In this SEAL assembly for secondary students, Brian Radcliffe encourages students to consider the latest techniques used for painting the Forth Bridge, taking from it advice about ways to tackle recurring problems


3 Readers


Leader: There are some jobs that seem to be never ending: the grass needs cutting, pots need washing, your bedroom needs tidying and French vocab needs revising…and these are only a few examples! There are also those relationships we have that seem to require constant attention: managing ups and downs, arguments and reconciliations. Then there are those bad habits we work hard over time to break, just to be tempted back into them again. In other words, just when we think we can relax there’s something else that needs doing. There’s a phrase we use to describe such situations: we say it’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge.

The Forth Bridge is in Scotland. It links the two sides of the Forth estuary a few miles west of the city of Edinburgh. It was completed in 1890 and was the world’s first major steel bridge. It is 1.5 miles long, and it’s huge size means it’s considered a product of great engineering skill.

This size, however, also gave rise to a problem: the 400,000 square metres of steel, exposed to the harsh Scottish climate, requires a lot of maintenance. It was popularly thought that painting the structure took so long that by the time a crew of painters finished it, they had to start all over again! So the job of painting the Forth Bridge, this giant of Victorian engineering, became a popular culture symbol for a never-ending task.


Leader: But now I’ve got news for you: the supposedly ‘never-ending task’ has been completed!


A process has been discovered that, it is hoped, will mean the bridge will not need repainting for up to 30 years (1). How does it work? There are three stages (2) to the painting process:

Reader: Stage one: the bridge has been stripped back to bare steel by blast cleaning. Every trace of the past century’s paint, rust and grime has been removed revealing the the raw steel beneath.

Leader: This operation is no quick fix. It’s easy for rust and corrosion to develop, even where they can’t be seen, creating potentially dangerous structural weaknesses. Therefore every layer accumulated over more than a century has been removed so the true state of affairs can be observed and remedial action taken if required. Any damaged sections have been completely replaced in order to bring the bridge back to its original condition.

Reader: Stage two: the paint chosen for the job is no ordinary paint. It’s known as glass flake epoxy paint. When applied to a surface it creates a chemical bond that provides an almost impenetrable protective layer. Water cannot get through the paint to cause outbreaks of rust.

Leader: This is no cheap fix either. Only the highest quality paint has been used. It’s a product that’s been tried and tested under the most arduous conditions, on North Sea oil rigs, where the salt water and high winds would defeat any other paint. There is no better available.

Reader: Stage three: the bridge has been given not one but three coats of protection. First there’s a zinc based primer which was applied to the bare metal. The primer helps the next coat to adhere to the metal. The second coat is the special glass flake epoxy paint. Finally a top coat of polyurethane gloss paint is applied. This top paint gives the colour and shine to the bridge.

Leader: Lastly, this is no easy fix. The layers are built up, one on top of the other, reinforcing the quality of the job. Each layer has a slightly different purpose and together they create a final effect that, it is hoped, will last for up to 30 years.


Leader: So let’s return to those seemingly never-ending tasks we mentioned earlier: those recurring issues that we seem to constantly have to deal with, over and over again.

In relation to practical tasks such as cleaning your room or learning French vocab the message seems fairly obvious – make a proper, thorough job of it and it won’t need doing again for a while.

But what about the problem of relationships that are constantly breaking down? And what about those unhealthy habits that we want to break? What can the Forth Bridge teach us about these areas of our lives?

Firstly, I’d suggest that one message is that, to fix something, it’s necessary to get back to basics and discover why things went wrong in the first place. What was it that first caused friction in the relationship between ourselves and the other person? When and where did we first develop our naughty habit? And, in both cases, why was it allowed to develop? Such consideration takes time and may need the help of a close friend or two to puzzle it out. It’s unlikely to be a quick fix but it’s hard to make progress unless we get back to the root of the problem.

Second, I’d suggest that to fix the situation it will be necessary to put some investment in – such as our time, as well as honesty and courage.

Finally, don’t expect it to be an easy process: be prepared to keep working on it even if it doesn’t immediately improve. It may need more than one ‘coat’ in order to end up with a solution that’s going to last. Maybe we gently need to apply the layers of reconciliation or gradually wean ourselves off the habit we’re trying to break.

Meanwhile, think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.

Dear GodI must admit that I get tired of dealing with the same issues over and over againI want to be able to settle them and to move onGrant me the patience, the motivation and the courage to take this forward a step at a time


This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2009

About the author: Brian Radcliffe