Make your DIY paint job look professional with this expert advice

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As restless renters and homeowners search for ways to spruce up their living spaces during the pandemic, they often find themselves in the paint-swatch aisle. It’s easy to see why. Painting is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to transform a room – and it seems like one of the simplest, too. Except it isn’t. Not exactly.

“We’ve never done as many fix jobs as we have this year,” says Patrick Coye, who runs Patrick’s Painting, a company that serves Northern Virginia. Sheepish homeowners have been calling him to remedy botched DIY paint jobs: streaky walls, sloppy edges and splatters everywhere paint shouldn’t be – floors, ceilings, windows, door frames, furniture, you name it.

“Painting is messy no matter what,” Coye says. “But it’s twice as messy if you don’t do it every day.”

That doesn’t mean novice painters can’t pull off a professional-looking job, especially if they’re willing to put in the time. “Mistake number one is assuming it’s going to be a one-, two- or three-hour thing,” says Shelly Lynch-Sparks, founder and principal designer of the New York design firm Hyphen & Co. “The fact is, it’s very time-consuming.”

Tackling one room can take new painters several days, especially in older homes, where the walls, doors and baseboards have been painted many times and require sanding and patching to whip them into shape. Factor in the time it takes to research colors and test samples, as well as to invest in quality supplies, and suddenly a project isn’t so cheap and easy, after all.

Natalie Ebel, who co-founded Backdrop, a paint brand geared toward millennial DIY painters, learned the ropes from her father, a professional painter for more than 50 years. “He taught me the tricks to a good paint job,” she says. “And that there are no shortcuts.”

We spoke to professional painters, interior designers, entrepreneurs and home-improvement bloggers to determine the most common rookie painting mistakes and how to avoid them. Their suggestions span the full process of DIY painting.

– Fight the urge to lead with paint color.

“Many people tend to think about paint color first,” says Julia Marcum of Chris Loves Julia, a husband-wife design duo and popular blog among DIY enthusiasts. “I think about it last.”

Her logic: Although it’s easy to fixate on certain colors, such as a navy accent wall or sage green office, there’s no guarantee they will work with your decor. “You don’t want to get into a situation where you put your furniture back into a freshly painted room and nothing looks right,” she says. Instead, the Idaho Falls designer identifies her must-have pieces – a vintage rug, custom curtains or art, for example – then looks for tones and colors that will complement them. “Then go buy the samples, test them out and make your decision,” Marcum says. “Unless you’re playing with various whites, picking color should be the last step before you take the plunge.”

Also, don’t overestimate your own boldness. Another common color misstep is misjudging your comfort with bright, bold and saturated colors.

Remember that the bigger the wall, the darker the paint will look, and that every bright color has neutral relatives. “For the long haul, in a home, most people are happier living with a more muted color,” Marcum says. “Trust me: It will be vibrant when it’s covering your walls.”

– All finishes are not created equal.

“Finishes matter, and they’re not one size fits all,” Lynch-Sparks says. She suggests eggshell for most walls, because “it can be wiped with a magic eraser” and falls between matte and satin. For trim, baseboards and doors, opt for shinier finishes, such as semi-gloss or satin. “These are spots that get banged up by the vacuum or covered in dirty handprints,” she says. “Glossier finishes can take a beating and are easy to clean.”

Be wary of high-gloss finishes, though, which tend to show every imperfection. And leave the flat finish for your ceiling. It’s the hardest to clean, but it’s rich and forgiving, absorbing light so dings and dents are less noticeable. Bathrooms should be prepped with a moisture-resistant primer to prevent peeling down the line. Then use a satin or semi-gloss finish, which are more resistant to humidity.

– Don’t pass on primer.

Experts are conflicted about the importance of primer, but the consensus is that it certainly can’t hurt. Coye says primer is essential only in certain situations, such as when you’re painting on new drywall, bare wood, metal or in older homes that have oil-based paint. “Most paint today is latex-based, and latex will adhere to latex as long as it’s clean,” he says.

Others, including Chesapeake Painting’s James Guth, maintain that primer is more cost effective; at $20 to $25 a gallon, it’s often cheaper than high-quality paint. “If you’re putting a light color on top of a dark color, prime first,” he says. “That way, you only need two coats of paint instead of four.”

– Don’t skimp on prep.

Of the many hours people should spend on a DIY paint job, the majority should focus on what the pros call “prep,” a surprisingly laborious process that calls for clearing, cleaning and covering the space. Coye advises allowing at least a full day for this. “There’s a good chance you’ll need to sand, patch and caulk first, and you don’t want to run out of time and rush,” he says. “That’s always bad.”

Prep work also includes wiping the walls with a wet rag, vacuuming the space so it’s free of dirt and pet hair, and thoroughly taping the baseboards and trim. Press on the tape with your finger to seal it off, so it isn’t infiltrated by dripping paint.

– Splurge on supplies.

“Try to think of paint like makeup,” Ebel says. “The higher quality your brushes and tools, the better it will look.”

Coye is loyal to rollers by Purdy or Wooster. Wooster rollers, in particular, he says, shed less, leave a nicer finish and hold more paint. “All rollers tend to shed, which is why some walls look fuzzier than others,” he says. Before you use a roller for the first time, he says, “Run it across a piece of painter’s tape to strip off any excess lint.” He also likes Wooster’s brushes, specifically the Chinex FTB brush, because it’s easy to clean, not too firm and holds paint well.

Finally, forget those slippery plastic drop cloths you see in the bargain aisle at the hardware store. Instead, opt for eliminator drop cloths, which are made of heavyweight, leak-resistant butyl and won’t slide. “They’re worth every penny and will last you many projects to come,” Ebel says.

– Take the edges slowly.

When you’re ready to paint, cut in the edges first. “Tape and patience are your best friend here,” Coye says. “Wrap the door frame, seal off the base trim and tape the ceiling or neighboring wall along the line where your brush will be.” Load up your brush so it’s moderately full but not dripping, and drag it across the ceiling line or down the edge of the wall. Don’t worry when the brush feathers and fades as you run out of paint; these marks make for a smoother transition when you go over them with your roller to blend.

– More paint, less pressure.

“DIYers tend to be really precious and don’t apply enough paint per coat,” Ebel says. “Then they push the roller hard onto the wall. You shouldn’t have to do that.” Roller sleeves should be saturated but not dripping, she says, and should glide up and down the wall in even, easy strokes. Ideally, your roller should never have so much on it that you get major drips.

Guth measures the sleeve’s saturation in thirds: “Roll until you’ve released two-thirds of the paint from your roller onto the wall,” he says, “and leave one-third of the paint on the sleeve.” Doing so will dispense paint more evenly and avoid a streaky, patchy finish.

– Don’t wait too long to peel off the painter’s tape.

Many new painters wait for the paint to fully dry before removing the tape. “That couldn’t be more wrong,” Ebel says. “If you do that, you risk peeling off some of the new color along with it.” It’s best to peel it off before the last coat dries.

Coye agrees. “Get it while it’s still wet, so you can ensure you get a sharp, clean line,” he says. “Then, walk away slowly, and don’t come back for at least three hours.”

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