Exterior Painting Tips and Techniques

Paint faster and better using these brushing, rolling and cutting-in techniques

Overview

Painting the exterior of your house is a huge job. But the rewards are great too. With a minimum investment in tools and materials, you'll save thousands of dollars, extend the life of your siding and trim and increase the value of your home. Best of all, you'll make it look like new again.

While you may spend a substantial amount on tools and paint, the same job done by a pro could easily cost many times more. The savings come at a cost, though. A good paint job requires countless hours of careful preparation. Plan to devote an entire summer to prepare and paint even a medium-size house.

In this article, we'll show you how to apply the final coats of paint (we used acrylic latex) for a durable, professional-looking finish. Preparation is a separate topic covered in other articles.

Completing a top-quality exterior paint job requires more than patience and perseverance. You'll need a sharp eye, a steady hand and a bit of practice to paint crisp, straight lines. In addition, you'll need the strength to move and set up tall ladders, and the confidence to work from them once they're in place.

Key Techniques

If you can master these three techniques, you can do a pro-quality painting job.

Brushing
Rolling
Cutting in
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Buy high-quality painting tools

Applying topcoats (the final coats of paint) doesn't require much equipment beyond what you've already accumulated for scraping and priming. We recommend buying at least two top-quality synthetic-bristle brushes for applying the latex paint: one 4-in. straight-bristled brush for large areas and a 1-1/2-in. angled sash brush for detail work.

For applying paint to large areas of shingles, stucco or brick, buy a roller setup consisting of a heavy-duty roller cage (this is the handle part); top-quality 1/2-in. nap roller covers, one for each color (you'll wash and reuse them); and a roller screen (Photo 4). Standard 9-in. rollers are good for large, flat areas. Buy the 7-in. size for rolling siding and other narrow areas if your house has them. You'll also need a few clean 1-gallon paint cans and a clean 5-gallon bucket. Having a boom box on hand could just save your mind.

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3-step brush technique

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Paint stores can help with colors and quantities

Choosing exterior paint colors that complement the architectural details of your house and fit the character of your neighborhood is the first step to a great paint job. Check out bookstores and libraries for books on the subject. You'll find brochures at the paint store with collections of historic colors. Many paint stores have designers on staff who can help you choose colors, or you could hire a designer or architect.

Buy a quart of each color you've chosen and paint the entire color scheme on a small area of your house before committing to gallons. If you don't like the results, change the colors and try again.

Next take rough measurements of your house, noting the type of surface, for example, stucco, cedar shingles or smooth siding. Count the doors and windows. With this information, paint store employees can help you calculate the amount of paint you'll need. Plan on applying two coats of acrylic latex paint over the primer.

Buy the best paint you can afford. Good-quality paint is easier to apply, covers better and lasts longer. We recommend buying paint with a slight sheen, either satin or eggshell. It's more fade resistant and easier to clean than flat paint.

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Roller technique

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Check the weather

  • Avoid painting in direct sunlight. The heat dries the paint too fast, making it nearly impossible to avoid lap marks. It can even cause blistering and peeling.
  • Avoid painting on very windy days. The wind causes the paint to dry too fast and can blow dirt into wet paint.
  • Don't apply latex paint when the temperature is below 50 degrees F unless it's formulated for cold weather application. Read the label to be sure.
  • Don't paint when there's a chance of rain.

Avoid These Common Problems

Lap marks show up as darker areas and are caused by painting over dried paint—in essence, adding another coat. To avoid lap marks, work quickly and paint in sections small enough so the previously painted area stays wet until you can brush the newly applied paint into it. If you do end up with lap marks in the first coat, the second coat will probably cover them.

Brush marks left at the beginning and end of a brush stroke are a common problem that's easy to avoid. Start every brush stroke in an unfinished area, at an edge, or against door or window trim. Then brush toward the finished area and sweep the brush up and off the work in the same movement. If you stop the brush and then lift it off or set the brush down on a finished area to start the stroke, it will leave extra paint, which shows up as a brush mark or darker spot.

Drips, runs and sags are best avoided by constant vigilance. Check back on your work as you go, paying special attention to inside corners and edges where paint is likely to build up and run. If the paint hasn't begun to dry, brush out the run. Otherwise, allow the run to dry completely. Then sand it off with 100-grit paper and touch up the spot with fresh paint.

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Cutting-in techniques

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Plan a strategy for the most efficiency

In general, work from the top down. Paint large areas first and details last. Where two colors meet, allow time for the first color to dry before returning to apply the second color. For example, paint the window sash (the movable part) early in the day and return to paint the frame around the sash.

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Paint like a pro with these techniques

You can improve your painting skills by understanding the strategy pros use. They break down the painting process into two steps.

The goal of the first step, called “laying on” the paint, is to get the paint onto the surface in the quickest, most efficient way possible. Don't worry about smoothing it out yet (Photo 2). Use a brush, roller or sprayer for this step and apply enough paint to cover the surface without creating runs. Cover an area just large enough to allow you to go back and smooth it before the paint starts to dry. Since heat, humidity and the type of paint you're using all influence drying time, you'll have to experiment as you start to paint to get a feel for how large an area you can safely cover before returning to smooth it out. The most common mistake beginning painters make is spending too much time and effort laying on the paint. A few quick strokes is all that's needed. Then reload the brush and cover the next area.

Once you've got a small area covered, you're ready for step two, laying off the paint (Photo 3). First use your brush to spread the paint evenly over the surface and then finish up with long, continuous brush strokes. The goal is to completely cover (but not necessarily hide) the previous layer of paint or primer with a smooth, even layer of paint. This step must be done immediately after the paint is laid on and before the paint starts to dry.

You may be wondering how to tell if you're applying enough paint. Unfortunately, there's no exact formula. In general, you'll have better success applying two thin coats than struggling to cover the primer with one thick coat of paint. Thin coats dry more thoroughly and don't cause problems like runs, sags and paint buildup that are associated with heavy layers of paint. Your goal is to get enough paint on the surface to allow the brush to glide smoothly, but not leave so much that it forms runs or sags.

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Door-painting technique

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Paint into a wet edge

Maintaining a wet edge is one of the most important techniques in painting (Photo 3). Simply put, always try to brush or roll back into paint that's still wet. The result will be a uniform, seamless-looking coat of paint. The larger the area you're painting, the more difficult this task becomes. Use natural breaks like door and window casings or courses of siding to divide large areas into manageable chunks. Then complete each section without stopping. Paint three or four courses of siding from one end to the other, for example. Then move down to the next four courses and repeat the process.

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Timesaving tips

  • Hold the paint can close to the surface you're painting to reduce arm movement and minimize dripping (Photo 2).
  • Learn to paint with either hand, especially when you're working from a ladder. It doubles your reach.
  • Paint doors and windows early in the day so you can close them at night.
  • When you're done painting, write the date, location and formula or name of each paint color on the lid. Then store the paint where it won't freeze.

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Cutting in takes practice

Painting a straight line, also called cutting in a line, is another painting technique worth mastering (Photos 7 - 9). Begin by removing excess paint from the brush either by laying it off onto the piece you're painting or by wiping it on the edge of the can. Then, holding the brush like a pencil with the bristles edgewise (Photo 8), draw down along the line. If too much paint begins to build up under the bristles, threatening to spill across the line, sweep the brush away from the line. Then go back up to the top of the stroke and draw down again, moving the paint closer to the line. Continue this process until you've cut in the entire line.

If you've taken the time to properly clean and prepare the surfaces and have carefully primed, caulked and painted using top-quality materials, your paint job should last at least 10 years. According to painting pros we talked to, annual maintenance is the best way to extend the life of your paint job and protect the structure. Inspect your house every year. Use binoculars if you have to. Then scrape, sand, prime, caulk and touch up any areas where paint is peeling or cracking. The new paint may not match exactly, but at least you'll prevent further damage and push off that major paint job several extra years.

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