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Sheepskin rollers have many fine qualities, but new synthetics — cheaper and more consistent — are nipping at their heels.
by John Strieder
But the long hairs and high paint transfer rate of sheepskin can cause problems too, particularly on smooth walls.
Sheepskin rollers are excellent for flats, Norton says, but a thick layer of latex applied with sheepskin may slump. Oils go on just fine, but high-end latexes dry too fast to level well. “Oil paints have a longer open time so they really have the ability to level out.”
When painting a flat surface, such as drywall, the long fibers get in the way, Dentz says. “You lose the nicer finish because of smashed fibers.”
Weiss of GAM says the rollers his company manufactures are not often used for smooth surfaces because a high-pile roller on a smooth surface could put too much paint on the wall.
But he argues nevertheless that sheepskin rollers can work on those walls as long as the painter knows what he or she is doing. “I would say a certain amount of skill is required,” he says. “But I know an awful lot of people who use half-inch-nap sheepskin to do a living room wall.”
Drywall and plaster are imperfect, he notes. A half-inch nap sheepskin will leave a slight eggshell finish, but do no worse, he says.
Another big problem with sheepskin rollers is that they can delaminate after being soaked in water-based products. The ends pull away from the core, and they fall apart.
But these days, water-based paints have less water in them, so sheepskin rollers stand up to them, Dentz says. “Paints change.”
Delamination is a quality issue, Weiss says, adding that GAM rollers will not delaminate. “Some poor-quality sheepskin covers, if they’re not sewn properly and glued onto the core properly, will shrink. If you go take a shower, your skin doesn’t shrink.”
Sheepskin is also known for its resiliency, its ability to resume its original shape to paint a second time, Norton says. “Sheepskin certainly lasts longer in terms of the amount of production you can get out of them.”
Sheepskin rollers are sometimes praised as being relatively easy to clean. However, today’s contractors don’t often end up spending a lot of time cleaning rollers, says Bruce Schneider, end-user marketing and training manager with Purdy Professional Painting Tools. “They would spend more money on thinner and labor than they would to buy a new roller sleeve.”
Some have also speculated that sheepskin rollers work better than the average roller with low-VOC coatings. The idea is that the long hairs of sheepskin rollers do a superior job of handling the large amount of solids of a typical low-VOC paint.
Sheepskin is good for carrying high-solid coatings, Schneider says. But a relatively cheap thin-fabric synthetic roller, with bigger gaps in its mesh, may do about as well, he says. “There’s more air and less fabric.”
Norton points out that, while sheepskin may carry high-solid water-based coatings better, the thick swatch applied on the wall by the roller can still slump. So using sheepskin for low-VOC paints will have pros and cons, he says. “The jury’s out on that one.”
Sheepskin roller manufacturing presents a series of challenges that don’t affect synthetic rollers.
For one thing, sheepskin is a commodity, not a product. It’s generally imported from overseas, and every high-end roller manufacturer wants the best lambskin from the world’s best farms. “We’re all competing for this stuff, and there just isn’t as much of it,” Schneider says.
Sheepskin roller makers also take on the fashion industry. When wool and sheepskin start to show up on runways and in boutiques, the price of pelts shoots skyward, and roller manufacturers get priced out of the market. “When sheepskin is in vogue, it’s difficult to get product,” Norton says. “If lambskin is not in fashion, there tends to be a surplus available for paint products.”
Even in the best of times, sheepskin is costly. “Shearlings cost money,” Weiss says. “It’s not a manmade product. It’s a limited amount.”
Assembly also drives up the cost, Weiss says. Each skin, unique by nature, must be cut into the maximum amount of pieces. They must be sewn inside out, then pulled onto the adhesive-coated core. Even the glue application must be done by hand. “It’s a highly labor-intensive operation,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of labor involved and judgement involved. My mother’s family were furriers. This is the same thing.”
Sheepskin roller makers must also struggle with quality in ways that makers of synthetics never will. Schneider thinks today’s wool is less dense and consistent than it was years ago. And long-haired pelts are becoming less common as lambs are killed earlier, he says.
“Everybody’s moving to the best synthetics out there,” he says.
Schneider’s company, Purdy, recently released the Colossus, a synthetic that delivers even more paint than sheepskin. “There are lots of synthetics out there that are actually better,” he says. “It really is my belief that high-end synthetics are a much better value than lambskin or even lambswool.”
Manufacturers of synthetics have more control over production, he notes. They can offer standardized density, for example, while sheep growers can’t. “Some sheep have little bald spots on them,” Schneider says.
And sheepskin tends to wear out really fast compared to the synthetic material in the Colossus, he says.
“Sheepskin is sheepskin is sheepskin,” says Norton. “There are very few things you can do to adulterate it. Meanwhile, synthetics are getting better.”
A manufactured product can guarantee consistency, he says. “With lambskin, if you pick two up in the store, they are going to be different, for the most part. Each one has its own personality. It transfers paint differently and so on.”
Norton says that sheepskin pelts will also vary in quality depending on whether the animal was raised on a range or on a farm. “Range animals tend to have more unevenness in pelts because they have more exposure to the environment,” he says.
Wooster’s synthetic Superfab roller is a top seller because it performs like a shearling cover but doesn’t cost as much, Dentz says. The company’s new long-fiber Polar Bear roller also encroaches on that niche. According to people who have tested the Polar Bear for Wooster, it grips the wall like sheepskin as it rolls, she says.
Of course, for many contractors, the comparison between sheepskin and synthetic rollers begins and ends at the cash register. “Sheepskin is generally twice as expensive as something comparable in a synthetic,” Schneider says.