Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Paint Lessons from the Leaning Tower of Pisa

I'm sure most of you have heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa . . . you know that tower, in Italy?  That leans?  Yeah.  Anyway, I'm sure you've heard of that tower, but I dug into it a little bit recently and learned some things I didn't know . . . things that are, in the end, extremely paint-related!
Originally, the tower was built in 1173 and was supposed to be a work of art.  That's important to remember.  It was meant to be something people marveled at--something stunning, astonishing, breath-taking.  It was art!

With that goal in mind, construction continued for the first 5 years, until it halted in 1178, after completion of the third floor.  It was at this time, during this pause in the construction, that the tower started to sink.  Now, we've all heard in elementary school about the reason for the sinking:  the tower was built with a thinner than usual foundation that was set in a weaker than normal substrate.  Basically . . . it's that classic object lesson about how a poor beginning will produce sketchy results.  (You can almost smell the paint-related info!)

However, there's more to the story--nothing groundbreaking--but something I didn't know until recently.  See, after the tower started to sink, construction was halted--mainly because wars kept breaking out.  But after all the fighting was finally over, construction again resumed in 1272--nearly 100 years after the first three floors had been built. 

When engineers started this continuation of the construction process, they analyzed the situation and came up with a solution:  to compensate for the tilt, they would build the new floors with one side lower than the other.  I never knew this, but it's true.  If you look at the tower, you can see that it's actually curved.  It leans to one side and then kind of starts to curve back the other way because of the goofball construction techniques.  In the end, this didn't fix the problem entirely but it helped. 

The tower existed like that for another chunk of time and then, in the 1990's, another attempt was made to fix it.  Cables were attached to strengthen the tower and some excavation work was done to try to straighten it as much as possible.  This worked to some extent and the tower went from a 5.5 degree angle to a 3.9 degree tilt. 

And that was about the best they could do.  Apparently, after that work was completed, engineers looked at it and determined that it'd last another couple hundred years or so.

Now, I bring all that up to build on the obvious point--and it's something that's definitely paint-related.  See, the obvious point is all about the foundation.  If the foundation's bad, you're going to have sketchy results.  Yeah, that's the obvious point, but I thought the rest of that story was interesting because it continued to hammer home this point, expounding on it.  See, not only will you get sketchy results when you start with a poor foundation . . . but you'll also find yourself doing all sorts of crazy stuff to get things back to good. 

Think about it . . . the original designer of the tower would probably have been rolling in his grave if he knew that the people continuing his project were building floors with one side shorter than the other.  This was supposed to be a work of art--not something I built in my basement.  (And really, come over sometime--that's how I build.  I start something and if it's not level, I just make the next part a little crooked, too until everything kind of balances out in the end).

Now, I'm not saying the tower of Pisa isn't cool--it is--and honestly, the leaning thing is really what makes it cool.  But that still doesn't mean that it's a great example of engineering.  It's a mistake followed by a bunch of bizarre fixes that never really end up fixing the original problem.

And the reason they don't fix the original problem . . . is that you can't.  Not when your foundation is poor. 

In construction and in painting and in most of life . . . the first steps you take in almost any project--the groundwork you lay--is going to determine the outcome.  If you start the project correctly, use the right tools and the right supplies and take the time necessary to do things the right way . . . your end results will look great.

If you take shortcuts, skip steps, don't prime when you should or don't sand or wash a wall down when it's recommended . . . you'll probably get your initial work done faster, but it won't be long before things start to look shoddy.  Your work will start to lean, so to speak.  And when that happens, you'll be in the same boat as those folks who were tasked with adding on the additional floors to an already leaning structure:  you'll have to get creative.  And chances are, no matter how creative you get . . . you'll never be able to fix the original problem.

So the lesson--the paint related lesson, the life-related lesson is this:  start with a good foundation.  Use the right tools, take the time necessary and start on the right foot.  Use primer when you should.  Wash the surfaces when it's recommended.  Do a light sanding when you're in doubt.  Doing these things will take more time, but they'll save you grief down the road.  Think about it!  And call us with any questions!

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