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Decoding the New Low-VOC Paints

Use these tips on single-coat, no-odor, fast-drying paints to get the most out of every gallon

One Coat Doesn't Always Cut It

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With virtually every new paint calling itself "self-priming," you'd think you could get away with fewer coats. That's not necessarily the case. Yes, these paints can cover a wall in one to two coats, but only if the colors are similar. New drywall is a different story. For the first coat, you're better off buying traditional primer, which does an excellent job of hiding joints and seams, and costs much less than the paint. The same holds true for dramatic color changes; if you're painting over a navy wall with canary yellow, you're probably going to need two to three coats of self-priming paint. Start with a base of gray-tinted primer instead. "Gray neutralizes bold colors and cuts down on the number of top coats you'll need," says Carl Minchew, vice president of color innovation at Benjamin Moore.

"Quick Drying"

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That doesn't mean "ready for cleanup." While some new paints dry to the touch in as little as an hour, many manufacturers recommend waiting 2 to 8 hours, depending on temperature and humidity, before applying a second coat. But even after paint is dry, it still needs to cure. (Curing is the chemical process by which the paint bonds to the surface.) Recommended cure time can be anywhere from two days to four weeks, depending on the maker; check online or ask a salesperson for the info. After that period, walls and trim are safe to wash or scrub.

Why The Ultra-Premium Price Tag?

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The new premium paints contain a higher proportion of solids, mostly costly pigments, which provide fade-resistant, vibrant color. That means your walls will stand up to full sun exposure in that south-facing dining room—and repeat cleanups. "Using premium paints saves the customer money in the long run," says Mario Guerin, a Chicago-based painting contractor, "because the paint job lasts longer."

Try Painting as a Team Sport

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Low-VOC paints dry faster than the older latex formulations, so it's critical that you fix mistakes quickly. That's why a second pair of hands is really helpful; one person can cut in on walls and around trim while the other follows with a roller. Paint in 3-by-3-foot sections, keeping a close watch on your work. The new paints are much thicker, so brush marks will be more noticeable and will need to be leveled right away. If paint beads up at the end of your roller and leaves a trail on your wall, go over it immediately to distribute it evenly.