Meet the barn painter
Casey’s Custom Colors preserves rural Iowa icons
LYTTON — Many people see a rustic, weathered old barn, with its wooden surface faded by decades of sun and wind, and think, “How beautiful!” James Casey looks at the same barn and says, “Needs paint.”
“Paint not only protects a barn, but it helps it look like a traditional barn,” said Casey of Rockwell City, who owns Casey’s Custom Colors and has been a professional painter for 12 years.
Like his uncle Lee Greene of Jolley, who was also a full-time painter for many years, Casey has worked on many of the painted barns that are still standing in Calhoun County and surrounding areas.
While barn painters have become a rare breed, these unsung heroes still play a key role in barn preservation. They may not be as well-known as America’s most famous barn painter, Harley Warrick (1924-2000), who painted thousands of Mail Pouch tobacco advertisements on barns across the Midwest and Appalachian states, but their work is no less noteworthy.
Even though it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make a career exclusively as a barn painter today, professionals like Casey don’t shy away from barn projects.
“I get called about once or twice a year about painting a barn,” Casey said. “I’ve also painted grain bins, corn cribs, house exteriors, home interiors, museums, churches, bridges, railroad cars, garage floors, parking lots, decks, statues, the Chautauqua Building in Sac City and more. Every year there’s something new.”
“Big or small, we paint it all”
Finding qualified painters like Casey to work on barns isn’t always easy. Barns are often hard to paint because of their age, size, height and other factors. Casey has the experience and the tools to get the job done.
“Big or small, we paint it all,” he said.
When a barn receives a fresh coat of high-quality paint, this “facelift” doesn’t just make the building look nice. It buys the barn another 10 years of life, provided the structure has a good roof and good foundation.
“Painting a barn helps preserve a piece of history,” said Casey, who worked in Webster City at the Electrolux appliance factory before it closed in 2011.
The process starts with a free estimate from Casey. It’s also wise to fix damaged parts of the barn, including rotten areas, doors, windows and window trim, before the building is repainted.
“You need good, solid wood before you paint,” said Casey’s uncle Lee Greene, who began his painting business in the late 1970s and is now retired.
Once a customer hires Casey and selects a paint color (most barn owners stick with red or white), the next step involves pressure washing. It’s important to remove all the remaining loose bits of paint, along with any dust, dirt, cobwebs and other debris that might come between the barn surface and a fresh paint, Casey said.
After the pressure washing is complete, it’s time for the primer and first coat of paint, which is applied with a paint sprayer.
“Depending on the type of paint and the type of barn wood, the rule of thumb is that 1 gallon will cover approximately 225 to 300 square feet,” said Casey, who noted that barns require two coats of paint.
Casey favors latex exterior paint for barn projects.
“Modern latex paint is better than oil-based paint ever was,” said Casey, who uses paint from Orange City-based Diamond Vogel. “Latex dries to a harder finish and holds the color longer. Barn oil paints are still available, but they’re messy.”
Not only does Casey value the quality of Diamond Vogel latex paint, but he appreciates the company’s partnership with Keep Iowa Beautiful (KIB), which provides grants for Paint Iowa Beautiful. This program provides free paint to a wide variety of public service projects each year throughout Iowa, from museums to city park shelters. In its 15-year partnership with KIB, Diamond Vogel has awarded more than 9,648 gallons of paint for 786 community projects across Iowa, according to KIB.
“I like to support local companies that support Iowa,” Casey said.
Depending on the weather, the entire process of painting a barn can take from two to three weeks. As for the price, a general rule of thumb is exterior cost is 65 cents per square foot, plus paint cost and other factors.
“It all depends on ease of access,” said Casey, who noted that most barns cost $5,000 to $10,000 to paint.
Back when Lee Greene started his painting business nearly 40 years ago, he charged $2,000 to $3,000 to paint a typical barn. Every job was different, which kept the work interesting.
“I enjoyed painting,” he added. “Nobody bothers you when you’re out there working, and you have a lot of time to think.”
Beautifying Iowa one project at a time
Greene worked with Casey when Lytton-area barn owners Larry and Shirley Ellis hired the pair to paint their Calhoun County barn about 10 years ago.
Built in 1918, the former dairy barn is now home to a flock of chickens and Larry Ellis’ small herd of Tarentaise cattle. The stately red barn, which measures 80 feet long and 40 feet high to the eaves, has become a landmark on the north side of four-lane Highway 20 and provides a striking backdrop for the Ellis family’s Red Rock Arabians business.
“It’s constant upkeep when you have an old barn, but we use this barn every day and want to make it last,” Shirley Ellis said.
The Ellis family’s commitment to the barn became clear after a devastating hail storm hit the area in 1998.
“We wanted to save the barn,” said Larry Ellis, who has lived on the farm since 1971 and used to raise hogs in the south side of the barn. “I like having the barn painted, because it makes it look more original.”
When the late afternoon light bathes the west side of the barn on an autumn day before the sun slips beyond the horizon, the barn’s silhouette seems to outline the passage of time itself, a symbol of utility, ingenuity and endurance.
This heritage isn’t lost on Casey.
“My goal is to beautify Iowa one project–and one barn–at a time,” he said.