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This. Hallway! I knew it would be a lot of project, and oh man…it’s a lot of project. No surprises there.
Because of this, I really want it to turn out well. I don’t want to be bummed with my results, or feel like it needs a do-over down the line. Painting in an old house requires some special care and attention—especially if the work over the years has been less-than-stellar—but after years of learning through trial and error, I feel like I’ve figured out how to achieve a beautiful result no matter what existing conditions are thrown my way!
It’s been nearly NINE YEARS since I did a “how I paint” post, and a lot has changed in that time. Mostly that I know how to do things a lot better now. I used to think really nice, slick paint jobs were just something for other people (or the result of photoshop) and that my results were good enough. But the difference a really good paint job makes is HUGE. So let’s! Get! Into! It! We have a lot of ground to cover.
PREP—WALLS AND MOLDINGS:
I’ve learned to never walk into a paint project thinking that I’ll get paint on the walls on Day 1 (or 2 or 3), because the key to a good paint job is the prep. Say it with me: THE KEY. IS. THE PREP. Scream it from the mountaintops. Here are the tools that get it done, elegantly displayed on my dining table for your viewing pleasure:
I should note that I try to avoid fully stripping painted wood unless it’s truly necessary. Chemical strippers are super messy (and sometimes not especially effective), heat guns are hazardous with lead paint, and I truly don’t mind woodwork that’s been painted and repainted over the years! I don’t think old things need to look brand new. It’s a balancing act.
- Sanders: I like to use 3 different electric sanders depending on the size and the surface. For large surfaces, a 5″ orbital sander is a must-have. For smaller detail work, I put all my faith in my very affordable and effective mouse sander. For the really nitty-gritty stuff, my Dremel MM50 with the sanding attachment is great, and easier to maneuver than most oscillating tools because of its low vibration. And for curvy bits and detail work, regular old sandpaper and your two god-given hands are the answer.
- Respirator: Any time you’re creating dust, but especially if that dust might contain lead (you can get instant lead tests to verify this if you wish, although I just always assume lead at this point), you want to—at the very least—wear a dust mask. If you think you might be dealing with lead, I encourage you to read up on lead-safe practices! Extra precautions should be taken around children or pets.
- Stiff wire brush: Not always necessary, but you may need it for flaking paint on a radiator, for instance.
- Scraper: In areas that may need more than a sanding (or where sanding will create too much dust), a hand scraper is your friend! Look for ones with blades you can change out as they dull with use.
- Disposable Gloves: For any time you’re working with harsh chemicals, or even when you aren’t. Dust, paint, and caulk will all dry out your beautiful hands, and you worked so hard on those cuticles!
- Patching Compound: My favorite is 3M Patch Plus Primer. It takes some getting used to, but it’s amazing stuff—it dries really fast, sands really smooth and easily, and doesn’t shrink or crack. It’s great for plaster/drywall patching and small patches or nail holes in woodwork.
- Hammer and Nail Set: Sometimes you come across a nail head that needs to be sunk down before painting. Otherwise that nail head will accumulate paint and become a big blob or cause drips.
- Assortment of scrapers and putty knives: for aforementioned patching and scraping off loose paint or big blobs in old paint jobs.
- Utility Knife: Useful for removing screws, cutting out old dried-up or sloppy caulk, and more!
- Flathead Screwdriver: In old houses, all the screws are flat-head, and it’s best to remove them manually rather than with a drill or driver. I HIGHLY recommend picking up a double-drive screwdriver, which speeds things up and creates less fatigue in your hands and arms.
- Electrical tester: usually you want to remove any existing light fixtures, outlets, and switches (depending on your circumstance) so you can paint right up to the box. Any time you’re messing with electric, a circuit-tester is a must-have so you can confirm that the power has been turned off before you touch hot wires and get a little electrocuted. That’s no fun.
- Temporary light: With your old light removed, take 5 seconds and throw up a temporary with a bright bulb. More lighting will help avoid mistakes and drips. You may also want to keep a work light handy for darker areas—I like these newer LED models.
- TSP Substitute + Microfiber cloths: ALWAYS. ALWAYS. ALWAYS wipe everything down before painting. TSP substitute is great for removing dirt, wax or grease build-up, and getting a surface clean enough to nicely accept new paint or primer.
- Caulk + Caulking Gun: I SWEAR by Big Stretch caulk. After years of Alex Plus breaking my heart as it cracked and failed only a few weeks or months after painting, Big Stretch is a slightly-more-expensive-but-far-superior life-saver. Whatever caulk you use, make sure that it’s PAINTABLE if, indeed, that is the intention.
So. Let’s put these things to work!
From a distance, my trim looked pretty good. Up close, it did not—it had a lot of lumps and bumps and drips from sloppy older paint jobs, and some peeling paint here and there.
Step 1: I use a rigid putty knife or scraper to flake off any actively peeling paint. Peeling paint will not provide a good substrate for new paint, duh.
Step 2: Then use a scraper to knock down any large lumps and bumps. You want to constantly run your hands over what you’re working on, as things will start to look worse and worse but you’re aiming for it to feel smooth at this stage. Trust yourself! You’ll know.
Step 3: Then I sand any flat portions with one of my electric sanders, which makes quick work of smoothing out remaining imperfections. I love my Dremel MM50 for this, especially when working next to the wall. The mouse sander vibrates too much and will damage the wall, which you then need to patch. The MM50 helps avoid that problem! It’s all very time-consuming depending on the condition of your trim, so get ready for a few marathon sessions, followed by a few marathon cleaning sessions assuming health and safety is a priority in your household. Curvy bits have to be sanded by hand. I tend to go for a pretty low-grit (aka, rougher) sandpaper, like 40, 60, or 80 grit.
Step 4: Vacuum up all the dust (if lead is present, make sure your vacuum is equipped with a HEPA filter), and wipe everything down with a damp microfiber cloth. It doesn’t hurt to just use the TSP at this point, but this is not the last time you will wipe things down.
Step 5: Patch. Using your fingers or a flexible putty knife, apply 3M Patch Plus Primer to any smaller holes or damage you wish to fill. I don’t fill every little knick and ding—I like to see a little character that comes with age. Wait for it to dry, and then sand it smooth. Do not jump ahead and caulk because you’re bored of waiting for it to dry. Go cook dinner or whatever.
Step 6: Clean off your new sanding dust from the Patch Plus Primer.
Step 7: If the surface is previously painted or primed, at this point you can caulk. Cut off the verrrrrry end of the tube of caulk to create a small hole, and apply a small bead of caulk where molding hits walls or ceilings, or where the pieces of a multi-part molding has separated and created gaps. Keep a bowl of water with you. Dip your finger in the water, and smooth the caulk. It may take a couple of passes to get it really nice and smooth. Once you move on though, DO NOT GO BACK. Once the caulk starts to skin over, you’ll make a mess if you try to smooth it out further, so take your time on the first pass. I like to let caulk dry for at least 12 hours (ideally more like 24) before painting, even if the package says it’s paint-ready in an hour or two.
One last thing! For large repairs on interior woodwork, I like good old-fashioned Bondo. Bondo is a 2-part epoxy auto body filler that’s hard as nails, but dries VERY quickly and can be shaped nicely by sanding. I’m stupid and forgot to take a “before” picture, but there was a big chunk missing out of the top of this piece of baseboard, so Bondo to the rescue!
Bondo should be about the consistency of peanut butter, but I was working with an old can that had dried out a lot. It still works, you just get that grainy texture that’s more of a pain to sand out.
This is where the artistry comes in. Be one with the Bondo. Shape and smooth it until it’s justtttt right. I mostly used my Dremel sander since this is an odd shape.
After painting, can you spot the repair?? I can’t. I’m very proud of my Bondo artistry.
NOTE: Don’t use Bondo for exterior wood repairs. I’ve never had it fail inside, but outside is a different story. It doesn’t expand and contract with the wood, so eventually it just separates and falls off. Interior wood doesn’t go through the same fluctuations in temperature and moisture. A better product for exterior wood repair (whether it’s rot or other damage) is Abatron WoodEpox, available online.
Here are your priming supplies to add to the prep supplies:
- Canvas Drop Cloths (+ extra, or plastic sheets if you need to cover furniture)
- Blue Hawk 2″ angled brush(es—I like to keep a bunch around, and they’re cheap)
- Drywall Primer/Sealer
- High Quality Oil or Water-Based Primer (here I’m using Zinsser Peel Stop Primer—a true miracle of modern science!)
- Spiral Mixing Arm
- Optional: Marking Line Chalk (so cheap and a container will last a lifetime)
If your surfaces aren’t painted or primed, you’ll want to prime before you caulk to extend the life of the caulk. Caulking onto unpainted wood or drywall/joint compound will suck the moisture out of the caulk, causing it to fail prematurely.
I hate to tell you, but it needs to be said: all major paint retailers are selling “Paint Plus Primer” paint products now, with the implication being that you don’t have to prime. Here’s the truth: essentially it’s just really thick paint, so you can get good coverage if you’re painting, say, white over burgundy or something.
BUT: if you’re painting over unpainted drywall or joint compound (as I was, since my walls are skim-coated in joint compound), you want to use a drywall primer/sealer first. This is specifically formulated to seal in the drywall and give yourself a solid foundation for paint. It IS different (and much cheaper!) than regular paint, whether or not that paint claims to have primer included. DON’T SKIP IT if this is the first coat of paint over new drywall or joint compound.
Step 1: Lay down drop cloths over anything you don’t want to get primer on. A plastic sheet is fine for covering furniture pushed into the center of a room, but you want canvas for the floor. That way, paint will soak in and dry on the canvas, rather than staying wet on a plastic tarp and inevitably end with you tracking it around the house.
Step 2: WIPE. DOWN. THE. WALLS. DO NOT SKIP THIS. I REPEAT, DO NOT SKIP THIS. If you’ve ever had the experience of new paint peeling off of newly finished walls or coming up when you remove painter’s tape, that’s usually because the walls weren’t adequately cleaned to remove any joint compound dust. You can use a wet microber cloth, or even a mop! You want to be able to wipe your hand against the dried wall without it getting covered in white powder. If your walls are already painted, you’ll want to wipe them down with TSP substitute (or similar) to remove any dust, dirt, or oils. If your walls are glossy, a liquid deglosser isn’t a bad idea.
Step 3: I prefer to “cut in” (brushing corners—or areas where molding meets the walls—that you can’t reach with a roller) before rolling, but you can do it in reverse if you want. I like to use a cheap brush for this to preserve the nicer brush I’ll use for the finish coats of paint. I love these short-handled 2″ Blue Hawk angled brushes for anything I don’t need an especially high-quality brush for. The short handle allows you to get into tight spaces where a longer handle might prevent that.
After sinking any nail heads, sanding, filling, cleaning, and caulking, it’s time to prime. Again—with these newer paints on the market, it’s tempting to skip priming, and while it’s not a crisis if you don’t, priming is never a bad idea.
Paint can continue to peel even after removing anything that’s loose now, so my new favorite thing in the world is Peel Stop Primer by Zinsser. It bonds to both oil and latex paints, can be used for interior or exterior work, and it’s almost like a paintable glue that kind of seals everything in. The Triple Thick formula has the added benefit of helping to fill/smooth out imperfections left by paint that’s been removed, although you don’t want to rely on that aspect too much—you’ll be better off getting a smooth surface by sanding first. Peel Stop Primer leaves behind a beautiful matte finish—slightly toothy?—that is the perfect foundation for finish coats of paint.
While Peel Stop does have my heart, any high-quality oil or water-based primer will do. But if you have issues with peeling paint specifically, check out Peel Stop!
I know this casing LOOKS rough, but I promise at this point it’s smooth as a baby’s butt! I hate that phrase.
You may notice that my Peel Stop is pink! That’s because I added a little bit of red chalk, which is made for creating snap lines. It’s my fun little hack—just add a little chalk and mix it with a paint mixer attached to a drill until it’s all combined. Peel Stop is a white-ish clear, so this allows me to see it and make sure I’m getting decent coverage and not missing any areas because it’s invisible! I do this with patching compound too if it’s the same-ish color as the walls, so I make sure I don’t miss any sanding before painting.
FINALLY! LET’S PAINT!
- HGTV Home by Sherwin-Williams Infinity Paint. I typically like a flat/matte finish for walls, but in this high-traffic space I went with Eggshell. For trim and doors, I prefer Satin finish to Semi-Gloss—I just usually think Semi-Gloss is too shiny. The shinier the paint, the more it will show off imperfections.
- Floetrol. YOU. GUYS. WHY HAVE I NEVER USED FLOETROL. It is a game-changing paint additive that extends the dry time of latex paint, allowing it to self-level (evening out brush strokes) and behave more like oil paint. It’s INCREDIBLE. This particular Sherwin-Williams paint is VERY thick and dries VERY fast, which can quickly lead to a messy paint job if you go back over the same area even a minute or two after painting it, so I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend using Floetrol. And yes, it does work better than watering down the paint a little, which was my old method.
- Metal (or plastic) Paint tray and disposable liners. I don’t like plastic waste either, but I’m only human—disposable liners make my life easier and save a little on the already considerable clean-up time.
- Paint Roller: These can vary in cost significantly, but I’ve never had a problem with the cheap ones. This one by Blue Hawk is perfectly fine, and only a few bucks.
- Paint Roller Pads: For the past few years, I’ve been in LOVE with these microfiber roller pads by Whizz. I prefer them because they never leave lint behind like traditional rollers, and I HATE finding little fibers dried into a brand new paint job. I used to just throw away roller pads when I was done with them because I found that they never held up well to washing, so I just gave up. NOT THESE! I literally just throw them in my washing machine, and they come out as good as new. I’ve been using the same roller pads for years! They work best when you pre-wet them in the sink and wring them out a little, so they’re just a little damp. LOVE.
- High-Quality Brush: For trim, you want a nicer brush than you use for primer or even for cutting in the walls. I love Purdy’s brushes—a little pricey up-front, which is why I try to preserve them and avoid using them for everything. I prefer the short-handled ones, and for painting trim with latex paint I like a Medium Stiff bristle.
- Handy Pail + Disposable Liners: For cutting in walls or painting trim, I love my Handy Pail! They have a little magnet built-in which holds the paint brush from falling into the paint, and a handle so you’re less likely to drop a gallon or quart all over your floor. Again, you could skip the plastic liner as long as you’re diligent about washing the thing after every use. I am not.
- Spiral Mixing Arm: Even if your paint is freshly mixed, it’s never a bad idea to really mix it up and incorporate any pigments that might settle toward the top before painting. Wash it immediately after so it stays clean! You can also use the wood paint stirrer they give you when you buy the paint, but I feel like the mixing arm is faster and more thorough.
- Brush/Roller Cleaning Tool: This one by Purdy is for cleaning both brushes and rollers. The teeth help separate any bristles that get gunked up, especially up toward the handle of the brush.
- Painter’s Tape: It has a time and a place. I do NOT use it to tape off walls/ceilings or trim—I find I can get a cleaner line with some focus and a steady hand. But sometimes you need a little bit.
- Aluminum Foil: I use it to wrap wet brushes or rollers if I know I’ll come back to them within a day or so. Otherwise, it’s best to wash them. Some people keep these in the fridge or freezer—I’ve never found that helpful, but hey! You do you.
- Paint can opener: It’s better than a flathead screwdriver at getting the lid off the paint without messing it up, so you can close the can later. They’ll give you one for free at the paint desk. Use it!
The first coat is always so exciting! I include this primarily so you can get a sense of how NOT white this paint is, even though the end result reads like a pale off-white. This is Sherwin-Williams Oyster White, which is SUCH a nice color that—in my hallway at least—looks great in all lighting conditions. LOVE.
Step 1: I usually cut in with the brush before grabbing the roller, but I was so antsy to paint and my caulk hadn’t dried yet, so I rolled first. I typically work top-down, starting with the ceiling. While there’s nothing wrong with a white ceiling, in here I decided to paint it the same as the wall color and I’m really glad I did! I think it softens the whole thing, and maybe makes the ceilings appear higher? The ceiling looks like a lighter color, but that’s just because it’s on a different plane than the walls.
Step 2: With your first coat dry, hit any areas you may have missed with patching compound and caulk. Make sure you sand the patching compound before proceeding.
Step 3: Cut in and roll all over again. Note that this paint, like many others on the market now, promises “One Coat Coverage.” This is a lie. There is no such thing, full stop. So while you can stop at one coat, don’t come crying to me when your paint job looks lousy. Always two coats, minimum. You’ve done all the hard work already so there’s no sense in letting a final coat of paint get you down.
Doors are their own special beasts that require extra attention to do right. And, you guessed it, it’s all about TLC and prep.
When possible/practical, I like to remove the door entirely—it’s easier to work through all the steps, and easier to avoid drips that tend to come with gravity around the ogee molding in the panels.
Step 1: Use a utility knife to score out the slot in the flat-head screws so your screwdriver can get a good grip. Also score around the hinge itself so the paint doesn’t lift off wood with it. Remove the hinges.
Step 2: Remove any additional hardware like knobs, keyholes, and the mortise.
Step 3: Lay your door flat on sawhorses (I like these!) in an area that can get dusty. Luckily I’m still living with a few un-renovated rooms that are good for this kind of thing.
NOW. If you’ve ever painted a door this way, you know how it goes: you can really only do one side at a time, and the sawhorse tends to damage the new paint job when you flip it over to do the other side. With solid wood doors, flipping the door can be really difficult, particularly when you’re working solo! Which I pretty much always am, while praying I can find a man that will put up with me.
Don’t worry about that. See the thing that’s screwed into the top and bottom of the door? Well. Let me tell you about it.
ENTER: THE SPINSTER DOOR FLIPPER™. I straight-up ripped this off from @chalkstonewoodworking’s instagram, but the name is all my own. Get it? It’s a cheap pun. Because it spins the door but also it’s for spinsters like myself.
Essentially a set of two allows you to flip the door while you’re working, without the need for it to dry, and they cost about $15 to make. They speed things up SO MUCH, especially if you’re tackling a bunch of doors at once. Here’s how to make one:
- Start with a piece of scrap wood that’s close-ish to the width of your doors. A little shorter is fine. This is a piece of 5/4″ lumber (which used to be one of the shelves in my now-defunct pantry! Don’t throw away good wood, y’all). You could also use a 2x, but I think a modern 1x would be too flimsy. Drill one hole in the center for the threaded rod, and two holes large enough to fit the lag bolts through.
- A long threaded rod, or something like this big eyelet bolt. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s hefty enough to bear some weight.
- Two nuts that fit the threaded rod
- 4 large washers
- Two large lag bolts—mine are 5″. Err on the side of bigger rather than smaller: it needs to support the weight of the door.
- 2 Metal spacers large enough for the lag bolts to fit through. I can’t remember what these were called…dig around in those specialty hardware drawers until you find what you need.
Assemble it like so!
Assembled, it should look like this. Pre-drill the top and bottom of your door at the locations of the lag bolts, and screw in the lag bolts into the top and bottom of your door with your driver.
SO. The door is actually floating slightly off of the sawhorses and being supported by the Spinster Door Flipper™. The beauty is that all you need to do to flip the door over is shimmy your sawhorse out a few inches so that the threaded rod is resting on the sawhorse. Do this on both ends, and you can pivot the door on the threaded rod to rotate it 180 degrees.
You will feel like an all-powerful trick that don’t need no man. Trust. It’s worth the 30 minutes it takes to fabricate the thing.
From there, it’s really a matter of following the same steps as the rest of your trim! I sand to remove any lumps and bumps and mostly leave small knicks and damage alone. I like using my mouse sander with 60 grit pads, and then follow up with hand-sanding on the detailed bits. Then clean and prime with Zinsser Peel Stop.
Once the Peel Stop is fully dry, you may wish to do some light sanding or skip it. Then it’s time to paint! I prefer to do it all with a brush and fairly thick 2 coats of Floetrol-infused paint, taking care to proceed in an orderly manner that keeps brush marks in the direction of the grain for the different parts of the door. You’ll get into a groove. I’d caution going more matte than a Satin finish, but you’re a grown adult and can make your own choices. I like satin, personally!
Note: depending on condition, you MAY want to do some strategic caulking around the ogee moldings, if present. It will take away some dimension, so use sparingly!
Now! Let’s get that hardware all nice n’ naked.
My preferred method is the classic Crock Pot Method. I got this from my friend Anna, who got it from This Old House, who got it from Brad Kittel, who has a podcast about Tiny Houses in case you’re curious.
Here’s all it is:
Step 1. Buy a cheap crock pot. You can always find these at thrift stores for a few dollars.
Step 2: Place your paint-laden hardware in the crock pot. Fill with water. I like to throw in a dishwasher detergent pod—I’m not positive it actually helps, but I love to try to hack a system.
Step 3: Set the crock pot on low and leave it for several hours. I usually let it go overnight. The low heat of the crock pot prevents lead from vaporizing and killing your family and pets.
Step 4: Dump all the cooked hardware in a colander, and clean each piece with a scrubby sponge and dish soap. All the paint should slide off—if there are stubborn bits, just let that piece simmer a while longer.
LOOK AT IT ALL! SPOTLESS. MY PRECIOUSSSSSS.
Small caveat: This method removes paint effectively, but can also mess up brass plating. If your hardware is brass-plated, a better method is to use Citristrip—either submerge the piece in Citristrip, or coat and wrap in plastic wrap and clean after about 24 hours.
Iron hardware will rust if left untreated, so I typically spray paint it with a good-quality spray paint. I love Rust-Oleum’s Professional High-Performance Enamel in Semi-gloss, but it’s up to you. You could also use a clear varnish if you want to preserve the raw look. Options!
Let’s just take a collective pause to appreciate this spring-bolt lock that belongs on the front doors. I MEAN. Eastlake goodness.
Patience is a virtue when you’re re-hanging the door and re-installing all your fresh and beautiful hardware. Each of my doors require THIRTY individual screws to put back together, and it takes about an hour per door. So put on a podcast, grab a drink, and get busy.
Pro-Tip #1: Sometimes, the screw holes in the jamb will be too large to hold the screw effectively. Stick a toothpick or a section of a bamboo skewer into the hole, and your screw should go in nice and tight.
Pro-Tip #2: For the love of god, don’t toss your flathead screws and replace them with the modern and, admittedly, easier phillips-head screws. It will look stupid and wrong, and you’ve come too far for that!
OK. PHEW. BEFORE YOU KNOW IT (jk, well after you thought it would be done…), YOU WILL HAVE THE SLICKEST PAINT JOB IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. CHECK IT OUT:
This was a couple weeks ago. And nowwwwwww…
LOOK AT US. Thank you for your support.
Guys. My house is starting to look like a functional person lives here. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I know I like it.
I keep considering cutting out the top two panels of this door and replacing them with a piece of textured glass—just like the bathroom door at the other end of the hall—to let more light into the hallway. This is the one space in the house that feels starved for natural light. The rest of the house gets so much light, for which I’m extremely lucky. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place.
I’m just so happy with how this all panned out. I’ve taken on some big renovations but honestly? I feel like I’ve had to apply everything I’ve learned over the past decade+, mostly through trial and error, in this one space. And the results are NICE. Doors so smooth you could lick ’em. That’s a good feeling!
To finish off the upstairs, I added this great light fixture from Globe Electric! It’s super nice and looks way fancier than the $145 price tag suggests. I like having the contrast of a modern touch in a nicely restored space—it kinda reminds me of a modern mobile, and lights the space so nicely!
Now. Onwards! We have 17 stairs, the entire downstairs, and things like art and rugs and hooks to contend with. Stay! Tuned!