Painting tips and tricks: choosing paint

A five-in-one and a roll of painter's tape accompany a paintbrush painting a rainbow on a block of wood

This post is about something super glamorous: home painting tips. I’m the kind of nerd who finds the testing methods painting companies use to rate paints interesting. Did you know that paint hardness is rated on a scratch test system where the manufacturer tries different types of pencils to see what will scratch a layer of fully cured paint? The rating on the scratch test is literally the number of the pencil that scratches the paint. Like a 2 hardness rating was scratched with a number two pencil. Fascinating. I realize paint is probably not this interesting to most people however. My hope for this post is that it will be the kind of thing you bookmark so that you can reference it when you need it. I’m going to fill it chock-full of painting tips and tricks so that when you have your own project, it can be a resource for you.

My parents owned a franchise of a painting company when I was growing up, so my dad is my ultimate authority on all things related to home painting. A quick note on my dad: he is one of the smartest people I know, he does everything to the highest level of excellence he can achieve, and he is extremely curious. As a result, he learns everything he can about the things he takes on, so he really is a great resource for this kind of thing. I picked his brain to get the painting tips in this article. It turns out there is A TON of useful things to know about paint, so I’m actually going to break this into two parts. Today’s post will cover different types of paint and their use cases, and then we’ll do another post on Monday covering processes, tools, and techniques.

Tips for choosing types of interior paint

Figuring out what type of paint to use is one of the questions I always ask my dad. There are so many different finishes, and I don’t really know what they mean (like…what is eggshell???). It’s helpful to know where to start deciphering all the different options at the paint store, so let’s start with finishes, from highest sheen to least sheen. The level of sheen isn’t standardized across paint brands, so the degree of sheen for each of these finishes can vary from brand to brand. This scale can still give you a baseline for figuring out where to start:

  • High gloss
  • Gloss
  • Semigloss
  • Satin
  • Eggshell
  • Matte
  • Flat

When you’re painting, all the finishes but flat should have a “wet edge” for best results. This means you want to make sure anywhere your paint strokes overlap are still wet. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a visible line where the wet paint overlapped dry paint. I have a really hard time maintaining a wet edge because I usually like to do all my cut-ins (corners and spaces too small for a roller), then go back and do the big swaths of wall I can get with a roller. I usually stick to flat paints for this reason. I also just generally prefer a matte finish. Flat paints also help hide imperfections in a wall better than higher sheen paints.

There are use cases for higher sheen paints, though. Some people really like the sheen. They can also be easier to clean because any dirt or grime sits more on the surface of glossy paints rather than getting into the minuscule nooks and crannies that make flat finishes matte. Because of this, a lot of people like to use shinier finishes in kitchens and bathrooms where you might need to wipe down a wall. My dad quipped that he’s never felt the need to scrub a wall, but I pointed out that I actually need to wipe down the walls in our bathroom right now. We had a soap dispenser get a little wild. There’s also a difference between washability and scrubability. Regardless of the finish, high quality paints will withstand scrubbing without coming off on your sponge better than low quality paints. Washability refers to how easily you can get dirt off the paint. High sheen finishes are generally more washable than matte or flat finishes.

One last note on bathrooms-some paints are antibacterial and antimicrobial, so that might be something to look for. A paint with more sheen can also be helpful for managing moisture if your bathroom doesn’t vent very well.

Do you need primer?

Another question I’m always unclear on is when I need to use primer and when I can just go straight to paint. Primer’s job is to make paint stick better. If you aren’t worried about adhesion (like if you’re painting over oil-based paint, or a glossy cabinet) you probably don’t need primer. There are a few exceptions to this rule: if you’re painting over raw wood, you always need primer. Raw drywall is extremely porous, so it will soak up a lot of paint. There are special types of primers called drywall conditioning primer that are meant for drywall specifically. If you’re painting over masonry, like exterior brick, you’ll need a masonry primer. Primers may also be needed to get some colors to develop properly. Red, for example, is particularly tricky because of the chemistry needed to make the red color, so the right primer can help make the color come out. Darker colors usually need more coats to get full coverage, and sometimes primers are used to help with transitioning between colors.

What about trim?

Traditionally, oil-based paint was used for doors and trim because it dries slower, so the brush strokes have time to smooth out. Oil-based paints aren’t great for the environment, so now most trim paints are water-based paints with an additive that helps them dry more slowly so the brush strokes have time to flow and smooth out. The thing to look for in trim paint is an enamel. Trims are usually on the higher sheen end of the finish spectrum. Ask for an extender at the paint store (that’s the additive). You may need to mix it in yourself, but some paint stores may help you add it before you leave.

Painting Tips for Touch-Ups

An important painting tip to keep in mind is how your paint finish impacts touch-ups. If you have a high sheen paint that requires a wet edge, it’s much more challenging if you need to go back and touch it up. You will see the touched-up spots a lot more because you’ll be painting over a dry coat of the old paint. Another important factor in handling touch-ups is to save some of the original paint for touch-ups. Touch-ups are never 100% guaranteed because environmental conditions can change how paint looks over time depending on what it’s exposed to. Another painting tip for touch-ups to is paint the smallest area you can with as little paint as possible. As you’re painting, feather it out at the edges to help it blend better.

Color matching can pose challenges for touch-ups. Colored paints start with a standard base, and then pigment is injected into it. There are a lot of factors that can change each batch of color, such as the settings of the machine injecting the pigment, the pigments themselves, and many others. If you knit or crochet, it’s similar to keeping in mind dye lots in your yarn. Paint colors can vary slightly from batch to batch, and the human eye is really good a detecting minute variations in color. Color matching is a very manual process, and it’s not an exact science. For this reason, it’s a good idea to get all the paint you need for a project at once, mix it together if possible if it’s in multiple containers, and keep the original paint on hand for touch-ups. If you do need to buy more paint, buy it from the same store location you bought the first round, and try to get it tinted on the same machine if you can. This is an issue I’ve faced first-hand. I bought a new can of paint a few years after painting my house, and didn’t realize it wasn’t a perfect match until I had done a lot of touch up spots. Now I have a lot of small patches on my wall that are just slightly different from the rest of the paint.

Exterior painting

One thing that can be really important for properly maintaining your home is refreshing your exterior paint periodically. Exterior paint doesn’t just contribute to curb appeal. It also helps protect your home from moisture. Making sure your paint job stays updated can help prevent bigger problems down the line, especially because the process for properly painting an exterior includes caulking cracks and joints. The longevity of exterior paint depends heavily on climate and weather conditions. Cheap exterior paints usually have at least 4-5 year lifespans. Some high-end paints have a lifetime warranty, but that’s just a warranty against paint failure, not fading or mildewing. A good high quality paint will probably last 8-10 years.

Dad’s tip for what type of paint is best for exteriors is “the best grade paint you can afford.” As far as type of paint, the recommendation is water-based latex paint. Oil-based pants really aren’t great for exteriors because it doesn’t hold up to the sun very well. The thing to look for to help know if you’re getting to the end of your exterior paint’s lifespan is called “chalking out.” Visually, this may look like the paint fading and losing its shine. An easy way to check it is to rub your hand along the paint. If it’s chalking out, you’ll be left with a residue on your hand as if you had wiped it across a chalkboard.

Storing paint

The last of our painting tips for today is on storing paint. The best way to store paint is in a controlled environment. If you can’t store it inside, choose a garage over an outdoor location or shed. If water-based paints freeze, they’re done and need to be disposed of at your city’s hazardous waste disposal resource. Oil-based paints don’t have the problem with freezing, but they can go sour. If you open a can of oil-based paint and it smells like sour milk instead of paint, it’s gone bad. Oil based paint can be stored for a year or two. Water-based latex paints often last longer than the cans themselves. You can tell if latex paint has gone bad if you dip your finger in it after shaking it and it smells sour.

That covers our painting tips for today. But I’ll be back on Monday because I have so much more to share. Did you know there are so many things to consider when painting your house? I hope this is helpful. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you! You can let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or find us on social media. You can also get updates about new posts by signing up for our email newsletter. And if you have any painting tips of your own, please share them!

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