Surface Preparation

First, the unpleasant news. You will probably spend more time preparing a room to be painted than you will actually painting. It can be a time-consuming and monotonous process.

The good news is that careful surface preparation can make the painting part of the process easier and less stressful. In short, this is quite possibly the most important part of the job. Success begins here.

Lastly, these steps are general preparation rules. They are standard steps for most jobs. Before and after preparation, reassess the space to see if something does not look fully prepared.

Do you have wallpaper or a border to remove before you can paint? If so, check out the page on removing wallpaper for step-by-step instructions and tips.

Necessary Tools:

  • Roll of “Painter’s Plastic” (or similar plastic sheeting)

  • Painter’s Tape (you should not substitute any other type of tape)

  • A Latex Primer

  • Interior Spackling Compound

  • Broad Spackling Knife (Putty Knife)

  • 5-in-1 Tool: Useful for a multitude of jobs, from removing old caulk to cleaning rollers. See Everyday Paint Supplies.


Clearing the Room

The first advice I received as a painter was this: An empty room is an easy room. While it may not make every room easy, it makes even a difficult job much, much simpler.

Begin your preparations by clearing the walls of hangings, window treatments, shelves, towel rods, outlet and light switch covers, and any other removable pieces. Be sure to label any outlet covers and window treatments so they can find their proper home again. Keep the mounting hardware together and in a safe place.

Remove everything else that is possible from the room’s interior – large furniture, fabrics, home décor. Any large furniture that cannot be removed, move into the center of the room and cover with plastic sheeting. If necessary, lay a drop cloth or something similar over the plastic to hold it in place.


Cleaning the Room

Give the room a thorough cleaning. Vacuum or mop the floors. Wipe down baseboards and other woodwork with a damp cloth.

Once this stage of cleanup is completed, cover the floor completely with plastic sheeting. Secure the sheeting to the edges of the floor or baseboard with painter’s tape.

Note: You should not use cloth to cover the floor or any furniture, as paint will soak into the fabric and stain whatever is underneath.


Washing the Walls

This is a very important step and should not be skipped. All walls (even if they look clean) collect dust and oily buildup.

Fill a wash bucket with a fairly light mixture of dish-soap and warm water. Using a sponge mop, give all of the walls a vigorous wash, working in small sections so you can be sure you’ve covered the entire surface. Change the wash solution whenever it begins to look dirty.

Lastly, give the walls a final wash with plain water to remove any soapy residue. The walls should dry for a full day before you begin any painting.


Patching Holes

Note: I will only cover minor repairs here. Nail holes, drywall scratches, hairline cracks, etc… I urge you to contact a professional for any larger repairs, unless of course you have experience and you are confident in your ability to handle these repairs.

For further do-it-yourself advice in repairing drywall, check out How To Drywall, a website offering drywall repair and installation instructions.

A smooth surface is very important to the finished look of the paint. Patch nail holes and other small surface holes or scratches with spackle.

Press the spackle into the hole with a spackling knife, taking care not to overfill the hole. It is better to apply several thin coats than one very thick one.

Allow several hours to dry (per spackling manufacturer’s instructions). Sand the repairs flush with the wall. Apply a second coat of spackling if necessary. Sand flush.



Priming is a very important step, as it gives you a clean, paintable surface work on. If your walls are already covered with a latex (water-based) paint, or if your drywall has already been primed, priming the entire surface is probably unnecessary.

You will need to prime, however, if you are painting on one of the following:

  • New, unprimed drywall

  • Any glossy surface (including glossy finish paints)

  • If you are painting over oil-based paint

    (Not sure? Rub a small spot on the wall with a cotton ball soaked in ammonia. If the paint rubs off, the paint is latex (water-based), meaning there’s probably no need for priming. If it does not, it is oil-based and needs to be primed.)

  • Unpainted Wood

  • Anytime you are covering dark or bright colors with a lighter paint

Finally, even if your walls are already covered with a low-gloss, latex paint and do not require priming, you should apply primer to any small areas that were patched with spackling. If these areas are not primed they will appear glossy even after being painted.



The final step in surface preparation is to tape off around the woodwork, ceilings, windows, etc… I’ve included these instructions with each paint technique, so I’ll not repeat them here.

Congratulations! Your surface preparation is complete. You are now ready to move on to the most rewarding part of the job. Have fun and enjoy your newly-painted space.

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