May 11, 2004

In This Issue of The Acid Staining Newsletter

The Role of Serendipity in Business

If you have seen my video and read my writing, you will know by now that I was a so-called “fine artist” for over twenty years before becoming fed up with the art world and throwing in the sponge. This does not mean that all my paintings were truly “fine art,” but I worked hard at it, invented a number of texturing techniques, and took classes frequently to learn everything from color theory to printmaking. My knowledge was continually growing in inverse proportion to my bank account.

I got into the acid-stain business by way of wall painting (faux finishes). The first month in business, I was asked to paint the concrete floors of a restaurant to give the appearance of real marble. So, I went to a concrete supplies store--just to ask them what kind of acid I should use to etch the floors so that the paint would adhere well. The clerk at the store said “Well, you could paint the floor, but have you heard about these new acid stains which chemically etch color right into the concrete and make it look like real stone?” I had never heard of such a thing, but took home some well-written Scofield tech-data sheets and read them over several times, becoming increasingly excited by the descriptions. Just hearing about acid stain was my first bit of luck.

My next door neighbor was a paper-making artist and former librarian. She had some time to spare and was intrigued by the idea of working in construction. She agreed to work for a reasonable hourly wage, if I would bear the overall risk. We began to experiment with acid stain samples behind the bar of the restaurant. We all thought the stain effects looked great, so Sam, the owner, took a chance and offered us our very first staining job.

Late that night I got an alarming call from him. The stain was supposed to penetrate the slab to a depth of 1/8th of an inch, but he had taken a house key from his pocket and scratched our stain sample right off, he said. He was starting to have second thoughts about acid staining. I told him I’d like to see it with my own eyes and drove over there the next day. (We had not yet put sealer on our stain samples). Sam showed me his key scratches and I noticed that he was using an aluminum key. Perhaps the gray marks were not the concrete showing through, but a deposit left by the key? I scrubbed the scratches with a wet sponge and they became brown again. “Okay, you can have the job,” he said, abashed. Whew! Lucky break #2.

I had no idea how to bid for a job I had never yet done, but my brother, who had for years been trying to get his reckless sister to go into a more stable business than art, just happened to have a management consulting firm. He suggested that I estimate all my materials costs, tool rentals, and probable labor costs, total them and then multiply this figure by 1.2, which would give me a 20% “error factor,” since most beginners underestimate their jobs by at least 20%. I followed his instructions and added an “error factor.” Lucky break #3. We actually made a little money on this job.

The restaurant owners were five guys in partnership, and several of them had years of experience in the building trades. They were renovating a large, dark space which had once been a smoky pizza hangout, and doing most of the work themselves at night. This meant that my friend, Judy, and I could work on the floors after our day jobs.

Since the restaurant was being refurbished in sections, the job took three or four months. We got to be friends with all the owners by the time it was over, even though I ruined one of the kitchen pipes by pouring leftover concrete patch down the drain! The guys had a good sense of humor and probably gave us extra slack for being female and bringing cookies to the jobsite now and then, so they just razzed me a lot and installed a new pipe.

When the restaurant finally opened, the fact that the owners knew us well and had funny stories to tell, led to many conversations with contractors who dropped by for a beer after work and asked about the well-waxed floors. The town where this bar was located was named “the fastest growing small town in the U.S.A.” that year, since an Intel chip plant had recently been completed, leading to an enormous building boom. Our bar was the only place in town which served imported beer on tap, so loads of builders dropped in after work, saw our floors, and asked for our business card. Lucky breaks #4 and #5 - now I’m starting to lose count.

We had chosen a nice design for the floors, which I lifted from a Renaissance painting of a church interior, found in an old volume from art history class. Judy and I experimented with various brands of masking tape until we found one which could make nice borderlines between colors. We had no idea that saw cutting tools existed for concrete, so we executed the layout with snapped chalk lines and masking tape. Fortunately, the slab was smooth enough that we had no problem with stain bleeding under the tape, as it might have on a roughly troweled slab. It did not occur to us to stick to one color within the lines, since we wanted a marbled look. We blithely began pouring several colors of stain next to each other and blending them at the edges, just as if we were painting with watercolors.

We stained large areas with Dark Walnut and did the Antique Amber borders later. Then we discovered that in all the places where the Dark Walnut had run beyond our 2” wide tape line, the lighter color we were applying miraculously bleached out our Dark Walnut stain mistakes. This is the only case I have ever found in which one stain color can erase another, and we happened to choose these two colors for our very first job and to use them in that order. Weird lucky break numbers 6 and 7!

Good fortune begins to pile up on some jobs, just as bad luck does on others. Of course I realize that “readiness is all,” and that in many respects a person can help create the conditions for what is called “good luck.” But now, after ten years in the business, I know of so many catastrophes which might have happened to two naive artists who had never even seen a stained floor that I can’t help but think we were astoundingly blessed.

If I’d had any sense at all I would have practiced first on some friend’s living room, instead of tackling one of the most public places in town, but sometimes sheer desperation combines with beginner’s luck and you can leap over any hurdle. That first job, on O’Hare’s Grille and Pub, led to all the others and so a business was born.

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