow and Ball are one of three leading brands of traditional paints for plaster, metal and woodwork, and times are a-changing.

For years I favoured Farrow and Ball above their 2 main competitors, Little Greene Paint Company and Paint and Paper Library. All three companies offer a similar heritage colour range and their paints all share a similar traditional flatter look that sets them apart from Dulux or Crown (modern) paints. But…

… please note that as of June 2010, I stopped specifying Farrow and Ball eggshell and emulsion paints as my first choice for traditional finishes on walls, ceilings, trim, kitchen units and furniture.

The whole Farrow and Ball oil based paint range has been discontinued and is now a hybrid water-borne formula. I’m not saying that F&B water-borne eggshell is rubbish, because, if applied correctly on the right surface, in the right situation, it can look good and should be durable… but at this time, F&B water-borne paint specifications fall short of what myself and many other top painters and joinery manufacturers have come to expect from our paint on hand-made kitchens and furniture.

I am not picking on F&B specifically for going eco, that is fine by me, but my beef is that F&B insist that their water-borne primer-undercoats and top coats enable us to get the same level of finish as their old oil paint. Sorry, but in practical terms, that just is not true.

I am yet to see any water-based eggshell that can match the aesthetics of a traditional oil-based eggshell finish on wood, so in that respect, F&B are in the same boat as the rest of the paint world, trying to get around the plasticy sheen, the lack of body and questionable sandability inherent in non oil-based paint. Oil paint fills grain, it dries reliably under “normal” conditions, and you can sand each layer of oil paint to a hard base – it just works. (the day that water based paint ticks all the boxes is fast approaching!) Farrow and ball Estate eggshell is nowhere near that point yet, but they won’t admit it. The “look” is a moot point. The finish is not the same as the former oil based eggshell, it is sheenier, so aesthetically it is more like a modern oil based eggshell. It doesn’t have the body of oil, for sure, but get the preparation right and no reason not to get a full finish.

Maintaining standards is hard when paint works against you

If you want a high class finish you need good preparation and basecoats. You don’t want to be straight-jacketed by sub-standard primer-undercoat paint. And Farrow and Ball seem to be forcing users along a road to lesser quality by insisting on using their primer basecoat, which wouldn’t compete with say Zinsser Coverstain for body and sandability.

The best finishes in water-based eggshell are achieved either using oil-based primer coats (See Jack Pauhl US master painter on how to paint bare poplar / tulipwood.) or with a LOT of preparation. A tough oil primer like Zinsser Cover Stain gives skinny water-based finishes a better foundation than water-borne primer. (I can achieve a fabulous finish using just water-based products, but the process is far from effortless, and requires a lot more than 3 or 4 layers of paint.

In my experience, after all that preparation, I wouldn’t hesitate, or expect any trouble painting over the best trade primers with any decent oil or water-based paint, but if you use the best primers, Farrow and Ball insist that you still apply an extra coat of F&B primer over your lovely base – for no reason other than F&B won’t stand by their finish paint unless you do so. That’s not right, nor helpful.

You could say, just use Farrow and Ball primer-undercoat and forget the Zinssers and other high performance primers, but that just doesn’t wash in the real world. If you have to deal with problem surfaces (knots, flaking paint etc) you want a bombproof primer. Farrow and Ball don’t offer that. (Aluminium wood primer is reliable but olde worlde, and has been superceded by white sealers that sand super tough and smooth!) Or if your kitchen or fitted furniture comes pre-primed, do joinery shops have to avoid using certain industrial grade primers, just in case they don’t play well with Farrow and Ball paint? This is the tail wagging the dog!

Farrow and Ball don’t have a monopoly on traditional paint

F&B marketing is amazing and you would be forgiven for thinking they are the only traditional team in town. Fans of traditional paint are (rightly) in love with the colours that Farrow and Ball have adopted as their own. Many customers start the conversation by saying they want F&B Clunch or F&B Hardwicke White, and assume they have to use Farrow and Ball paint to get that traditional colour and look. That is not so!

Obviously paint companies cannot sell paint labelled “Farrow and Ball Hardwicke White” but colourists have been mixing and matching paint to other materials and colours since Stone Age times. Any paint merchant worth its salt has specialist colour mixers or Magic Eye to analyse and match their paint to anything in existence. (See the reference to Holmans and others towards the end of this post on free colour cards)

I believe in selecting the best paint for the job and wouldn’t dream of compromising my material choice because a colour has been picked from a swatch from XYZ paint company. ie If you want “Hardwicke White” in a traditional low sheen eggshell finish, I will get you that exact colour and sheen mixed in the best paint I know for the job in hand.

For traditional oil paint finishes, currently (and for a long time now), Little Greene leads the way (including their stable mates Paint and Paper Library & Sandersons.) So, when Farrow and Ball fans ask me to hand-paint a kitchen I’d specify trade quality Little Greene paint mixed and matched by an independent merchant. This is a list of other paints used and recommended by the kitchen painters here for differing situations.

Marketing shouldn’t get in the way of a good specification! You can get the lovely look with Farrow and Ball, but boy, do you have to jump through hoops, with extra coats and frankly, abysmal and aloof tech support when things go wrong, which, judging by my inbox and phonecalls, happens a lot. I don’t think that is an acceptable trade-off, especially when there is a better option.

Little Greene has been in business since the 1700’s, and their chemists are pretty clued up on what trade users expect from traditional paint. They have a stunning range of their own authentic English Heritage colours, plus mid, light and dark versions of many favourites – plus supplementary colours and a fabulous “flying” colour card.

Simply, the overall package from Little Greene gives you everything you are now getting from F&B – and then some. And as long as that continues, I am more than happy to support a company that may not have the profile and marketing clout of Farrow and Ball, but they certainly know their paint. (Their group also manufacture Fired Earth, Paint Library and Sandersons lines…)

We have a growing library of info on paint and traditional furniture painting and hand-painted kitchens over on the Traditional Painter forum, if you would like to delve deeper!

GS Decorating have written a superb overview of Farrow and Ball paint, giving their thoughts on the good, the bad and the indifferent.

The full story »

The reason for this change to Little Greene Paint Company eggshell/satin finish is due to an unbelievable policy change by Farrow and Ball.

(2010) In recent months, F&B have completely changed their recipes and no longer produce oil-based paint for woodwork or metal. They have abandoned oil paint for an alkyd suspended in water (hybrid water-based) paint, in the name of environmental friendliness. This move is completely misguided for a niche traditional paint manufacturer, in my view. I don’t feel I am being unreasonably stick-in-the-mud with this opinion, seeing as their two main competitors have worked hard to make their oil-based eggshell more eco environmentally friendly, without sacrificing the many qualities of traditional oil paint.

Little Greene Paint Company oil-based paints are loaded with colourant, they have good body, they sand well, and the finishes are all practical without the high sheen of modern paints. By today’s standards, traditional heritage colour ranges (including Farrow and Ball’s) are fairly limited, but there is a fabulous choice at the lighter, “whites” end of the spectrum, where neutrals are actually quite strong. Anyone with an eye for colour can create beautiful schemes blending the neutrals with mid and strong colours.

In this modern age, I still find that matt traditional paint finishes offer us that certain something special. I will not slam Farrow and Ball emulsion wall paint, (apart from the minor detail that the full spec for their emulsion is 1 x basecoat, plus 2 x emulsion) but for hand-painted wooden kitchens and furniture, I am happy to continue vaunting an age old decorating tradition with oil eggshell from the Little Greene Paint Company.

Traditional paint v Dulux and co satinwoods. »

The traditional look made so popular by Farrow and Ball is very different from the ultra modern plastic appearance of Dulux, Crown and co satinwoods. I cannot criticize the quality of modern manufacturers’ paint, but in my opinion, the brilliant finishes are too brilliant, and don’t age as gracefully as traditional paints. 

Do all traditional emulsions mark easily? »

Critics say that emulsion paint from the likes of Farrow & Ball aren’t as durable as the modern (Dulux / UK trade type emulsions). This is true if you are comparing the F&B Estate which is a very matt flat emulsion (1-3% sheen) with Dulux vinyl matt emulsion (7% sheen) on walls in high traffic areas. But for the most part, the vast majority of UK made low sheen emulsions (trade or retail) are not durable.

You will find that companies on both sides of the modern / traditional or trade / retail fence produce emulsion with differing sheen levels, and differing levels of durability. And retail, boutique, designer low sheen emulsion, does not mean inferior paint to that made by the recognised UK trade.

For instance, Farrow and Ball Modern Emulsion has a 7% sheen as does Dulux Vinyl Matt and they both perform similarly when it comes to marks and cleaning. And vice versa, Dulux are making chalky period emulsion with a similar sheen to Farrow and Ball Estate emulsion, and Leyland are modern paint manufacturers but they produce the flattest chalkiest emulsion on the market – and none of them are wipeable much!

What is becoming clearer by the day is that Dulux brand leader paint doesn’t somehow make Dulux super matt paint noticeably more “practical” than any other company’s super matt flat paint – just because it is Dulux.

In fact, we are seeing a stable of low sheen paints from Scandinavia, Europe and USA which defy the market perception, and are flat and scrubbable. (Mythic acrylic flat paint, Tikkurila Joker)

One lower sheen UK emulsion paint that does seem to tick the boxes for being “traditional flat” and tough is Little Greene Intelligent Matt. Originally known as Ultimatt, it is quite the paint. High acrylic content, stunning depth of colour and tough enough for exterior use.

Comparing paint on a like-for-like basis isn’t easy, however there is growing evidence from professional users, that UK brands are lagging, Continental brands are providing flat and tough wall paint, and the UK’s Little Greene really are producing high quality wall paint. There is growing evidence from feedback on this site and from around our network that customers are seeing through the price and enjoying the value and reliability of premium acrylic paint with a traditional look. Thank goodness.

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Traditional Painter is an invitation-only, nationwide network of independent businesses, with years of professional experience. Every member of our team guarantees a showroom-quality, hand painted finish for your kitchen, with exceptional customer service at every stage.

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