Long Arms and Brush Strokes

Posted in Monthly, This Old House at 1:52 pm by Pasha

By Pasha Holiday

I wish I could say I spent my time painting landscapes and portraits, but my unsteady hand would never go for that. No, my expertise is for another kind of painting, the kind that requires rollers and overalls. And, so, over the past six months I have become the master of preparing and painting an 105-year-old Chicago home.

Painting goes in a very specific order and a single room can take as many as 30 days or only seven if there are helpers or little square footage. However, for the massive, soaring living room, dining room and now, in my case, the spectacular foyer and staircase, the projects drag beyond days to weeks. And some, like the foyer, even months.

In a home that has eclectic old plaster walls, the painting starts with major preparing. Each crack, and there are so many that they reproduce whenever you turn your back, gets individual attention. Open the crack, clean the crack, plaster the crack, smooth the plaster. Over and over. And even then, so many of the little ones get missed and overlooked.

If the trim is free of peeling paint (or the walls for that matter) that’s all the reason a homeowner has to rejoice. However, to salvage trim that is scarred and peeling 50-plus years of lead paint, the process goes much the same as the walls. Plaster each scar by pushing new density into the holes left by years of lead paint and inadvertent crashes. Mercilessly scrape all that old peeling paint. It is so important to smooth out the plaster right away, for if you don’t, the next step will be most harrowing.

Sanding. It truly has become my most hated and grueling at home project. After plastering everywhere, the most important task to ensure a smooth wall is to sand the plaster as if it was part of the wall itself. Smoothing out 500 square feet of walls and ceiling and especially trim is not just hard, it is messy and nearly deadly. The sand particles fall in your hair and engulf your hands, making them plaster casts. Just when you think every wall has been done, every inch sanded smooth, look again. There are edges missed and creases that scream unfinished.

For the stairs in particular, we had to sand each riser, the banister (done by an amazing friend) and the floors. And when it had been sanded, it still needed to be sanded more. Dark stain from all those years still mark the edges. Although each riser had been meticulously gone over and over and over with a hand sander, they always needed more. It is those times when you finally throw your 40 grit away and sand with the 100 and 220. And finally you give up and do just that, move onto the smoothing phase of sanding. Because even if the stairs and hardwoods are still dark around the edges, at least they are finished. Then when you take off your paper mask you see all the stain and varnish on it they might have otherwise coated your lungs. IT is a dirty job.

Before you can even think about slapping on a coat of primer (when you actually see some results) you have to first caulk all the joints, lest the room look unfinished, the door frames gapped like a toothless person. While cheaper, the caulk guns just aren’t worth the aggravation. Squeeze bottle caulk will help you retain what little sanity you have left for the project. After running a bead of caulk along each seam and corner you have to go back over it and smooth in with a rubber glove. I was out of rubber gloves so I used a zip lock bag. Whatever works the caulk into the crack, which, when painted, will give the illusion of newish walls and trim.

When it is all dry and dandy you have to clean and clean well. If dirt is missed it will only mix with the pain for a ruddy, bumpy surface. It is worth it to wash every wall and trim, top to bottom, with mild soap and water. Your paint job will reap in the benefits.

At the end of the long journey of preparation, finally it is time to prime. The beauty of priming is that it goes on everything, the walls and the trim. For once the painter is spared from having to tape the transition. However, when you have just refinished and stained your precious hardwoods, you are left with no choice but to meticulously cover and tape off the lovely wood. The thought of dropping paint on the wood that was so lovingly brought to life can send a man over the edge. So, using a roll of brown paper and much too much Frog Tape, cover each riser individually, the banister and the floors. The spindles and fronts of the stairs will be painted white, so they must be left exposed.

Gingerly prime every exposed area of the room. Lather it on thick, while still being mindful that some little bits of covered surface might be exposed. I love priming because it is so simple, brush it on thick and heavy, no need to worry about the transition with the trim. Primer is all one color!!!

When it comes back around to the painting stage, there will be more taping and prep. But for their first coat, your stress levels can remain modest. Gray (two shades) will be applied to our walls and ceiling will be white. The trim will get a high-gloss, easily wiped, bright white paint. The first two rounds are easy. One person paint the ceilings, two coats, while the other works on the detailed trim, first coat. For now there is no need to tape, as the gray paint on the walls will cover any splatter.

Once the ceilings are finished they should be taped at the edges to prevent the gray from ruining the job. Roll the paint on the walls in a W and always roll upwards first. Fill the W in and then move along the wall. The Long Arm is perfect for hard to reach areas. It is just like Go, Go Gadget Arm. Of course, some gray will get on the trim. Don’t fret, any small splatter will be covered by the second coat of white paint on the trim. The second person (the wall painter) can follow right behind the first (the trim painter) in the process.

Once two coats cover the walls it is time to finish the trim, tape the trim off, and “cut in” on all the walls. Basically, the paint for the walls has yet to meet the trim. Cover Miss Trim well, she doesn’t want all of the gray walls edging to mess her perfectly painted details. Cut in all your corners, edges and around trim twice, to match the walls.

Remove the tape and paper and worry about touch ups later. Right now it is about time for a cup of tea and a long break. Because it is not so much hard to paint a room as it is lengthy and meticulous. Especially if you are blessed with crown molding; the jewel and pain of a painter’s existence. At the end of it all, you will only have the good feeling. After all, you just saved thousands and gotten buff in the process!

*** For more information about refinishing hardwoods go to Refinishing Hardwoods: Wood that Look its Age Posted in This Old House ***