Whether you’re painting freshly installed drywall or just redecorating, there are certain things you need to do to ensure that your walls are ready for paint. And if you’re thinking of skipping prep, let me assure you: it’s not worth it. If you don’t give your walls the attention they need, the new layer of paint could start peeling and show all of the imperfections you wanted to hide. So today, I’m going to give you all of the tools you need to prepare your drywall for painting.
Thanks to a few bad experiences with painting crews I had some years ago, I decided to learn all I could about painting. One of my most horrifying painting crew stories specifically involved a crew that didn’t do the prep the way they should have.
Only a few months after they applied the paint, I noticed a tiny fissure in the finish. A couple of weeks later, it was an inch-wide crack. Before long, I ended up with a gaping hole in my wall that showed the drywall beneath!
If you want to avoid having similar stories, just keep reading. I’m going to tell you what you should do to prepare new drywall or even an existing painted wall for a paint job. However, before we can focus on the walls, you need to do some basic room prep.
Before You Start Prepping the Walls
All successful painting projects begin several steps before the paint comes into play. If you do the preliminary preparations right, the painting itself will go by without a hitch. So what are the first things you’ll need to do?
Actually, I wrote all about the beginning stages of the painting process in my article about preparing the room you’re working in. At this point, your main task is to empty the room as much as you can, clean it up, and cover it with a drop cloth or a plastic tarp. I explained all of this in the article I’ve linked to, but it boils down to:
- Moving the pieces of furniture that aren’t too big out of the room and taking off wall decor
- Pushing the chunkier furniture toward the middle of the room
- Removing outlet and switch covers, as well as the lighting fixtures, and taping them
- Vacuuming excess dust
- Covering your furniture island to protect it from paint and doing the same with the floor, then taping everything down
- Using painter’s tape on the baseboards, windows, and other trim
- Measuring the total surface of the walls so that you can order the appropriate amount of paint and other equipment
Obviously, depending on the state of your walls, these steps might look a bit different. The ones I’ve listed apply to rooms that are already fully decorated and lived-in. However, if you’re starting with bare drywall, this will be even easier — you can just cover everything you need to and get into wall prep. Of course, before you get to attack your walls, you should also have your painting supplies ready.
Assemble the Supplies
If you thought that you could just dive into this project with a roller and a can of paint, I hate to burst your bubble. Still, you need to be realistic. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a project and realizing that you’d forgotten to get an item that’s crucial to the whole process.
As I’ve explained in my article on wall painting equipment, there are all sorts of things you’ll need while you paint. Other than your rollers, paint, drop cloth, and painter’s tape, you’ll also need to get some more surprising items, such as screwdrivers and pliers. Why, you ask?
Well, the hardware tools are obviously useful for taking off outlet and switch covers. However, the article I’ve pointed you to has explanations for why you’ll need many other items as well. For the wall prep itself, you’ll need:
- A measuring tape
- Spackle and a scraper
- Sandpaper or a sanding block
- Protective gear like a breathing mask (for the dust, although you might as well protect yourself from the paint fumes)
- A broom and a mop or a sponge and some dish soap
- A good primer
- Brushes, rollers, and a paint tray
So let’s see where all of these items will come into play.
How to Prepare Drywall for Painting
Throughout this guide, I’ll specify whether a technique can be used on finished walls or directly on drywall. If you have just installed new drywall, you will need to pay attention to the specific instructions I’ll include. So without further ado, let’s just get into wall prep. Here are the things you’ll need to do if you want your paint to adhere properly.
Join Your Drywall Sheets If They’re New
The first thing you need to do is deal with the major repairs to the wall. If you have newly installed drywall, you obviously don’t have much to repair, do you? However, you can’t just leave the boards screwed into the studs without connecting them to each other. After all, we want to have a smooth transition all over the wall without dips between the individual pieces of drywall.
Typically, if you want to fill in the tiny gaps between sheets of drywall, you’ll need drywall joint compound. These types of products perform similarly to spackle — so if you already have spackle, you can just use that instead.
Using your trusty wall spatula or even a wide putty knife, you can transfer some of the drywall joint compound into a metal pan or a plate. Then you can take bits of the compound, roughly apply them over the joints, and then smooth everything out. After the compound has had time to set and cure, you’ll be able to deal with the texture imperfections.
Repair the Walls If Necessary
Now, even if the walls are already damaged, the solution will actually be fairly similar to working on drywall joints. So if you have cracks like the ones I did when the painters I hired did a shoddy job, you can rest easy. These things are actually easy to fix.
If you have any type of a crack in your wall, whether it’s a surface-level scratch or a deeper gap, you’ll want to get rid of the lifted sections of the wall. Most of the time, when you have small surface cracks like these, the situation is much worse beneath the surface. So you can use a clean scraper tool like this 5-in-1 one from Tooluxe to knock out any pieces of paint that have started to peel.
You don’t really need to apply any force when you’re doing this. Just keep the tool almost flush with the wall, dragging it under the crack and pushing until the piece peels off as much as it wants to. Keep in mind that we’re not trying to scrape off the paint that’s attached to the wall — just the parts that have already lifted.
Once you get rid of the lifted paint, you can use one of those wide knives or wall spatulas I’ve mentioned before to smooth spackle all over the area. When you fill everything out, make sure to smooth the spackle as much as possible. That will make it easier for you to get rid of the excess later on.
Fill Nail Holes
While you’re at it, you can also fix any wall cavities you might have made on purpose as well. That includes nail holes or even curtain rod craters if you no longer want the curtain rod to be there. For small holes, you can take some spackle on the tip of your finger and push it in. However, you might still have to use a wall spatula to fill in big holes.
Keep adding spackle until you have a tiny bump on the wall. Since spackle tends to shrink a bit as it cures, that will prevent any depressions in the wall. Also, you’ll be able to get rid of the excess easily. Speaking of which, let’s talk about how you can go about doing that.
Get Rid of Excess Spackle and Texture
At this point in your wall priming process, your wall may be dotted with spackle. Or, you might be even looking at bare drywall connected with joint compound. Now is when we get to set the stage for what will happen when we apply the paint.
We want to have our primer and the paint apply evenly across our walls, right? Most people have abandoned using stucco wall textures indoors, so we can safely say that you want a smooth application. Part of the answer to your problem lies in fine-grit sandpaper.
There are two options you can go for as far as sanding goes. On the one hand, you could use a fine-grit sanding block (or sponge) like this angled one from 3M. The angled side will help you get into the corners of the room without damaging the wall that connects to the one you’re sanding. As the product packaging will tell you, you can use this sanding block dry or wet — like this 320-grit soft sanding sponge.
Alternately, you could always improvise your sanding block by wrapping 220-grit sandpaper around a piece of wood. Still, regardless of how you get your sanding tool, you probably shouldn’t use it without preparing yourself.
You should always wear protective gear to avoid getting dust in your eyes and mouth. In my painting equipment article, I recommended a simple cloth face mask. However, you can also use something more professional, like a respirator. Just get the right size for your face.
In addition to the mask, you may need goggles or even a plastic suit to protect your clothing. But really, you should wear old clothing that you don’t mind damaging throughout this process anyway.
Wash Off the Dust
Whether you sand your walls or not, you will need to wash them a bit before you proceed. There are several reasons why you should do that and a few methods you might use.
The first reason is that you’re starting with bare drywall. By the time you install the drywall, apply the joint compound, and sand it — the walls will be pretty messy. If you were to touch the drywall, your fingers would probably come away with dust on them. With all of that dust on the panels, the paint won’t be able to adhere to the wall. So what do you do?
Well, the first thing you need to do is wipe off as much of the dust as you can. Since we don’t want to have to climb up a ladder or a chair for no reason, you can just use a regular floor broom to get most of the dust off first. Remember to keep your face mask on for this step! Once you get as much of the dust off as you can, get the remainder off with a flat floor mop.
This method can also be useful for getting excess dust off of regular painted walls you just sanded. However, rather than use a broom and a mop, I recommend a more targeted approach:
- Start with a bowl of warm water with a few drops of dish soap in it
- Dunk a sponge into the mix and wring it out
- Wipe the area you sanded before or do the whole wall
You can also use this method if your walls are just generally dirty or even if you have grease residue. All of this should allow the primer and the paint to adhere to the wall better.
Caulk the Edges
Once your walls are squeaky clean, you can make the last couple of changes before you apply your primer. Many people find that they have a few last flaws they want to correct. Some find tiny fissures in the wall while others spot gaps between the wooden baseboards or the trim and the wall. Well, there’s a simple solution for dealing with these issues: caulk.
Caulk is pretty much a magical ingredient that can close that tiny gap without an issue. You’ll just load it into a caulking gun and squeeze it out wherever you need it. Then you can use a wet finger or wear gloves as you smooth the product.
However, since we’re going to be applying pigment on top of this, you should keep in mind that you’ll need to get paintable caulk. Most of these types of products can be painted over, but you should watch out for the ones that can’t. Additionally, I should say that not all people apply caulk after washing their walls. For example, the Sherwin-Williams guy from this video uses a primer first, then caulk, and then paint.
Pick the Right Primer
As I’ve said time and again, there is a single primer rule you should stick to: use oil-based primer for oil-based paint and latex for everything else.
White primer is the most common kind. However, there are situations in which you don’t want to use white to prime your walls.
For one, if you’re aiming to get a dark color on light walls, you might want to use a gray primer. Alternately, you can pour some of your wall paint into a bucket of white primer to get a tinted base. Still, if you’re trying to paint over dark walls with a brighter shade, you’ll definitely need to apply a light primer.
Some primers and colors are certainly better than others in covering dark walls, as you’ll be able to see in my article about the best primer and paint for covering dark walls. In fact, some paints even claim to be self-priming — but that seems like a bit of a gimmick to me. You’d need to apply two coats of that type of paint, like any other, although I suppose getting to skip a step would be pretty convenient if the paint gives you even coverage.
Additionally, if you’re painting drywall for the first time, you need to get a special drywall primer to have an even base for the color to stick to. You can even use a cheap light color to even out the drywall color and disguise the joint compound.
Of course, many people skip primer altogether. In my opinion, that’s a huge mistake. Still, if you really don’t want to use primer, I suppose that’s your choice. But if your walls have signs of water damage or stains on them, you’ll definitely need a primer to ensure even coverage.
If the Situation Calls for It — Apply Two Coats
Most people think that it’s all about getting the right brushes and rollers for the job, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a certain technique for getting even and total coverage out of your primer and paint.
If you want to have a successful painting project, you’ll want everything to be as smooth as possible. That begins with sanding and washing and ends with applying your primer smoothly and without streaking, whether you’re working with a brush or a roller. Of course, since you’ll likely be combining the two — using the brush in the corners and the roller for the middle of the wall — I’ve taken it upon myself to write guides on how to avoid streaks and linked them above.
Get Your Walls Ready for Paint
As I have stressed before, making sure that your walls are ready for paint is one of the most important steps in the painting process. Your goal should be to get the best results out of the paint you’ve chosen to apply. That includes getting everything set up before you go in with the color — from cleaning and covering the room to sanding, washing, and priming the walls.
Although I’ve tried to present this guide in an order that makes sense, the fact is that this is pretty much an intuitive process. Once you get started and gain some experience, you’ll find yourself skipping between all of the steps I’ve mentioned. So you might peel off lifted paint, then sand, wash, and spackle the area after it’s dry. Or you could figure out something completely new that works for you.
I, for one, am always looking to learn new things. Even now, when I’m fairly used to painting my own walls, I find myself scouring the Internet for new painting methods and new color trends. As soon as I find anything interesting, I’ll make sure to report my findings here. So don’t forget to check back in for more painting tips!