How to Master Painting Your Home

This is the first of a three-part series that takes a 360° look at all things paint.

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Tools, Formulas, and Prep Steps


Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Truth: Paint is one of the quickest, easiest ways to transform a room—and it’s an inexpensive upgrade too, provided you DIY. Obviously, color choice is key. But there’s more to the process than zeroing in on the just-right hue. First things first: equipment, prep, paint formulas and safety basics. Master this and before you know it, you’ll be on a roll.

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The Tools of the Trade


Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Home improvement and paint stores are packed to the rafters with supplies you can buy. Before you get all spendy, consider this been there, painted that advice from Nathaniel Garber Schoen, co-owner of the family-owned Garber Hardware stores in New York City. 

Don’t skimp on quality. “Wooster’s Silver Tip paintbrush line is great without being too expensive,” says Garber. “Plus the bristles are right in the Goldilocks zone—not too soft, not too firm. You’ll want a 2-inch angled and 1 1/2-inch flat for molding and touching up edges and corners of walls.” 

  • Pro Tip: The glossier the paint you’re using, the stiffer the brush bristles should be.

Drop cloths
Choose plastic to protect furniture from splatter, canvas to cover the floor. “A lot of people think plastic is best for the floor because it’s disposable and cheap,” he says. Actually, canvas is better underfoot because it absorbs drips (plastic just lets them pool) and can be easily repositioned while you work without static or slipping. Fold it in on itself as you move to avoid stepping in wet paint. 

Putty knives
“Rule of thumb: Get the size that’s a little wider than the largest hole you have to fill,” Garber says. “Usually a 2-inch is very versatile.” 

Get the pre-mixed version for filling holes. Garber recommends Zinsser’s Ready Patch. “For larger holes, try DAP’s Fast ’N Final, which is lightweight for ceiling use too.”

Rubber mallet
Better than a hammer to close paint cans as it is less likely to dent the edge of the can, which can keep it from closing properly.

Extension pole
“I use a 24-inch half pole for rolling. It gives me that extra reach and helps fight arm fatigue. The smallest one we sell is 3 feet and extends to 6 feet, but choose what makes sense for your space,” says Garber.

Don’t skimp here. Get a good-quality roller from Wooster or Purdy. Suggested nap length—the technical term for the fuzzy surface on the roller—depends on the wall. For a smooth wall, go with 3/8-inch or 5/16-inch microfiber nap, which is a versatile length that works on many surfaces. “If you’re painting something more textured, like brick or plaster, you’ll want 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch,” says Garber. “So, in other words, the thinner the nap, the smoother the wall.”

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More Supplies You'll Need


Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Paint key
To pop open paint cans. A regular flathead screwdriver also gets the job done.

Metal roller trays (and plastic liners) 
You’ll need one tray for each person painting. “Liners make cleanup easy. You should have one for primer and one for color,” Garber says. “If your painting job takes more than a day, put your wet roller in a plastic bag with the handle out and tie it off. Stick it in the fridge and the paint will stay wet overnight.”

Sanding screen 
Skip the sandpaper, except in a pinch. Instead, Garber strongly recommends a sanding screen, which has holes that allow dust and particles to pass through, so it won’t clog up right away. Or try a sanding sponge, which is good for small detail areas or corners. For sandpaper, stick to a 120 grit.

Disposable dust mask 
Nowadays most paint formulas are low- or no-VOC (more on that later), but you might want a mask if you’re sensitive to smells. “3M makes one that’s filled with charcoal, which also helps keep out sanding dust,” Garber says. If you’re working with spray paint or a paint sprayer, it’s strongly suggested that you wear a mask.

From a safety perspective, it’s far preferable to balancing on a chair when you need to get up high to tackle trim and paint the edge where ceiling meets wall.

Utility knife 
For cutting plastic drop cloths down to size. 

Painter’s tape 
While some pros might skip the taping-off step, it’s a huge help for painters without much experience. “I always have ScotchBlue on hand,” says Garber. “It’s what professionals use. People also like FrogTape. Two-inch is the most popular, especially if you’re less skilled. To ensure it’s sealed, go back over the seams with a piece of paper or tape covering your thumb, so it slides across the tape smoothly.”

  • Pro Tip: Save your money! Garber says he’s never tried the 5-in-1 Tool, which is commonly used for scraping, puttying and more. “Maybe good on the fly, but I always recommend getting the appropriate tool for a specific job instead of one thing that supposedly does it all.”

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Formula Facts


Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Ultimately, painting is primarily about the payoff: a freshened-up space! Besides the fun part—picking a color—you have to choose a formula. There are three main types of paint.

1. Oil-based (aka solvent-based) 
Mainly used for specialty paint and interior and exterior stains. Old-school painters still prefer it for a kitchen or bath, says Stigliano. “It goes on smooth, levels well and is easy to work with. Tough cleanup, though.”

Pro Tips: 

  • If you can swing it, invest in good paint. A higher-quality product costs more but will also be more durable and show fewer application imperfections, according  to Chris Stigliano, merchandising director for paints and stains at Lowe’s
  • The higher the sheen, the more durable the paint. Translation: easier to wipe clean!

2. Latex 
Most common for inside the home and the most popular choice for exterior use. Water-based, which means it cleans up with soap and water. “Resin, vinyl and colorant are suspended in the liquid compound,” says Stigliano. “In the early days there was a huge difference in quality between latex and oil, but now you can’t really tell the difference.” 

3. Ceiling 
Often forgotten, ceiling paints are designed differently. “They are more splatter-resistant and are formulated specifically so that they won’t drip.”

Both latex and oil-based paints come in different sheens. When all is said, done, painted and dried, sheen will impact the look of your chosen color and should vary by room and surface.

Matte or flat 
While the name can vary by brand, matte or dead flat offers zero sheen. Most commonly used on walls and ceilings, it helps hide imperfections and is the easiest to touch up.

A customer fave. Very minimal sheen that gives rooms a slight glow while still disguising imperfections. Perfect for living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms. 

With more sheen than eggshell, it absorbs a little bit of light but also shows more imperfections. Can be used in the kitchen, on trim and on wainscoting or beadboard too because it shows off the details. 

Shiny and reflects a lot of light. Most commonly used for molding, trim and staircases. Popular for the kitchen and bathroom because it’s moisture-resistant and easy to wipe down. 

Super shiny, almost mirror-like. Primarily applied to trim or statement-making architectural details such as paneled walls, or on outdoor trim, doors and molding.

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Preparing to Paint: Start With Spackle


Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Before you get rolling, it’s important to prep. (Spotting a missed nail hole or random pet hair in the dried paint flat-out sucks.) Don’t even think about popping open a paint can until you’ve done all the advance work.

Spackle any holes.
Nail holes or larger need to be spackled and sanded. And don’t overlook cracks or holes in the ceiling! “On a white surface, use a spackle that goes on pink or purple so you can see where you’ve applied it,” says Nigel Costolloe, president of Catchlight Painting in Massachusetts. It will dry white; then you can sand it until smooth.

This step is essential, even more so if you have pets because their hair gets everywhere. “When we clean, we start at the top and work down so we’re not knocking dust onto already cleaned surfaces. Your vacuum should have a HEPA filter so you’re not redistributing dirt,” says Costolloe. “Vacuum the walls, molding, tops of doors and windows, baseboards and anything that can capture and hold cobwebs or grime. Finish with the floor.”

Don’t forget the window screens. 
It’s always good to ventilate when you paint, which means you’re going to have to open a window. If you live in an area where pollen is an issue, he recommends vacuuming your window screens.



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Continue Prep: Tape Off Molding and More

tape off molding

Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Pro Tip: Buying low-VOC or no-VOC paint is especially important if someone in the family has asthma or other chronic respiratory issues. Ventilate and wait until paint has truly dried before spending time in the room.

Cover floors and furniture.
“Your floor should get a clean canvas drop cloth,” says Costolloe. “Around the edges of the room, tape down paper with delicate adhesive tape to help avoid paint speckles.” 

Caulk any gaps around trim and crown molding.
“Don’t ever caulk around recessed lighting fixtures—or any fixtures, for that matter,” he says.

Tape off molding.
Put painter’s tape where you feel it’s needed, like around windows and molding. “We also remove fixtures like switch plates, and cover and tape lighting fixtures and built-in speakers,” says Costolloe.

Safety Pointers
Before starting any big paint project, bear these best practices in mind:

•  If your home was built before 1978, the biggest safety risk of painting is the presence of lead, according to the EPA. Test with a kit, and if the results are positive, you must contact a lead remediation specialist. 

•  Wearing a dust mask is a must when repairing holes and sanding off excess spackle.

•  Protect your eyes with goggles. 

•  Purchase low-VOC and no-VOC formulas. VOC = volatile organic compounds, which get released into the air as paint dries. “You don’t have to choose anymore between saving money and zero-VOC paint,” says Chris Richter, senior merchant for paint at The Home Depot.