Start Your Own Whitewash Business

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/SCOTT GRIESSEL
Loran T. Lentz makes $900 a month whitewash painting barns. Here are tips to help you start your own whitewash painting business.

Altogether, there are probably about 9,993 ways to make
money in the country. My way, though, has to be one of the
simplest and most rewarding (in every sense of the word) of
all: I whitewash barns.

Here in Wisconsin (and — I suspect — in many other
states as well), dairy farmers are required to either
whitewash their barns on the inside every year or repaint
them. (Alternately the walls and ceilings may be
steam-cleaned on a frequent basis, but that gets to be
expensive.) Because whitewash costs so much less than
paint, most dairymen opt to have their barns sprayed by a local whitewasher. And that’s where I come in.

Three years ago, you see, my partner (John) and I each put
up about $200 in cash to buy [1] an old whitewashing
machine, [2] a new portable barn blower, and [3] a few
sacks of whitewash. Within weeks, our shoestring
enterprise — Tom Sawyer Whitewashing and Barn
Cleaning — had earned enough money to pay back our
initial investment … and by the end of our first
summer, John and I had built our individual
monthly incomes to nearly $900!

We can’t guarantee that, you’ll be as successful with your
own whitewash operation. I can guarantee this,
however: After reading the following story you’ll be a lot
better prepared to start a successful whitewash business
than John and I were when we first began!

What is Whitewashing

You probably know what whitewashing is if you grew up on a
farm and can remember the yearly visits of the whitewasher,
whose job it was to chase the spiders out of the barn and
make the inside of the building look good as new again. In
case you don’t know what it is, however,
whitewashing is simply an age-old, low-cost way of
beautifying and sanitizing fences,
outbuildings, and other structures that often need to be
beautified and sanitized.

Until not many years ago, the principal ingredient of most
whitewashes was lime (calcium oxide) … which is still
used that way by many folks. Unfortunately, lime has one
serious drawback: It’s highly corrosive. Which means it’s
harmful to machinery, bad for animals (calves, lick
everything around them, including whitewashed walls), and
irritating to the skin and lungs of the person spraying
it.

Nowadays, you can buy several commercial brands of
clay-based whitewash. These products are a bit
more expensive than lime (the kind we use — Voco
II — costs about $4 per 50-pound sack versus $3
or so for the same amount of lime), but are non-corrosive
and don’t become brittle and flaky with age the way lime
does. (Check with feed stores and farm supply, outlets in
your area to see what kinds of whitewashes are available
and at what prices.)

Tools Needed for Whitewashing

The first piece of equipment you’ll need is a whitewash
machine … an apparatus consisting of a
mixing tank, a pumping barrel, a pump, a high-pressure hose
(with spray gun), and a gasoline engine or electric motor
to run everything. If you’re industrious, you can assemble
your own machine from individual components. (Hint: A
55-gallon drum makes a great mixing tank.) Otherwise, you
can buy your rig pre-assembled, either new or used.

New machines (many of which are mounted on skids so they
can be loaded easily into the back of a pickup can be
purchased at some farm implement dealers. (Also look under
“Spraying Equipment” in the Yellow Pages.) New, such a rig
runs from $600 to well over $1,000.

You can save quite a bundle, of course, if you’re willing
to take the time to scout out used equipment. (Check with
farmers, feed stores, and local creameries for leads in
tracking down “previously owned” machines.) We spent $200
for our first sprayer, a do-it-yourself job built sometime
in the 50’s and mounted on a trailer. Then, a couple of
years later, we bought a two-year-old machine mounted on
skids for only $90. Both were pretty good buys, though, so
be prepared to pay more for your rig.

Another useful (though not essential) piece of equipment to
have is a high-velocity air blower that you can use to rid
walls and ceilings of loose hay, dust, cobwebs, and old,
flaky whitewash. Our “duster” — a Voco Mini Barn
Blower — blasts out air with a nozzle tip speed of 550
mph, is light enough to carry around on one shoulder, and
cost us about $170. (If you’re so inclined, you may be able
to piece together your own inexpensive blower. We heard of
one old-timer who rigged up an air compressor powered by a
Model A Ford engine. All he had to do was drag an air hose
through the barn, instead of carrying the whole apparatus
around with him.)

Why should you even bother to clean a barn in the first
place? Number one, you’ll find you can do a much better
whitewash job on a surface that’s free of dirt and debris.
Number two, you can (rightfully) charge more money for
performing this added service. And number three, because of
the extra work involved you can schedule fewer barns per
day and spend more time in one geographical area.

Of course, before you hit the road you’ll want to stock up
on whitewash. Take three or four bags of dry mix with you
on every outing, and try not to stray too far from a farm
supply store or other establishment that carries the kind
of whitewash you like to use.

One more thing: Whitewash belongs on the barn, not in your
lungs … so wear a mask . (John and I found the
disposable 3M masks worn by auto body shop workers to be
the most satisfactory.) Also, a broad-brimmed
hat — such as Tom Sawyer himself might have
worn — will do wonders for keeping flecks of old lime
out of your eyes (and spiders off your neck).

Get the Word Out

Once you’re ready to begin spraying, you gotta let farmers
know about it. The classified section of the local
newspaper (or shoppers’ tabloid) is fine for a start and
will probably bring you enough work at first to pay off
your equipment … but by far the best way to generate
business is to compile a list of all the dairymen in
your area (or wherever you’re willing to travel to work),
and write to or visit the farmers. (When we were just
starting, John and I would’ve paid
$1,000 — gladly — for the file of names we now
have.)

How can you obtain the names and addresses of local
dairymen? Check with the nearest creamery. Most
creameries — it turns out — are happy to give you a
copy of their milk truck itinerary (which has the
information you need) … for the simple reason that if
the farms on that list don’t pass inspection (due to
unsanitary barn conditions) the creameries themselves
either lose money or are shut down. Creameries and milk
inspectors, in other words, are natural allies of the
whitewasher. (Note: One advantage of getting names from a
milk truck schedule is that the farms are already grouped
by geographical location.)

Another thing you’ll want to do is have business cards
printed.
We asked creameries to mail ours out in their
monthly milk check mailings (which they did). The cards
also came in handy when we ran into the state milk
inspector at a farm one day. (The man took a stack of our
cards, and — from then on — whenever he came across
an unsanitary barn, he left a message from Tom Sawyer!)

Before you take on any assignments, whitewash a friend’s
barn for free (or for the cost of materials), just to get
the hang of things. One barn can teach you a lot about
whitewashing … enough — at least — so that when
your first “real” job comes along, you won’t look too
klutzy to a skeptical farmer. (Remember: A dairyman and his
family spend hours every day in their barn. It’s important
to them that the job be done right … and it’s
important to you, because a reputation for quality work in
farm country sure makes life easier.)

Barn-Cleaning Tips

If you’re going to clean a barn before you spray it, you’ll
find the job goes a little faster and easier if you:[1]
Open all windows and doors and turn on exhaust fans. [2]
Always walk backwards. (It helps keep dust and grit from
falling all over you.) [3] Have an assistant go ahead of
you with a broom, if cobwebs are particularly plentiful.
[4] Wear a mask and a hat.

Ask What to Spray

If you want to be loved and get repeat business, find
out — before you begin — exactly what the
farmer wants sprayed and what he doesn’t want sprayed. One
whitewasher we knew sprayed anything and
everything — animals, telephones, medicines, you name
it — whether it moved or not. We got a lot of his
business.

You’ll find that some farmers are very particular and will
have everything they don’t want sprayed covered and ready
to go as soon as you arrive. Others, however, won’t do any
such “setup” work for you. In the latter case, it’s your
responsibility to cover any items that the farmer says
aren’t to be whitewashed … with the exception of the
milk pipeline. (Covering the pipeline just takes too
doggoned long … and besides, it’s usually in need of a
good scrubbing anyway!)

Be sure to ask about windows. Some farmers want them
sprayed, since they believe it’ll help keep the barn cooler
in summer. (Clay-based whitewash washes off easily with
warm water and vinegar in the fall.) Others don’t want
their windows sprayed (perhaps because the panes are ready
to fall out). We charge 20 cents per pane to cover windows
with newspaper, although we try to be flexible on this
during price negotiations.

How to Make Whitewash Paint

Voco II is a fine powder and will form lumps if you add it
too rapidly to water. What we do is adjust a garden hose
nozzle to give a hard spray and gradually add the powder to
the mixing tank in the turbulence created by the spray … rather than fill the tank with 16 gallons of water
(enough to dissolve 50 pounds of whitewash) first, then
depend on the paddles in the tank to agitate the water
sufficiently.

We use hot water (from the milk-house) for mixing if we’re
going to be spraying a closed or plywood ceiling, an open
ceiling made with finished lumber, a new ceiling of any
type, or a previously painted ceiling. Cold water can be
used, but hot whitewash seems to adhere better to smooth
surfaces.

If you wish to make a lime-based whitewash, you can do so
as follows: First, soak 50 pounds of hydrated lime in six
gallons of water until you’ve got a paste. Then dissolve
six pounds of salt in three gallons of boiling water, allow
the mixture to cool, and add the brine to the (roughly)
eight gallons of lime paste. Finally, stir in three pounds
of white portland cement.

Try to mix up enough whitewash at the outset to last you
through the job at hand. (This takes experience, of course … but as a rough rule of thumb, you can figure that a
gallon of whitewash will cover about 250 to 300 square feet
of wall space.)

This is the point at which you add insecticides to the
whitewash if the farmer asks you to do so and you foolishly
agree. We dumped bug-killer into the Voco (at cost) during
our first year, as a service to our customers (despite the
fact that the darned stuff is expensive and doesn’t last
more than a few weeks anyway). The day I
staggered — dizzy — out of the barn after spraying
poison for half an hour, however, I decided, “Hey, this is
no good … no way!” and we never sprayed chemicals
again.

I might add that we have yet to lose a job due to our
refusal to use poisons. If a farmer really wants
chlorinated hydrocarbons in his barn, it’s cheaper for
him to apply them with a hand sprayer after the
whitewash has dried. (The real key to holding a barn’s
insect population down — as any good farmer
knows — is to keep the building manure free inside AND
out.)

Whitewashing

When you’re ready to begin, close all windows and doors and
turn off any fans that might be running in the building … then unwind the hose from your machine and stretch it out
to the farthest corner of the barn. Start the pump motor
and let the pressure build to around 200 pounds per square
inch. (Note: If you’re spraying lime, you’ll probably have
to go to 300 psi, which will — in turn — put
considerably more strain on your equipment. Still another
reason to stick with clay based whitewash.) The tip of your
spray gun should have a No. 4 (1/16 inch diameter) disc in it
for a clay-based wash, and you should have a bucket of
water nearby for washing the tip, should it become clogged
with foreign particles.

This is it! Now just [1] turn the handle on the gun, [2]
adjust the spray, and [3] start walking backwards around
the barn (the way you did when you were cleaning the walls
with the blower), striving — at the same time — to
avoid manure-filled gutters. (There’s usually one such
ditch at the far end of the barn. Naturally, knee-high
boots are a great help until you’ve developed a sixth sense
about where you’re going.)

Don’t worry about your technique: There’s no “right” way to
spray a barn. Just hit whatever needs hitting (don’t forget
the wood between the ceiling joists), and try to develop a
system of some kind so that you do each barn pretty much
the same way. If you’re using Voco II — which goes on
clear and then turns white after itdries 
— be particularly thorough.

Barns that are exceptionally dirty and flaky and rife with
flyspecks and manure may need a couple of coats of wash to
look good again. Generally, though, one good coat will do
the trick.

Taking Care of Your Whitewash Machine

It’s easy to develop a love/hate relationship with a
whitewash machine. Even at a low 200 pounds of pressure,
the pump works mighty hard and breakdowns are not uncommon.
Whether these malfunctions turn out to be minor annoyances
or major disasters, however, depends largely on what
precautions you take. To put it differently: It pays to
keep a supply of easily worn-out parts (such as valves,
springs, balls and seats, etc.) on hand at all times. The
availability or non-availability of a $1.98 part at a
critical time can mean the difference between a few
minutes delay as you install the spare part, and a
two- to three-week wait for the factory-fresh
replacement.

When the pressure drops while you’re spraying, it’s usually
either because [1] the mixing barrel is low on whitewash,
or [2] a filter (in the mixing tank or in the pump) is
clogged. Other kinds of malfunctions are possible, too,
depending on the particular type of pump you have.

Some things, unfortunately, can only be learned through
harsh experience. There is one thing you can do to help
minimize the “breakdown blues,” though, and that’s simply
to take the time at the end of each working day to [1]
rinse the mixing tank thoroughly and [2] pump clean water
through the hose until the liquid comes out clear.

The Whitewashing Life

Here in northern Wisconsin, the whitewashing season starts
when the farmers turn their cows out to spring pasture and
lasts until so late in the fall that the spray hose freezes
up faster than you can thaw it out. During the “on” months,
it’s possible to work as much — or as little — as
you like, when you like. You’re truly your own
boss.

John and I have “barnstormed” the hinter regions of
northern Wisconsin and Minnesota for weeks at a time in the
summer, whitewashing during the day and camping out every
night. In our travels we’ve met young farmers trying hard
to make it with 80 cows, and old-timers who’ve learned to
do well with only 20 milkers. We’ve learned the backroads
(in some parts) better than anyone save the milk truck
drivers themselves. On occasion, too, we’ve been treated to
a delicious homecooked meal at the end of the day as extra
payment for a job well done.

Whitewashing has worked for us, even in the northernmost
reaches of Wisconsin, where barns are few and
farming — in general — is a marginal enterprise. If
you live anywhere near farm country — and you’re
looking for a job that offers flexible hours,
more-than-reasonable pay, opportunity to travel and meet
people, and a chance to perform a needed
service — whitewashing may work for you, too.


How Much Should You Change?

Once you begin to look at barns from the inside ,
you’ll be amazed at how they differ. (Clearly, there’s no
such thing as a “typical” or “average” barn.) Yet, somehow,
the whitewasher must come up with a pricing formula that’s
flexible enough to accommodate all the idiosyncracies of
each barn he/she is likely to encounter.

My partner and I have found the answer to this problem (we
think): We’ve developed a sliding scale that’s based
primarily — but not solely — on a barn’s floor
area. Our system allows us to spray a larger barn for less
money per square foot than a smaller barn (which is only
fair, since certain costs — those connected with travel
and setup time, for instance — are constant regardless
of the size of the job) … and still make a fair profit.

Here’s our “magic formula:”

Price = Floor Area (in square feet) X $0.01 + Increment

The “increment” varies with the size of the barn, as
follows:

Let’s say, for example, that you’re asked to whitewash a
barn with inside dimensions of 34-by-80 feet (which represents
a floor area of 2,720 feet). Your estimate-according to the
above formula-is 2,720 times $0.01 plus $24 … or $27.20
plus $24, which equals $51.20.

After we’ve determined our initial cost estimate, we deduct
15 percent if the barn has a closed ceiling. (If, however, the
building has wooden stanchions and calf pens, we tack on an
extra $5 for barns less than 70 feet long and $10 if the
barn’s longer than 70 feet.)

In addition, we charge a flat rate of 1.1 cent per square
foot to clean a barn (with a 15 percent deduction, again, for a
closed ceiling).

Note: Our pricing formula is based on a price of about
$4 per 50-Ib. bag of claybased whitewash. If whitewash
costs substantially more where you live, you may have to
adjust your cost estimates upwards accordingly.

In any case, if you start out using the pricing formula
shown above, at least you won’t be underbidding your first
jobs as much as my partner and I did when we first
began our business!

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368