How to Paint a Room

Whether you are painting your dream house or just touching up your bedroom walls, painting can be a very enjoyable, yet daunting, activity for those unfamiliar with the process. This is something that you’re going to have to look at every day, so it is important to do a good job! If you have never painted before, here are the basic steps to help you get started.

Materials You Might Need

This is a basic list of the materials you will need. Every job dictates slightly different tools, but this will get you in the right direction. Talk to the color specialist at your local hardware store for better information about what tools are best for your specific job.

  • Paint/Primer
  • Brushes/Rollers
  • Trays
  • Plastic/Drop Cloths
  • TSP/Cleaning Supplies
  • Spackle/Putty Knife/Sandpaper
  • Ladders
  • Mineral Spirits/Solvents
  • Sand Paper
  • Imagination! (Not Optional.)


Before you start painting, you’re going to need to prep your work area.

First, you will want to cover or clear the room of any furniture or other things you don’t want to get paint on. You can use plastic sheeting or drop cloths in order to protect your floor from splattering paint. To make it easier to navigate and prevent trip hazards, you may want to secure the sheeting to the floor with blue masking tape, also known as painter’s tape (or any other tape that won’t leave residue).

If you have a different color trim or need to achieve a nice, crisp line at the edge of where you are painting, you will have to use tape. Often, people use regular blue masking tape because it is relatively cheap; however, if paint is left on the tape for too long, it is very likely to seep beneath the tape and leave hairy looking lines along your edge. What you should use is a tape with some type of foam chemical laced on the edge that will form a seal that prevents any paint from leaking. I recommend using FrogTape, which is the original paint block tape. Any contact with water will activate the chemical, so painting over it with water-based paint will automatically activate it. To use it with oil-based paints, you have to manually activate the product with a damp cloth before painting. Tapes like these can be left up much longer, and your paint will not bleed. If you insist on using regular masking tape, be sure to remove the tape as soon as possible.

The next step is to prepare the surface on which you will be painting. Depending on what type of paint project you are working on, there are several things you may have to do.

For older walls, perhaps already painted once before, you may need to fill in any cracks or nail holes with spackle or nail hole filler. These can be easily applied with a putty knife and are usually around five or six dollars for a small tub. A popular type of spackle for painters is lightweight spackle. If your brand new tub of spackle feels practically empty, it is probably a lightweight spackle. The benefits are that it will dry much faster than regular spackle and, in many cases, they contain primer, making small patch jobs a breeze. Lightweight spackle is not very durable though, so I would only recommend it for small holes and cracks. If you’re working in a bathroom or place with a lot of moisture, use vinyl spackle or one that will dry flexible. These types of putties are less likely to crack when exposed to moisture. Once the putty is applied and dried, just sand it down to the level of the wall with some sandpaper.


The next step is to thoroughly clean the surface you will be painting. At the very least, give the wall a good cleaning with warm soap water, and then rinse it off. However, many people prefer to use Trisodium Phosphate (TSP for short), an all-purpose cleaner that also helps prepare the surface to be painted.


The last thing to do before painting is optional depending on several factors. Many people argue over whether you actually have to use a primer to paint your wall, but it all comes down to what is currently on your wall and what kind of paint you are using. A good rule to remember is that if it is a surface that has never been painted before, you need to prime it. Even with extra coats of paint, it just won’t stick as well without the high levels of titanium dioxide found in primer. (This is essentially what makes the primer adhere to the wall and your paint.) Today, most paints are labeled as “Paint and Primer in One,” which many people assume means they won’t have to prime. Typically, a Paint-and-Primer-in-One paint simply has added titanium dioxide, but it’s not nearly at the same levels as a true primer. What the Paint and Primer in One does is save you from re-priming the previously painted surfaces. However, if you are painting over a deep color and trying to achieve a light color, you will most likely need to prime anyway, otherwise your color will appear much darker because of the previous color underneath.


Once your work space is ready and your primer is completely dry (your can of primer will have instructions specifying how long to wait), you are ready to paint!

Now that you are all prepped, the actual painting process is actually pretty straightforward. Many people have different preferences regarding the order of things to paint, but traditionally you start with a brush on the edges of the wall and then use a roller to finish the main portion. Many paint manufacturers have different suggestions depending on what type of paint you use, as well. Be sure to read all of the information on your particular can of paint.

To begin, open your can of paint with a screwdriver or a paint can key (you can buy these at most hardware stores for a dollar, and they help preserve the integrity of your can’s lid). Use a stir stick or other stirring device to mix your paint up a bit to ensure none of the pigment has settled on the bottom. If your paint has been sitting for a while, it might even be necessary to have your can of paint shaken again. As long as the can is still in good condition and the can is more than half full, most hardware paint departments will be happy to shake your old can of paint, even if you didn’t buy it from them. Worst case scenario, you can shake the paint by hand in circular motions.

Next, pour some of your paint into a small cup or other paint carrying device. Use your angled brush and dip it about half way into the paint. Wipe off any excess paint, and then cover the edges of the wall. The benefit of the angled brush is you can get a closer, more even application of paint with less risk of getting the paint where you don’t want it. Reapply the paint on your brush occasionally, never letting it get too thin or too thick. If it is too thin, your wall will turn out splotchy. Too much, and it will not dry properly, potentially leading to many other problems later on. There are also smaller rollers designed to be used for this purpose; however, I personally find that a brush gives you a lot more control.

Now that you have finished your edges, you can move onto the main portion of the wall. Pour some paint into your tray (the deeper end). Place your roller into the tray and pull back, bringing some paint with you. You then roll the roller back and forth on the textured portion, ensuring you get a nice, even coverage of paint. If you get too much paint on your roller, it will not roll properly, and is liable to splatter paint back at you when you roll. Too little and you will have to reapply the paint to your roller more frequently. If you are right handed, start from the right end of the wall and work your way left. If you are left handed, do the opposite.

Many people assume the best application with a roller is vertical lines, but in order to get the best coverage and smoothest final product, you should actually apply the paint in a slight angled fashion resembling a narrow W or N shape, and finish with a straight line all the way to the top when your roller starts to run dry. This is so you don’t leave huge gobs of paint at the edge of the ceiling. Every time you finish one strip, your next should overlap by about half the size of the paint roller. To finish up you do a rollover, which is just rolling over the area you just painted with your roller, without applying more paint. This is only to help even out your paint and make sure you didn’t leave any areas particularly thick.


The last step is to sit back and watch paint dry. I’ll wait for you…

Okay, I guess you should clean up while you wait. It is actually very important for the integrity of your brushes that you clean them immediately after you finish using them. If you are using a water-based paint, this is as simple as using warm soapy water. If you are using an oil-based paint, you will need to use mineral spirits instead.

Last, make sure your brush is left to dry with the bristles hanging down so the water or mineral spirits drains out properly. (This is why paint brushes have holes on the end: so you can hang them up to dry!) The roller can also be cleaned with soap and water. If you have to use it again right after cleaning it, you can buy a roller spinner that will help dry it much faster. It’s important not to use a damp brush or roller, because that will potentially water down your paint.

Assess whether or not your paint job requires a second (or third) coat. If so, repeat. Happy painting and share your stories with us in the comments!

Photo by Sara Slattery

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  1. A trick my parents taught me with multiple coats of paint was to just wrap the brushes and rollers very tightly in plastic wrap, without cleaning. Then I can open them up again the next day for the next coat of paint and they are good to go. Not sure if that eventually wears down the brushes, but it worked great for painting our hallway a few weeks ago :)

    • This is a very effective way to maintain your brushes in the middle of a project without having to wash and dry them between uses! I wouldn’t do it for an extended period of time, because the moisture will eventually seep into the ferrule and handle of the brush, but overnight should be okay! :)

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