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Painting a Room

Martha Stewart Living, June 1995

Most professional painters would agree: The best way to paint a room is from top to bottom. But the same experts will also tell you there is far more to a successful paint job than just working your roller from the top down.

The first step -- buying the paint -- is probably the most crucial. This is not the place for scrimping. If you buy the finest-quality paint and apply it properly, you won't have to paint again for six or seven years. Ignore that advice, and a lot of hard work will have to be repeated in what will seem like an obscenely short time. Many experts prefer oil-based paint for trim and floors, and water-soluble latex for walls and ceilings. Oil-based paints are durable and long-lived, but they generally take two or three days to dry (latex dries in about half that time) and may not resist chipping and cracking as well as latex. If you're in doubt about which kind of paint to use, consult the paint store or home center where you plan to buy your paint.

Given your room dimensions, most paint stores will help estimate how many gallons of paint and primer you'll need. In general, you'll need enough for one coat of primer and two coats of paint. The primer, which prepares the walls for the paint, should be tinted to match the paint if the room is going from a light color to a dark one.

Dennis Rowan, a paint contractor in Westport, Connecticut, recommends a flat finish on ceilings and a flat or slightly glossy eggshell finish (which is easier to clean) on walls. Trim, says Rowan, should be a semigloss, which provides a handsome contrast to the wall and ceiling finishes but will flaunt fewer imperfections in the wood than high gloss.

Do You Know?
When Martha bought her house in Maine, the first thing she decided to do was choose new colors for the walls -- which had not been painted since the house was built in the 1920s. Martha selected beiges and whites that differed only slightly from the original tones throughout the house.

 Preparing for a Paint Job
Painting can be incredibly messy. Although latex paints, which are water soluble, are relatively easy to clean up, oil-based paint allows for no errors. Everything must be covered -- even your hair -- so drips and spills can be tossed out at the end of the job. A painter's cap with a visor will take care of your hair. Floors need to be covered with paper or plastic.

A bare floor should be covered with building paper, which comes in a roll and, like all supplies needed for the job, is available at most paint stores. Roll it out in contiguous parallel strips the length of the room and tape it down, using a utility knife to fit it at the room's ends and corners. Use a safe-release tape, like 3M's Long Mask blue masking tape, which won't damage surfaces.

For wall-to-wall carpeting, you'll need a heavier cover: sheets of 4-mil-thick plastic are a good choice. Use the blue tape around the carpet's perimeter, then use the more adhesive duct tape to attach the plastic to it and to join the sheets together. Be careful when using the duct tape; it is sticky and, like a Band-Aid, will leave difficult-to-remove marks if it comes in contact with carpeting or walls. Furniture should be massed together where it will not obstruct the work -- usually in the center of the room -- and covered completely with plastic.

Electrical plates and hardware can be covered with blue tape or removed. If they're removed, label them so you'll know where to put them back. Pop screws back in their holes, and tape them in place.

When painting window trim, some people mask windows to keep them clean. However, paint may leak out. Instead, paint the window trim as cleanly as you can, and use a single-edged razor blade scraper to remove dried paint from windows later.

Ventilating the room is critical. Oil-based paints present noxious fumes and should not be used around children under 10 years old or pets. Neither children nor pets should be allowed into an oil-painted room until it dries completely. Latex paint is safe for use around pets and children.

Finally, good lighting will make the difference between an excellent result and a mediocre one. Inexpensive clamp lights on ladders, doors, or windowsills are the professional painter's choice.

 Painting-Supplies Checklist
The key to a trouble-free job is a supply table organized as carefully as a surgeon's operating-room tray. In addition to a utility knife and tape, you should have the following on hand:

-Natural-bristle brushes in sizes of 1 to 4 inches
-100-grade sandpaper for heavy sanding, 220 grade for finishing
-Cotton painter's gloves
-A 5-in-1 (a tool that functions as a scraper, screwdriver, crack picker, roller-sleeve cleaner, and box cutter -- available at home centers and hardware stores)
-Paint trays
-Several plastic buckets and coffee cans for decanting paint
-Trash receptacles lined with plastic bags
-Stir sticks, which usually come with the paint

You may also want a broomstick or an extension pole to attach to the roller. This is easier on your back and, because it puts distance between the painter and the work, helps prevent you from getting covered with paint. Any table well protected with heavy plastic will do for supplies, or you can make one from two sawhorses topped by a plastic- or paper-covered door.

The number of roller cages (the handle and spine) and roller sleeves (the removable fuzzy part) you need will vary, depending on the job. Since roller sleeves are tricky to clean, the home painter should get one for each paint color and finish. A standard 9-inch roller will do most jobs, but a 7-inch or the tiny 2-inch size may be necessary for smaller areas.

High-quality natural-bristle brushes are the only kind to use with oil-based paints. Rollers are for large surfaces; brushes for corners, doors, trim, and windows. Each painter must be the judge of the right size, because brushes should feel comfortable in the hand. As a guideline, start with 4 inches for large areas, 2 1/2 inches for trim, and 1 1/2 inches for narrow trim, like the kind on windows. Latex paints can be applied with synthetic brushes.

 Sand, Prime, and Start Painting
Painting over imperfections will only yield a sloppy look; instead, sand surfaces smooth. Dennis Rowan ordinarily uses 120-grade sandpaper; then, with finer, 220-grade paper, he goes over by hand any areas that need special attention.

Remove dust with clean, damp cotton rags or a vacuum cleaner. (Old T-shirts make good rags, but never use terry-cloth towels -- they leave lint.) Keep the floor dust-free, too, so grit doesn't get into the new paint. Wash walls with soapy water before priming, especially bathroom and kitchen walls, which may be mildewed or greasy.

After sanding, apply the primer to the entire room, following the manufacturer's instructions for drying times. Do this as carefully as the final paint job. If you are using oil-based paint over an old latex job, use an oil-based primer to cover, and vice versa.

Paint colors can vary from can to can, so to avoid color inconsistencies, pour all the cans of paint of the same color and texture into a large, clean bucket before starting. Stir well, and pour the paint back into the cans for easy use. Professionals call this boxing. Never pour more than an inch of paint into a tray. The ridges should be exposed so you can roll off excess paint on them.

Start with the ceiling. When professionals get to corners inaccessible with a roller, they cut in (that is, they use a brush to paint along the corners, coming out 3 inches on either side). Then, while the paint is still wet, the roller is applied, coming in as close to the corner as possible to overlap the brushed-on area. This technique mingles the two textures.

Making clean, straight lines where different colors touch -- as happens when the ceiling color is different from a soffit beam or a wall that meets it -- can pose a challenge, even to the experienced home painter. It's a good idea to practice this beforehand. If you still don't have confidence in your skill, wait overnight for the ceiling to partially dry, then seal it off with low-adhesive tape and apply the next color.

For the finished work to look beautiful, it is important to go quickly and lightly over the primer and first coats with fine sandpaper. Follow the paint manufacturer's instructions for how long paint must dry before sanding. Then dust with a cotton cloth before applying the finishing coats.

When the ceiling is finished, professionals say, the walls should be done the same way. The trim is last, and, since it is put on only with a brush, the painter can work right out of the can. Painting one room with oil paint will probably take three days, figuring a day's drying for each coat.



The Cleanup
During a painting job, materials that will be needed the next day must be kept in shape overnight. First, saturate each roller sleeve with paint, and place it in a plastic bag. Tightly roll the plastic around the sleeve to press out all the air, and tape it in place. Label each bag "wall paint," "soffit," and so on. The ends of roller cages should be cleaned with mineral spirits or water, paint poured from trays back into the cans, excess paint brushed in, and the cans sealed tightly. Trays should be well swabbed with paper towels.

The cleanup for oil-based paints requires special precautions, because mineral spirits are also highly toxic. Never smoke around them. Wear the heaviest rubber gloves, because mineral spirits and paint solvents can break down thin rubber or latex and enter the bloodstream. Discard used mineral spirits in a sealed container, such as a dead paint can. Never use plastic, unless it is the container the spirits came in. The local sanitation department can give instructions for disposing of this toxic waste. Rags with mineral spirits on them are combustible, especially in warm months, and should also be disposed of in closed containers. Working with latex paint is much easier. Tools can be cleaned with warm water and soap, and spills wiped off with wet cloths.

To clean brushes, start by soaking them in a bucket of clear water (if the paint is latex), then scrub around the base with a wire brush. If the paint is oil-based, pour an inch or two of paint thinner or mineral spirits into a bucket, and swirl the brush in that to loosen the paint. If all the paint still hasn't come off the brush, attach the brush by its handle to an inexpensive brush spinner (available in hardware and paint-supply stores). Dip the brush, attached to the spinner, into a bucket of clear water, then, using a pumping motion, quickly push the plunger on the opposite end up and down. This will cause the brush to spin rapidly, forcing the paint from the bristles. Finally, wash the brushes in mild detergent, rinse, and reshape.

All this may seem daunting, but if you've used quality paint and done a good job, you probably won't have to worry about the next paint job for years. After that, you can always move.

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