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Painting a Room, Step by Step

Martha Stewart Living, September 2005

Ready to give your walls a fresh coat? From the right tools to the best techniques, we've got you covered.

In theory, we all know how to paint a room. Dip a brush or roller in a color and spread it over the wall. But painting neatly and efficiently using the foremost methods and tools? That's a skill most of us could brush up on. To that end, we've put together a guide detailing what you need to know to achieve a flawless finish in any space.

These how-tos and products are for use with latex paint. (Many states have laws restricting the sale of oil-based varieties because of environmental concerns.) First, consider the finish you want. Flat is most commonly used on walls; however, some people prefer satin or eggshell finishes. Semigloss is primarily used on trim. Shinier paints are ideal for kitchens and bathrooms because they are easy to clean, but they're also more apt to show imperfections on the wall. With any finish, allow enough time to complete your project; the average room takes about four days, including drying time. So go ahead and paint a glorious mental picture: Do you see soothing blue walls or maybe creamy yellow? Then get to work -- a professional-quality job awaits.

True Colors
Test several paint shades on your wall before committing to one, as they will look different depending on the time of day. "Feather out" the swatches' edges to avoid creating a ridge that will have to be sanded later.

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Prep Tools and Materials
Masking Paper and Drop Cloths
Line hard floors with brown masking or builders' paper, which absorbs spills, and tape it down around the room's edge. Cover carpeting with canvas drop cloths (paper tears in deep pile) and furniture with plastic ones.

Spackling Past, Wood Filler, and Putty Knife
Cover holes in walls with spackling paste and those in trim and molding with wood filler. Choose a flexible putty knife for these tasks. (Sturdier ones are better for scraping.)

Joint Tape, Joint Compound, and Taping Knife
Patch cracks in walls with fiberglass-mesh joint tape (the self-adhesive kind is the simplest to work with) and joint compound applied with a broad, 6-to 12-inch taping knife.

Sandpaper, Sanding Sponge, and Dust Mask 
You'll need coarse (80 to 100 grit), medium (120 to 150 grit), and fine (220 grit) sandpaper for smoothing filled holes and cracks; a sanding sponge, which can be cleaned and reused, is a newer option. Wear a mask for heavy sanding.

Caulk and Caulking Gun
Caulk is loaded into a dispenser gun and used to fill cracks between unlike materials, such as wood trim and plaster walls. Look for labels that say "paintable latex" or "paintable acrylic latex," which are easy to clean up with a damp sponge.

Rags, Sponges, and Tack Cloths
For cleanup, cotton rags made for painting (they give off little lint) are invaluable. Use medium-size sponges to wipe down walls and smooth caulk. Tack cloths, which are sticky, remove fine dust from surfaces.

Painters' masking tape helps ensure a clean line between the wall and the ceiling or trim. Also use it for painting windows. It's sold based on degree of adhesion, so select the one that's appropriate for your surface, such as low tack for glass or high tack for textured walls such as brick.

5-In-1 Tool
This handy multitasker performs even more functions than its name suggests. Use it to open paint cans, tear masking tape, scrape paint, clean roller sleeves, and remove debris from fissures in the wall; the square end works as a slotted screwdriver.

Painting Tools and Materials
The best brushes have flexible -- not stiff -- bristles with flagged, or split, ends, which hold more paint. Use a 3- or 4-inch brush on walls (anything larger is unwieldy); angled 1- to 2-inch ones are ideal for windows, trim, and the technique known as "cutting in."

Plastic Containers
Decant paint to be applied with a brush into small plastic vessels, such as those used for take-out food. (Don't use metal containers, which can rust.) This prevents paint in cans from drying out or becoming contaminated with dust or stray bristles.

Paint Roller
A good-quality roller has a cage with springs, to prevent the sleeve from slipping off, and a rigid handle with a hole in the bottom for an extension pole. Popular sizes include 9 inch, 7 inch, and 4 inch. Use the largest one that fits in the area to be covered.

Roller Sleeves
These come with naps of 1/8 to 2 inches or more. Usually, a 1/2-inch nap for priming and 3/8-inch for painting are best. (Textured surfaces require something fluffier.) Foam sleeves have low nap, so they work well with glossy paints, which tend to magnify roller marks.

Roller Tray and Liner
Invest in a sturdy metal roller tray that resists tipping. Placing a disposable plastic liner inside the pan makes cleanup a breeze (and saves you from replacing trays caked in dried paint). Double-check that liners fit your tray, as sizing is not universal.

Extension Pole
Anyone who has tried to balance a paint tray on a ladder will appreciate an extension pole, which snaps or screws into the end of a roller, enabling you to reach new heights. Telescoping poles, which can be adjusted in length, are handiest.

Paint Strainer
Before working with paint from previously opened cans, pass it through a metal strainer (find one at a paint or kitchen store) to filter out any debris or dried particles. Do not use a paper strainer, which is made for thinner paints such as oil or lacquer.

Paint Conditioner
Additives such as Floetrol emulate the smooth look of oil paint by rendering brush and roller marks less prominent. Mix a pint of conditioner with a gallon of latex paint. Test a swatch on the wall. For an even cleaner finish, add up to 1 pint more conditioner.

 Plan to devote a full day to the four Ps: protecting floors and furnishings; patching holes, fissures, and gaps; prepping walls (cleaning, taping them off ); and priming.

Safeguarding Belongings
Remove small objects from the room; gather large ones in the center and cover with a plastic drop cloth. Unscrew switch and outlet face plates. Lay masking paper over floors and tape as shown below. Protect carpeting with canvas drop cloths.


Filling Holes
With a flexible putty knife, apply spackling paste to nail holes in the wall and wood filler to small cavities in trim (overfill slightly, as compounds will shrink). Let dry completely, then sand using a medium-grit paper on walls and a coarse-grit one on wood.


Repairing Cracks
Cover crevices in the wall with self-adhesive fiberglass-mesh joint tape. Apply a thin layer of joint compound over the tape with a flexible taping or joint knife; work quickly to smooth before the paste dries. Lightly sand with a fine-grit paper.


To fill cracks between the baseboard -- or any trim -- and the wall, apply latex caulk (which can be painted) with a caulking gun, following the manufacturer's instructions.


Smoothing Caulk
Immediately after applying caulk, use a damp sponge to even it out and wipe off excess. (It is impossible to do this after caulk dries.)


Cleaning and Priming
Vacuum the room and wash walls with a sponge and warm water. Tape off the ceiling, then prime walls. If you'll be covering a light-colored wall with dark paint, use a gray primer, or have one custom-mixed to match your paint shade.


We recommend painting your walls before taping off the trim since you'll be painting this later. Apply at least two coats to both, allowing four hours of drying time in between.

Decanting Paint
Flatten a cardboard box and place it under paint containers to give floors an extra layer of protection. Mix paint with a wooden stir stick, then pour some into a smaller plastic vessel, filling about halfway. (Spouts on newer containers make this easier.)


Dipping Your Brush
Insert the bristles about 2 inches into the paint, then tap them against the sides of the container to remove excess. This minimizes the risk of drips.


Cutting In
Paint part of a corner or around the trim (don't worry about taping yet) with a 2-inch angled brush. This is called "cutting in." To avoid the marks that appear when paint starts to dry, do only 4-foot sections at a time.


Rolling On Paint
Pour paint into the reservoir of your roller tray. Dip in one edge of the roller, then move it back and forth on the tray bed until it's saturated but not dripping. Paint a 2-foot-wide V on the wall, and, without lifting the roller, fill it in with tight vertical strokes -- this will ensure even coverage. Repeat, working top to bottom, until you've completed the wall.


Painting a Door
Remove all hardware, then sand and prime the surface. With a 3-inch roller, paint one area of the door, such as an inset panel, then immediately brush over it with a 3-inch brush. Continue working in sections until you've finished the body of the door, then do the stiles and rails (the vertical and horizontal framing, respectively).


Finishing Trim and Baseboards
Let wall paint dry overnight, then tape off the trim with painters' masking tape, as shown. (For proper adhesion, burnish tape with your fingertips as you go.) Apply paint with an angled 2-inch brush.


This task requires a lot of detail work, so set aside a day to complete it. (Keep in mind that aluminum and plastic frames don't need to be painted.)

Preparing Windows
Line the perimeter of each pane with painters' tape, leaving 1/16 inch between the edge of the tape and the muntins. (When painted, this will create a seal that prevents moisture from getting in and rotting the wood.) Remove locks and other hardware, and clean wood with a tack cloth.


Painting Techniques
Use a 1-inch angled brush to paint the muntins and an angled 2-inch brush to do the frame, taking care to fill in your seal.


Removing Excess Paint

To clean off paint that has seeped underneath the tape, lubricate a single-edge razor blade with glass cleaner -- this will prevent scratches -- and gently scrape the panes. (Using a razor blade on some new windows will void the warranty; double-check yours to be sure.)


Store leftover paint and wash brushes immediately after use, and discard roller sleeves. Here are some pointers.

Compiling Supplies
Keep these items in your cleaning arsenal: liquid dish soap for washing brushes, a brush comb for removing persistent particles, sponges and rags for wiping surfaces, and a razor blade for scraping windows.


Storing Extra Paint
Transfer leftover paint to smaller airtight plastic containers. (Paint kept in opened cans is prone to drying out.) Create labels with the name of the room the color was used in, and keep the paint on hand for touch-ups.


Washing Brushes
Run each brush under lukewarm water, then add a few drops of liquid dish soap and continue rinsing. Dislodge dried bits with a metal brush comb. Wrap bristles in paper towels (to maintain their shape), and lay flat to dry.

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