W.Q. Watters builds on a history of painting West Virginia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — It’s almost impossible for a West Virginian to go without seeing painting contractor W.Q. Watters Company’s mark of influence in the state.
If you have seen the state Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, The Greenbrier resort, the Charleston Civic Center or a hefty portion of the bridges in the state, you have witnessed buildings and structures the Charleston contractor, now owned by Bob Thaxton, carefully painted at some point in its storied history.
And W.Q. Watters isn’t finished. It’s preparing to paint the state Capitol’s interior and exterior again later this year. The work will be done in phases, with the painters starting with the iconic dome outside and working their way inside to paint the House of Delegates and Senate chambers.
“We had to match what (original Capitol architect) Cass Gilbert put in there when it was built,” Thaxton said of previous jobs painting the Capitol. “It’s all historical.”
The color adorning the Capitol dome is made up of gold leaf sheets applied in small squares. At his office in the contractor’s location on Kanawha State Forest Drive, Thaxton showed off one of these gold leaf sheets, noting that it’s “thinner than cigarette paper” and just as light.
“This here is real gold,” he said. “In order to put this stuff down, you clean the surface all up, and you put an adhesive on it. You have to brush (the surface) to generate electricity.”
When the gold leaf sheet touches the surface, “It’s done,” he said. Then the next sheet is applied, and so on, all fitting together like a puzzle on the Capitol dome or elsewhere.
W.Q. Watters also painted the now-decommissioned bomb shelter designed for members of Congress to retreat to in the event of an emergency during the Cold War. Being so deep underground, there wasn’t enough air circulation in the bunker for W.Q. Watters painters’ materials to dry easily. But they still got the job done.
“Once we left (the bunker), it was locked, and we couldn’t go back,” he said.
Despite the notoriety of The Greenbrier’s bunker, Thaxton said W.Q. Watters’ work painting bridges throughout West Virginia, like the Memorial Bridge in Parkersburg and the Kanawha River West Virginia Turnpike Bridge, particularly stands out to him.
When Thaxton came aboard the company in 1952 and climbed its ranks, W.Q. Watters took advantage of the burgeoning market, which had less competition for bids than the average paint job.
“People don’t like to work high,” Thaxton said of the difficulty in painting bridges. “You have a select group of people that can do that, so that’s how that came about. We just gradually got to doing more and more.”
The company’s signature service is painting, but it has accumulated a handful of other services through the years, including sandblasting, waterblasting and installing vinyl wall covering.
Thaxton said the reason for the company’s countless jobs and longevity is simple — W.Q. Watters is not only the best, but the most responsible painting contractor, he said.
“The only way that we feel we can survive is to be the best, be the safest, pay your bills, pay your taxes and do everything like you’re supposed to,” he said. “That’s why we’ve stayed around as long as we’ve had.”
It’s a reputation that has allowed the company to take on projects, even if its bid price was higher than average.
Thaxton recalled a job W.Q. Watters did painting a hotel down in Roanoke, Virginia, about 40 years ago. When it was time for the hotel to get a new coat of paint years later, W.Q. Watters put in a bid that was $16,000 high, but still won the bid because of its work painting the hotel the first time.
But there aren’t as many projects available to bid on as there used to be, Thaxton said, with much of the Charleston area already built out. The bidding process is more competitive nowadays, mainly because there are simply fewer jobs to bid on, he said.
The company’s employee numbers have fluctuated over time, too, from as low as 10 up to 50, he said. The employment peak occurred when the Chemical Valley was booming and Union Carbide employed a significant portion of the workforce, he said.
“We had all this new construction,” he said of the company’s employment peak. “We had five jobs due in one week. Now we get a set of prints for one job to get done, and there might be 10 general contractors that want that job.”
Still, Thaxton said he is confident W.Q. Watters will be around for a while longer because of its experienced group of employees that do a little bit of everything.
This includes Renie Haynes, W.Q. Watters’ vice president and office manager who has been with the company for almost 49 years, and Chad Smith, who primarily serves as a coating inspector but bounces between field and office work.
“I hear so many great stories about this place, and I catch bits and pieces of the history,” Smith said. “As far as working with these guys, they’re like my family.”
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.