Home School: Paint Like a Pro


In the first installment of our Home School series, we’re taking on one of the simplest improvement projects—painting—and answering that age-old question for you: Should you do it yourself, or hire a pro? We actually did the math, and figured out that if you were going to buy all the supplies needed to paint a 12×16 living room, it would run you about $300 dollars. (This doesn’t include basic tools like a ladder, hammer, and a screwdriver, which will up your total if you don’t have them and can’t borrow them.) A pro will charge roughly between $700 and $1100 for the same size room, paint included, so really the question is—do you want to save money and store all those supplies once you’re done?

If so, and you’re up to the task, it makes sense to go DIY. Like cooking, painting a room is all about the prep. Invest in quality tools and paints and take all the tireless precautions detailed here, or be prepared to curse yourself and your lazy paint job later. Once you carefully prepare your room in advance, the actual application of paint will take little time and effort.

Home improvement expert Tina Fallon shared her advice with us below. Here’s what to expect if you choose to do it yourself:

To paint the walls, trim, and ceiling in a room, you’ll need a basic set of tools:

Slotted screwdriver with “flathead” and Philips head tips: For removing switch plates and opening paint cans.

Hammer: For tapping paint lids back into place.

Masking tape, heavy paper, canvas drop cloths, and plastic sheeting: For protecting your non-painted surfaces.

Paintbrushes: A good quality 1 ½” to 2” brush, for cutting in walls and details, a slanted “sash brush” for windows and trim, a wider flat brush (up to 4”) for covering large areas and smoothing roller marks, and a few “chip” brushes for dusting surfaces.

Rollers, cages, extension rods and trays: What sort of surface are you covering? Smooth drywall or a popcorn ceiling? There’s a roller for every type of paint and surface – make sure you get one to match your task. Buy multiples so you don’t have to wash one out every time you switch paints. Invest in some tray liners so you can switch paints without rinsing everything. An extension rod, which can be as simple as a screw-in broom handle, will save your neck and back, and help reach the ceiling and tops of walls without a ladder.

Ladder: But yeah, you’ll need one anyway.

Work lights (optional): A portable work light will keep you from skipping spots known as “holidays.” The heat the lamp generates can also help dry the paint.

Plastic buckets or takeout containers: Perfect for carrying paint to the top of a ladder. Make sure you have covers without holes in them. You can use these to soak brushes, hold wet rags, and store your touch-up paint when you’re done.

Joint compound and drywall knife: For patching any small holes from picture hooks, shelves, and the like. For small holes, a lightweight, quick drying compound works fine.

Fine sandpaper: For surface prep (i.e. scuffing glossy paint) and sanding wall patches.

Painter’s caulk and caulk gun: Your new best friend. The caulk should match your trim color.

Primer and paint: A high-quality paint will be more forgiving than a cheap one. Make sure you have enough to cover all your surfaces with a bit left over for touch ups. (One gallon will cover 400 square feet, and you’ll need two coats each of paint and primer.) If you have more than one gallon of a custom color, mix them together in a larger container before you begin–that way you don’t have to worry if the tint mix is not identical. You will need paint for the ceiling (usually flat), walls (from flat to eggshell), and trim (semi-gloss to gloss enamel). Flat paints are more forgiving of surface imperfections. Kitchen and bathrooms often take a glossier sheen (eggshell to semi-gloss) as it’s considered easier to clean. But you can opt for a high-gloss ceiling and a flat bathroom wall–there are no set rules any more.

For advice on colors, check out our Repaint Your Apartment story.

Cleaning supplies: Soap and water work wonders, along with sponges, white cotton rags, paper towels, and a bucket or sink.

Clear out (or cover up) the room, then paint


Don’t paint around your furnishings: Take the time to move furniture out of the room, if possible. In a pinch, move it to the center of the room, leaving enough space to move comfortably around the perimeter.

Mask your valuables: Cover furniture and everything else with with heavy (4mil) plastic sheeting, except the floors, as it’s slippery and dangerous. For those, lay thick canvas drop cloths or heavy paper on every inch, especially if you are painting the ceiling. Rolling the walls will put a fine mist of paint on anything left exposed, and even light sanding can damage electronics.

Use Blue Tape sparingly: Many professional painters skip painter’s tape when it comes to precise work, such as window trim. Paint can sneak in behind the tape, forcing you to spend more time scraping and touching up. Do use it for masking floors and adhering drop cloths, and around doorknobs and metal trim. But when it comes to detailed work, a steady hand and a good brush will save you time and effort.

Remove outlet and switch plate covers: Never paint around them. Store all covers in one place and tape the tiny screws to the plates so you don’t lose them. Loosen the ceiling lights (or at least, their trim pieces) if possible, to make painting around them easier. Always be careful around electricity!

Patch your holes: Don’t paint over picture hooks–they’ll damage your rollers and cause unsightly drips. Remove them and fill the small holes with joint compound. Sand smooth.

Sand, then wash: Lightly sand glossy surfaces (like windowsills) to prepare them to accept paint, then clean your walls and trim by dusting and washing. Scrub if you have to.

An example of “cutting in,” or creating a frame around which to paint


Prime surfaces if necessary: If you are painting new drywall, unpainted wood, covering dark color with light, covering water stains, or switching paint types (say from oil-based to latex), be sure to prime according to the paint manufacturer’s guidelines. If you’re just covering off-white latex with a similar or darker shade, many of today’s paints allow you to skip the primer stage.

Start with the ceiling: Begin by “cutting in,” or creating a frame around which to paint. Use a brush (and your ladder) to paint the perimeter of the ceiling, painting 3”-4” outward along the edges of moldings and corners. Use this opportunity to train yourself to paint a steady, straight line where the ceiling meets the wall (don’t worry, you’ll get another chance when you cut in the walls). Cut in around any ceiling fixtures as well.

While the brushwork is still wet, roll out the ceiling: You can use a V or W motion, or a straight stroke–just be sure to cover a single section of about 4’x6’ before moving on. Leave a wet edge and work quickly but carefully. Gently roll or brush out any obvious roller marks. With any luck, the ceiling will only need a single coat of paint.

Paint the walls: Cut in your walls using the same technique. Carefully paint around windows and doors, switch plates and outlets. Use your brush at the corners as well, where the walls meet, and paint a roughly 3”-4” wide frame around the walls. Fill in the frame with the roller, using even pressure to prevent drips and roller marks. Gently brush or roll over any of these while the paint is still wet. The paint should flatten, creating an even surface as it dries. Apply a second coat of paint after the first has fully dried.

Paint the trim: Use a 1 ½” to 2” brush or a slanted sash brush. Be sure not to load the paint more than halfway up the brush; you don’t want paint getting into the ferrule (the metal collar of the brush), as it makes the brush difficult to clean and reuse. Take your time and use the skills you have developed cutting in your walls and ceiling. If you’re careful, you can skip the painter’s tape just like a pro.

Caulk: When that first coat of trim paint is dry, carefully apply painter’s caulk to any gaps between the trim and walls, and any gaps in your moldings. Keep a sponge and damp rag nearby for cleanups. A good caulk job masks a multitude of evils and makes your paint job look more professional. When the caulk is dry, add a final coat of paint to your trim.

Check for holidays: Use your work lamp to check for any “holidays” and touch them up and you’re done (almost)!


Roller covers: If you plan to reuse your roller covers, cover them in plastic bags, hold the middle of the cover and tap the free end with your hammer. Rinse the roller cage and cover until the water runs clear. Otherwise, discard the roller in the plastic bag.

Brushes: Rinse brushes until the water runs clear. Flick any water out into the sink, then set them on paper towels to dry.

Paint cans: Reseal your paint cans, or transfer the remaining paint into sealed plastic containers. When your cans are empty, allow them to air dry and then recycle the empty metal paint cans.

Last touches: Re-attach switch plates, outlet covers, and lighting fixtures; carefully remove drop cloths and plastic sheets; replace your furniture and artwork and admire your new room!

Tina Fallon has worked as a painter, signmaker, carpenter, theater producer, filmmaker, upholsterer, and real estate agent. Not in that order. She lives in Red Hook.


5 Responses

  1. home builders Missouri -

    These are great tips for painting on your own. Storage is a problem that many forget to consider. Many people focus on using the paint for the room but forget to consider the disposal and storage of materials used and left over. Thanks for the instructions! They help a lot!

  2. Dallas roofing contractors -

    Painting a room can be a very fun activity, but it is also time consuming and energy draining. You will have to ask yourself whether you want, or are able, to do the work on your own. With these tips, however, painting a room yourself will be a lot easier.

  3. epoxy flooring Louisiana -

    This is really an incredible post. Your tips are indeed very useful knowing that it is becoming a trend for homeowners to do home painting projects themselves. Some say, it saves much money. Others say, it is a fun experience and that it gives a sense of fulfilment knowing that you did something to improve your home. Thank you again for these tips.

  4. contractor Palm Springs -

    With the growing interest of homeowners in doing their own home improvement projects, this post is really very beneficial. Home painting is such a fun activity and doing it yourself will even give you a sense fulfillment aside from the opportunity to add some personal touches. Thank you for sharing these techniques. These are really very useful.


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