Interior Painting Step 1: Prepping a Room

Go to Step 2: Painting the Ceiling

Ready to paint a room? Cool! The first step is to “prep” the room. This includes clearing out furniture and other items, placing drop cloths, caulking cracks, filling nail holes, sanding, taping, and priming. You can achieve excellent results if you follow these instructions.


1. Clearing the Room

Clearing the room is an important first step. Ideally you can remove EVERYTHING and store it elsewhere while you paint. Make every effort to do this, even if you have to stack the furniture in the living room or hallway, because it will pay dividends in time saved. However, if you absolutely are not able to clear the room completely, then you will have to move what remains to the center of the room and cover it with plastic. Position the furniture so you still have access to the light fixture, which you will need to brush around when you are “cutting in” with the ceiling paint.

Next, give the room a cursory cleaning. Clear all cobwebs from the corners and vacuum out the closet, especially the shelves where dust gathers. Give the trim a quick vacuum with the brush attachment to clear old dust.

Take the pictures off the walls. If you are going to put them back where they were, you can leave the hangers in place and just paint over and around them, although this is not ideal because it messes with your roller. It is best to remove all nails and screws before painting.

Use your screwdriver to remove the switch plates from the light switches and outlets. Put the plates and screws in a safe place if you are going to re-use them (I recommend getting nice new ones because the old ones will look dingy against the fresh paint).

Take down the curtains and curtain rods. It’s best to remove the curtain-rod holders from the wall, but if you want to leave them in place, you will need to cover them with tape later.

Once the room is cleared and all the stuff is off the walls, completely cover the floor with drop cloths. This presents a problem to some people because they don’t have any real canvas drop cloths. So they buy little plastic drop cloths that catch on your feet and are slippery too. Or they use old bed sheets that aren’t thick enough to prevent dripped paint from seeping through to the carpet. My advice? If you consider yourself an enthusiast DIY painter, investing some money in a few high quality canvas drop cloths: two big guys (9′ x 12′ and 12′ x 15′) and a “runner” (4′ x 12 ‘). Then you’re set for life. NOTE: Spills and big drips can leak through canvas drop cloths. Wipe them up immediately with a rag.

The big guys will cover the middle of an average-size room, and you can run the “runners” along the walls and into tight spaces and hallways as needed. Supplement this with whatever else you can gather, but if you use bed sheets, double them up. A better option is to use old mattress pads (single-bed size; check with your local university housing department at the end of the school year to get some). Mattress pads are usually thick enough to absorb dripped paint before it seeps through.

2. Filling Nail Holes

Once you’ve got your drop cloths down, it’s time to fill all nail holes with lightweight spackle (and check the ceiling too, should there happen to be any holes up there). For little thumbtack and nail holes, you can just rub some spackle into the hole and then clear any excess off the wall around the hole. Making a “spackle ghost” is a handy way to dispense spackle. See the video to learn how to do that.

Bigger holes (half inch) can be filled using some spackle on a putty knife. If you have holes bigger than a half-inch wide to fix, you might need some patching tape and joint compound. Follow the instructions on the package to cover the hole with tape and give it a few coats of joint compound.

If the trim is to be painted (as opposed to natural wood, which you will tape off later), you’ll want to fill or refill any nail holes you can see. By “trim” I mean windows, door casings, baseboards, and crown molding if you have that. Often the original spackle will have cracked and shrunk into the hole a bit, and now is the time to fix that. If you’re painting newly installed trim, or painting your old, cheap-looking 1970s natural-wood trim, this is an important step to get right.

When spackling nail holes in the trim, make sure you push as much spackle as possible into the hole with your finger tip. Then push some more in, until you’re sure the hole is completely filled all the way to the bottom and then some. Stuffing spackle into the hole this way causes the spackle to actually push itself back out of the hole when drying over the next half hour or so. That’s what you want.

This slightly raised spackle allows you to lightly sand the spackle down until it is even with the surface of the trim. The alternative is to not put enough spackle into the hole, and not push it in hard enough to completely fill the hole, so that when it dries it actually shrinks back into the hole to fill the dead space. This requires you to either apply a second coat of spackle and sand it, or accept the slight depression of the nail hole. Most people choose the latter and still live happy lives, but if you know how to do it right you can get a smoother, silkier look.

Be careful not to leave excess spackle caked around the hole; wipe it away with your finger as much as you can without disturbing the hole. Less to sand.

NOTE: If you have old, natural-wood trim (of the cheaper variety) that you would like to revitalize with fresh paint (yes!), see my video on painting your natural-wood trim (coming spring 2014).

3. Sanding

After the spackle has dried, it’s time to sand the trim. Use a medium- or fine-grit sanding sponge (or 180 or 220-grit sandpaper, although I prefer the sponges for most applications because the squared edges make it easier to get into corners and cracks). Even if you didn’t fill any nail holes, you still need to give the trim a quick cuff to rough up the enamel enough to accept a new coat of paint.

If you filled any large holes in the walls, sand them smooth. Really large holes on textured walls might require you to touch up the texture. If it’s orange peel, get a little can of spray-on texture—they work great. If it’s skip-trowel texture or Mediterranean, use joint compound on a 6-inch blade. Scoop some texture onto the blade and “skip” it along the surface to match the look of the existing texture. It’s not difficult.

Once you are done sanding, vacuum all the trim with the brush attachment so it’s ready for caulking. The reason it’s important to have spackled, sanded, and vacuumed all the trim before caulking is because dust will stick to new caulk and it’s almost impossible to get off, meaning you end up painting on top of the dust, which is never a good idea. So get all the dusty work out of the way before you caulk.

WARNING: If your house is pre-1978, buy a lead-test kit. If the results are positive, consult with an expert. Never scrape or sand lead paint without proper training!

4. Caulking

If you’re painting your natural-wood trim, see that video because you’ve got a lot of caulking to do. If the trim has already been previously painted, look over all the joints where the wood meets the wall and or one piece of wood meets another and caulk anywhere the original caulk has separated. Check all the joints in the window and door casings, baseboards, and crown molding. Use a dripless caulk gun and paintable caulk to neatly fill these joints, then wipe away any excess with your finger.

If you have a hairline crack in the drywall, rub a small amount of caulk into the crack. Using caulk is a better option than spackling because caulk will remain flexible and won’t re-crack as quickly (but often it will recrack because hairline cracks are usually related to the foundation settling). Make sure you don’t leave ANY caulk out on the wall because it will shine through the finish coat. Wipe away any excess with a wet finger or rag.

Be very precise with your caulking in general. Always run a wet finger along the bead after caulking to rub the caulk in and smooth it out so that any evidence of it will disappear when the paint is applied on top. Carry a small bucket of water and a rag with you to help manipulate the caulk. Wetting your finger before rubbing the caulk into the joint helps keep it smooth.

Let the caulk dry for at least a day before the next step, masking and taping.

5. Masking (Taping)

“Masking” is the process of applying a combination of tape and masking paper to areas of the room that need to be protected. I strongly recommend you buy a hand masker and blade, especially if you’re going to be doing more painting than just one room. Hand maskers cost a little dough but are worth every penny.

If your room has nice, natural wood trim that is staying natural, you’ll want to run 1.5-inch blue “painters” tape all the way around it. Try to run the tape straight and press it down very firmly with the tip of your finger, especially the edge of tape that meets the painted area, because you don’t want paint leaking underneath and making a ragged edge. Ragged edges are the bane of the DIY painter, but they can be remedied if you really press that tape edge down firmly, then press it down again immediately before painting if any time has passed that might have allowed the tape to release a little. This is very important. Clean lines make a big difference in the final outcome of an interior paint job. Ragged lines can ruin everything.

Which isn’t to say blue tape is your panacea, because it’s not. Sometimes the best option is to cut a line carefully with a brush. A good example is where the wall paint meets the ceiling paint (assuming the ceiling is white and the wall a different color). People will often paint their ceiling, let it dry, then try to tape it off before cutting in the top of the wall. Never tape your ceiling like that—it doesn’t work. You can cut a straight-looking line against the ceiling without tape, I promise, if you follow the technique described in step 3: painting the walls.

Put an “awning” of masking paper and tape across the top of each window to shield it from getting speckled. Other items on the walls, like thermostats, fuse boxes, etc., will need to be masked off with tape and paper. Put a piece of 1.5 inch tape over the outlets and light switches to protect them. (You only need worry about the part that will be visible when you put the switch plate back on.) Make sure you put a little awning of paper/tape over the top of any door handles to protect them from splatter.

It’s important to do a good job masking the baseboard. If you have painted baseboard, you will need to run paper and tape precisely along the top of it to protect it while you roll the walls.

If, on the other hand, you have baseboard trim that you are not going to paint, such as natural wood or rubber mopboard, here’s a important tip: You want to run the tape up onto the wall just a hair. Nobody will ever notice that tiny bit of unpainted wall (1/16th-inch max), but they sure will notice any paint that has bled onto the natural trim or mopboard. Often the key to painting straight lines is just knowing which way you can cheat them so nobody notices. For more tips, see the video on how to paint straight lines.

Make sure you tuck all your drop cloths in underneath the paper/tape combo that you put on the baseboard so the floor is fully protected. If you don’t have any baseboard or mopboard, you’ll need to just tape off the floor directly.

6. Priming

Now that you’ve got the room fully masked and all your drop cloths in place, it’s time to do any necessary priming. Usually a good latex interior primer will work fine for any holes you spackled on the walls. If you have stains to cover, or bare wood to prime (or if you’re painting your natural-wood trim), you’ll probably want a good stain-blocking oil-base primer. (Latex stain-blocking primers are also available. They are pretty good but not quite as good as oil. However, if fumes are an issue, by all means use latex stain-blocking primer.) Wear a respirator and open the windows when working with oil primer because breathing the fumes directly will quickly make you dizzy.

When priming patches on the wall, be fairly surgical about it. Don’t slop primer around because it can show up later by shining through the finish coat. If you have large areas to prime, a mini-roller can help, and using a mini-roller has the added advantage of helping the primer blend into the finish coat (brush strokes in the middle of the wall can sometimes stand out later). Am I being too picky? The thing is, it’s just as easy to paint your house right as it is to paint it wrong, so you might as well do it right.

Okay, when you’re done priming, clean up the outfit, or, if you’re going to be doing more priming later, see my video on storing your brushes and rollers overnight. Congratulations, you’re done prepping the room, and frankly, that’s usually the hardest part of this whole process—everything else is mildly enjoyable because you’re seeing solid results. Now get ready for step 2: painting the ceiling.

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