The granite crags, cliffs and boulders of the Sierra Nevada drew Blaine Robles to Lake Tahoe in 1987. He supported himself by tending bar in the winter and spent as much of the summer as he could rock climbing and otherwise goofing off.
When cash ran low, the 22-year-old rock hound started working for a painting-contractor friend. For seven summers, on and off, Robles worked on the area’s high-end redwood and cedar homes, learning the ins and outs of wood restoration along the way.
Ready for a change in 1994, Robles moved to Marin County in Northern California. There he found that fine wood homes are at least as common as they are in Tahoe. And plenty of them are perched on steep hillsides — perfect for a wood restorer adept with a climbing harness and belay device.
Robles also found that none of the area’s painting contractors specialized primarily in wood care.
“I looked through the Yellow Pages and noticed that it was always painting-slash-wood restoration — not the other way around,” Robles says.
So Robles got his contractor’s license and turned the painting/wood restoration equation on its head, opening Marin Wood Restoration & Painting with co-founder Paul Burrous. In 2003, he went solo and opened Norcal Wood Restoration & Painting. He specializes in restoring wooden siding and decks for high-end homeowners, property management companies and homeowners associations in a market that includes the San Francisco Bay area.
Robles realized early on that he could distance himself from the pack by increasing his understanding of wood and wood restoration. So he embarked on a self-directed crash course in the subject.
“I started calling manufacturers, I started talking to chemists, I contacted the forest research people, and I just started learning,” he says. “A small body of knowledge is very important when it comes to the wood end. If you’re saying something to customers that they can relate to, they’re going to really listen.”
When meeting prospective clients, Robles often relates wood care to skin care, an analogy his California clientele can identify with.
“I tell them that if you keep your skin hydrated, the cells are going to stay alive, they’re not going to flake off, and it’s the same with wood,” he says. “As long as we can keep the wood fiber hydrated with a penetrating oil, its going to stay alive and look good.”
Another way Robles separates himself from the pack is by continually experimenting with new products.
“Whenever something new comes out, I get it and try it with an open mind,” he says. “I stay kind of ahead of the game that way, because I’m using things that one else is using. A lot of painters just keep going with the same old technology, but I’m always asking my manufacturers’ reps what’s new out there, and this has helped me a lot.”
That’s how he come to adopt The Flood Company’s Clear Tannin Guard, which prevents those tea-colored tannin stains caused by bleeding redwood and cedar.
TWP’s Mildew Sealer is another new product he’s adopted.
“I use it as an up-sell,” he says. “For instance, I’m just getting started on a job where there’s a lot of mold and mildew on the home. For an extra eight hundred to sixteen hundred bucks, we’re putting mildew block around the whole house.”
For staining the oldest, most weather-beaten wood, Robles uses TWP stains because they contain up to 95 percent solids, which helps hide worn-out wooden substrates without completely obscuring the grain. As a rule of thumb, the older the wood is, the less translucent the stain should be, he says.
For newer wood, Robles relies primarily upon Armstrong-Clark’s line of transparent and semi-transparent stains, an old-fashioned linseed oil-based formula with transparent oxide pigment that provides sun protection.
The Armstrong-Clark line is now available with a flame-retardant additive designed to last the life of the stain. It’s a feature Robles used in selling a job to a Bay Area homeowner who had rebuilt his house after the original was destroyed in the firestorm that swept through the Oakland-Berkeley Hills in 1991.
“The semi-famous architect who designed this house specced it out to receive no stain, but the guy who owned it was hip enough to know that if he didn’t do something to it, the wood was going to dry out, split and he was going to have waterproofing issues,” Robles says. “All his neighbors’ homes were rebuilt with flame-retardant materials, so we used Armstrong’s flame-retardant stain so the guy could sleep a little better at night.”
For solid finishes, Robles goes with The Flood Company’s Solid Color Finish, which adheres to a wide range of problem surfaces due to the Emulsa Bond it contains.
“I feel very comfortable that I can put it on any faulty substrate. I put it on chalky surfaces, I put it on metal roofs, I put it on stucco siding, I put it on virtually anything that you can paint — without priming — and I know it’s going to stick,” Robles says. “Technically it’s a solid stain, but they’ve added extra pigments to it, so if I’m selling a paint job, I refer to it as paint.”
Robles credits the Emulsa Bond-rich stain with helping him win a bid to refinish a 75-unit condominium complex with blackened, severely weathered siding — even though his price was some $30,000 higher than anyone else’s. The solid stain’s 15-year guarantee on siding helped him win the job, he says.
“I was the most expensive, but I was using a higher-end product, and it was easy for the customer to figure out that to spend a little more money now they’d have something that would hold up and look better over the years,” he says.
To market himself, Robles has a small ad in the Yellow Pages, does a bit of direct mailing, and networks with a lot of paint suppliers and people in the business. He also has a Web site, where he explains the steps involved in cleaning and restoring a deck. “People can tune into my Web site before I meet them and get a feel for me and how I do the work,” he says. “It really helps my business.”
Decks, siding and other wood restoration jobs make up about 60 percent of his work, and almost all of his customers are good for repeat business.
“I put them on a maintenance schedule, put their names in a tickler file in my computer, then call them up after a year and say, ‘It’s time to put a maintenance coat on your deck,’” Robles says. “I’m able to keep almost 80 percent of my client base that way.”