Strategies for painting perfect fields by Patrick White

Using strings, even if the old lines are still visible, will ensure a quality striping job, says Dean Angelo, owner of Sport Lines.
Photo courtesy of Sport Lines.

Everyone from van Gogh to your local house painter knows that when it comes to painting, it’s all about the five Ps: Prior preparation prevents poor performance. It’s no different when it comes to lining fields.

“The prep time – the time it takes to get the machine set up, get the strings laid out, get everything ready – is usually double the time it actually takes to paint a field,” says Alan Dungey, sales manager with Great Lakes Athletic Fields (http://www.greatathleticfields.com), based in Buffalo, New York. “Any imperfections in your prep work are going to show up in your paint job.”

Great Lakes paints the whole gamut of sports fields, both artificial and natural grass surfaces. “The bottom line with painting is that you’re only as good as how you’re handling your machine,” says Dungey. “You have to keep your machine clean and use the right nozzles – that really affects the quality of the line. After you’re finished painting, you have to be very thorough in cleaning your machine. Ninety percent of failure when it comes to painting comes from not cleaning your tank properly, so when you mix the next load in you end up with chunks of old paint that clog up your nozzle.”

He says it’s also important to properly mix paints according to manufacturer instructions, and to screen it to avoid having any chunks or debris making their way into the machine. “The nozzles are very small; if, for example, one piece of crumb rubber from an artificial field gets in there, it will clog. So make sure your wash station and mix station are clean of any debris,” he advises.

In addition, prepping the field is critical, says Dungey. In part, that means ensuring that the correct field dimensions are established before painting. He notes that the Sports Turf Managers Association website (http://www.stma.org) provides a great resource for field sizes used for a variety of sports and at various age levels.

Graco’s FieldLazer S100 is a walk-behind, high-pressure airless sprayer.
Photos courtesy of Graco, unless otherwise noted.

Precision is key. “In baseball, when the ball hits the line, it’s fair. Sometimes people will run a string from home plate to their foul pole and paint down the middle of the string, so half the line is in fair territory and half is in foul territory. In baseball, the paint needs to be on the inside of the string. Whereas in football, if anything touches the line, it’s out of bounds. So that paint needs to be on the outside of the line,” Dungey explains.

Dean Angelo, owner of Sport Lines (http://www.sportlinesaz.com) in Phoenix, Arizona, which paints fields for a wide array of sports from the Pop Warner level to high school to the Fiesta Bowl practice field, agrees that prep work is key. The first, and most important, step is to carefully measure out the field and be sure that everything is correct. “If it’s just an open field, with no goalposts or anything to work off, you have to get one baseline – either a sideline or an end line – where you want it, and then use the Pythagorean theorem (which will help produce right angles to ensure square corners) to go from there,” he explains. When you’re done, double-check everything, he urges. “Don’t be afraid to pull the tape measure out and just be sure before you paint. The painting part is easy. The hard part is making sure you have the line in the right place,” he says. Angelo admits that he always keeps green paint on hand just in case a mistake is made, but he’s proud that he hasn’t had to use it in a few years.

Rushing through the job is a sure way to end up with lines “that look like a broken snake,” says Angelo. “You have to use guide strings, even if you can see the old lines,” he emphasizes. “It only takes an extra few seconds to put a string down and go over the string. If you follow the string the whole way down, you’re going to have a straight line.”

During the season it’s usually possible to see the remnants of the lines that were last painted, which saves a lot of measuring. “It takes about twice the time to rebuild the field as it does to just reline it,” Angelo notes. And he says there are ways to make the process easier from season to season. “If you’re a sports field manager, staking your corners is huge. That way you don’t have to remeasure those all the time. You can buy small plugs that you can pound in the ground; they’re not visible to the players, but you can find them.”

Turf tips

Angelo leaves decisions about mowing height up to the sports turf manager, but advises them not to mow right after the paint has been applied. “It doesn’t matter if you’re going to go three-quarters of an inch or whatever, but just be sure you mow before we get there,” he says. “And I try to ask them to give it 24 hours after we’re done before irrigating, just to give the paint a chance to fully dry and set up. Usually, at that point, a standard 20-minute watering won’t affect much.”

Angelo says the bermudagrass fields in the Phoenix area typically need to be relined weekly during the heavy growing season, when many fields are being mowed twice a week. “Later in the season, when the growth slows, you might be able to get two weeks out of a painting at the Pop Warner level,” he adds. At the high school level and above it needs to be done weekly and/or before every home game in order to prevent upset players, coaches and referees, he says.

Dungey prefers to paint immediately after mowing has occurred. In some cases, especially on fields that don’t have the budget to paint as often as they might like, he says it can help to mow the lined areas a little shorter using a rotary push mower prior to painting. “You don’t want to scalp it, but mowing a little lower in those areas will help the lines last a little longer,” he explains. “With grass, you’re painting a living thing. You don’t want a nozzle that’s too big so that you’re just dumping paint on that’s running right off the grass and down into the roots and thatch and clogging up the turf.”

Beat the Clock

Last-minute painting in Portland, Oregon

Mike Hebrard

Field painter extraordinaire Mike Hebrard was put to the test when he was called in to paint end zones for the Portland Thunder Arena Football team just six days before their first game. Here’s Hebrard’s take on the speedy job.

Paper was put down to prevent paint from sticking to the rubber backing.

With the upcoming Arena Football season a week away, I received a call from Portland Thunder team owner Terry Emmert. Prior to starting the Thunder, Emmert had purchased the Milwaukee Mustangs franchise, complete with a field surface featuring orange and black Mustangs outlines. The new end zones that were designed for the Thunder were not even made yet, so the logos would need to be painted over the existing field surface.

The red paint did not cover the preexisting logo at all.

Fortunately, Emmert’s business had a vacant warehouse available, and I got to work. Since time was of the essence, I was unable to order custom stencils. Fortunately, my son Andy and I specialize in freehand logo painting. We gridded “PDX” into 12-foot text and “THUNDER” into 9-foot text. Since the colors that were chosen were red, black and white, we thought we could successfully cover the orange background with red. We were wrong; the red didn’t cover the black Mustangs at all. So, we switched to black for the background.

“PDX” was painted in 12-foot text.

Because we were in an unheated warehouse and it was 40 degrees outside, it was a challenge to get the paint to dry. We outlined the text with white inverted aerosol cans, using an 8-inch border on “PDX” and a 6-inch border on “THUNDER.” After two coats and drying the turf with fans, backpack blowers and propane heaters, it was dry to the touch.

The text was outlined with inverted aeresol cans.
Photos courtesy of Mike Hebrard .

I was concerned that the neoprene backing of the turf would lift the color, and that dust from the floor would stick to the uncured paint We decided to lay brown paper over the painted letters when we rolled it up. The home arena for the Portland Thunder is the MODA center (formally the Rose Garden), and the field is stored rolled up between events. With all of the unrolling and rolling up, the paint tends to wear off, so I sprayed the thin areas with black inverted aerosol cans. Overall the paint held up well, and I was fortunate to have an associate take me up to the catwalk for a bird’s eye view!

Tools of the trade

Angelo started nine years ago and had one line-painting machine; now Sport Lines has a fleet of 12. The company uses both CO2-powered painting machines – mostly Trueline Striper models from Trusco Manufacturing – and, on higher-end fields, gas-powered airless sprayers – Graco’s FieldLazer and a newly purchased Titan Speeflo Powrliner unit. “It all depends on what kind of field you’re working on, and the type of grass,” he explains. The same considerations determine the paint he uses. “A lot of that is budget-driven, and what they want to spend. Paints can go from $35 for a 5-gallon bucket all the way up to $120. Some paints have more solids or are a little brighter – there are so many options,” Angelo notes. “If we do a synthetic turf field (usually adding lacrosse lines on a football field), we use the spray chalk in aerosol cans.”

Great Lakes Athletic Fields also uses a variety of paints and equipment, and Dungey says these manufacturers and vendors typically offer training, which can help keep sports turf managers up to date as technology improves and products evolve. “It’s important to stay current. Paint technology has changed a lot over the years,” he notes.

Without endorsing any brand in particular, Dungey says there are plenty of options on the market when it comes to striping machines. The purchasing decision will often depend on budget and the amount of use it will see. Some sprayers are airless, while others used compressed air. Some are walk-behind and others are ride-on. “I think a walk-behind tends to be a little more accurate and is easier to control. If you’re only doing foul lines or a soccer field, where it’s getting moderate usage, you can go with a walk-behind,” he observes. “On grass, you might want a self-propelled machine, while on artificial turf, which tends to be flatter, you probably don’t need self-propelled.” He also recommends machines with pneumatic tires, which he says helps to smooth out the bumps better on a natural grass field without creating jagged lines.

“The biggest thing, if you really want your lines to be effective and bright, is to do a first light application and let it dry. Then you can make your second pass. Two light applications provide a better line than one thick application where half of the paint runs off the grass onto the ground where nobody is ever going to see it,” emphasizes Dungey. “The same is true on artificial turf, because all the paint that runs off the fiber is going to get down into your rubber and start building up.” Whether natural or artificial turf is involved, at higher-end facilities he recommends painting in both directions to ensure even coverage on both sides of the turf.

Keeping equipment clean and taking care when mixing paints to avoid contaminants that can clog nozzles is critical to getting high-quality lines.

“The artificial turf segment has an entirely different line of paints, and there are both permanent and temporary paints available,” he notes. For example, if an artificial field is used mainly for soccer, an athletic facility manager can add lacrosse lines for that season using a temporary paint without permanently altering the appearance of the field. Alternatively, if a new sport will be using the field regularly, permanent paint can be used. “Most people these days, when they buy an artificial field, will get the soccer lines and football lines inlaid with different colors, but they may discover they also need lacrosse lines. We can come in and paint those lines in red for a women’s field and blue for a men’s field,” says Dungey.

Logo logistics

Painting logos on athletic fields is becoming more popular and “is definitely labor intensive,” says Angelo. Not so much the painting as the prep work. His company has started building stencils for clients in-house, and it’s a time-consuming process. That helps save money, but if you’re planning to create your own stencils rather than purchasing them, it’s best to budget time in the off-season for this work, he advises. “You have to have a large area where you can project a big logo onto plastic. You have to have some patience,” Angelo states. Once the stencil is done correctly, the actual painting process is relatively straightforward, but still time-consuming. “The stencils are a bunch of dots and slits in the plastic, and you spray paint those, take the stencil off, and then connect the dots and fill in the shapes with the appropriate colors,” he explains.

Dungey also has some advice for painting logos. “If you’re using multiple colors, paint the whole logo footprint in white first. Sometimes people will try to paint red or blue straight onto green grass, and the color doesn’t jump out. If you paint everything with a light coat of white, and then put the color on after, it makes the color stand out more,” he says. And lighter is better when it comes to colored logos as well as white lines. “You can always put a little more down, but you can’t pick the paint up once you’ve applied it,” he adds.

Angelo says painting fields requires a methodical approach, and some patience. “Like anything, the more you do it the better you get, and the more little tricks you learn,” he notes. It’s a job that requires someone to be a perfectionist at heart, but the results are very gratifying. Angelo says, “You start with a patch of grass, and at the end you have lines and numbers and hash marks and sometimes painted end zones and a midfield logo – it’s very rewarding in the end.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vermont, and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.