11 Tips for Exterior Painting

Updated: May 18, 2024

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

Gettyimages 184322768 Exterior Painting JveditBANKSPHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

Exterior House Paint 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 many hours of careful exterior paint preparation. Plan to devote an entire summer to prepare and paint even a medium-size house.

In this article, we’ll walk you through some general advice, troubleshoot common mistakes, then 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, steady hand and a little 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.

If you’ve taken the time to properly clean and prepare the surfaces, and carefully primed, caulked and painted with 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 more years.

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,” 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 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 it 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 buildup 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 runs or sags.

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paints samples in a hardware store
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Paint Stores Can Help With Colors and Quantities

The first step is picking colors. Choosing those that complement the architectural details of your house and fit the character of your neighborhood can be tricky. 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 — stucco, cedar shingles, smooth siding, etc. Count the doors and windows. With this information, paint store employees can calculate the amount of paint you’ll need. Let them know if you’re painting wood siding or something else. 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, satin or eggshell. It’s more fade resistant and easier to clean than flat paint.

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paintbrush on white grid background
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Buy High-Quality Painting Tools

Applying topcoats (the final coats of paint) doesn’t require much equipment beyond what you already have 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 (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.

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 one-gallon paint cans and a clean five-gallon bucket.

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hand holding a paintbrush and paint tray painting the exterior of a house
Image by Marie LaFauci/getty images

Check the Weather

Not all weather is exterior painting weather. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • 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 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 unless it’s formulated for cold weather application. Read the label to be sure.
  • Don’t paint when there’s a chance of rain.
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Hand holding brush painting wall

Avoid These Common Exterior Painting Problems

Lap marks show up as darker areas. They’re 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, 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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Home Improvement Projects
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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. Paint the window sash (the movable part) early in the day and return to paint the frame around the sash. This way your paint job will look neat and you won’t waste time.

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painting an exterior of the house
TMB studio

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. Then move down to the next four courses and repeat the process.

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three steps painting a house exterior with a brush
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Three-Step Brush Technique

Load the brush

Load the brush by dipping about two inches of the bristles into the paint. Slap the brush back and forth once against the sides of the can to remove excess paint. Paint from a bucket with two or three inches of paint in the bottom rather than from a full can.

Spread the paint

Lay on the paint thickly with two or three back-and-forth strokes. Don’t worry about smoothing it yet. Then reload the brush and repeat until you’ve covered about three or four square feet.

Smooth the paint

Smooth the paint without reloading the brush. Use long, sweeping brush strokes, working from the unpainted area toward the painted area. Lift the brush while it’s still moving at the end of each stroke.

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three steps painting a houe exterior with roller and brush
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Roller Technique

Load the roller

Pour about a gallon of paint into a clean five-gallon bucket and hang a roller screen into the bucket. Load the roller, rolling it against the screen until the roller nap is saturated and the excess paint squeezed out.

Roll the paint

Lay on the paint with the roller. Use moderate pressure and reload the roller when paint no longer flows off easily. Again cover about three or four sq. ft. Rolling causes paint to spatter, so be sure to protect patios, walks and landscaping with drop cloths or plastic.

Work the paint in with a brush

Back-brush by working the paint into cracks and onto the bottom edge of shingles and siding with your paintbrush. Then brush with the grain of the wood to smooth the paint.

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exterior painting cutting in technique
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Cutting-in Exterior House Painting Techniques

Painting a straight line, also called cutting in a line, is another exterior painting technique worth mastering (Photos 7 through 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 builds 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.

Cut in at the corner

Load the brush and wiggle the tip of the brush carefully into the inside corner. Then pull it out and along one edge for about four inches.

Paint the next edge

Turn the brush to paint the adjacent edge of the same inside corner and repeat the process.

Reload the brush and remove excess paint from the bristles by laying on the paint close to, but not against, the edge you’re cutting in. Without reloading the brush, go back and paint close to the edge. Fan the bristles slightly and use a slow, steady stroke while concentrating on the line you’re painting.

Complete the exterior house painting job by smoothing the paint in the center of the panel with long, sweeping strokes, keeping well away from the completed edge.

Paint onto the glass

Lap paint slightly onto the glass as you paint window muntins and sash. Use a 1-1/2-in. angled sash brush. Wipe off most of the paint on the edge of the can for better control. After the paint dries, scrape the excess from the glass with a single-edged razor blade.

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painting an exterior door green
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Exterior Door Painting Technique

Paint door panels first

Spread paint on the panels first, working it into the corners. Smooth the paint with long strokes in the direction of the wood grain.

Spread paint, then smooth it

Spread a layer of paint on the door parts surrounding the panels. Work quickly from one end of the door to the other so you’re always brushing back over wet paint.

Spread paint on about one-third of the door before smoothing it out with long, sweeping brush strokes. Then move to the next third and brush back toward the finished section. Plan the order to follow the wood grain (see numbers on Photo 10). Don’t forget to paint the top and bottom edges of the door to seal out moisture.

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exteroir house painting tips for saving time
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Exterior Painting Timesaving Tips

Here are a few final tips to help you save time:

  • Hold the 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.

Use the siding color on casing edges

Paint the edges of window and door casings the same color as the siding paint. It looks great from the street and will save you tons of time.

Wipe mistakes while they’re wet

Wipe excess paint from the face of the window trim with a rag before it dries. Use this same tip anywhere excess paint builds up along an edge.

Tape off bottom edges

Use a putty knife to press masking tape into lower corners that are likely to catch runs. Then slide the knife along the edge of the tape while maintaining firm downward pressure to ensure a good seal and prevent paint from leaking under the tape.