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Farrow and Ball Paint – Any Good?

Farrow and Ball is a very popular and successful paint brand and, it seems, loved by interior designers and home owners alike. But speak to professional decorators and there will probably be as many (or more) that will give it the thumbs down as there are that will be complimentary about it.  So why is that?

Firstly, I should point out that I’m not a professional decorator but rather a very competent amateur who has done a great deal of interior work, including assisting my contractors on commercial projects on a number of occasions (I run an office fit-out business) so I’m sure that for every negative thing I might say in this article there will be others (professionals and/or very experienced amateurs) who will disagree and point to the fact that they’ve never had the same issues or that I didn’t follow the manufacturers guidance properly. But then I consider this to be very relevant to this article simply because Farrow and Ball is marketed at, purchased by and probably applied by far more homeowner do-it-yourselfers than professionals, so the suitability for use and application by the inexperienced must be an important consideration.

Secondly, I need to say that any comparisons I make will be with brands that I’ve used extensively in the past such as but not exclusively Dulux and Johnstone’s (in both cases the Trade versions) but it is worth noting that there are a number of other brands that compete far more closely with Farrow and Ball and some with apparently a very good reputation – the likes of Little Greene and the Paint & Paper Library come to mind – but as I haven’t used these I’m unable to give an opinion.

So, onto my experience!   We bought a large and slightly dilapidated house and I set about stripping it back to the bare shell and re-building it – partly myself and partly with the help of professionals.  When it came to decorating, our interior designer specified Farrow and Ball – everywhere, walls, doors and even the kitchen cabinets.

There were three things I already knew about Farrow and Ball (from hereon I will refer to Farrow and Ball as F&B). Firstly it’s rather expensive and secondly, although the Estate Emulsion has a fabulous appearance, it is very delicate and apparently (I had heard) quite difficult to apply.  On both accounts I wasn’t sure it was the right choice for us.  The interior designer specified F&B for its unique colour range and its texture and I wanted to see if we could find a lower cost, more durable alternative that would satisfy both her and my wife who was also quite keen on the idea of F&B.

My understanding (wrongly as it turned out) was that Dulux and Johnstone’s can colour match, so I purchased a sample pot of each of the 4 colours we were going to use from each of the 3 brands. Although the Dulux and Johnstone’s were very similar, they weren’t the same on a side by side comparison and the designer and my wife both preferred the F&B colour in each case, so the decision was made!

F&B say their colours are unique and that’s one of the reasons for buying their paint. Judging by my very limited experiment,  at least for the 4 colours we compared, it appears that they are correct on this matter of uniqueness and I have to conclude that if you want specifically an F&B colour and a near match won’t do, then you have no choice but to buy F&B – and it will cost you considerably more than most other paints. 

Estate emulsion versus Modern Emulsion

The next point I made was about durability and I’m referring mainly to emulsions for walls rather than wood paints (more about those later).  The thing about F&B is that they are known, and liked by many, not only for the unique colour range but also the texture. Their main range is called Estate and has a very traditional chalky matt appearance. I agree, it looks absolutely fabulous but it comes at a cost – it’s very delicate and prone to damage and marking and once it is marked (whether by finger prints or dirt/spillage) there seems to be no way of bringing it back to its original uniform appearance – it can’t be wiped down as that makes it look even worse – so the only real solution is to decorate the entire wall (or section) again.  The darker the colour, the more the marks show up (more about this later).

I knew that this wasn’t going to be suitable for many areas in our house, in particular the staircase, hall and landing, so for these areas, and many others, we went for Farrow and Balls ‘Modern‘ range which I knew about simply because on a couple of occasions my decorators had used it for office projects.  Modern is a much more durable paint than Estate and it is also wipe-able so you can use it in bathrooms, but although the range of colours are the same, it most definitely doesn’t have the flat matt chalky appearance of Estate, but instead a bit of a sheen. In fact, as we discovered, the darker the colour, the more noticeable the level of sheen seems to become. To conclude just on this point, relatively durable it has proven to be (after 12 months since decorating), but I’m disappointed in the appearance of our entire hall, staircase and 1st floor landing which was all decorated in Modern DeNimes colour and just doesn’t have that wow-appearance we wanted. Light from windows and lights catches it and it just doesn’t do it for me!  I feel we’d have been better off using a standard Dulux vinyl matt paint, or better still their Diamond range which, although also has a bit of a sheen to it but in my opinion less so, is also considerably cheaper. By contrast, most other rooms were painted in Modern School House White (a very pleasant slightly off-white colour) and in general it looks pretty good and most certainly seems to have a lot less sheen.  Interestingly, we did paint certain areas in Estate (rather than Modern) School House White and it’s actually quite hard to spot the difference under normal lighting conditions, even where we have Estate and Modern adjacent to one another.  That’s appearance, mind you, and plenty of marks, scuffs and dents have appeared in the Estate that are not apparent with the Modern.

Our bathrooms are all decorated in Modern School House white, and again, it has stood up very well and is most definitely wipeable and resistant to condensation and splashes.

Ease of Application & Coverage: Both the Estate and Modern emulsions were easy to apply and went on smoothly and evenly, although I did have a few issues which are mentioned later. I didn’t experience ‘picture framing’, a complaint that I’ve heard many times about Estate Emulsion and which apparently makes it more difficult to use because you have to be very quick with your work. Picture framing is the effect caused by the paint you ‘cut-in’ around the top and sides of walls drying so quickly that its already dry before you are able to paint the central/main part and blend in the two. The result is that you end up with a visible ‘frame’ around the edges of the wall, but as said earlier, I didn’t suffer from this, even with the darker colours of Estate (and we used one particularly bold & dark colour) so I had absolutely no issues whatsoever with ease of application or appearance.

These were the good points, but with these come a very major negative.    The main and serious gripe I have is that litre-for-litre,  not only is this paint far more expensive than most, but it also gave me less coverage than I was expecting so I ended up buying quite a lot more than I’d anticipated.  To help explain this, very broadly speaking, you get 2 different types of paint, one type aimed at the occasional DIYer (retail/consumer paint) and the other for professionals (trade paint). Ignoring the really cheap own-brand budget paints from DIY stores (the sort you pick up for £10 or less for a 10 litre tub) and focussing on the quality brands, the Retail paint is often thick and gloopy (a bit like blancmange) and is such so that it’s easy for the the inexperienced decorator to load it up onto a roller and apply it without too much dripping off.  The Trade paints tend to be thinner (although they generally still give more coverage than the consumer paints), and can be applied direct from the tin or mixed with water to thin them down and make them go further and allow a smoother, more even application (a lot of professionals will add water to their trade paints for this reason).  What I found with the Farrow and Ball emulsion is that it is extremely runny/watery compared to others and from its appearance and consistency when you open the tin you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an eggshell or gloss wood paint. In fact, and more about this later, the F&B emulsion looks exactly the same as you’re pouring it out of the tin as their eggshell, and given the fact that all their tins are identical apart from the small sticker telling you what is inside, it is very easy to make a mistake and start putting eggshell onto a wall instead of the intended emulsion – as I did on more than one occasion!  So why does this matter?  Well its simply that in general, I used a lot more paint than I would have done had I have used, for example, Dulux trade.  You would normally expect two top coats to be sufficient, and at times I was achieving this, but only by applying the paint more thickly than I’d want, and sometimes I had to apply 3 coats – either way, using more paint.

Finally, on the issue of application and cost, there was one other consideration to factor in.  A few weeks after decorating, I found that in certain places small areas of the Estate Emulsion peeling off the wall. Furthermore, wherever I have subsequently used masking tape on both the Estate and Modern, a fair amount of paint came off on the back of the tape when it was removed. I was using the expensive low tack tape for delicate surfaces from 2 major brands – Frogtape (yellow) and Tesa (pink) – and I was using them in the correct way and only leaving them on for a matter of minutes or hours rather than days. Although I have experienced this before with other paints, it has been rare and certainly not as extensive as I found with the F&B paint. As far as I’m concerned, we did everything correctly with regard to the preparation of the walls. They were all newly skim plastered walls and had been left to cure in dry ventilated conditions at least 3 months before decorating began. I prepped the walls in the way you would normally do so with newly plastered walls, and that is by doing one or more mist coats of diluted non-vinyl emulsion and for this I used mainly Brewers Contract Matt and to a lesser extend Leyland Trade Contract Matt. In general, I did a first coat of highly diluted paint (very watery) followed by a less diluted but still quite runny coat.  In each case, at least 24 hours was allowed between these coats.  For reference, it is absolutely imperative to apply a watery ‘mist coat’ to new plaster and that’s because you need to create a surface that the top coats/finish coats can stick to. Without going through this process, the finish coats will just sit on top of the plaster and are likely to bubble or peel off over time.  You should never use vinyl paint for the mist coat, I’m not entirely sure of the science behind this but I believe the vinyl prevents the paint from penetrating the plaster efficiently and therefore using it is no better than not doing a mist coat at all!  So, most Dulux paints wouldn’t be suitable because they’re primarily vinyl based, although you could, hypothetically use watered down F&B paint but it would be a very expensive way of achieving the result as a contract matt will be a fraction of the price.

So, maybe I did something wrong, or maybe there was a bit of dust on the walls I didn’t clean off properly before decorating,  and maybe this would have happened anyway even with a different brand of paint, but I don’t think so. More likely, if I were to complain to F&B, I would probably be told that I didn’t follow their procedures, which is that you should use their very expensive primer/undercoat before decorating with any of their paints – yes, they have a dedicated undercoat primer for walls and ceilings, and another one for wood etc.  I have read and heard on a number of occasions that F&B is intolerant to other brands (and methods) of primers and undercoats and that if you don’t use their own brand you risk unsatisfactory results.  But to have done so, the cost of the project would have rocketed even more and I decided therefore to take the risk of not doing so.

Farrow and Ball Eggshell

I got through a great amount of eggshell which was used for all doors, architraves, skirting boards, cupboards and kitchen cabinets. Much of this was MDF, some of which was pre-primed but most of which I had to prime myself.

Initially, the kitchen cabinet frontages were my main concern – there were a lot of them and we had bought ‘paintable’ cabinets from Howdens. Howdens’ blurb said that these were supplied already primed and ready for painting (top coats). They recommended using oil based paint rather than water based/acrylic to give a harder wearing finish and that application should be by brush. When buying them I hadn’t looked too closely and expected these to be a wood finish (either straight MDF or a thin wood veneer, but in fact they were an MDF core wrapped in a sort of plastic/melamine like material. After my initial panic that this was going to be disastrous, I bought a tin of F&B Estate Eggshell in our preferred colour of Stiffkey Blue (which of course is a water based paint as they don’t do oil based), and set about experimenting on a couple small doors with a brush and a roller to see which would give the best result. My worst fear – both were a disaster.  The paint took days to completely dry to touch (to the point that if you apply pressure you won’t leave finger prints within the paintwork) and never (not at least within a reasonable timescale) to be able to lightly sand between coats, so the appearance was terrible.  I initially thought the problem was the surface I was painting onto, so I started again, this time priming the surface with some F&B wood primer I had left over from a commercial office job, but still got the same results. Finally, I tried it on some off-cuts of veneered plywood, using both F&B primer and Zinsser Bulls-Eye 123 (my favourite all rounder) as the base but the Eggshell still it remained tacky for days on end. Whilst looking over F&Bs price list it suddenly occurred to me I’d been using their Estate Eggshell and that they also do a Modern version.  I had no other option but to try, so I purchased a tin of this and what a difference!  Appearance wise it looks the same. The colour is identical, but it dries quickly and went straight onto the Howdens cabinets without a problem and without a primer.  I later learned that this used to be F&B’s hard wearing floor paint which they later re-branded ‘Modern’.

Water based paints are the future, no question, and many manufacturers, including F&B,  have stopped making oil based paints completely.  But no matter what the manufacturers say, and I think many professionals will agree with me on this, it is still a lot easier to get a really good finish with an oil based paint. It can still be done, but a different technique required and its more difficult with water based which I learned the hard way. So if anyone reading this needs a little advice, the trick is to apply it (water based/acrylic paint) a bit more thickly and only do a few brush strokes (i.e. don’t over-brush and keep going over and over it like you would with an oil based paint) because the acrylic paint will start to dry within seconds whilst you are brushing (or rolling) it on and it the moment it starts to harden you need to stop brushing otherwise the brush stroke marks will become very visible. Furthermore, it is handy to have a water spray dispenser to hand and just squirt a very thin mist of water onto the surface you are painting which will help the paint to flow/run-out a bit more easily.  This aside, going back to the subject of my kitchen cabinets, I still couldn’t get the really smooth finish I wanted, and this was nothing to do with the paint but simply because the doors were tricky to paint, so in the end I decided to spray them instead.  Using a HPLV paint sprayer, I sprayed all of the kitchen cabinets and associated pieces of cornice and bespoke MDF infill panels we cut to size ourselves, and the results were really fantastic. I continued the paint-spraying beyond the kitchen to include bespoke bookcases & TV cabinets and bespoke hallway coat cupboards, all of which we had made from MDF. I also sprayed most of the doors which we had made from wood veneered plywood fire-door blanks and a couple of existing bedroom wardrobes, all of which we primed with Zinsser Bulls Eye 123.  The results in all cases were excellent.

The only woodwork I hand painted with a roller and/or and brush, we the occasional door, the skirting boards and the architraves and I’m pleased to report that the Modern Eggshell came up trumps here too.  More than a year on, it has proven to be very hard wearing.  Even the kitchen cabinets have stood up far, far better than I had expected. I really thought that by now I would be having to respray some bits and touch up others, but that’s not been the case.

And one last thing.  We painted all the ceilings with Dulux Vinyl Matt emulsion to save money (because white is white) and they look great as expected, but we also painted all the window sills in Dulux Satinwood (again to save money because these were to be the only pure white surfaces we were going to decorate and I felt it would not make any difference – appearance wise – whether we used Dulux or F&B). As it turned out, the Dulux satinwood was much more difficult to apply and get a smooth finish than the F&B.  It was thicker and stickier on application and needed to be watered down (either by mixing water into the paint or by spraying a mist onto the surface whilst painting – or both)  in order to get it flowing better. Get the right mix of water and it was more like the F&B so you could argue again that F&B coverage isn’t so good because their paint is already more runny out of the tin. For a professional, working on the consistency of paint by adding water to get it just right is probably not a big deal, but for the amateur, I have to say that F&B have probably got theirs pretty much right – even if it is considerably more expensive!

Conclusion/Summary

Setting aside the issue of cost, all in all I have far more positive things to say about Farrow and Ball paint than negative.

  1. Cost: Expect to pay far more for F&B than most other paints. A litre of this paint not only costs considerably more than a litre of most other (quality) paints, but in my experience the coverage isn’t quite as good so I ended up using a greater volume than anticipated.
  2. Eggshell: Avoid Estate Eggshell and use Modern Eggshell instead. There’s only a little difference in cost and the Modern is far superior – its harder wearing and it’s much, much easier to work with and get a good finish.  Side-by-side the colour looks identical. I don’t understand why they bother to continue to offer the Estate version.  As far as water based paints go, Modern Eggshell is easy to apply and gives a nice finish whether being applied by brush, roller or spray gun. It has proven to be very hard wearing in my house – apparently this used to be F&B’s hard wearing floor paint which they later re-branded as a general wood paint.
  3. Emulsion: Both Estate and Modern are easy to apply and go onto walls nice and smoothly. They also dry quickly.  The smell of Modern in he tin is slightly odd but not necessarily unpleasant and is fine once on the walls.  Modern is great for bathrooms and high traffic areas, but has quite a sheen to it which is far more noticeable with the darker colours than the lighter ones, so it won’t be everyone’s taste and certainly doesn’t give that classic appearance that Farrow and Ball is known for (the chalky-matt finish). Furthermore, the sheen shows up discrepancies within the paint work and any unevenness of the walls that the matt appearance of Estate is likely to hide better. Estate, on the other hand, looks fab but is rather delicate to the touch so for any higher traffic area that’s likely to get brushed past, scuffed or knocked it will  probably look absolutely dreadful in a fairly short space of time and be in need of a re-paint.  Shame F&B don’t have a paint that is somewhere in between the two.
  4. Colours: If its specifically the F&B colours that attract you and you want an exact colour, then buy F&B and forget colour matches from lower cost brands – in my experience they don’t look the same.
  5. Texture & Colour combination: Although not mentioned in the main body of my article, bear in mind that the the F&B sample pots are only available in Estate Emulsion. You can not buy a small cheap sample pot for Modern Emulsion, nor Estate or Modern Eggshell or Gloss. So don’t make the mistake of judging by the appearance and colour from an Estate Emulsion sample pot when you’re intending to use Modern Emulsion or an Eggshell/Gloss. Not only is the texture of Estate different, it will also give a slightly different colour appearance due to the less reflective matt finish. Also, the colours will appear different (sometimes quite considerably so) dependent on the lighting conditions in the room. And, if you are intending to use Modern Emulsion, then buy the smallest pot you can and test it out so to be sure its what you’re after (I think this is a 750ml tin which will cost a fair few quid but its better that way than spending £100s or £1000s on something you find you don’t like).

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