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Surface preparation

Surface preparation is the most important step in a successful painting project. Before painting, evaluate the surface. It should be smooth, clean and non-glossy.


A dirty or greasy surface must be cleaned, or paint will not bond well. Wash from the bottom up to avoid runs and streaks. Use an easy-to-rinse cleanser, because if there’s detergent residue left on the wall, new paint may not bond. I like Spic & Span, Soilax, and Mex. Mex is the strongest-it will even remove some paint and shellac-so use it carefully. Ammonia and water, mixed in proportions recommended on the label, also makes a good cleanser that doesn’t leave residue.

Shiny surfaces can be dulled with sandpaper, steel wool, or 3M Synthetic Steel Wool pads. Mex often removes gloss as it cleans. You can also use de-glossing chemicals, but they are strong solvents and you need to take safety precautions.

If there is mildew on the walls, you must remove it with a stronger cleaner: mix two cups of laundry bleach per gallon of cleaner. Don’t ever mix bleach with ammonia or ammonia cleaners.

Smooth the surface

Spackling compound, joint compound, scrapers, and sandpaper or sanding screens are the tools for smoothing. Remove all loose paint by scraping and sanding. Fill gaps with spackling compound or joint compound. Always use joint compound for larger gaps and large flat areas, because it’s much easier to smooth onto the surface.

When sanding large areas, use a large sanding pad mounted on a pole. Consider using sanding screens rather than sandpaper. The screens don’t plug, and the pole allows you to use your whole body in the sanding motion.

Repair problem cracks

If cracks reappear after patching, use Krack-Kote to fill them. It remains flexible and will not re-crack.

Painter’s caulk works well for joints and gaps, and for small cracks that reoccur. Caulk is a great filler for wall-to-ceiling or corner joints. Also, use caulk to fill around moldings or trim that you will be painting.

Wider cracks require tape reinforcement and a wide patch to blend into the surrounding surface. Invest in wide-bladed tools for a professional finish.


New, bare surfaces should always be primed to provide a smooth, nonporous base. If the surface has stains from water, crayon, or markers, these can be covered with Bin, Kilz, or similar primers. You must prime stains like these to keep them from bleeding through latex paint. I like Bin. It is quick-drying and low-odor. It is shellac-based, so you can clean up tools afterward with ammonia and water.

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Paint selection

When it comes to paint, quality is in direct proportion to cost. You get what you pay for. Cheap paint has fewer ingredients, less expensive ingredients, and more water or solvent. Quality paints cover better, are easier to apply, and spatter less. Paint is a small part of the cost of the job, so buy the best.


Gloss or semi-gloss paints are usually recommended for kitchens, bathrooms, and high-traffic areas where the surfaces may need cleaning. But remember that a glossy surface shows all the imperfections, while flat finishes are great at hiding imperfections. Most modern decorators choose flat paints because of their appearance and ability to hide imperfections.

For woodwork and trim, oil-based paints are much more durable. They dry to a harder finish. Once dry, they resist scratches and are easier to wash. Today’s oil paints are low-odor and easy to apply and they also cover well.

Exterior-test for type of paint

If you moved into an existing home with a painted exterior, sooner or later you’ll need to repaint. Maybe you’re wondering what kind of paint was used, or you simply want to know which type of pai nt is best.

To find out what type of paint is on the surface now, clean a small area with detergent to remove dirt and paint dust. Then dampen a rag with ammonia or denatured alcohol and rub the surface. If paint comes off on the rag, you have a latex paint.

The gloss of the finish does not reveal whether it is latex or oil-based. However, oil-based paints tend to cure harder and maintain a higher gloss.

An oil-based paint is your best choice when the surface shows heavy "chalking"-powder that comes off on your hand when you rub the paint. Oil-based paint (or primer) will bond better than latex to chalky surfaces.

Oil-based paint is also your best choice when painting a surface that has four or more layers of old oil-based paint. To determine the number of existing paint coats, try cutting through layers of the paint or removing a chip. Layers of paint will be evident in a cross section of the surface.

Modern oil-based paints are much easier to use than the "old" oil paints. But you do need to clean up your tools and any spatters with solvent. Oil paints also have more odor, b ut they are silky smooth and easy to apply.

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Mess protection

When painting indoors, clear the space and mask off woodwork, trim and fixtures. Don’t settle for cheap masking tape; it won’t work well. Painter-quality masking tape like KleenEdge and 3M Long Mask have a special adhesive that bonds tightly to the surface you’re protecting.

My favorite masking product is Easy Mask Painting Tape. This is a masking paper with sticky adhesive on one edge. The adhesive bonds well to all smooth surfaces and can be removed easily. After applying this masking paper to base molding, you can raise it slightly to slide your drop cloth underneath. Easy Mask is wide enough to cover base moldings and most wood trim. For about $3, you can mask several typical rooms. I use the 4-inch-wide Easy Mask at the base molding and fold up the edge to lap over my dropcloth.

Quick Mask and similar 8- to 21-inch-wide masking products with a poly or paper dropcloth attached are also very effective.

The key to applying any masking product is to first clean or dust the surface, because tape will not stick to dirt. As you apply the tape, rub the leading edge with a knife or fingernail to fasten it securely.

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Caulk joints for a professional finish

To create a smooth-looking finish, professional painters often caulk interior joints around moldings and trim. You can use inexpensive acrylic "painter’s caulk" to fill gaps and voids, creating a smooth, crisp paint line over the caulk. This painter’s caulk is designed to be painted soon after it is applied.

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Tools take the pain out of painting

The right tools can make interior painting quick and easy-so toss that roller tray, and forget the ladder. Flimsy paint trays tip, don’t hold enough paint and are hard to clean. Moving or climbing a ladder with the paint tray is precarious at best.

Instead, you need:

  • a 5-gallon plastic pail
  • a roller screen
  • an ordinary paint roller
  • an extension pole

You can often get a 5-gallon pail free from contractors or at construction sites. Add a roller screen-a small piece of heavy metal screen that hangs inside the pail. These are available at larger paint dealers.

When you use the 5-gallon pail, you can intermix several gallons of paint, which is required for custom-blended paint. A 5-gallon pail also cuts down on refill time (unlike using a tray, when you’re making frequent trips to refill it from the can). The pail prevents spills, and it’s easy to clean when you’re done.

The extension pole eliminates the need for a ladder. Buy an adjustable pole. It costs a few dollars more, but that’s worth it for a pole that lets you easily reach varying heights.

Attach the pole to the roller. Keep the 5-gallon pail on the floor. Dip the roller into the paint, then roll it over the screen to even out the amount of paint.

The pole will allow you to fill the roller and paint high and low on the walls without bending or stretching. You can even paint ceilings while standing on the floor.

Working from the floor is safer, and it lets you use your legs, shoulders, and full upper body while painting.

One word of caution: Don’t be tempted to roll too quickly. The pole allows you to shift into high gear, but paint can really splatter.

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Paint the ceiling first?? or the walls?

Paint the ceiling first to simplify cutting in at the ceiling-to-wall joint. When painting the ceiling, you can lap paint onto the wall. Later, cutting in from the wall to the ceiling is easy, because paint does not flow up. You’ll probably be touching up this area with a brush, and from that angle you can see what you’re doing.

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Brushing up on paintbrush basics

When the area you’re painting is too small or irregular for a roller, obviously you’ll use a brush instead. Matching a paintbrush to the paint you’re using is essential for good results. There are three basic types of paintbrushes to consider.

Natural bristle brushes are used only with alkyd or oil-based paints and finishes. Bristles are made with animal hair. Natural brushes give the smooth surface desirable with gloss finishes. However, if used with water-based paint, natural bristle brushes will absorb water, become limp, and fail to hold paint.

Synthetic bristle brushes are required for water-based (latex) paint products. They are made from nylon, polyester or similar fiber. A good quality synthetic brush can also be used with oil-based paint.

Foam brushes are inexpensive and are handy for any quick, small painting chore. They can’t provide the quality application and control of a br istle brush, but they are so inexpensive they can be discarded after use to avoid cleanup.

By the way, it isn’t always necessary to clean your brush when you take a break from painting. You can wrap your brush tightly in aluminum foil or plastic wrap for up to one hour without a problem. For a longer break, place the wrapped brush in the freezer. When you’re ready to use it again, thaw it out. To temporarily store a roller with paint on it, use a tube container like the ones Pringles potato chips are sold in.

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Painting over textured surfaces

Most homes have a light sand finish on walls and ceilings. Matching this texture can be a real challenge. Lightweight-textured sand often turns into lumpy "lead shot" when mixed with paint. I’ve had good luck, though, with pre-mixed textured paint. I water it down and apply it with a standard roller or brush. Play with the thickness and application technique until you have a match. USG-1 is a good textured paint product.

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Cleanup after the job

If you’ve invested $15 or $20 in a quality paintbrush, you’ll want to maintain it well. Use water and detergent to clean latex paint; use paint thinner for o il paints. Always clean a brush immediately after use. Never let it stand on its bristles in the bottom of the paint can.

Use a brush comb to remove paint from between the bristles and to straighten the bristle as you clean the brush. Use the comb one last time after the bristles are clean. Wrap the clean brush in its original container or in clean paper, and hang it up to dry. The wrapper keeps the bristles in shape.

For rollers, consider buying a spinner to remove paint residue. Also, a roller cleaner-a plastic donut for a water hose-works well to rinse rollers clean.

But the greatest roller cleaner is a Roller-Saver, which cleans and dries a roller in 30 seconds. The Roller-Saver’s small plastic chamber has internal water jets. You attach this chamber to a water source and place the roller cover inside the tube. Water is forced through the roller, spinning it clean. Turn off the water quickly, and the roller spins dry.

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All spackling compounds are not created equal!

Try one of the new lightweight spackling compounds the next time you do minor repairs on drywall. These don’t shrink, and small patches can be painted over within a few minutes. For small areas like nail holes, apply the compound with your finger-it’s easy to matc h the texture on most walls or ceilings.

Older vinyl spackling compounds are okay, but these are softer and runny. They require several coats because they shrink. You can easily identify the lightweight compounds by the lightness of the filled container compared to vinyl compounds.

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POP go the nails in drywall

Occasionally, nails pop out of drywall as a home’s wood framing swells or shrinks with seasonal changes in temperature and humidity. To repair the pop, either pull the offending nail or drive it below the surface. Then secure the drywall with two drywall screws set a few inches away from the problem nail. The screws will hold much tighter than the original nail. Finally, spackle the area, prime and repaint.

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Wall-Art: painting over crayon and marker

Have the young artists in your family drawn on the walls with cray ons or markers? You’ll want to repaint without letting the stain bleed through.

First, wash the wall with strong detergent to remove most of the wax and stain. Then seal the damaged areas with a shellac or oil-based primer/stain killer such as Bin or Kilz. This sealer will cover the stain, prevent bleed-through, and provide a good base for the final coat of paint.

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Conquering stain bleed-through

The procedure described above will also help if dark stains of any type are bleeding through a finish coat of paint. Apply a sealer such as Bin or Kilz. Most paint manufacturers have their own brands, too. These are oil- or shellac-based with a white pigment. Some are sold in spray cans to cover small areas. They dry quickly and can be painted over in just a few hours.

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When paint peels from bathroom walls

Older homes with no exhaust fan in the bathroom often have paint problems. The paint peels, develops mildew, and just looks bad. Opening a door or window may help with ventilation, but excessive moisture, mildew, and peeling paint remain. What can you do?

The best solution is to have an exhaust fan installed. Perhaps you can mount a fan in an exterior wall or route the exhaust line through the basement.

To reduce moisture in the bathroom after a shower, wipe down wet surfaces, remove wet towels, and keep the bathroom door open. Consider using a small fan to circulate air into the hall.

You can also apply a special paint that resists mildew and peeling. First, kill existing mildew with laundry bleach and water. Use 2 cups of bleach in a gallon of detergent water. Scrape away any loose paint, and sand the surfaces smooth. Spackle as needed. Then paint with Zinsser brand Perma-White Bathroom Wall and Ceiling Paint. It’s a self-priming paint, so you should apply two coats. This white satin or semi-gloss paint can be tinted. I have used this paint for several years with great success. It is guaranteed to resist mildew and peeling.

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Painting mildewed areas


For mildewed walls or ceilings, proper painting requires killing mildew first, then using special paint. You can kill mildew with a strong detergent sol ution and laundry bleach. Add about 2 to 4 cups of bleach per gallon of detergent water. Read the label of the detergent carefully to make sure it’s safe to mix bleach with your detergent.

After allowing the surface to dry, apply Bin primer to stained areas. Then paint with two coats of Zinsser brand Perma-White Bathroom Wall and Ceiling Paint.


Some homes develop mildew on eaves or overhangs, especially if they’re in a shady area that’s not well ventilated. The solution is to clean the surfaces, kill the mildew and repaint. This assumes the wood is still in good condition. If the wood is rotted or swollen, you need to replace it or cover it with siding.

For painting, wash the area with a commercial mildewcide. A good paint store will help you select cleaning and painting materials.

I have had great success using Jomax for cleaning and mildew removal. Mix a small amount of Jomax with laundry bleach and water. Spray the solution on the area with a garden sprayer and wait about 15 minutes. Rinse well.

For heavy stains, scrub with a soft brush and rinse well. I like to use a brush attached to a long handle so I can reach farther and use my back and legs for the scrubbing.

You can also clean with a strong detergent like a TSP substitute and a few cups of laundry bleach per gallon of water. Whatever cleaner or chemical you use, follow all the label safety precautions and protect plant materials in the area by spraying the plants with water and covering them with plastic.

After the area is clean and the bleach or commercial cleaner has killed the mildew, allow the wood to dry for several days. Paint with a mildew-resistant paint or add mildewcide to the paint. Zinsser makes a great mildew-resistant exterior paint.

To prevent mildew from returning, improve the air circulation by trimming branches in mildew-prone areas. Routine washing with a product like Jomax will keep the surfaces clean and discourage mildew, which feeds on dirt.

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Remove dried paint splatters easily

Several products on the market remove dried latex paint splatters without harming stained or varnished wood. Try Goof Off, Oops, or a similar solvent, available at paint and hardware stores. Saturate a cloth with the solvent. Dampen the splatter, then rub lightly to remove the paint. (Test an inconspicuous area first.) Be careful, since these products are flammable and may also remove softened varnish.

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Repainting kitchen cabinets

You can successfully paint stained and varnished kitchen cabi nets. The biggest challenge is providing a good surface for the new gloss paint. Surface imperfections will show through the paint, and an improperly prepared surface can prevent the paint from adhering properly.

Start by removing all doors and hardware. Use a power pad sander and medium grit sandpaper to sand the surfaces. Where the varnish has softened, you may need to use a solvent refinisher or stripper instead, because soft varnish can clog sandpaper.

Vacuum up all dust. Wash the surfaces with a liquid solvent deglosser, then rub your hand over the surfaces. Any imperfections you can feel and see will show through the paint. Continue sanding to remove these imperfections.

When the surfaces are as smooth as possible, clean once more, then prime with an oil- or shellac-based stain killer/primer such as Bin.

Buy the best oil-based paint available and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Often two coats are required. Use a natural bristle brush. Lay the doors flat for painting.

Let the surfaces dry for several days and provide plenty of ventilation. Then carefully assemble the doors and hardware.

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Painting your fiberboard garage door

A properly painted garage door will last for many, many years. I see many newer garage doors with fiberboard panels tha t have turned to mush because they were not painted properly.

First, wash the door with a strong detergent and a scrub brush, and then rinse thoroughly.

Prime the door with a water-based stain killer or an oil-based primer. Finish with a high quality acrylic exterior house paint or trim paint.

Remember to paint all six sides of each door panel-outside, inside, lower edge, top edge, and two sides. If you neglect any side, water stains will develop. You will need to raise and lower the door to paint on the sides that close around the hinges. Many people miss the edges and this causes the door to fail prematurely.

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Painting rain gutters and metal railings

For rusty metal on rain gutters, flashings, or metal railings, try one of the rust converter products. They provide a tannin and a organic polymer. Tannin converts rust to a stable blue-black compound. Organic polymer provides a protective layer.

Rust R eformer from Rustoleum and Extend Rust Treatment from Loctite are two common brands.

Scrape away the loose rust with a wire brush, but you don’t need to reach bare metal. (This "saves" the metal on thin gutters and flashing.) Apply the milky rust converter with a brush. The rusty area will turn blue-black. The reaction should be cured after 24 hours.

The converter works like a primer. You can then apply a top coat of exterior paint. Some of these products allow you to apply two coats, using the product itself as a finish coat. Don’t sand the converted metal or you will lose the protection. Follow specific instructions for the product you are using.

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Restoring (painting) sandstone on a fireplace

If sandstone around a fireplace becomes stained or dirty, painting can restore it. First, scrub the surface with a strong detergent such as Soilax or TSP substitute. Rinse well. Then prime the stone with Bulls Eye 1-2-3 or an oil-based primer. You may need to use several primer coats to create a smoother finish, because the stone will soak up paint.

Finally, paint with the finish of your choice. Again, you may need to use several coats. When choosing a paint color, remember that painted surfaces exposed to heat may discolor.

Instead of painting, consider seek ing the advice of a company that designs and installs fireplaces. They may have an effective alternative, such as facing with a new stone veneer. They could also cover the hearth with a tile and provide a wood mantle.

If the mantle also needs updating, you can have any good carpenter or millwork shop make a fireplace mantle. A finish carpenter can make a beautiful mantle using standard wood trim parts. Larger lumberyards and millwork shops often have mantles on display and will custom build them for your specific needs.

Most fireplace stores have great showrooms with fireplaces you can see and touch. This is a great way to get ideas and help with decisions on re-working your fireplace.

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The easy way to paint dark paneling

The 1970s brought us family rooms finished with dark, dark paneling. You can brighten up your paneling with proper preparation and a coat of light paint. Light walls will lighten up the room, making it feel larger. Painting avoids the mess of removing the paneling, damaging the drywall and reworking all the wood trim.

Start by washing the paneling with strong detergent like Soilax, TSP, or Spic and Span. This removes accumulated grime and slightly roughens the glossy surface. If shiny smooth areas still exist, scrub them with a deglosser solvent or lightly sand the paneling. Deglosser solvent is available at any paint store. You must clean and roughen shiny areas so a new finish will stick. While washing paneling, re-nail any loose areas you find.

Priming is a vital step. Prime with a stain killer/primer such as Bin or Kilz.

These products are specially formulated to cover stains and problem materials. They also provide a white base for the finish coat.

Finally, paint the paneling with a finish coat of 100% acrylic latex paint. Buy a top-quality paint. Two coats may be required. The highest quality paints have 100% acrylic binders. Also, acrylic paint is durable and easy to apply, and it cleans up with soap and water.

That’s all it takes to have a family room that looks lighter and brighter. The texture and grooves in most types of paneling also add character to the walls.

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Staining a steel door

You can create a wood-grain look on a door made of steel or fiberglass by using a thick-bodied stain and a graining tool.

Zar’s stain and texturing t ool is appropriate for this job. Apply the stain, then draw the tool across it, creating the appearance of textured grain. If you’re not satisfied with the results, you can wipe off the stain and start over. Creating a realistic grain will take a little practice.

When you are satisfied with the results, allow the stain to dry. Then apply a thin coat of stain to the whole door, giving the entire surface a wood color. When that coat dries, finish with a coat of Zar Exterior Polyurethane in the direction of the grain.

I suggest you use compatible products and tools throughout the job. Zar makes products specifically designed to finish steel doors with a wood grain, and also provides more detailed instructions.

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