Getting Ready

1. A bigger, better swatch
Don't expect a thumbnail-size color chip from the paint store to give you a sense of how a color will look on the walls. Colors are relative to one another and the objects around them—like, say, that new leather sofa. Instead, make your own megaswatch. Get a sample quantity of paint, brush two coats on a slab of foam core (its white surface acts like primer) at least three feet square, then put it up against the wall. You'll get a much better sense of how your tint plays off your furniture and flooring. Eyeball the color at various times of the day and move it around the room to see how it looks in different light conditions.

2. How many cans?
Before you set out for the paint store, take a tape measure and figure out how much surface you need to cover—and don't forget the ceiling. Measure the longest wall, and square that number for the ceiling. For the walls, multiply the length of the longest wall by its height, then multiply that number by four. Double your numbers if you're doing two coats. Or use an online calculator, like the one at thisoldhouse.com; as a rule of thumb, one gallon covers about 400 square feet.

3. Go for the good stuff
Invest in a premium paint. Why? Because cheap paint covers very well when it's wet—the first, and in many cases last, time many people scrutinize their work—but not so well once it's dry. "There is only room for a gallon's worth of stuff in the can," says Seattle-based painter Doug Wold, owner of Queen Anne Painting. "If you add more cheap pigment, you take out more expensive resin—and that's what holds it together." Always apply two coats, and allow 2 to 3 hours between them.

4. No muss, no dust
Painting prep usually involves scraping, sanding—and dust-making. "You might be shocked at how far dust travels, and what small areas it can get into," says Rich O'Neill, owner of Masterwork Painting, in Bedford, Massachusetts. If you don't want to invest in a spring-loaded-pole-style barrier system like that made by ZipWall (zipwall.com), put plastic up around doorways that lead to the work area and over furniture. Skip the flimsy stuff: Clear, heavier-gauge sheeting (2 to 4 mil) is reusable, easier to fold and unfold, and less likely to rip. Secure it with painter's tape.

5. A clean sweep
Many of us are so anxious to get the paint up that we don't take the crucial first step of thoroughly cleaning the walls—especially in the kitchen, where they may be invisibly decorated with grease, oil, and food residue. "If you don't clean that off, you could be painting a greased cookie sheet," says Doug Wold. "It ain't gonna stick." Same goes for the bathroom, the domain of airborne shampoo, hair spray, and cosmetics. Use a degreaser on tough areas; household cleanser should work elsewhere. Then rinse.
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