With my hard deadline of December to finish painting the apartment – and practically, I need to finish well in advance of that – I’ve got painting on the brain lately. But I’m not the only one! My sister-in-law recently purchased a house, and she emailed me a few questions she had as a new homeowner about painting. She also suggested that I could turn my answers into a blog post – a beginner’s getting-started guide, if you will.
As I wrote up my answers in an email, I realized what a brilliant idea she had about turning it into a blog post. Even though I don’t have information you can’t find elsewhere on the internet, I do have a lot of experience of figuring-it-out-as-I-go-along. So hopefully putting all this information in one place will be useful to novice home-painters, if only to inspire confidence!
Let’s get started! I based this guide loosely on my SIL’s questions, so let’s start with...
Prepping your walls
For all its charm, my SIL’s new home had quite a few holes and cracks in the walls. She knew spackle would be her friend for patching the holes... but how exactly does one spackle? How do you apply it, and how do you smooth it out?
It all has to do with the size of the hole. If it’s tiny, like from small gauge nails, I just kind push in the spackle and wipe the excess away all with my finger. I do the same thing if it’s in an awkward space (like patching holes around windowsills).
Spackling larger holes will generally require more than your fingers, though even then you can wing it. I didn’t even own a proper spackling tool (called a putty knife, as I just learned from the googles) for years. I spackled with a broken pink plastic school ruler. It worked surprisingly well.
No matter what you use to apply it, remember this cardinal rule of spackling: NEVER build up a mound of spackle around a hole in a wall and try to sand it down. Even if you do manage to sand it flush with the wall, it'll be a different texture than your wall and will always be noticeable. Always scrape away the excess and level it off as much as possible, be it with your fingernail (for tiny holes), a broken pink plastic school ruler (for bigger patching jobs), or a true putty knife (for the swanky DIYers amongst us.
Now, if you’re only patching a tiny hole from a small gauge nail, you might be done after pushing in a bit of spackle (once it’s painted, you’ll never see it). But if the hole (or crack) was from a large nail or small-medium gauge screw, you’ll need to sand after spackling. I like using a fine-grit sanding block – 200-grit is good for not leaving sanding marks. If you want to avoid a mess, make a little shelf with painter’s tape to catch all the spackle dust (a super-simple trick I learned way back when from YHL)!
And finally, remember to let the spackle completely dry before painting. Otherwise, the spackle will get in the paint and make it look gritty, defeating the whole purpose of hiding a patched hole!
Picking a paint brand
Everyone’s got their favorite paint, but I've really only used Behr (no, I’m absolutely not sponsored by them). It’s inexpensive, low-VOC (important for me nowadays!), and it changes the color of my walls, which is all I really need it to do. They have two lines I’ve used extensively: Premium Plus, which is their standard despite the fancy adjectives, and their Premium Plus Ultra, which is thicker and really the paint+primer in one, even though the standard claims it has primer. So when do you use what?
Premium Plus is fine if the colors are fairly similar. It’s what I’m using to go from the pinky-beige throughout our apartment to the much more lovely Worldly Gray.
Premium Plus is cheaper than Ultra, so if you can use that, go for it.
Ultra might save you a step if you are dramatically changing colors, especially super-dark/bright to super-light. I used that in our office (a deep yellow to light blue) and our master suite (a dark maroon to medium gray).
I've never gotten away with a single coat with either, so it's really just a question of whether regular paint would take two or three coats to cover the old color. If you'd need three coats with regular, might as well get Ultra. It costs 1.5x as much, but you only have to do two coats instead of three – same cost, less work.
Picking a paint finish
There’s flat, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss.... which one do you choose? Two things to consider: how beat up are your walls? And how high-traffic is this area?
For the first consideration, remember this: the flatter the paint, the less imperfections will show. Makes sense! Think of it this way: if you crumple up then smooth out a piece of paper and a piece of aluminum foil, every single little crease will show in the shiny foil but not much in the dull paper. So if your walls are in bad shape, you should go as flat as possible.
The “as possible” leads to the second consideration: the flatter the paint, the more they show wear and tear after painting. I know, confusing! Flat paint just scuffs and shows water spots more than shinier finishes. Here’s where I’d insert a photo of the living and dining rooms in our old house if I had one – those walls were painted in flat, and by the time I finally painted over them, they looked awful.
So here’s what I do: Ceilings get flat because they get zero wear and tear – nothing touches them. Walls get eggshell most of the time. You might think about doing satin in a bathroom (fewer water spots from shower condensation), as well as in the kitchen if the sink is near a painted wall. Easy-peasy.
To prime, or not to prime
This whole talk of paint-and-primer in one makes one wonder: when do I prime separately?
This is actually a super complicated answer, but it boils down to what you’re painting on. In my opinion, there’s only a few times you need to prime, so I’ll try to sum them up succinctly:
1) You need to prime when you’re painting with latex paint over something super-high-contrast
I’ve only done this once, when I had to cover up a laundry mural (LET US NEVER FORGET THE LAUNDRY MURAL) with plain white paint. It took a gajillion coats of primer AND paint, but in the end, none of the design could be seen through the white!
2) You need to prime when you’re painting with latex paint over oil-based paint or stain
This gets even more complicated. Latex-based paint cannot go over oil-based paint, but latex-based PRIMER can. So if you’re dealing with anything painted or stained with oil, you need to prime.
But wait, there’s more: latex-based paint can be painted over oil-based primer. I know, this is so tricky! The only time I’ve used oil-based primer was for our kitchen cabinets, because on the whole, oil-based is typically more durable than latex-based primer.
To keep it simple, you can always just use latex-based primer (and have an easier time cleaning your brushes) and not have to remember the oil vs. latex, paint vs. primer rules.
3) Finally, you need to prime when you’re dealing with unfinished wood
Always, always. And maybe fill any knots with wood putty, while you’re at it. I didn’t putty my RAST hacked nightstands and I’m paying the price now. Boo to that.
The almighty Wooster brush
I’ve written extensively about cutting-in already, and even my SIL already knew how strong my feelings were about my Wooster brush that she didn’t even have to ask about it. So I’ll just remind you: teach yourself to cut in rather than taping, and get thee a Wooster brush.
A final word on stencils, designs, etc.
This wasn’t on my SIL’s list of questions, but it’s something I’ve come to feel strongly about. Remember our striped guest bathroom in the old house?
I was so proud of that remodel, I even wrote a tutorial about how I did it!
But I’ll now admit: if we still lived there, I’d be kicking myself for doing that. It looked awesome and all... but it’s going to be dang near impossible to paint over. I know this because when I’ve tried to paint over other designs, they always show through. Like when I tried to cover the rag-rolling the previous owners did in our kitchen...
It basically ruined the finish of any solid color paint job.
(And since the rag-rolling was done in flat paint, it was so scuffed, I couldn’t NOT cover it up! Ugh.)
Similar difficulties were encountered when I tried to paint over the laundry mural.
Think before you stencil or stripe, new homeowners! Some thongs – ahem, things just can’t be spackled away.
Whew! I hope that if you’re itching to start painting your place but don’t know where to start, this can be helpful to you!