How To: Paint Like a Pro

Take it from the pros—a superior paint job requires a lot more than choosing the right paint color.

By LuAnn Brandsen | Updated Nov 12, 2013 6:17 PM

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How to Paint

Photo: Flickr

When it comes to painting, homeowners often adopt a weekend warrior mentality, skipping or rushing through prep work in a quest for instant gratification. “A huge difference between a professional job and a poor job is what happens before you paint,” says Tony Severino, founder of Professional Painters in La Grange, Illinois, and board member of the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America. “I just cringe when I watch TV decorating shows where the designers don’t use primer because they’re trying to finish quickly.”

Indeed, pros know that new paint is only as good as the surface you’re covering. For top results, wash the surface with water, using a mild detergent if there are stains or residue. Fill holes and cracks, sand the surface to ensure it’s smooth and dull, and use a tack cloth to remove dust. “Don’t skip primer when you’re dealing with an unpainted surface, when you’re painting over stains or patched areas, or when you’re making a drastic paint color change,” says Joe Kowalski, Training Manager for Glidden Paint servicing The Home Depot. “It makes all the difference.”

Another key to success is to purchase top-quality paint and painting tools. “All finishes and textures require high quality products, good surface preparation, and high quality application tools,” says Karl Schmitt, VP of Marketing Research and Design for Sherwin Williams. “The higher the gloss, the more critical it is to use high quality products.”

Quality paint will go on easier, provide better coverage, and last longer than cheap paints. Likewise, top-notch tools contribute to a better finish. “One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is to buy a cheap paintbrush that will shed and fall apart,” notes Severino. “Purdy and Wooster are brushes that will yield a professional-looking finish.”

You’ll need to match your paint to the right brush or roller, too. Generally, water-based paints need synthetic bristles that won’t absorb water and swell; oil-based and alkyd paints are best applied with natural bristles that eliminate brush marks. Similarly, choose a roller with a short nap for glossy finishes on smooth surfaces and one with a thick nap for textured walls. According to Severino, the question of roller vs. brush comes down to this: “Professionals brush only when they have to. Rolling saves time and gives a better finish.”

Popular interior paint jobs focus on ceilings, walls, trim, and kitchen cabinetry. Here are helpful tips for tackling each:

How to Paint Ceilings. Adjustable fiberglass extension poles for rollers will save you countless trips up and down a ladder. “Cut in to create a 2-3” border where the ceiling meets the wall,” says Kowalski. “Then paint one coat lengthwise and one widthwise so that you’re crosshatching and don’t miss a spot.” (Use a stain-blocking primer on ceilings with water stains to prevent continuous bleed through.)

Special ceiling paints are available—including those that go on pink or blue so you can see where you’ve been and those that minimize splattering—but most pros agree that any good flat paint will suffice. “Buy the flattest paint you can to hide the imperfections,” suggests Severino. “If you use a sheen, the light will bounce all over to highlight flaws and your roller marks.”

How to Paint Walls. Prep and use a 2-3” angled brush to cut in around trim and at the ceiling, then move to a roller to save time. Paint a 3-4’ W or N in a top corner of the wall and fill in with vertical strokes. Overlap any areas where you cut in corners and edges, and finish an entire wall before moving on.

How to Paint Trim. Prep the surface, using a liquid deglosser rather than sandpaper if you have any concerns about lead paint on trim painted before 1978. Paint windows from the top down, leaving the sill for last. For baseboard and molding, start in a corner and paint in a straight line to follow the length of the wood. To make the trim stand out, use a higher sheen than what is used on the walls.

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets. After washing the cabinets, remove the hardware and move doors and drawers to a workbench-type area. Use a fine-grit sandpaper to roughen the surface. (For a high-gloss finish, use a sandable primer that can be smoothed before painting.) Patch cracks and divots with wood putty and fill any hardware holes if you’ll be using new hardware requiring different holes.

Finally, prime with an oil-base primer, then sand and wipe with a tack cloth before adding a topcoat. Kowalski suggests oil-base primer and top coat, noting that it is the most chip resistant. “If you can’t use an oil-base topcoat, then go for a high-gloss latex” he says. For doors with panels, paint the interior section first, then paint the rails (horizontal pieces) and stiles (vertical pieces).