A simple idea gives a Kalamazoo-area man an edge on a tough and complicated year

Daniel Kay cuts plastic and wood, bends metal, tack welds it, drills holes, tapers paint bristles, and assembles them all at his Portage home in what is so far a one-man operation.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

“When you get good at painting, you don’t need to use tape,” says Kalamazoo-native Daniel Kay.

Professionals learn to skillfully “cut in” the wall trim and moldings of the rooms they paint, without taping.

“They take a brush and ‘cut in’ the color of the paint along the ceiling,” Kay explains, “so you don’t get it (a contrasting color) on the ceiling. You’re cutting in around the window frames and around the door frames and around the ceiling.”

Painting without tape saves time and money. But stopping wall paint from lapping onto white ceilings or off-color moldings takes more patience and skill than many do-it-yourselfers have. And Kay, who has been painting home interiors for more than 22 years, says he is not 100 percent comfortable with how some professionals do it.

So the owner of Midwest Professional Painting developed the Perfect Paint Edger, a device that allows almost anyone to cut in like a master. It has a 2.5” by 2.5” paint pad with bristled edges and metal guides that prevent the pad and bristles from touching adjacent surfaces. A paintbrush handle allows it to be easily manipulated and an adjustable head allows it to be used with the right or left hand.

Kay, 53, started selling the Perfect Paint Edger online (through his website, perfectpaintedger.com) in June of 2020. On Aug. 5, of that year, he started selling it on Amazon.com. With no product reviews or outside advertising, he sold less than 10 units in that first month. Then, sales rose to more than 100 units by October after buyers provided some reviews.

Sales jumped to about 20 units per day in November of last year after an associate of nationally syndicated home improvement TV star Bob Vila bought one, used it, and declared it the best paint edger overall that he had reviewed. And sales continued to grow in December after Wiki.ezvid.com, a worldwide video product forum, ranked the Perfect Paint Edger No. 1 on its list of 10 best paint edgers.

“Sales for the product have gone through the roof and now I’m starting to work on additional websites,” Kay says. “Previous (monthly) sales business was 289 units. That was at the end of last year. This past month I popped off 446 sales on Amazon and the other sites.”

Debi Howe, the branch chairperson for Southwest Michigan SCORE (which originally stood for Service Corps of Retired Executives), says, “I think his product is great. I love when people invent things like that and are moving it.”

So far, producing the Perfect Paint Edger is a one-man operation out of Danile Kay's home in Portage.As one of the experienced executives and business owners who have mentored Kay, she has helped as he crafted a business plan and as he works to market his product and ramp up production.

“Dan had already done his research on that end,” she says. “He is a painter himself. He had been recommended by one of the top do-it-yourself TV hosts. He tested with multiple painters. He is passionate. He knew what worked.”

Describing herself as a novice painter, she laughs and says, “I tried it. And it worked.”

BobVila.com declared Kay’s edger the best overall product among “The Best Paint Edgers for Your Project” in November of 2020. The positive publicity came in what otherwise was a banner year of challenges and struggle for many, including Kay. For him, it included heartbreak, COVID-19, and symptoms of a heart attack.

He spent a night at Borgess Medical Center in late December of 2019 after becoming light-headed on a commercial painting job in Portage. He recalls stumbling outside for help before he drove himself to a branch of the medical center.

He says doctors told him that he had no arterial blockage and released him after an overnight stay. But the 6’4” long-time swimmer and mountain biker, who once toyed with the idea of becoming a bodybuilder, was dumbfounded by the health scare. So he headed into 2020 intent on making his life count, newly dedicated to doing some things he says he always thought he could. That included crafting the paint edger to make his work easier and creating something professional and amateur painters would buy.

That was an idea that had been on his mind for more than two years, he says. It was also something that he thought had the potential to become a business. And it is a venture that he hoped would help him reach his ultimate goal -- having more time to relax on a boat in South Haven, watching sunsets with his girlfriend.

But his decision to focus on the product while continuing to work as a painter came at the expense of that relationship. It helped trigger the break-up of his six-year romantic relationship on Jan. 15, 2020. But it also inspired him to dive headlong into building his device. He started working on it the following day.

“I woke up the next morning and I was in this extraordinary zone of clarity,” he says. “This product had been in my head for a number of years. I figured it out (how to produce it) in two to three hours.”

He says he went to a home improvement store and bought sheet metal, tin snips, a pair of metal benders, a piece of plastic, and some other things, and the project fell together quickly.

“The product is basically, as it says, a paint edger that actually works,” Kay says. “It’s very accurate. It saves the need for taping off. It’s hand-made right now of very solid, non-corrosive components -- a solid wood handle, ABS plastic, Bass brushes, and stainless steel components, nuts and bolts.”

The paint pads are attached by Velcro so they can be detached, washed, and reused. The device is made with durable materials so the entire thing can be washed and reused indefinitely, he says. It retails for $22.

Kay says he was offline from Amazon.com from January through June of this year, however, to accommodate the busiest time of year for his residential painting business. That also allowed him to work on his business plan after being somewhat overwhelmed by the early demand from online buyers.

Production has thus far been a one-man operation, with Kay cutting plastic and wood, bending metal, tack welding it, drilling holes, tapering paint bristles, and assembling them all at his Portage home. He can produce up to 40 edgers per day but says he averages about 20.

This is how the Perfect Paint Edger works.After tinkering and making product adjustments, a utility patent is pending. In the meantime, Kay has used online applications to connect with overseas manufacturers to supply the components that he assembles here. He says he wanted that component-supply work to be done here but job shops he found in Plainwell and Zeeland didn’t take him seriously.

“They almost looked like they were laughing at me,” he says. “I’m talking about what I’m looking to do and they don’t take you seriously.”

After briefly being out of stock due to supply chain issues, Kay received what he needed to restock his product and it is again available on his website.

Kay would like to see his product sold in major retail stores like Home Depot, True Value Hardware, and Lowe’s. That makes sense, Howe says. She says the Perfect Paint Edger is being marketed at a good time. Through the COVID-19 shutdown, people have been doing more work around their homes.

Kay is a good salesman, and that is a good thing, Howe says. But it would be a bad thing if he successfully pitches his product to a large retailer who wants to sell it on a trial basis, and he is not ready for that opportunity. They are likely to want 10,000 units of his product in a short period of time. So Kay is in the process of preparing for that.

The 1986 graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School took college classes in Florida and at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Davenport University in Kalamazoo. He has no formal training in engineering. But he has had an eye for design for years.

“I just figured it out by myself,” he says. “ … I can look at something. I can flip it around in my head. I can feel how it should work and whether or not it will. I can just put things together. It’s what I like to do and I kept doing it.” 

From childhood, he took bikes and other things apart to see how they worked. At age 26, he created a prototype for a butt and thigh workout machine that he called the Glutamax. He had a design patent on the product, a sit-down stair-stepping machine, and had conversations with a potential manufacturer and a sporting goods company that seemed to have an interest. But the manufacturer was sold before his product was developed and his machine was never produced. Fitness equipment maker NordicTrack marketed a similar device not long after that, leaving Kay with regrets about what could have been.

A look at the Perfect Paint Edger.

Kay worked in real estate sales, as did his father. But the younger man left after several years to work with his hands and become a residential and commercial painter.

(Although Kay’s father was called Danny Kay, echoing the name of the late Hollywood song-and-dance man Danny Kaye, the reference was too far removed from the younger man’s years and he has rarely been called Danny.)

Kay has a daughter from a previous marriage. She is a recent graduate of Hope College who visited him early in 2020 after returning from a trip to San Francisco where she visited Fisherman’s Wharf and areas that were later considered to be hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus. He says she became very ill. But in the days before COVID was well known, she was only tested for influenza. Subsequently, Kay says he became sick.

“The symptoms that I had were everything that everybody else had,” he says. “And there were a couple of nights in March that were absolutely terrifying because I woke up gasping for air. I couldn’t breathe. It was in my left lung and overnight, it seemed to take that lung.”

He says he thought he had pneumonia. He continued to try to exercise and he limited his diet. Ultimately the main symptoms relented but he fought for about 18 months to rid himself of the cough that came with the sickness. He says he’s sure he was exposed to the virus on a few occasions last year and is sure he was reinfected with COVID in February of this year after his mother was diagnosed with it and he was in close contact with her. He says he does not typically believe in vaccines but he got vaccinated in July and all his symptoms abated. “It took getting those shots to do it,” he says.

Through those travails, Kay says he continued to make money as a painter -- by scheduling smaller paint jobs with a few other painters with whom he works -- and with the sales of his paint edger. He says sales during the summer of 2020 boosted his weekly earnings beyond anything he had made painting in any previous season.

“I was so busy during the pandemic when everybody was locked down and not able to work,” he says. “I had customers say, ‘Are you sick?’ I was during that time but my crew wasn’t. So we kept on working. … I stayed at home and I worked on this product (the paint edger) while still making more money than I ever had, during what’s usually a dead time of year for us.”

He says he attributes that to the grace of God.

“Everything I prayed for I got,” says Kay, who describes himself as spiritual and Christian but no longer a church-goer. “If I prayed for something, I got it when I needed it. If I needed money, I found jobs.”

He continues to pray for the relationship he once had. To pay for supplies he needed, he says he sold the 17-foot boat he and his girlfriend used on Lake Michigan. Enjoying that was something they shared. But he says he needed to take a step back from some things in his home life, in order to move forward with his business dream.

“The whole goal for us was to always have a boat in South Haven,” he says. “And that’s one of the reasons I’m doing all this. I wanted that with her again.”

He hopes to push ahead with his product. With contacts he has made through SCORE, he and Howe say he should not have problems finding investors as he tries to ramp up production.

Asked about the ups and downs he’s had over the past two years, Kay says, with the exception of his love life, things have gone well.

“Everything worked,” he says, “I couldn’t fail. Everything that I tried -- every piece that I put together – everything worked constantly. And it’s the most bizarre thing. I can’t even explain it to people. It’s like trying to tell somebody what it’s like to have a baby. You couldn’t explain it. You have to live it."

All photos are courtesy of Daniel Kay.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.