How to Paint a Room

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A fresh coat of paint is one of the most cost effective ways to dramatically improve the look of a space. Think of it: a fireplace really becomes the focal point once it’s in front of an accent wall; a bland kid’s room transforms into something playful with a pop of color; a dining room gets a sophisticated upgrade with a darkened ceiling. The right wall hue acts as a complementary backdrop to the furniture you already own.

Want even more bang for your buck? A smooth, flawless finish depends on how you paint the room. Follow the tips below for a look that will have your guests wondering if you hired a professional.

Step 1: Cover with Canvas

Drop cloths protect the things you don’t want to paint, but some work better than others. Professional painters like canvas for its tear-resistant durability and excellent absorption of paint splatters. Spill paint on a plastic cloth and you run the risk of stepping in it later (paint doesn’t dry as quickly on plastic) and tracking it through other parts of the house. Some canvas types come with a rubber backing, ensuring it will grip the floor and stay in place.

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Step 2: Start with a Smooth Surface

Fill in any nail holes, scratches or dents in the wall by applying a lightweight joint compound with a putty knife. Let the compound dry for at least 10 minutes, then lightly buff the entire wall from baseboard to ceiling with a fine grit (100 or 150) sandpaper on a sanding pole. Use a soft touch—leaning into the sanding pole could cause its head to invert and scratch the wall. Finish by sanding horizontally along the baseboard and ceiling.

Step 3: Strain the Paint

Even freshly mixed paint can contain a few lumps or chips of hard paint, which can seriously sabotage a smooth paint job. Any clumps that make it onto the wall will have to be picked out and the area re-rolled. The solution: strain paint through a straining cloth (available at home improvement and paint stores) or pantyhose, cut to create one large piece of mesh, to sift out any debris.

Step 4: Use a Primer

Painting directly onto sanded walls can result in dull patches caused by joint compound pulling the moisture out of paint. Start with a coat of primer; it will optimize the walls you sanded smooth earlier by ensuring a seamless, paint-ready surface. If you’re working with walls that have been stained by smoke or fires, consider using a stain-blocking primer, available in oil or water-based versions. Otherwise, stick with a grey-tinted primer, which covers existing paint better than white primer. With a primer underneath, your new paint will appear richer in color and may require fewer coats.

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Step 5: Prevent Paint on the Ceiling

Textured ceilings in particular seem to end up with smudges of color on them. Nip this problem in the bud by taping along the edge where the ceiling meets the wall with blue painter’s tape. Another option, best suited for advanced DIYers who are confident in their skills, is to make a straight, horizontal groove just below the ceiling with a putty knife or screwdriver. The brush will naturally go to this line when you’re painting, preventing it from touching overhead.

Step 6: One Wall at a Time

It may seem logical to paint a room by outlining or “cutting in” all four walls at once, then finishing with a roller, but that can result in a noticeable difference if the edge paint on the first wall dries before you get to the rest of it. Pros know to complete one wall at a time. Cut in all four edges of a wall using a sharply angled brush with a short handle, then immediately fill in the rest with a roller before moving to the next wall. Note: if you’re not entirely steady-handed with an angle brush, do cover the trim and woodwork with blue painters tape and press it in place with a putty knife.

Step 7: Prep the Roller

Dampen it: use a spray bottle of water for latex paint, dip the roller in a tray of paint thinner for oil-based paint.

Step 8: Roll It On

Pour strained paint into a tray and load the roller with color by rolling it down into the tray with one fluid motion. Pick it up and distribute the paint evenly by running the roller down the tray once more, stopping before it reaches the paint well. Once the roller is loaded, tackle the wall in sections: roll up and down from floor to ceiling, stopping a few inches from the ceiling and thinly overlapping the previous stroke each time. Reload the roller as necessary and paint the next section, working backward toward the previously completed portion of wall. If using an extension pole, keep your dominant hand lower on the pole for greater control. At the corners, paint as closely as possible to the adjacent wall without touching it. Without loading additional paint onto the roller, finish the wall with a blending horizontal stroke below the ceiling line.

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Step 9: Keep Paint Fresh

If you’re taking a lunch break or plan to finish the job the next day, do not stop mid-wall. Complete the wall you’ve started before breaking. Close the lid on the paint can tightly and place a damp rag or towel over the paint tray any time you take a break for more than 10 minutes. For overnight breaks, toss out tray liners and either clean brushes and rollers or cover them in plastic wrap and put them in the freezer to prevent drying and hardening.

Have other tips for how to paint a room? Leave us a note in the comments below.

 

How to Decorate Team

We enjoy spending days interacting with How to Decorate readers. From answering Design Dilemmas to writing How To articles and working with guest designers, our passion is to provide informative and accurate resources to help people solve their design problems.

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12 Comments

  1. Reply

    Sarah

    October 13, 2015
     

    I would like to decorate a whole room but don’t know where to start. Do I start with the ceiling, then walls then gloss doors and skirting boards or other way round. Thanks.

    • Reply

      Caroline @ How to Decorate

      November 5, 2015
       

      Sarah,
      Decorating a room from start to finish can be intimidating, we totally get it! We actually offer free design services that can help you pick paint colors, fabrics, furnitures pieces, art, rugs, and everything else you need for your space. Simply complete this form and our Design Solutions team will reach out to you. Be sure to include photos of your space so we can give you the most helpful advice and tips!
      The How to Decorate Team

  2. Reply

    Tracy

    January 25, 2015
     

    We’ve just added crown molding to all of our rooms. We have 10ft ceilings. What do you think of painting the ceilings a much lighter shade of the walls to help the moldings pop? Any special “rules” I should follow? Or suggestions?

    • Reply

      Caroline @ How to Decorate

      February 6, 2015
       

      Hi Tracy,
      We would love to help you pick some paint colors. It’s hard to say without seeing your space, but if you would send us photos, our Design Solutions team can come up with a plan for you. Simply complete this form, and we’ll reach out to you.
      We look forward to hearing from you!
      The How to Decorate Team

  3. Reply

    Madga Hernandez

    May 6, 2014
     

    Is Benjamin Moore paint available anywhere?

    • Reply

      Caroline @ How to Decorate

      May 20, 2014
       

      Hi Madga,

      You can purchase Benjamin Moore paint at any Benjamin Moore retailer, or you can use their online store locator to find a store near you.

      Best of Luck,
      The How to Decorate Team

  4. Reply

    Sparkie

    May 6, 2014
     

    This article is so helpful. My daughter is moving into her first home and this is such a great article for her.

  5. Reply

    Amy

    April 10, 2014
     

    What paint brand/colors were used in the above photos? I love them.

    • Reply

      How to Decorate Team

      April 11, 2014
       

      Hi Amy,

      Thanks for your comment. For the first two rooms, we suggest Benjamin Moore’s Peale Green (#HC-121). For the third room, try Benjamin Moore’s Bridgewater Tan (#1096), and for the fourth room, Benjamin Moore’s Shenandoah Taupe (#AC-36). Hope that helps!

      Happy Decorating,
      The How to Decorate Team

      • Amy

        April 14, 2014
         

        Thank you!

  6. Reply

    Debbie Scruggs

    March 22, 2014
     

    How do you pick the right wall color for a room with off white carpet and couch and a white fireplace and drapes, two wing chairs with golden brow and some red pattern. Walls are now antiqu white.
    I want the fireplace to stand out more (this is the area you see mostly when entering or when sitting in adjacent family room) as well as wall color to bring out everything else in the room that is off white. Help!

    • Reply

      How to Decorate Team

      March 27, 2014
       

      Hi Debbie,

      Our design services team would be happy to help you with this decorating dilemma. We actually have an ongoing column on How to Decorate that addresses customer questions! If you’d like to submit your space to our design team, we would love to help come up with a solution. Simply submit to us a photo of your space, as well as a brief description of the issue, using this handy form, and our team will reach out with our best solution!

      We look forward to helping you with your issue.

      Best,
      The How to Decorate Team

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