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Most people think they know how to paint, and usually the results are pretty good. But for painting contractor John Dee, "pretty good" isn't good enough. After nearly three decades of rolling, brushing, and spraying paint he knows the subtle tricks for applying smooth, even coats to walls, ceilings, and woodwork, and for creating crisp boundaries between colors.

According to Dee, there's no magic to getting professional-looking results. Practice helps, and thorough surface preparation is essential. But the key, he says, is to paint in an orderly, systematic way. So whether he's painting a multi-paneled door or a flat expanse of wall, he proceeds almost scientifically from one step to the next, with no shortcuts. "Your approach to the task, the order in which you do things, can speed the work or slow you down," Dee says. "Here's the approach that works best for me."

Step 1

Painting a Room Overview

Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Tip: As a rule of thumb, work from the center out, and always paint rails before stiles.

Step 2

Sand Flat Woodwork

Photo by David Carmack

After wiping down any dirty woodwork with a household cleaner, sand the trim, doors, and windows with 120-grit silicon-carbide sandpaper. Sand old paint so new paint can adhere. Sand bare wood to remove raised grain, level off wood filler, and ease over sharp edges.

When sanding flat surfaces, hold the sandpaper in your hand to get into any slight depressions that a rigid sanding block would miss.

Step 3

Sanding Contours

Photo by David Carmack

On profiled moldings, use a soft sanding block or sanding sponge that conforms to the shape of the molding. Take care not to let the sandpaper touch glass; it will leave scratches.

When the sanding is done, dust the woodwork with an old, worn brush or a shop vacuum. Then wipe it clean with a tack cloth.

Tip: "Check paper regularly for wear," Dee says. "It's time to switch to fresh paper when you feel that your elbow is doing more of the work."

Step 4


Photo by David Carmack

If walls and ceilings are bare plaster, coat with oil-based or all-purpose acrylic primer. Then prime bare, sanded woodwork to ensure good adhesion of the finish coats. It's not necessary to prime previously painted surfaces if they're in good condition.

Follow the basic application, distribution, and tipping steps outlined in "Technique." On doors and windows, follow the sequence detailed in "Paint by Number."

Allow primer to dry overnight, then sand lightly with 220-grit sandpaper. Clean up the dust with vacuum and tack cloth before applying final coats.

Tip: Before using a brush, saturate it with water (for latex paint) or paint thinner (for oil-based paint). Flex the bristles so the fluid can reach up into the brush's ferrule. Spin or tap the brush dry; it will be easier to clean, thereby extending its life.

Step 5

Fill Holes

Photo by David Carmack

Use lightweight spackling compound and a putty knife to fill small holes or cracks. Push spackling compound in, then smooth the patch. Once the compound is dry, spot prime the patch or completely re-prime the walls, depending on size of the repair.

On new woodwork, overfill nail holes with a water-based wood filler to allow for shrinkage, then allow it to dry before sanding.

Step 6

Caulk Joints

Photo by David Carmack

Caulk the gaps between the primed woodwork and the walls. Pull the caulk gun in a smooth motion as you squeeze its trigger. The goal is to apply only as much caulk as needed. Control the flow of caulk by adjusting the trigger pressure and the speed at which you pull the tip along. Smooth the fresh caulk with a wet finger.

Tip: To avoid applying too much caulk, use a utility knife to carefully shave slivers from the tube's spout until a hole emerges. Bevel the sides of the tip so it'll fit snugly into gap between wall and trim.

Step 7

Paint the Ceiling

Photo by David Carmack

With a brush or pad, apply a 2- to 2 1/2-inch-wide band of paint along the edges of the ceiling; this is called "cutting in". Try to make straight, even lines without masking tape. Wipe away any mistakes away with a rag.

Dip a roller mounted on an extension pole into a roller pan filled halfway with paint. Run the roller over the pan's shallow end until the roller cover is evenly coated with paint.

Starting at one corner, mentally section the ceiling into 3-foot squares and use the basic steps outlined in "Technique." Work your way across the width of the room, one square at a time.

Step 8

Paint the Woodwork

Photo by David Carmack

Brush the first finish coat onto the woodwork. For the doors and windows, follow the application sequence in "Paint by Number." When the paint is completely dry, sand the paint lightly with 220-grit sandpaper, then wipe away any dust with a tack cloth.

Next, apply the final finish coat. If you get paint on glass, wait for it to dry, then remove it with a window scraper. To prevent scratching the glass, wet the surface first with window cleaner.

Tip: "You want to leave a narrow strip of paint on the glass to seal the wood from moisture. Hold the edge of a 6-inch-wide putty knife blade against the glass, with its flat side against the wood, and scrape up to it. You'll be left with an neat, even strip of paint on the glass that's the thickness of the blade."

Step 9

Paint the Walls

Photo by David Carmack

When baseboard paint is dry, cover the top of the molding with blue masking tape. Using a brush or pad, cut in around the window and door trim first, then cut in along the baseboard and at the ceiling or crown molding.

Paint the walls using a roller on an extension handle. Mentally section the wall off in squares roughly 3 or 4 feet wide, and work from the top down. Follow the basic steps outlined in "Technique." Once the paint is dry, remove any nubs by scraping the wall with a putty knife. For glossier sheens, sand lightly with 150-grit paper, then wipe away dust with a tack cloth. Roll on the final coat, then remove the masking tape as soon as paint has set up; pull it slowly to avoid tears.