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Strokes of Genius

The Baltimore Sun

During these gray days, it is easy to be struck by a home-improvement notion. You are cooped up in the house, staring at the same dreary old walls, and suddenly you have an inspiration to paint them. A three-day weekend, like this one, comes along, and before you know it, you have a roller in your hand and paint splotches all over your body.

I have been there, attempted that. Motivated by a mixture of can-do spirit and winter boredom, I have painted a room. The results were, well, spotty.

Recently, I took another look at the paint-a-room project, but this time I tried to figure out how to do it the right way. I watched two pros, Ector Alexandratos and Nick Demopoulos of Ionian Painting. I also read Painting for Dummies, a just-released, how-to paperback written by Katharine Kaye McMillan and Patricia Hart McMillan, a mother-daughter team that gives decorating advice.

My education in painting yielded a few tips, such as the correct way to open a paint can -- gingerly work a putty knife around the edges of the lid. But I did not come away with startling insights. The keys to a successful paint job are preparation and experience. As Alexandratos put it: "Good work takes time. Ninety percent of painting is preparation."

His statement echoed what my father, a weekend painter, had told me decades earlier. More proof, I surmise, that kids should listen to their fathers.

Not much prep work was needed on the walls of the 30-year-old Bolton Hill townhouse that the two men were painting. There was no old wallpaper that had to be peeled off, very few settlement cracks that had to be patched, no walls that needed to be washed or sealed, no holes in the wall created by wrestling children.

The children of the owners were grown and gone. The painters noted that the walls showed little sign of wear from five years ago, when the duo had first painted the home. "You are not going to find an easier job than this," Demopoulos said.

Right away, I noticed a difference in how the pros approached the job. I am always itching to get the paint on the wall, but the pros were in no hurry. They went through their pre-painting motions at a measured pace.

Instead of moving furniture from one side of the room to the other, as I have done, they clustered it in the middle of the room. They covered the furniture and the ceiling light fixture with sheets of thin plastic. They then secured the sheeting with painter's tape. This blue tape kept the plastic sheets from moving, but it was not as sticky as masking tape.

When you pull up blue painter's tape, they explained, it does not damage the surface of what it was covering. Masking tape, on the other hand, is strong stuff. "Masking tape will remove everything except the wrinkles on your face," Demopoulos said.

Next, the painters covered the floor with dropcloths and secured them as well with the blue tape. The cloths protect floors from paint spills, and taping them down keeps you from slipping on them, they said.

Painting for Dummies advises that old newspaper can also be used as dropcloths, but the book warns that newspaper does not protect as well as the fabric cloth.

Once the furniture was covered, the paint cans were opened. Instead of a screwdriver or a paint-can opener, the pros used a putty knife and gently worked it around the entire rim of the can's lid. This opening method keeps the lid flat, they said, enabling it to close firmly and properly store any leftover paint.

By listening to the pros and reading Painting for Dummies, I garnered a few facts about paint. These days, most household paints are water-based latex, rather than oil-based. Pairing the two can be tricky. If, for instance, you try to put a latex semi-gloss over an oil base, the paint won't hold. You have to apply a prime coat of flat paint, Alexandratos said.

Paint, like gasoline, comes in a series of grades, with the premium stuff, the type of paint with more pigments and complexity, costing the most money (as much as $40 a gallon). The book and the painters recommend using the highest-grade paint you can afford. It simply looks better longer, they said.

The sheen of paint -- how shiny paint appears when it dries--is also important (see box). For this job, the painters used the same tint of light-yellow paint for the ceiling and the walls. But the paint had different sheens. The ceiling had a flat finish and the walls had a eggshell finish, which has a slight sheen.

The painters started with the ceiling. Painting the overhead section first made sense because the ceiling dries faster than the walls, they said.

Alexandratos painted the edges of the ceiling with an angled sash brush. The brush had synthetic bristles. "It has good spring," he said, and demonstrated by pushing the bristles down and watching them snap back into line.

A quality brush is worth every penny, Painting for Dummies says.

As Alexandratos painted edges and corners, Demopoulos followed him with a roller attached to an expandable fiberglass pole. The expandable pole meant that the tool, rather than the painter, reached for the ceiling.

To keep track of where he had painted, Demopoulos divided the ceiling into four sections and worked the roller and pole in each section of the grid.

The men employed a similar technique on the walls.

They applied a prime coat one day, let it dry overnight and returned the next day to apply the finish coat. Because the walls were in good shape, they required only two coats. Damaged walls often require more.

During the winter, when temperatures are cool, latex paint needs about four hours to dry thoroughly, I was told.

The most remarkable difference between the way the pros paint and the way I do is their neatness. They left virtually no stray dabs of paint on the windows, on the floor or on themselves. When I paint, I end up looking like a Sioux warrior.

One reason for their prim painting style was experience. I watched in awe as Alexandratos freehanded a piece of window trim, scoffing at my notion that anytime you paint window trim, you first must protect the glass with acres of painter's tape. "It takes practice," he said of his freehand style.

Another reason for their lack of spills was that instead of trays, the pros held their paint in a 5-gallon bucket fitted with a metal roller screen. The imperfectly balanced trays, they said, are accidents waiting to happen. Running the paint-laden roller over the screen removes excess paints and prevents drips, they said.

Still another factor contributing to their tidy work was the high quality of their roller cover. Instead of the inexpensive foam rollers that I have used, the pros favor the better-quality lambskin rollers. "It holds and releases the paint better," Demopoulos said. Moreover, cleaning the lambskin rollers is easier, he said. "Paint comes out of lambskin," he said, "like shampoo comes out of your hair."

As I see it, the trouble with buying such quality tools is that you become invested in the painting process.

There is no denying that after a room is painted, it glows, or, as Alexandratos put it, "It looks fresher."

But often the other rooms in the house start to look dingy, in need of fresh paint.

If you already own a high-quality roller and a top-dollar trim brush, you are likely to be called back into action. However, if you have tossed your cheap painting rollers and brushes, you are in the clear.

Disposable tools, in my view, give you an excuse to keeping staring at the walls, rather than having to paint them.

Tools for painting

An angled brush

-- Usually 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches wide, it's for cutting in corners and painting trim. Synthetic bristles work best when using latex paint. Prices range from $3 to $11.

A roller

-- Nine inches wide is a common size. The roller's ribs can be made of plastic or metal. The nap is made from synthetic or natural fibers and comes in various thicknesses. Prices range from $3 for a disposable nap to $12 for reusable lambskin.

Blue painter's tape

-- Sold in a variety of widths, this tape, which costs about $4 a roll, does not allow paint to penetrate it, and when removed does not damage the surface of what it covered.

5-gallon bucket with a roller screen

-- Rather than constantly filling a tipsy roller tray, put your paint in a bucket. It's stable and holds plenty of paint. The $3 screen removes excess paint from the roller.

[Source: Painting for Dummies]

Painting a room


Move furniture away from walls. Cover it with thin plastic sheeting. Cover floors with a dropcloth. Secure sheeting and dropcloth with painter's tape. Remove faceplates from electrical outlets. Cover thermostat with painter's tape.


Prepare walls for painting. Remove wallpaper if necessary. Fill cracks with patching compound and sand when compound is dry.


Put paint in a 5-gallon bucket equipped with a roller screen. Starting with the ceiling, use a 2-inch or 2 1/2 -inch angled brush to paint corners and edges. Use a 9-inch-wide lambskin roller, with a 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch nap to paint the rest of the room. To prevent drips, apply paint by dipping roller in the bucket, then running it over the screen. Apply two coats -- a prime coat and, after it dries, a finish coat.


Paint trim such as windows with an angled sash brush. Clean brushes and rollers. Admire your work.

[Adapted from "Painting for Dummies" by Katharine Kaye McMillan and Patricia Hart McMillan]

A sheen primer

Sheen is how bright and shiny paint looks when it dries. Oil paints are usually shinier than latex. Common sheens are:


-- An opaque finish that looks good on most walls but doesn't clean well and is not suited for kitchens, bathrooms or children's rooms.


-- Provides a low luster on interior walls and cleans up better than flat.


-- Has more sheen than eggshell and cleans easier than flat or eggshell. A good choice for woodwork, walls, doors and hallways.


-- Gives a shiny look to a room. Scrubbable and a good choice for moldings, doors, kitchens, windows and baths.


-- Reflects most light. Stain-resistant and scrubbable. A good choice for areas of the home that get the most wear and tear, such as kitchens and baths.

[Source: Painting for Dummies]

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