Preparation is the key to good painting


No doubt about it, paint is a problematic substance. We get a lot of letters from people wondering why the paint is peeling from their walls, ceilings or, in the case of a recent letter from Baltimore, porch floors.

There are two reasons for peeling paint, no matter what the surface: Either water is getting underneath, or the paint wasn't applied properly in the first place.

Porches are notorious for having water and paint problems, and they do require constant upkeep.

Water problems are the most difficult to solve. A properly built porch is pitched just enough to allow water to roll off. If there are worn spots, or if the piers or foundation under the porch have settled, water may not be able to escape. Check the porch floors after a rainstorm to see if the water is pooling anywhere. If it's just a few spots, say where a board has cupped, you can simply sweep the water away with a broom. If the problem is more widespread, replacement or reconstruction may be the only answer.

Paint problems can be vexing, but they'll be minimized if you get it right the first time. In the reader's case, it may mean starting over: stripping the boards, sanding them, then painting with one coat of a good, oil-based primer designed for exterior use and two coats of good, oil-based paint for exterior use.

The reader mentioned using vinyl spackling to fill cracks, which we can't recommend. As you walk on the porch floor, it flexes; vinyl spackling is likely to crack and come loose with such stresses. Small cracks in the wood or between boards should be filled with good silicone-latex caulk after the wood is primed. If boards are damaged, but not seriously enough to replace, they can be repaired with a good-quality wood filler recommended for outdoor use, such as Minwax High Performance Wood Filler.

Unfortunately, porches, even when they're covered, get a lot of wear. There's no way to eliminate maintenance, but a good paint job will go a long way toward protecting the floor.

Another paint question comes from a reader in Jenison, Mich., who wants to know how to clean and paint a "cement-gray brick wall with a fireplace in it."

There's no good way to clean brick, though there are two things that work; each has its own drawbacks. The least onerous method is to use a wire brush, either by hand or with an attachment that fits into a drill. Either way, there'll be a lot of dust, and the brick will probably never be pristine. It may, however, be clean enough to paint.

The other method, which can't really be recommended for indoor use, is to apply a chemical cleaner or paint stripper. There is one family of products, Diedrich Chemicals from Restoration Technologies Inc., that are recommended for use on old houses. There's one catch, however. "We do not sell Diedrich Chemicals to homeowners," says Ted Jackson, manager of the Sherwin-Williams store in Fells Point. "They're sold to contractors only. And we still want to make sure the contractors know what they're doing. Washing chemicals that may contain lead paint down the storm drain is not a good idea," Mr. Jackson said. "We want to make sure they know the proper procedure for collecting toxic waste."

So, while some of these chemicals can be used indoors under certain circumstances, you'll have to hire an expert to do the work.

If the surface can simply be cleaned adequately enough to paint, should be allowed to dry thoroughly, then be covered with one coat of good oil-based primer and two coats of good acrylic latex. (Acrylic latex paint is better on porous surfaces, because it is less subject to blistering.)

We seem to keep saying this, but maybe it's worth saying again: Painting is not about brushing on a pretty surface. It's about preparing the surface properly and thoroughly and using the best possible products for a specific application. Most of the time you spend painting is prep time: stripping, scraping, cleaning, sanding, wood-repairing, priming, caulking, masking. It may seem tedious, but it's preferable to repeating the same job over and over and over.


Anyone who has a question about some aspect of home remodeling might consider attending a seminar entitled "The Rewards of Remodeling," sponsored by professional remodelers who are members of the Remodelers Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. (The association is a non-profit industry group.)

The two-hour session, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the home builders association, 1502 Woodlawn Dr., will offer guidelines and tips for working with professional remodelers and about what to expect during a remodeling project. It's also a chance for people to ask any questions they might have about home remodeling.

The seminar is free, but reservations are recommended. Call (410) 265-7400.

Also free on request are two pamphlets: a referral sheet of members, put out by the Remodelers Council; and the "Home Remodeling Guide," from the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Next: Rehab lessons from a neighborhood house tour.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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