Be Paint Smart

Taking the confusion out of buying primer and paint.



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Any do-it-yourselfer planning to paint his or her home is faced with an overwhelming choice of products on the market today. The key to avoid turning a satisfying project into a frustrating ordeal is educating yourself before you shop for paint. And even if you opt to hire a professional painter to do the job, understanding the products makes you a smart homeowner.

Why Use a Primer?
Most professionals advise that you should always apply a layer of primer, which not only seals the surface but ensures that the paint adheres properly. You especially need to apply a primer when working with bare wood and metal, walls that have been repaired or are in poor condition (flaking or peeling), unfinished walls, and painted walls where you will be applying a different color—one that is darker or lighter than the existing shade. Primers also block out stains like water and crayon marks, and odors from smoke. And of course, if the surface is porous—like drywall or concrete that easily soaks up paint—you can avoid wasting paint by sealing it first with primer. 

Most important, however, a primer extends the life and enhances the appearance of the paint, including its color and sheen, which justifies the additional expense. Whether it’s one room or the entire house, no one wants to incur the cost and labor of painting more often than necessary. 

Now one might think choosing a primer would be an easy decision, but even KILZ, a popular brand name, has 15 versions to choose from. In most cases, though, the basic water-based primer that sells for about $20 a gallon will do the job. Oil-based primers are used for special cases such as new wood or bleeding wood, serious water stains or over wallpaper. 

The only time you can get away without using a primer is if you are working with recently painted walls—2 to 3 years old—that were painted with a quality product and there’s no extreme color change.

Types of Paints 
When you’re ready to buy, you’ll have to decide on the type of paint that is best for your project. Your choices are water-based (latex) or oil-based (alkyd). Keep in mind that paint is basically made up of three components: binder, pigments and liquid. Water-based paints dominate and account for roughly 80 percent of paints sold in the residential market, according to the Paint Quality Institute, an organization dedicated to educating people about the advantages of using quality paints. Some 50 years ago virtually all paint was solvent-based, but advances in the industry have made the water-based paints more attractive because of their quick drying time, ease of cleanup (soap and water) and their lesser odor, which dissipates quickly after the paint has dried. From a health perspective, these water-based paints have a low to zero percentage of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can have a toxic impact when released into the air as the paint dries—another reason for choosing water-based paint.  

As for performance, water-based paints provide a nice even coverage on a variety of surfaces, from plaster and drywall to concrete and wood. They have even been used successfully on interior bricks and over wallpaper. 

However, an oil-based paint is worth considering if your application calls for a semi- or full gloss look, such as in cabinetry, trim, doors, kitchens and high-moisture bathrooms. Although they dry more slowly than latex and need adequate ventilation because of their chemical composition and paint smell, they provide a smoother and potentially glossy finish, plus they are durable. Expect a hard enamel that resists scratching, scuffing, fingerprinting and staining. Just remember the cleanup requires turpentine or paint thinner.

Selecting a Sheen
When deciding on the right sheen, or gloss level, think of a scale where flat or matte paint has no shine and is the least scrubbable, and high-gloss is all shine and is the most washable. In between are eggshell, satin, and semi-gloss. Also worth noting is that the price of paint usually goes up with each sheen level. 

Flat or matte paint soaks up the light, making painted walls non-reflective. It also has the most pigment and provides the most coverage, so it’s the ideal sheen for hiding surface imperfections. It is best used on walls in low traffic areas, like a master bedroom, where it won’t get scuffed up. Since it’s easier to touch up than clean up, flat paint is not recommended for kids’ rooms. If you’re on a budget, flat sheen paint is a good choice because it can provide complete coverage with one or two coats. 

Eggshell has a soft, velvet-like sheen. Think of the eggs sitting in your refrigerator and how the shells are flat with just a slight luster. This sheen works well for covering imperfections and is recommended for moderate traffic areas such as a living room. Satin has a lovely pearl-like appearance and is easy to clean, making it ideal for just about any room, including high traffic areas. However, it tends to reveal application flaws like roller or brush strokes. 

Semi-gloss is radiant and sleek and, with its high durability, it’s a good choice for bathrooms and kitchens where walls take abuse from moisture, drips, spills and grease stains. It also works well on trim and in children’s rooms because it’s super easy to clean. High-gloss, with its brilliant, shiny appearance and superb durability, is best for kitchens, cabinets, doors, shutters, and window trim. It’s hard, ultra-shiny and light-reflecting, which makes it a good choice for highlighting details such as decorative moldings. But it’s also unforgiving and shows every imperfection. Good prep work can help minimize any uneven surfaces. It’s also the easiest of all paint sheens to clean. 

With a better understanding of when and how to use primer and paint, you can avoid costly mistakes when painting your home and, best of all, maximize the years between paint jobs. 

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