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Weekly Alibi A Paint Primer

How to get Professional Results on a Do-It-Yourself Budget

By Ms. Velvet Sheen

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  We all consider ourselves to be painters on some level. Who hasn't at least slopped whitewash on a backyard fence or "helped" dad paint some hidden closet? Anybody can pry off the lid from a can of paint, dip a disposable sponge brush into it and proceed to apply a little more than half to a wall (the rest to the floor, your hands, face, circa 1970 clothing and, of course, the soles of your ratty sneakers).

But somehow the end results always betray the painter's inexperience. Mauve roller marks on the white ceiling; light switch and switch plates covered with multiple layers of paint that should have stayed only on the wall; baseboards with a quivering half-inch line of wall paint where it should just be trim color -- all these examples of over-painting jump out to the trained eye and present a shabby appearance. And the only way to fix these eye-sores is to replace the items, a totally unnecessary expense.

You don't have to hire a professional to get professional-looking results. And women -- you can do more than hang wallpaper. Don't be intimidated by what's traditionally been a male-dominated trade. You, too, can beautify a room with a brush and roller. The keys are to keep the paint restricted to the surfaces you want painted (sounds simple enough but not so easy to achieve) and to make a modest initial investment in tools that will make any paint job easier, faster and most important -- great looking.

Consult the following list of handy tools and the step-by-step instructions, and get on your way to painting the professional way!


Invest in a few handy tools. This may cost more than you had in mind when you decided to spruce up Janey's hot pink bedroom, but they'll last a lifetime if properly taken care of. And if you're selling your house, a professional-looking paint job will surely translate into a more lucrative selling price. For approximately $50 you can be equipped with the tools that will make the difference. And as an aside, here are two things you don't need to buy: spraying equipment and paint machines. A brush and roller are adequate and appropriate for most, if not all, residential projects.

Brushes ($11)

You only need one. Buy a high quality brush and take good care of it. Do so, and it should last forever. I recommend Dunn Edwards or Purdy brand brushes. Get a 2 1/2-inch angular brush for cutting-in (painting the areas that cannot be covered with a roller) normal interior jobs. If you have windows with narrow panes you may also want a 1 1/2-inch brush. Latex paint is appropriate for most interior residential jobs, so a nylon or synthetic bristle brush is what you want. Oil paint requires a more expensive China bristle brush, but avoid using oil -- it's more expensive, harder to clean up and fills your house with nasty fumes. Don't throw the brush cover away -- ever! After cleanup, always put the brush back into its cover to protect it and especially so it retains its proper shape -- the key to being able to make a straight line when cutting-in near the ceiling, for example.

Five-gallon bucket and grid ($4, $1)

Most do-it-yourselfers paint out of tray -- not a good idea. You can easily step into it by mistake, and it's difficult to carry around as you move from wall to wall. Do it the professional way. Buy a five-gallon plastic bucket or clean one out that you've got lying around -- just make sure the inside is completely free of grit, drywall mud, etc. Also buy a metal bucket grid that hangs from the edge into the bucket. Your roller handle is designed to rest on the grid and dangle in the bucket when it's not in use. Dip the roller down into the paint and scrape the excess off (simultaneously pushing the paint into the roller cover) by rolling it several times across the grid. It's extremely easy to tote around by the bucket handle, you control the amount of paint on the roller better, and you'll never step into it again.

Roller cover ($3-$4)

These are cheap. But it's much better to buy a good one and clean it after each use than to buy cheap disposables each paint job. Even the best roller on its first use is problematic -- the little fibers have a tendency to come off, mix into the paint and show up on the wall. The best rollers have been used and cleaned. (More on how to clean rollers below.) After a cleaned roller has completely dried, take your hand and rough it up to get any loose fibers to fly off. Spend a little extra for a good one and save it forever.

Roller handle and pole ($5, $3-$15)

Most people buy the former but not the latter. A pole makes it much easier to roll the paint in straight, vertical rows. It's also easier on your arm and wrist since you support the roller with two hands. And if you're doing a ceiling you're certifiably insane to not use an extendable roller pole. Without one the job is exhausting. The pole also makes it easier to not put too much or too little paint on the wall when rolling. A roller should be used on as much of the paint job as possible -- it's much faster than brushing. Don't ever use a roller on a paneled door or trim -- the standard look for those surfaces is to show brush marks. (In fact, some high-end, old-guard customers want that old-fashioned look and require the contractor to apply light bush strokes after rolling a wall.)

One-gallon bucket ($1)

Surely you've got an empty paint can around. (Always save and clean out your paint cans for just this purpose.) Make sure it's clean. If you want, take a pair of pliers and remove the lip. When painting with a brush, you want to keep the heel and handle out of the paint. (The key to prevent paint from dripping down your arm when you're reaching up.) When you open your brand new can of paint, pour some into an empty 1-gallon can, about 2" to 3" only. Pour the rest into your clean 5-gallon bucket but not above the dangling grid. Set the new paint can aside and replace its cover! You can safely drop your paint brush into the can and the paint won't reach up to the heel. The lip on the can won't have paint on it, so the brush handle will stay clean (key to keeping your hands clean). When you dip a brush into the can, most amateurs do it wrong. They dip and then scrape most of the paint off on the can's lip. Wrong! Take the brush, dripping with paint, and gently pat it on each side of the inside of the can. You'd be surprised, but now it won't drip. Plus you've pushed the paint deep into the brush. When you paint, bend the brush slightly so that it will be pushed out again.


If you've got old sheets and mattress pads around they'll do the job nicely. Never throw away old linens. Run them through the washer, and you've got dropcloths. Ask your friends for their rejects. There's no need to spend good money on dropcloths. Just make sure not to throw them out after the job is done. Leave them in the painted room 'til the paint is dry, then shake 'em out good outside, fold them up and store them for next time. Don't ever paint a room without covering the entire floor with dropcloths. Even if you're planning on removing that old carpet, it's best to keep any spills or drips on something easily removed.

Wire brush ($1)

This is important to preserve that expensive paint brush you just bought. Use the wire brush to clean your paint brush in the sink in lukewarm water (hot water will set latex paint up), digging deep into the heel of the brush. You aren't done cleaning it 'til any water squeezed out of it is clear. It takes quite a while, but your brush will last forever if you religiously clean it well after each use. Yes, you can soak it 'til you have time to clean it, but no more than overnight or the bristles will fan out.

5-in-1 tool ($5)

This all-purpose tool (also called a 6-in-1 tool) is probably in every professional painter's side pocket. It's a firm scraper to remove loose plaster with a roller-shaped opening used to scrape off excess paint from the roller just prior to cleaning. Rollers hold a lot of paint. When you're done, you can use a 5-in-1 to scrape it back into the can. This is also a lifesaver if you run out of paint with only a little bit of wall or trim left. Scrape the paint from the roller and, voilà!, you've got that little extra to finish the job without having to run to the paint store to buy another gallon or overpriced quart.

Masking Tape ($1)

A one-inch wide roll should do it. Don't buy the cheap stuff! Cheap tape tears when you don't want it to and stays stuck on surfaces when you want it to come off. Buy Dunn Edwards brand. Never, ever leave tape on a baseboard, doorknob, etc., for more than 24 hours after you're done painting. A dead-ringer for an amateur paint job is bits of old, yellowing masking tape still molecularly bonded to the window seven years later. If you have to leave it on longer, buy 3M brand blue masking tape ($3) instead, which can be left on for 48 hours.

Masking Paper

Skip the pro stuff and use old newspapers. Tear them from top-to-bottom (newsprint doesn't tear well from side-to-side) into 1 1/2-foot wide strips. Then take your masking tape and put half the edge on the paper and leave the other half free to put on your baseboard or whatever other surface you're protecting. It's easiest to do this on a wall. Remember: masking off the baseboard isn't just so cutting it in with a brush is easier -- it's also to catch the splatter that falls from above when you're rolling.

Spinner ($11)

This is a handy painter's secret. Professionals use a spinner to quickly clean roller covers. After scraping excess piant off your roller with a 5-in-1, place the roller onto the spinner and spin it out into your empty 5-gallon bucket. Most of the paint will fly off. Then rinse the roller under the faucet and repeat the spinning process until the roller is completely clean. Put the clean, damp roller back into its original plastic bag to protect its shape, especially the edges. Important!


Buy quality paint. You think you're saving money buying that bargain department store paint, but you're not. A quality paint (like Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore or my favorite for this dry climate, Wellborn/Dunn Edwards) with proper prep work can, in many cases, do the job with only one application, while the cheapos require two coats to get the same results. Quality paint is also much less frustrating to apply -- it glides on smoothly and has a uniform consistency. Expect to spend approximately $25 for a gallon of flat latex.

Prepare the surface before painting it. Prep work is probably the fundamental difference between a professional job and a DIY job. Prep should take longer than the actual painting in many cases. Give yourself more than one Saturday to complete that bedroom from start to finish. You'll be much happier in the long run. Remember -- it's going to be many years most likely before you paint it again, so you're gonna have to live with it a long time.

Prep work includes (depending on how bad previous paint jobs were) removing all removable items that you don't want any paint on. Take the time to get someone to help you move all the furniture out of the room, especially if you're painting the ceiling. It's a lot of work, but it guarantees that your headboard won't get any splatters on it, you won't be struggling to navigate around obstacles (which will effect the quality of your painting) and the painting will go much faster. It's worth it.

Use a screwdriver to remove anything unpainted that should stay that way. Typically, that's switchplates and various other hardware. Screw the screws back in so you won't lose them. If they get any paint on them it's easy to scrape off with your fingernail if done within a day or two of the paint job. Drop the covers upside down onto the floor underneath your dropcloth.

Then take your 5-in-1 tool and scrape off any loose drywall or plaster. This is important! Go around the entire room and closely examine any cracks or holes and do some hefty gouging to loosen brittle areas. Then take a 3-inch flex putty knife ($4) and fill all holes and cracks with spackling compound. Buy the pre-mixed, quick drying stuff ($4/quart).

After it's dry, cover all the areas you spackled with a decent quality primer ($4/quart; $15/gallon). Speaking of primer, if you're trying to cover a dark color with a light color, you definitely want to sand it well from floor to ceiling (100-grit sandpaper, $.49/sheet) and then apply a coat of primer before applying your finish coat. You also need to sand if you're going over semi-gloss, typically used in high-traffic areas such as bathrooms and kitchens. Some people try to do two coats of the finish paint. Better to use primer, as it's designed to cover and seal well enough so the finish coat will glide on smoothly.

OK, you're ready! You've bought good paint, you've selected a color (slightly lighter than what you want, but color is a whole other topic we don't have room for), you've bought the necessary tools and you've prepped the walls. Now attack!

Do one wall at a time. Do the walls first, and save the windows, doors and trim for after the walls dry. If you're doing the ceiling, always do that first since paint will splatter onto the walls. Cut-in with a brush all the areas that a roller can't reach. Brush a 3-inch line in the corners, along the baseboards (which are masked), along the ceiling (use a ladder!), around door trim and window trim. Only cut-in one wall, stop and roll it before going to the next wall.

Most people skimp on paint, trying to save money. Don't! Apply the paint liberally -- you've got too much if it gobs up, but you shouldn't see any signs of the previous coat.

When rolling, go slow near the ceiling and trim. Apply slight pressure to the right on the roller handle so the edge you left is cleaned up on each pass. When you're done with a wall, stop and carefully examine your work. With a nearly empty roller go over and touch up any uneven spots while the paint is still wet. Don't touch up later or you may make it even worse.

The Aftermath

After you're done, have a beer and bask in the glow from the freshly painted walls. Go outside and breath fresh air. Allow yourself to be congratulated, as friends and neighbors marvel at the professional job accomplished without any Bob's Painting vans having pulled in the drive. Clean your equipment. Label your paint cans, clearly stating color and room where it was used. Make sure Fido and Kitty don't get the chance to wag their tails into the wet paint.

Wait a few days before reattaching hardware and switch covers, otherwise they'll get stuck. If you painted any windows, make sure to open and close them once a day for a week to prevent sticking. And never let them dry closed.

Following these tricks of the trade should result in a beautiful paint job you can be proud of. A gallon of paint is the most economical way to vastly improve the look of any room. Without having to get a second mortgage on the house, you can transform a room. Happy painting! And open those windows up!

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