Preparation for successful painting

Preparation for
successful painting

By Oliver Del Signore

Oliver Del Signore
Issue #61 • January/February, 2000

Producing a professional looking paint job is not an especially difficult undertaking, but it does require a bit of extra work beyond just slapping the paint on the walls and
woodwork. The two keys to making a room, a house, or any painted object look great are proper preparation
and good tools.


The biggest mistake first time painters make is to cut corners on the tools and paint. It is understandable they might choose a five dollar brush over its fifteen dollar cousin since they look similar to the untrained eye. And that pack of six roller covers for five bucks is a heck of a bargain compared to the individually wrapped ones at two-fifty to four dollars each. And the paint…why spend twenty-five dollars for a gallon when there is a brand which costs only fourteen? The answer, in a word, is quality.


A close inspection of the two brushes will reveal some important differences. If you look at the ends of the bristles on brushes meant for latex paint, you will notice the cheap one looks and feels different than the expensive one. The bristles are probably cut square and are all the same length on the five dollar brush, while on the expensive one they are tapered and often suffer from “split ends” (Fig 1). It is the angle of the cut and the split-ends that allow the brush to hold more paint and to apply it quickly, easily, and smoothly, without leaving streaks. Properly cared for, a top quality paint brush can last for many years, through many jobs, and will pay for itself many times over.

Comparing brush quality.

Once you’ve decided to buy the best quality brush, you have to choose the type and size. There are two main types: the wall brush, which is cut square, and the sash brush, which is cut at an angle (Fig 2). I use a sash brush for everything, which saves having to buy two brushes. The angle and point allow me to more easily paint corners and edges. It also does just as good a job as a wall brush on flat surfaces.

The size you choose will depend on the job and your skill level. Brushes come in a variety of sizes, the most popular ranging from one inch to three inches in half-inch increments. Since the smaller sizes are easier to handle, if you are a beginner I would suggest a 1½-inch brush for “cutting in” edges and a 2-inch or 2½-inch for wide surfaces. As you become more skilled at handling a brush, you’ll find you will be able to edge and do window sashes with wider brushes, which allow you to apply more paint more quickly. I generally use a 2½-inch brush for everything except fine detail work.

Roller covers

While the inexpensive multi-pack roller covers will get the paint on the wall, the more expensive covers will, like the better quality brushes, hold more paint and allow you to apply it, and finish it, more easily.

The nap—the fibers or threads—on better quality covers is much more dense than on the cheap ones. Some inexpensive covers are so poor you can actually see the cardboard tube through the threads. In addition, cheap covers are much more likely to “shed” as you are using them. When a roller cover “sheds,” the fibers come loose and end up on the painted surface. Since good covers cost only a few dollars more, why chance having a job ruined by a cheaper quality product?

Choosing the proper nap length is just as important to the finished product as is the quality. A ¼-inch nap is generally used for oil or latex paints on ultra-smooth surfaces. A 3/8-inch is a good choice for latex on smooth walls and ceilings, while ½-inch and 5/8-inch are good for rougher surfaces like scrolled or “popcorn” ceilings and for some masonry. The thickest naps, ¾-inch and 1-inch, are used for very rough or deeply pitted surfaces.

Hint: If your job is large enough that you won’t finish it in one day, you can “store” the roller overnight by leaving it on the handle, loading it heavily with paint, and then wrapping it securely in plastic so no air can get in.

Sash and wall brushes.

The paint

Any good cook knows that the best ingredients produce the best meal. It is not much different with paint. Most paint manufacturers make several “lines” or grades of paint. In general, the differences will be in the amount and/or type of resin, pigment, and solids in the paint. Naturally, the more and the better the ingredients, the higher the cost. Too often, a lesser grade is harder to apply and not as durable. That is why I always choose a manufacturer’s best grade of paint.


Primer is a type of paint that seals the surface to give a more uniform looking finish when the topcoat is applied. It is used over bare or freshly sanded wood and over bare plaster or drywall. Some formulations can be applied over old glossy or semi-gloss paint instead of having to sand the surface, while others are good for sealing in stains and wood knots so they will not “bleed” through the topcoat. Primer can also be used when
there will be a drastic color change, such as yellow over dark red or blue,
or vice-versa.


The surface to be painted must be clean and dry, free of oils and waxes and in good, sound condition. If you will be painting over a new surface, preparation will likely be limited to wiping it down with a dry cloth to remove any lingering dust.

Older, and previously painted, surfaces are another matter. The first step is to check for and scrape off any loose or peeling paint. If there are any areas you are unsure of, scrape them anyway. It is better to have scraped a bit too much than not enough because your paint job will only be as good as the underlying surface. While you are doing this, especially if you are painting indoors, you will want to check for and remove any bits of tape and the like which are stuck to the surfaces.

The next step is one many people, even professionals, neglect because it takes a lot of time.

Look at a spot you just scraped, and you will notice the sharp, “square” edges between the top layer and whatever is underneath (Fig. 3). If there were several layers of paint already on the surface, you might notice how the layers step down. Painting right over those will result in a ragged looking finish because the paint will follow the contour of the sharp edges and valleys. To prevent, or minimize, that effect you need to feather the edges by sanding them until they slope down rather than step down between layers. This will allow the new paint to flow smoothly from one layer to the next, resulting in a much smoother looking finish.

Feathering chipped areas.

Your next task is to locate and fill any holes, gouges, and cracks. There are many products you can use to fill them. Some products require you to slightly overfill because the product shrinks as it dries. It is always best to read all the directions before choosing and using any product. When the fills are dry, sand them lightly until they are even with the surrounding surface.

It’s now time to sand all the rest of the surfaces to be painted. While this is less important if the old paint is a flat finish, it is essential if the existing paint has any kind of gloss, unless you will be applying one of the special primers designed to bond to glossy surfaces. Even then, if the old paint was a high gloss finish, I like to sand a bit to break the gloss and help the primer stick even better.

After the sanding is done, vacuum the surfaces and the floors to remove the sanding dust. You can also simply wipe them down with a dry cloth, although you must make sure to get all of the dust off the surface.

The final step is to wash all the surfaces down with a good no-rinse cleaning solution. If there was any mold or mildew present, you should choose a product to which you can add bleach according to the directions on the bleach container. However, if you use bleach you must rinse throughly with clean clear water. If you do not, the paint will not stick properly.

Caution: Never add bleach to any solution containing ammonia as it will produce a gas that can be extremely harmful or fatal. Always check to be sure the product you want to use can be safely mixed with bleach. If you are unsure, wash twice, first with bleach then with the cleaner, thoroughly rinsing between washings to remove all traces of the bleach.

As you can see, preparation takes as much, if not more work, than actually applying the paint, but it is essential if you want the job to be one you can be proud of for years to come.


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