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Professional Painting Tips

Professional painter Butch Zang tells you the key techniques he uses to keep organized, work fast, choose tools and materials and produce first-rate results. By following his tips, you'll paint a room with less effort, yet get done faster and be happier with the quality of the job.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

What you can learn from a pro

I used to think I was a pretty good amateur painter. That is, until I worked with a real pro, my new painting guru, Butch. Like other successful tradespeople, he has to get the job done quickly and properly to keep his business healthy. The word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers take care of all his marketing needs.

Butch's shortcuts and methodical, organized approach to painting were designed to save him time, eliminate callbacks and make him more money. Next time you paint, try Butch's system—you'll be surprised at the speed and quality of your work. And you won't get any more testy callbacks from your spouse!

A first class paint job takes time, patience, the right tools and high-quality paints. We'll show you how to:

  • Organize tasks so you can move to the next step without waiting
  • Get prep work done easier and faster
  • Use fast-drying primers and sealers to avoid downtime
  • Produce a smooth look with brushes and rollers
  • Caulk and mask trim for crisp, flawless corners and joints.

Organize your work so you never have to stop
Follow a sequence of steps (as our photos show) that'll allow you to let one part of the prep work dry while you go on to the next chore. The first few steps will give you the idea: Seal water stains on the ceiling and, while they're drying, sand, degloss and prime the woodwork. While the primer dries, put the first coat of paint on the ceiling and so on. If you're the kind of person who would prefer to work your tail off for a weekend rather than stretch the project out over several relaxed days, this story is especially for you. But even if you prefer the laid-back approach to painting, following these steps will yield excellent results with less hassle.

Allow a weekend to completely finish two average-sized rooms. You should try to get through Photo 10 on Saturday. You'll need to hustle, but you'll complete the bulk of the work. Saturday's caulking will dry overnight so you can tape the woodwork and finish up on Sunday. You'll be done with the whole job in time to have supper and catch “60 Minutes” that night.

Step 1: Lay a drop cloth and tape floor edges

Begin by spending 15 minutes clearing the room. Painting is enough of a chore without having to weave your way through a room full of furnishings. Remove everything you can, including couches and dressers. If something is too large or heavy to move, put it in the middle of the room and cover it with .5-mil painter's plastic. Complete the paint prep work by taping the carpeting down to the bottom of the baseboards (Photo 1) and running dropcloths over the top of the tape. It's worth investing in canvas dropcloths to protect your floors. Although you may be tempted to substitute cheap plastic sheeting, canvas stays put and offers a non-slip surface. It's easiest to buy a couple of 9 x 12-ft. drops, but you could just buy one and move it around to follow your painting.

Step 2: Remove wall obstructions and tape fixtures

Remove everything from the wall, including picture hangers and outlet cover plates. REMOVE light fixture covers and mask the bases with plastic bags and tape. Then seal old water stains with a spray stain killer.
Caution: Don't turn on a light if the bulb is covered.

Step 3: Sand and clean the woodwork

Sanding doesn't simply smooth out scratches, dents and bumps. It also slightly roughens smooth, hard surfaces so paint adheres better. A deglosser works faster and better on hard varnishes, especially if they are greasy (Photo 4).

Caution!

If your home was built before 1978, test your paint for lead before sanding or scraping it. Lead in dust causes lead poisoning, especially in young children. Use a test kit available from any paint store, or contact your local health department for the addresses of reliable testing labs. If you have lead paint that's in good condition, use a deglosser (Photo 4) rather than sanding it. If your lead paint is flaking, see the free EPA guide, “Reducing Lead Hazards When Remodeling Your Home.”

Step 4: Prime the woodwork

Prime the woodwork with a fast-drying solvent-based (oil or alcohol) primer, not a water-based latex. Don't be overly concerned if you slop some primer on adjoining walls, but be sure to smooth out large globs of paint. If you don't, they'll show through the wall paint later.

Step 5: Roll the first paint coat on the ceiling

Roll as lightly as possible on this first coat in one direction only. Your objective is to apply a coat of paint to lock in the rough particles so they'll stay put when you do the second, thicker coat. You're painting two sides of each texture particle; you'll pick up the other two sides when you recoat in the opposite direction. Again, don't worry too much about slopping some paint on the walls, but avoid a large buildup. TIP: Test-roll the textured ceiling in a closet or other hidden area first. If flaking's a problem, either spray paint it, or use a quick-drying oil- or alcohol-based primer.

Tips for Buying Paint

I knew I was in trouble the first minute of the first day of class for an engineering physics course. Well, I felt the same way the first time I went into a paint store to pick out the paint for my new house. Hundreds of paints, dozens of implements and shelves of special additives and cleaners.

Here's what you need to know before selecting paint. Stick with a national manufacturer and buy one of its higher grades.

Make sure to buy enough paint to finish the job. If you have to leave a half-finished wall to run and get more paint, the overlap will show, even if the color is a perfect match. A gallon of paint typically covers 400 to 450 sq. ft. Estimate the number of square feet you'll be painting by measuring the total footage around the perimeter of the room and multiplying by the ceiling height in feet. Don't subtract for windows, doors or other openings unless they're enormous. Ceiling areas are easily determined just by calculating the width times the depth of the room. Two or 3 qts. of wall paint cost nearly the same as a gallon, so round up to the next gallon if you need a fraction greater than one-half.

An average room's worth of trim including baseboards and a door or two will need a quart each of primer and one of semigloss trim paint. Have the store shake the cans for you, and stir them every time you paint.

Step 6: Sand, fill and caulk the woodwork

Sand the walls with 100-grit sandpaper to remove bumps from the old paint job, rough edges of drywall paper around any gouges and any other imperfections. A drywall sander (photo 13) will make the job easier. Sand primed woodwork with a medium-grit sanding sponge. Fill any wall blemishes such as nail holes and gouges with a non-shrinking spackling compound and lightly sand after they're dry. Dust all the woodwork with an old, soft paint brush or duster. Then caulk gaps around the woodwork edges.

Step 7: Cut-in and roll the second ceiling coat

Photo 8 shows a simple way to make a flat edge along a textured ceiling. Without that edge, you can't cut in cleanly along the ceiling with the wall paint. Finish the ceiling before starting the walls.

Step 8 Paint the woodwork

Now brush the first coat of latex trim paint onto the woodwork (primer is now dry) with a 2-in. brush, and roll doors with a 1/4-in. nap roller. Then break for the day to let the paint dry. Depending on coverage, you may need to recoat the woodwork the next day. If so, lightly sand between coats with 220-grit sandpaper to smooth brush marks.

Tip: Add a paint conditioner for a smoother finish when brush and roller marks won't level out.

Step 9: Tape the woodwork

Day 2: If you've been able to push through the first day, your room should be ready to finish on the second, more leisurely, day. It takes too long and takes too steady hand to cut the wall paint in around all the woodwork. You'd have to do it well for each coat. It's much easier and faster to mask it, making sure that the tape adheres tightly to the edge so paint doesn't ooze under. The ceiling/wall joint is an exception; you can cut in by hand there.

Make sure the trim paint and caulk are dry at this point.

Step 10: Paint the walls

The key to streak-free wall painting is to maintain a wet edge. The wet cut-in paint should blend with the rolled areas to prevent “picture framing” or shadow lines at hand-painted/rolled junctions. Roll from top to bottom, from right to left, keeping the unsupported side of the roller frame pointing toward the left (Photo 12). Apply slightly heavier pressure to the unsupported side of the roller to eliminate roller tracks.

Using a bucket and screen instead of a paint tray speeds up the work (Photo 12A).

Photo 13: Drywall sander

Photo 13: Drywall sander

Photo 14: Rollers, 9-in. and 7-in.

Photo 14: Rollers, 9-in. and 7-in.

Photo 15: Hole filler

Photo 15: Hole filler

Photo 16: Paint conditioner

Photo 16: Paint conditioner

Select High-Quality Tools and Paint Products to Make the Job Go More Smoothly

Pros don't often go for those gimmicky tools demonstrated on the home shopping network or at the state fair. They rarely go for low-quality discount paint products either, but they do use quality, timesaving tools. These tools don't wear out—you'll use them for years of cosmetic improvements on your house. You can find everything at a home center or a paint store.

Tools
  • Drywall sander with 100-grit paper for sanding walls (Photo 13).
  • Synthetic-bristle 2-in. brush for trim and a 3-in. brush for cutting in walls next to trim and ceilings.
  • Medium and fine sanding sponges (Photo 3) for sanding trim before and after priming.
  • 7- and 9-in. roller frames (Photo 14).
  • Extension handles for rollers (Photo 6) to reduce ladder use, speed up the job and reduce hand and wrist fatigue.
  • 7-in. mohair roller cover (1/4-in. nap) for doors.
  • 9-in. sheepskin roller cover (1/2-in. nap) for walls.

Tip: Natural napped roller covers are easier to clean, give a smoother, lint-free finish and last three times longer than synthetic ones.

  • 9-in. sheepskin roller cover (3/4-in. nap) for textured ceilings. Clean all covers for reuse.
  • Canvas dropcloths.
  • 2-in. flexible putty knife for filling wall flaws and pressing masking tape into joints.
  • 3-in. painter's tape (Photo 11) for protecting carpet and trim. Painter's tape removes easily without tearing or pulling off paint.
  • Wallpaper smoothing tool (Photo 1) to push tape down below baseboards.
  • Roller screen and a 5-gal. bucket (Photo 12A) for painting large areas.
  • Roller tray for smaller areas.

Paint Products

  • Pigmented shellac spray sealers(B-I-N is one brand) dry fast and won't allow stains to bleed through fresh paint.
  • Alcohol-based primers for priming woodwork also dry quickly and are almost odor-free. Oil-based primer is an alternative, but it's slow to dry and cleanup with paint thinner is more of a hassle.
  • Ceiling white is an extra-flat (low sheen) latex paint. While you can use any flat latex on ceilings, this one's best for white ceilings. You can also have it tinted slightly to highlight wall colors.
  • Latex wall paint comes in different sheens (the gloss of the finish). The easiest to apply and touch up is flat (no sheen). The downside is that it isn't as scrubbable as the progressively higher-gloss eggshell, satin, semigloss and gloss paints. The higher the gloss, the more conspicuous wall imperfections will be. Unless you have absolutely perfect walls or need to clean them frequently (such as in the kitchen), stay away from the higher-gloss paints. Use eggshell or flat.
  • Latex trim paint dries to a nonporous, brush stroke–free surface that can stand up to vacuum cleaner encounters. It's tougher and easier to clean than typical wall paints.
  • Deglosser/cleaners (liquid sandpaper) help prepare dirty, oily or varnished surfaces for better paint adhesion.
  • Latex paint conditioners help paint flow and dry more smoothly, especially trim and woodwork paints (Photo 16).
  • Household ammonia or denatured alcohol is needed to clean up alcohol-based paint. Clean up latex paint–laden tools with soap and water.
  • Non-shrinking, quick-drying wall spackling compound for filling in wall imperfections (Photo 15).
  • Latex/silicone caulk for filling woodwork joinery and gaps. (Make sure it says “paintable” on the label.)
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