One of the cheapest ways to decorate a room, a coat of paint, can make a small space seem larger, a large one cosier and provide colour therapy - but it can also prove a nightmare if badly chosen.
Concentrating on matt emulsion, we looked for inventive or authentic colours, inspiring presentation, and good coverage and finish. Colours - two in each case - were chosen by the manufacturers as popular or typical of their range.
Our panel for both tests comprised professional decorators and DIY-ers. On the professional side were Robert Farlow an interior designer and architect/decorator Charlie Marsden. Clare Wright, also an architect experienced in specifying and using paints, is the owner of a large, old house. Her daughter Amy (12), is a proficient interior decorator too. Also testing was Donald Hudd, who painted each of his last five homes, and myself, an average bodger who wants better results.
20-11M Eclat, 51-12D Spice Brown pounds 8.25 per litre
Best known for their furnishing fabrics, Sanderson benefit from their reputation as a superior brand and go out of their way to please everyone - or "everyone in Middle England", as Robert Farlow said - with their Exclusive Spectrum Paint Collection, mixed to order from 1,350 colours. The texture is quite thick, ("pretty impressive coverage" - Donald Hudd) but this could not mitigate the fact that the panel didn't really like the colours. Sending two sample colours immediately dubbed "old lady lilac" and "baby poo" did nothing to help the situation.
Dining-room Red and Saffron, pounds 9.40 per litre
There are only 12 colours in Paint Magic's "Colour Collection" range, described as "Superior Matt Emulsion". They won favour because "they look lovely and dry - they have a chalky, matt finish and fantastic depth of colour," said Charlie Marsden. Paint Magic is the brand developed by Jocasta Innes, whose pioneering special effects have been captured in both books and videos. Panellists praised the way that Paint Magic shops are decorated with the colours "more helpful than a swatch," said Donald Hudd. The sample colours of dark red and "Colman's mustard, almost" (Robert Farlow) were ones testers had bought in the past and had found "great".
*****FARROW AND BALL
No 29 Sugar Bag Light and No 33 Pea Green, pounds 8 per litre
Famous for their historically accurate colours, and manufacturers of paint ranges for the National Trust and Jane Churchill among others, Farrow and Ball were unanimously voted the winners. Most customers buy the paint by mail order, a service which we found remarkably prompt. Carriage is free on the mainland and the concertina chart of 95 evocatively named colours contains painted, rather than printed, swatches, each backed by its name and historic provenance. "I love the idea that you can go and see them in situ in these stately homes," enthused Clare Wright, while Charlie Marsden was impressed with the way "the colours sit happily with each other. It would be easy to do the Georgian trick of one colour above and one below the dado rail." The samples - pea green and a duck egg blue provided were thought to be "beautiful".
Wedgwood Blue and Imperial Chinese Yellow, pounds 10.20 per litre
Despite a prejudice that John Oliver's own range of 40 light-reflecting paints "are the business" (Robert Farlow) and can be seen on the walls of the most tasteful houses, we were disappointed with the results of the trial. Hand painted colour swatches (pounds 2, plus SAE) help to see the exact effect of the emulsion, but whereas the blue sample looked like Wedgwood, the yellow was not the same colour as the swatch. The colours were deemed "less clever and subtle than either Farrow and Ball or Paint Magic" (Clare Wright), and since an average size room would cost about pounds 51 in paint, Charlie Marsden dismissed it as "extortion".
Capri and Sunset, pounds 5.15 per litre
Cited as the professionals' preferred range, JW Bollom holds a royal warrant and specialises in ground- breaking technical products such as flame retardant emulsion. Their Decorative Emulsion has several things going for it: it's cheap ; it has "amazing coverage" (Charlie Marsden); and it comes in quaintly old-fashioned tins, branded "Bromel". Its low star rating in the test results from presentation flaws. "It's difficult to use the colour matches," sighed Clare Wright, saying that the chart is printed on glossy paper which distorts the colours. The Capri blue turned out to be a much more violent turquoise than its printed representation, while Sunset - a better match at least - is an ice-cream colour. Given the excellent quality of JW Bollom's paints, the panel felt they should be recommended to the brave "who don't mind mixing the colours a bit themselves".
Abstract Green, Future Orange, pounds 8.50 per litre
Newly launched to commemorate 100 years of the Tate Gallery (pounds 1 is donated to the Tate from each 2.5 litre tin), Habitat's in-your-face paint range comprises only five colours, of which our two samples "Trainspotting orange and lime green" (Robert Farlow) are possibly the most virulent. Each season the five colours will be replaced by new ones. Postcards are supplied as a colour swatch - "not a bad idea", mused Clare Wright, until she opened the tin and found the green "a complete lie. This is chocolate-chip mint, not lime. I'd sue them." "The tins look great, but who cares about that," said Charlie Marsden, noting that the paint is thin - "the colours are superficial in every way."
Tropical Lime, Caribbean Crush, pounds 6 per litre
Demonstrating that to buy low cost paint can be a false economy, these matt emulsions, new this season from Dulux, were assessed by Charlie Marsden as "thin, with poor coverage and uninspired colours". The Tropical Lime was at least a real lime colour, but Caribbean Crush was the colour of "Barbie doll flesh, nasty and hard to live with". (Clare Wright). Robert Farlow remarked that it would be hard to find two toning colours on the chart. The trial scored an educational coup: nothing would induce the amateurs on the panel to buy these again after seeing them next to the other ranges.
Sanderson, 0171 584 3344; Paint Magic, 0171 354 9696; Farrow and Ball, 01202 876141; John Oliver, 0171 221 6466; JW Bollom, 0181 658 2299; Habitat, 0171 255 2545; Dulux, 01753 534225.
THE apparent simplicity of painting can encourage the would-be decorator to imagine that any tool will do to get the paint on the wall, window or door frame.
For clarity, we concentrated mainly on brushes, with a small diversion to try a paint pad and a new battery-operated machine which claims to feed a brush or roller. We looked for even coverage, a smooth finish, ease of use and of cutting in (painting edges and corners), durability and value for money.
BLACK AND DECKER MATE
An apparently cunning machine, which recharges your paint-applying tool (a brush head and roller are supplied) from a battery-operated pump carried on your back, seemed at first to be a good idea. Unfortunately, the Paint Mate is hopelessly misconceived. It works only with a Dulux Once paintbag at pounds 5.99 per litre, which severely restricts your choice of paints, and though its backpack was thought comfortable by some testers, after a while others found it more tiresome. Episodic pressing of the paint release button makes it hard to manipulate the brush or roller and impossible to do cutting in. Then when you clean the appliance, you waste lots of paint in the connective hose. "I've never come across such an idiotic machine," said Charlie Marsden, and he spoke for us all.
****SAINSBURY'S HOMEBASE PROFESSIONAL BRUSH SET
Set of 3, pounds 8.99
Middle of the road product, offering consumers value for money in its combination of three small brushes (1", 112" and 2"), this set won favour with the testers for its comfortable wooden handles and pure bristle which "feels thick and will soften up with use," according to Charlie Marsden - an opinion confirmed by Robert Farlow, who praised the brushes' "thick stock relative to their sizes". Stainless steel ferrules are rust resistant.
*DO IT ALL PROFESSIONAL
3 brush pack, pounds 10.49
Despite the assertion on the packaging that this set of brushes (1", 112" and 2") contains "top quality, pure bristle of 66mm length", Do It All's brushes did not pass muster with the panel. Amy Wright immediately identified the problem with the smart-looking, dark lacquered wood handles: "They're too slippy," she said, "and as your hand gets warm it gets worse." Charlie Marsden also pointed out that paint cleaning fluid would probably destroy the varnish. Clare Wright demonstrated that "the bristles come flying out instantaneously. Hopeless."
ACORN FAST-ER INTERIOR PAD
Fantastic claims on the pack caused Charlie Marsden to wax sarcastic about the ability of tools to make amateurs into master craftsmen. The amateurs were keen to prove him wrong, but couldn't. "Twin wheels for edging and bevelled edges for accuracy" were a fiction, causing paint to splatter on skirting boards and corners to be missed altogether, so the pad would have to be used in conjunction with a brush. Robert Farlow said, "This is codswallop. In terms of getting the wall covered, this is half the width of a roller, which you'd be better off getting - in fact you could get two for this price."
****ACORN COVERFLOW 2"
An odd-looking paintbrush with curiously layered, almost lilac tufts like a bad haircut, this product surprised most of the panel by its excellent performance. The brush itself is made with "Bristolon", which seems to cause the paint "to travel up into the filaments more," said Clare Wright, approvingly. It has a light, American-style handle, is "nice and soft to use" (Robert Farlow) and was "quite crisp at cutting in" (Charlie Marsden). Synthetic brushes are also easier to clean than bristle, so although a fiver is a bit steep for a two-inch brush, this one was voted second favourite of all those tested.
ACORN SUPER DIY 2"
This paintbrush was universally condemned for its "really short" bristles "which makes them stiffer and harder work" (Charlie Marsden). Worst of all, the brush's very light plastic handle felt "foul" and "ghastly" when painting. Robert Farlow recalled using this very product: "The handle cracked," he said. "That was before I had any experience. I never bought them again."
*****MOSLEY STONE PRO-EDGE 3" BRUSH
Getting excited about a paintbrush may seem bizarre, but the whole panel was enthused by this brush, which exem- plifies the flatter, English-style "beavertail" handle. Bristle tends to swell in water, which is why "tram lines" or brush strokes may appear; this Mosley Stone brush has hand-crafted, tapered synthetic filaments locked into a stainless-steel ferrule, which was hailed as "really sexy" by the professionals. Everyone could appreciate the smooth paint flow, however. "These brushes are fantastic - head and shoulders above the rest for woodwork," confirmed Charlie Marsden.
***MOSLEY STONE MAXI EMULSION BRUSH
Just when you expect the old pros to damn a product, they endorse its usefulness. Such was the case with this big block brush, which sports soft white bristle and, according to its manufacturer, "sells well because it's cheap and it can also be used to paste paper". Our experts deemed it to be "a continental idea, largely superceded here by rollers" (Robert Farlow), but Charlie Marsden called it "a good bodge-it brush."
1" pounds 2.29; 2" pounds 4.09; 3"; pounds 6.59
The panel was divided about these synthetic brushes, since the bristles, while they certainly don't fall out, were criticised for not tapering correctly. "They're sawn off," protested Charlie Marsden "this is a dangerous brush." It was true that paint seemed to fleck everywhere.
3`' pounds 16.99
Alleged by the manufacturer to be "the best paintbrushes money can buy" the Harris Super range uses the finest quality bristle. Wedges at the sides of the brush absorb bristle swelling and the bristles are set in super-strong resin, with rustproof barbed fixing pins for extra security. The handle is of sealed hardwood. The professionals acknowledged using similar brushes for gloss, and even the amateur testers achieved smooth finishes.
Own brand brushes from Sainsbury's Homebase and Do It All; Acorn paint pad, Acorn Coverflow, Acorn Super DIY, Mosley Stone Pro-Edge, Mosley Stone Maxi and Harris brushes all from good hardware or DIY stores.
Clockwise from left: Do It All and JW Bollom; Mosely Stone Pro- Edge and Dulux Trade; Sainsbury's Homebase and Sanderson; Harris Super, Acorn and John Oliver; Maxi and Farrow and Ball; Harris No Loss and Paint Magic; Acorn and Black and Decker and HabitatReuse content