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How to paint walls

Paint walls

Breath a new lease of life into any room with a lick of paint.


Once you have prepared the walls and cleared the room, you can start painting. This is one of the most pleasurable parts of decorating, but don't rush into it without thinking. Before you start, run through some final checks:

  • Are you sure you have the right paint, and also enough of it (see below)?
  • Do you have the right sort of cleaning fluid for your paint, and a good supply of it?
  • Do you have the right tools for the job? Most paints can be applied with either a brush or a roller.
  • Can you reach all the surfaces safely? You will certainly need a stepladder, and may have to hire or make a work platform
  • Have you allowed yourself enough time? Take account not only of the drying time, but also the period between coats of paint (see the chart below)
  • Are there children and pets around? Keep them away from wet paint!

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Choosing your paints

Large areas like walls and ceilings should be painted with water-based paint. You can choose between traditional emulsion or the latest multi-surface formulas, suitable for wood, metal and even radiators.

Paints for interior walls and ceilings

  Emulsion One-coat emulsion New-plaster emulsion Acrylic paint Multi surface acrylic Textured paint Cement paint
Drying time (hours)              
Touch-dry 1-2 3-4 1-2 1-2 1-2 24 1-2
Recoatable 4   4 4 4   24
Number of coats              
Normal Conditions 2 1 1-2 1-2 1-2 1 2
Coverage approximate              
Sq metres per litre 9-15 8 11 10-14 10-12 2-3  
Sq metres per kg             1-6

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Emulsion is a water-based paint for walls and ceilings available in a large variety of colours, which usually need two coats. It can be applied directly on to walls that have been previously painted, or on to paintable wall coverings such as lining paper and textured wallpaper. Emulsion paint generally comes in two finishes - matt and silk. Matt has a flat, non-reflective appearance, which is useful for disguising uneven surfaces. Matt emulsion marks easily and is not washable, but new 'wipeable' matt paints are being introduced in many ranges. Silk emulsion has a shiny, reflective finish, and can be washed. It is useful for vulnerable areas such as halls, staircases and children's rooms. There is a third finish, often called soft sheen, satin or mid-sheen, which is basically half-way between matt and silk, with a wipeable surface.

One-coat emulsion

This special emulsion paint is thicker and has superior covering power. Just one coat will cover most surfaces. This paint usually comes in satin, mid-sheen and matt finishes.

Kitchen and bathroom emulsion

This is specifically formulated for areas of high humidity. It has moisture- and grease-resistant properties, and gives a tougher, scrubbable surface. This emulsion is available in a mid- or soft sheen.

Multi-surface acrylics

These new generation paints can be applied to walls, ceilings, woodwork and radiators, meaning you only need one paint for the whole job. Like traditional emulsion paints they are water-based, quick-drying and low-odour, but their advanced formula means they are tougher and washable. They are available in matt finish for a solid, flat colour or satin for a subtle sheen.

Undercoat and base coat

Many modern paints are formulated to give good coverage on a properly prepared surface without a separate undercoat: check the manufacturer’s advice. Often, however, an undercoat will ensure better results, especially if you are painting over a strong or dark colour. Look out for specially formulated base coat which includes fine, flexible fillers that will cover not just strong colour but filled areas and hairline cracks.

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Tricks of the trade

Paint in sequence

Paint in sequence

Do you need to paint the ceiling? If so, paint it first, since you are bound to get some on the walls. Then paint the walls, and finally the woodwork. Start painting by the window or light source, and paint in bands away from and in parallel to it. Take a break when you reach the corner of a room, not in the middle of a wall.

Buying paint in quantity can save you money, but only if you know how to store and decant it effectively.

Storing paint

Paint will not keep indefinitely, as it deteriorates over time. Solvent-based paints have a longer storage life than water-based ones. You can store small quantities in an airtight jar. Choose a size that leaves as little air in the jar as possible, and always label the container with the code number, name and type of paint, and note the room it was used in.

When storing paint in the tin, reduce the risk of a skin forming by turning it upside-down for a few seconds (first making sure that it is tightly shut) to ‘seal’ the lid with paint, or cut a round of foil to the size of the lid and press it down on to the paint to eliminate air.

Storing paint

Using a paint kettle

A large tin of paint may be more economical, but it is cumbersome to work with. Professionals always decant paint into smaller containers known as ‘kettles’. These are available in metal or plastic. It takes a lot of white spirit to clean oil-based paint from a container, so it is a good idea to use a throwaway lining of aluminium foil. Mould the foil into the kettle and if necessary use more than one layer to make sure it is fully leak-proof.

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Paint brushes

There is a vast range of paintbrushes to choose from, ranging from cheap ones that you use once then throw away to professional-quality brushes that will improve with use, careful cleaning and correct storage. You can also now buy high-quality synthetic brushes that minimise bristle-loss and have individually tapered fibres for a finer finish; some synthetic brushes are not compatible with all solvent cleaners, however, so do check the manufacturer’s instructions when you buy them.

Taking a break?

Stop brushes or rollers drying out by wrapping them in cling film. If you make the wrap as airtight as possible, they will remain soft overnight.

Cleaning and storing

Brushes used with water-based paints are simply washed with water. Work a little soap into the bristles, rinse them clean and leave them to dry. Clean, dry brushes, rollers and pads can be stored wrapped in lint-free cloth, plastic bags, foil or brown paper. Brushes steeped in oilor solvent-based paint can be stored immersed in an appropriate cleaner or solvent. However, resting the bristles on the bottom of a jar for any length of time is certain to ruin them, so suspend the brush, or use a specially designed cleaning tub.

Using a paintbrush cleaning tub

This is ideal for storing as well as cleaning brushes that have been used with oil- and solvent-based paints. With the lid on tight, store brushes with a small amount of cleaning fluid in the bottom. The vapours circulate, keeping the brush clean and fresh.

Using a paintbrush cleaning tub step 1

1 Snap the brushes into position.

Using a paintbrush cleaning tub step 2

2 Add enough cleaning fluid to cover just the bristles, fasten the lid and rock the container backwards and forwards several times to clean the brush. Dispose of the fluid as instructed, and replace with fresh fluid up to the mark. Keep the lid on while the brush is in storage.

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