8 Pro Secrets for the Perfect Paint Job

Pro painting tipsPro painting tipsAsk just about any painting pro, and he'll tell you that his trade has a real image problem. After all, everyone thinks they can paint-just watch how fast the color goes up on those done-in-a-day home-makeover shows. Grab a brush, a roller, and a couple gallons of latex, and you're all set, right?

Not quite. "The truth is, it is easy to do things poorly," says Rich O'Neill, who chairs a craftsmanship committee within the Painting and Decorating Contractors Association of America. There's no substitute for learning the proper steps, taking time to do the job right, and improving your technique as you go.

But there are also a few tricks of the trade that homeowners can learn to ease the way. We've assembled a couple dozen of them on the following pages, gleaned from decades' worth of accumulated wisdom from pros working from Seattle to Boston. Put their pointers to work, and you'll notice a difference in your paint job years after the tape and tarps are put away.

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Getting Ready

1. A bigger, better swatch
Don't expect a thumbnail-size color chip from the paint store to give you a sense of how a color will look on the walls. Colors are relative to one another and the objects around them-like, say, that new leather sofa. Instead, make your own megaswatch. Get a sample quantity of paint, brush two coats on a slab of foam core (its white surface acts like primer) at least three feet square, then put it up against the wall. You'll get a much better sense of how your tint plays off your furniture and flooring. Eyeball the color at various times of the day and move it around the room to see how it looks in different light conditions.

2. How many cans?
Before you set out for the paint store, take a tape measure and figure out how much surface you need to cover-and don't forget the ceiling. Measure the longest wall, and square that number for the ceiling. For the walls, multiply the length of the longest wall by its height, then multiply that number by four. Double your numbers if you're doing two coats. Or use an online calculator, like the one at thisoldhouse.com; as a rule of thumb, one gallon covers about 400 square feet.

3. Go for the good stuff
Invest in a premium paint. Why? Because cheap paint covers very well when it's wet-the first, and in many cases last, time many people scrutinize their work-but not so well once it's dry. "There is only room for a gallon's worth of stuff in the can," says Seattle-based painter Doug Wold, owner of Queen Anne Painting. "If you add more cheap pigment, you take out more expensive resin-and that's what holds it together." Always apply two coats, and allow 2 to 3 hours between them.

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4. No muss, no dust
Painting prep usually involves scraping, sanding-and dust-making. "You might be shocked at how far dust travels, and what small areas it can get into," says Rich O'Neill, owner of Masterwork Painting, in Bedford, Massachusetts. If you don't want to invest in a spring-loaded-pole-style barrier system like that made by ZipWall (zipwall.com), put plastic up around doorways that lead to the work area and over furniture. Skip the flimsy stuff: Clear, heavier-gauge sheeting (2 to 4 mil) is reusable, easier to fold and unfold, and less likely to rip. Secure it with painter's tape.

5. A clean sweep
Many of us are so anxious to get the paint up that we don't take the crucial first step of thoroughly cleaning the walls-especially in the kitchen, where they may be invisibly decorated with grease, oil, and food residue. "If you don't clean that off, you could be painting a greased cookie sheet," says Doug Wold. "It ain't gonna stick." Same goes for the bathroom, the domain of airborne shampoo, hair spray, and cosmetics. Use a degreaser on tough areas; household cleanser should work elsewhere. Then rinse.

Know Thy Tools

6. The mark of a good brush
Bristles should be "flagged": tapered, -split, and arranged in multiple lengths to form a slim tip. Synthetic ones-especially a mix of nylon and polyester, like DuPont's Chinex-hold and release latex paints exceptionally well. (It's best to reserve natural bristles for oil-based finishes; water-based paints make them swell and lose their shape.) Unfinished hardwood handles are easier to grip with sweaty hands, and copper or stainless-steel ferrules won't rust after you've washed the brush. You'll want at least one 21/4-inch angled sash brush for cutting in trim, and one 3-inch brush for cutting in walls and ceilings.

Buy the best ones that you can find-a good brush will generally run you $12 to $15. "People think nothing of spending $10 to go to a movie," says John Hone, owner of Hone Painting and Restoration in Caldwell, New Jersey. "But they put themselves through torture trying to paint with cheap equipment."

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7. Size matters
Your local home center or hardware store offers lots of standard 9-inch roller cages and covers for painting walls, but they're not the only size to consider. Small foam rollers are good for door panels and wainscoting, and 14- and even 18-inch rollers hold enough paint to allow you to cover a lot of area faster-handy if you have a high-ceilinged great room to get color on. "Manufacturers make larger rollers, and there are people buying them," says Chicago's Mario Guertin, president of Painting in Partnership. "But only the educated ones."

8. A better sandpaper
Look for black sandpaper coated with silicon carbide-it won't gunk up as quickly as the standard-issue brown kind, so it'll last longer. Foam sanding sponges covered with the same stuff allow you to sneak into corners and evenly wrap around rounded trim-plus, they're reusable. Just wring them out in water to clean them, then use them damp to trap more of the dust.

Which grit to pick? Use a medium grit (100 or 120) when you're prepping walls that are already in decent shape; a coarser 60 or 80 grit to take the edges off paint that is chipped or peeled. Very fine (200 or 220 grit) sandpaper is best for smoothing surfaces between coats of paint.

Get 16 more pro painting tips at thisoldhouse.com