Painting Tips

I’ve painted a lot of rooms in my years as a homeowner (and as a friend to other homeowners), but I do so at infrequent enough intervals, that I often forget what wisdom I’ve accumulated over time. This led recently to mistakes requiring repainting, which sucked. So I here memorialize some techniques I used to great success with some fairly tricky paint jobs over the last week.

My house has a tall entryway with walls that I guess must be 17 or 18 feet from floor to ceiling and a stairway that makes three turns up to the second floor. Painting this area was a bit of a different beast than just rolling a standard room with four walls and 8-foot ceilings, and the first time I did it, I did it wrong.

I borrowed a couple of ladders so that I could reach the high spots. I also got a long pole that my painting tools screw into. I never extended the thing all the way, but I think it goes to something like 15 feet long. Of course, it’s pretty unwieldy at that length. For my first try at painting the entry, I used a paint pad instead of a roller, as it supposedly made for a smooth application, and I thought it would do well for edging without having to climb all the way to the top of the ladder, which is no fun if you’re not too keen on heights, and all the less fun if you’re working over a hardwood floor. The pad did seem like a good idea while I was painting. The paint went on smoothly, and I felt like I was doing a pretty good job of edging, but later it was apparent that I hadn’t done so well after all. The top of the pad had been even with the ceiling, but it wasn’t actually applying paint, a fact that wasn’t apparent at the time because the paint colors were very similar but that was glaringly obvious later once the slightly darker paint had dried. I had also gone back over a few spots on the wall where I thought my application hadn’t been good enough, and these dried as streaky patches that just would not do.

I made some mistakes with my tools. First there was the pad. But also my method of using the pole just wasn’t good. Often I found myself painting (thanks in part to the way the pad brush’s handle was angled) with the pole at a more horizontal angle than was optimal, resulting in uneven pressure and a bad paint job. The edges looked horrible and the walls looked very amateurish in places, though not quite horrible. I was going to have to sort out a way of salvaging the walls.

The next day, I had the standard height upstairs walls to paint, and I decided to try rolling those instead of using the pad. I’ve rolled walls a million times, but, again, it had been a while, and I made some mistakes here as well. A few times, I saw spots that I felt like I hadn’t rolled well enough, so I went back and took another swipe or two with the roller. The problem was that they had already partially dried, so I now had a very uneven application that looked really bad. So I went and read a few things and figured out how to improve my technique.

The terminology you hear is to paint with a leading wet edge. This means basically that you start in a corner and roll from top to bottom if possible (no W rolling), then move over and roll the next column. This lets the roller blend the edge smoothly, so that the only seam that’s ever apparent is the one at the leading, wet edge of your paint job. Although we’ve long done the cut-in-first approach, some suggest cutting in as you go so that you’re always blending wet paint with wet and minimizing ugly overlap thanks to paint at significantly different stages of dryness.

When I went back to repair the entryway, I had lost access to the tall ladders, so I had to telescope my paint pole and use my 7-foot ladder. I started at an edge and used the leading wet edge approach, rolling with generous paint thickness and little pressure. I would roll from the top to as far down as the extended pole would allow, then roll the next vertical strip, blending nicely as I went. I’d do as many of these as I could without moving the ladder, and then I’d roll the next tier down, along the same width. I worked directly underneath the surface I was painting, vs. being farther out from the wall and having to fight gravity as I tried to extend the pole to reach areas with the badly angled pad. I worked in this fashion from one edge of the wall to the other, and I have a nearly perfect paint job. It also went a lot faster. Later in the process, I tended more toward rolling the full vertical length before doing the next column in hopes of avoiding horizontal seams thanks to different dry rates.

I went back and rolled the botched upstairs in the same way, with the same great result.

Having now given a surprisingly and boringly detailed account of how I messed up and then fixed my walls, I’ll part with a few quick tips I’ve picked up.

  • Don’t bother with tape. Wall paint wipes off molding and even hardwood floors pretty easily if you get it right away with a damp cloth. Tape is a big waste of time and can peel your paint if you remove it too early and have applied the paint too thickly.
  • I like to use a pad to cut in the ceiling, as I have a pretty shaky hand with a brush. In the future, I think I’ll try cutting in as I go, vs. cutting a room completely in before rolling.
  • I learned this time that rollers are better than pads for big wall surfaces.
  • Don’t press hard with the roller. You’ll get streaks. Just use enough paint in the first place, apply smoothly, and roll gently to spread it around. Do as many vertical stripes as you can with the wet brush to get a reasonable first covering with paint, then do more vertical blending swipes.
  • Don’t overwork the roller (or your arm). In the past, I think I’ve done a lot more rolling than was really necessary to get a smooth application. Again, use enough paint to begin with, so that you don’t spend so much time spreading too-thin paint around.
  • Don’t stop in the middle of a wall if you can help it.
  • If you see that you missed a spot, don’t go back and dab at it unless it’s still good and freshly wet. It’ll leave a mark or a streak otherwise.
  • Work quickly so that you’re always working with freshly wet edges that blend smoothly.

Hopefully I’ll remember all of this for the next time I paint. If not, at least it’s written down now. If you made it this far, you’re an indulgent friend (and you have my apologies), a desperate amateur home painter, or a future me.

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