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How to Paint a Room Like a Pro

Just about anyone who’s handy can paint, but are the results up to snuff?

Here’s how to take your painting skills to the next level

After getting married and buying a home last year, Rebecca Brown figured her high-school summers painting houses would make her new DIY project a piece of cake. She finished some ceilings, but a few days—and a whole lot of blue tape—later, she realized that she needed help with the walls. “Back when I was painting, we used off-white on everything,” Rebecca says. “I had no experience choosing or working with different colors and sheens.” So she wrote to Ask This Old House. That’s how Mauro Henrique, who has been the painting contractor on about a dozen This Old House TV projects, ended up at her house, coaching her through the steps of refreshing her dining room.

Henrique and Rebecca went over everything that needs to happen before painting starts, including how to pick the right sheen, and the best way to mask window glass. Then he showed her some nifty tricks of the trade for brushing and rolling that help the work go faster, look better, and last longer. Coming up on the following pages: Henrique demonstrates what goes into a first-class paint job.

Mauro Henrique was working on a construction crew, hoping to become a carpenter, when one day in 1991 the painter didn’t show up. “The contractor looked at me and said, ‘Can you paint?’ I shrugged, picked up a brush—and found my trade.” For Henrique, the big appeal of painting is how fast he and his crew can transform a client’s house. “I get to make people happy every day.”

Shown: Painting contractor Mauro Henrique uses a brush to apply color to window trim in a room which also served as a classroom for him to teach proper prep and application techniques on a recent Ask TOH TV episode.


Learn the Proper Sequence

Save time by working in a logical sequence

What to look for when buying paint

Go top-of-the-line: Regardless of what paint brand you buy, Henrique says to choose the most expensive product in the line. That adds a few dollars per gallon, but better paint makes the job easier, yields better-looking results, and creates a longer-lasting finish.

Get the right sheen: A coating’s ability to reflect light ranges from high gloss, the shiniest and most washable, to flat or matte, which has no luster and is tough to clean. High gloss is unforgiving to apply—every brushstroke is visible—so Henrique uses semigloss for trim, windows, and doors. Satin has a bit less luster and plenty of durability, making it a great choice for cabinetry. Low-sheen eggshell is Henrique’s pick for walls. Flats and mattes, while great at hiding imperfections, are more easily stained, scratched, and dinged; they’re best on ceilings.

Check the VOCs: The volatile organic compounds in paint can cause headaches and respiratory irritation, and are known carcinogens. Paints off-gas most during application, and continue off-gassing for weeks afterward. That’s why Henrique prefers paints with zero or low VOCs—50 grams per liter or less.

Primer/Paint: “The whole industry is shifting to combination primer and paint,” says Mauro. “That’s a good thing, since a lot of people skip the primer, and the combination is better than nothing.” Still, for an unfinished or problem surface, he always uses a stand-alone primer. And if he’ll be using a dark paint, he tints the primer with about 80% of the paint color to ensure that two topcoats will do the job.


Prep: Take Off Hardware

Remove and set aside window hardware, door strikes, electrical cover plates, and light fixtures. As each piece comes off, Henrique tapes on its screws, writes its location on the tape, and puts everything in a bucket in the same room.


Prep: Protect Floors, and Sand

Apply painter’s tape to the floor alongside the baseboard, then tape sheets of rosin paper to this strip. Cover the paper with drop cloths. To ensure good paint adhesion, lightly scuff-sand the trim and windows with 220-grit paper. Remove the dust with a HEPA vacuum, then a damp rag. Do not sand paint that’s more than 40 years old without first testing it for lead.


Painting Windows: Guard the Glass

Using a 2-inch flat (square-tipped) trim brush, apply two coats of glass-masking liquid. This takes less time than tape and forms a clear, no-bleed barrier. If a little liquid gets on the sash, just wait for it to dry and paint over it.

Brushes and masking liquid are available for purchases at The Home Depot


Painting Windows: Top Sash

Open the sash slightly and paint the edges next to the glass with a 1½-inch angled sash brush. Don’t touch the lower rail yet. Now coat the sash’s top and side faces. A taping knife, shown, keeps paint off jambs and window trim.


Painting Windows: Bottom Sash

As in Step 5, open the sash slightly and paint the inside edges, then the sash face. Now raise it fully and lower the top sash. Paint its bottom rail and any missed parts. Leave both sashes open for at least 90 minutes so the paint can dry.


Painting Trim: Caulk Seams and Corners

The fewer open seams there are, the better your wall will look. Cut a caulk tube close to the tip to get a small bead. Squeeze the caulk-gun trigger just enough to maintain a continuous flow of sealant as you pull the tip over the seam. Smooth the bead with a finger wrapped in a damp rag.


Painting Trim: Fill Defects

Using a light held at a low angle to the surface, look for dings and small holes. Fill them with two coats of water-based wood filler applied with a flexible putty knife. After each coat dries, smooth with 220-grit sandpaper. Fill large, deep holes with a fast-setting, two-part wood filler, and sand before painting.

Wood fillers are available at The Home Depot


Painting Trim: Brush the Trim

A brush follows molding contours and leaves a smoother finish than a roller. Ideally, it is wide enough to span the trim’s face in one pass, without lapping over the edges. Paint the face, then the edges. When the first coat is dry—in about 90 minutes—apply a second coat.


Painting Walls: Cut-in Around Trim and at Corners

Along the perimeter of a wall, where it meets the trim, the ceiling, and other walls, brush on a 1½- to 2-inch-wide stripe of the wall color. Painting that stripe, a process called cutting-in, puts paint in areas that a roller can’t easily reach. Next to trim and the ceiling, cutting-in also forms a crisp paint line that would be impossible with a roller alone. To get the best results, use long, steady strokes and a brush that isn’t overloaded with paint. Henrique prefers to cut-in with a 2½-inch-wide angled sash brush. For maximum control, he grips it at the ferrule, with his fingers as close to the bristles as possible.


Painting Walls: Apply, Then Fill

Pour some paint into the reservoir of a paint tray, dip the roller cover in, then distribute the paint evenly by rolling the cover over the ridged part of the tray. Bring the roller up to the wall, and using modest speed and a controlled motion, roll on a W shape to quickly get paint off the roller and onto the wall (A). Fill in the gaps and spread the paint film evenly over the entire 3- to 4-square-foot area (B), before going back to the pan for more paint. Repeat the process as you move across the wall, overlapping each section 30 to 40 percent over the previous area (C). Work from the top of the wall downward, to flatten any drips that occur. Don’t apply too much pressure—that will cause ridges of paint to form at the ends of the roller—and don’t worry if you can see through the first coat. “Focus on getting it smooth and even,” Henrique says, “and don’t try to stretch the paint.”


Painting Walls: Roll the Perimeter

To hide the texture of the brushstrokes made during cutting-in, run a lightly loaded roller as close as possible to corners or the edges of the trim. At the top of the wall, you’ll have to climb a stepladder to do this. When this first coat is dry, in about 90 minutes, repeat the wall-painting sequence, including the cutting-in, and cover the entire wall with a second and, if necessary, a third coat.


Painting Walls: Clean Up

After the paint has dried for at least 5 to 6 hours—or, ideally, overnight—use a utility knife to score around the edges of each pane, then pull off the rubbery masking membrane, as shown. Next, shut the windows, and reattach the window hardware, light fixtures, and electrical covers. Now remove the painter’s tape, rosin paper, and drop cloths. Latex paints don’t fully cure for one to two weeks, so clean the room slowly to avoid raising dust, and don’t rub or scrub the finish during that time.

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