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Paint Like a Pro - Exterior

Updated on November 18, 2009

this Hub is a followup to Paint Like a Pro - Interior

Hello Do-It-Yourselfers! I am here to help you paint the outside of your house and get the same results as if you hired a painting contractor. If you would like to read my first painting article on interior painting please see as many of the tools needed and techniques are the same.

What You will Need:

  • tarps
  • ladder(s) Depending on the height of your home
  • rope (1/4" nylon, comes in a package, usually 25')
  • roller frames & sleeves
  • brushes - various (get the good ones)
  • rollers and/or sprayer - see sprayers, types and applications
  • paint scraper(s), sander (depends on your job)
  • sandpaper 180 grit, 400 grit at least 2 pieces each OR:
  • sandpaper sponges
  • old sheets (for wrapping bushes, covering flowers) or cheap plastic sheeting
  • 2 empty plastic 5 gallon buckets

Deciding to paint the outside of your home yourself is a good decision. It is not that hard to do a good job, and I think it is rather enjoyable. You will see almost instant results, and with some care, you will have made an improvement that will definitely add to not only the value. but also the beauty of your home! Don't let the size of the job or maybe the fact that you haven't done it before scare you off. You can do it!

First things first. Look at the outside of the house. Is the paint peeling badly? Is there obvious rotten wood? I'll write another article about how to fix rotten wood, soffits, siding and trim - but for now, let's assume it's just peeling. Or better yet: NOT peeling, you just don't like the color! THAT makes your job A lot easier. (if there IS rotten wood - sorry, you cannot paint until that is fixed... read my next article on fixing rotten wood, then come back)

Can you get to all the places you need to paint? Is there vegetation in the way? How tall is your house? And - are you sure it is PAINT and not STAIN that you need? Be careful! Many homes have natural wood siding that are meant to be STAINED not painted. Of course, you CAN paint any type of siding if you want to, but changing from stain to paint requires some extra work. Skip down to: Changing From Stain to Paint

I know this next part will sound crazy - but first mow the grass short (trust me, do it now, you may not have time to do it once you start this project AND you will thank me if you drop some little part in the grass and have to look for it later) trim the bushes... Pick up any obstacles - dog poop! toys, the odd rake, hoses and reels... Get everything out of the yard, especially up close near the house..

Before you start scraping/sanding/painting we must cover up the bushes and ground near the house. I know, some painters don't bother with this. They say "Who cares? Let the paint drip on the bushes, let the chips fall around the edge of the house..." But this is sloppy. It is not professional. It is so easy to drape a tarp over a bush, or to lay a tarp down along the ground under where you are working! It is much easier to do that, than to see the mess later and try to clean it up then.

You will be working a lot on a ladder or scaffold. You must have good balance and be in pretty good shape, physically. You do not want to fall off a ladder - not even a stepladder close to the ground. If you are older, or doubt you balance - get a helper. You can do it yourself - but just work slow, have some one check on you periodically (in case you fall) and no matter how good of shape you are in - if it is wet DO NOT go on ladders or scaffolds. It is too easy to slip. What good is saving money on hiring a contractor, if you have to pay it out to the Emergency Room? Or worse - you can't spend the money you save if you are dead. Just be careful! The positioning of ladders is very important. I have fallen a few times. It is not fun. It is preventable.

TIP: The main cause of falling while on a ladder is over-reaching. If, when you are on a ladder, you feel yourself putting more weight on one foot than the other - you are on your way to over-reaching. When you feel one foot (the opposite one from the way you are reaching) come off the ladder to balance yourself STOP! You are over-reaching.

Ladder selection and placement:

Even ranch style homes or any single story home, will require a ladder. You may get by with a simple step ladder with this type of home. Step ladders come in 2', 3', 4', 5', 6', 8' 10' and more. If you need a step ladder taller than 8 or 10 feet, at that point, you should switch to an extension ladder. I have one of the best, most versatile ladders ever! It is a step ladder that converts to an extension ladder! If you can only afford one ladder - get one like this. In the normal 'fold it open, like a step ladder' position, it is a 6' step ladder, complete with handy little fold-out shelf. But, when needed, you fold it closed, then the back section can slide upwards and it becomes an extension ladder! It is amazing. Another unique benefit to this type of ladder is that it can even be opened in the traditional step ladder fashion with the back portion extended, allowing for the front part to be on one surface, while the back section is on a higher surface - for example on stairs.

Many painters call their extension ladders by their closed heights. For example: a double 8 or a double 10 would be an 8 or 10 foot extension ladder. Why do they call them that? Because they can be SPLIT into two separate ladders. When working at lower heights, you may separate the two halves of an extension ladder into it's two respective pieces, then lean them on the house and with a special scaffold bracket and a scaffold board, you can make a nice working platform to get yourself up to the proper height.

What is the Benefit of a Scaffold Board?

Remembering that over-reaching is the main reason we fall - instead of having to move your ladder back and forth, you can have a scaffold board in place that allows YOU to move back and forth. This is most helpful when detailing a large window - there is a lot of work to do, yet no good place to rest a ladder. Or when there is a lot of scraping, sanding, priming, painting in an area that is hard to get to. It is much more pleasant to be standing up on a flat scaffold board than on the rung of a ladder! On the ladder, you must hang the paint can with a pot hook, hang on with one hand and paint with the other. Scaffold boards free up both hands and you can set your can down on a flat surface if you need to. It is much more restful and sure-footed.

Okay, back to the prep work. Bushes and other vegetation close to your work area should be tied back. Place an old sheet around the bush. Then get a piece of rope. Tie a loop in one end of the rope. Pull the other end of the rope through this loop. Now pull back against this loop and watch as the branches of the bush spring up and out of the way. Stop pulling when you reach the desired clearance or when you hear the braches cracking, and tie off the rope. This should allow you better access to the house and better ladder placement.

Is the yard tidied up? Bushes up and out of the way? Tarps down around the work area? Okay time to begin prep work. Always start on the back of the house. Best to practice on the side of the house least seen.. Always start HIGH and work your way down. Why? Get the high work done first, then you can get the ladders out of the way, and work on the lower parts. Another reason would be, if you work with a partner, get your high work done so you can get the ladders to them.

When choosing an extension ladder, remember that a 10' extension ladder does not make a 20' ladder when extended AND ladders have what is called a 'working height'. This is the highest point at which it is safe to stand and work from that ladder. Look at your house. On the 'gable ends' (the higher ends with the triangles that rise up the highest) how high is it? You don't have to guess. Look at the siding. Measure one piece of the exposed siding, say it is 8", then count how many pieces from the lowest piece to the highest piece. Say there are 20 pieces from the ground to the tip of the triangle. 20 x 8" = 160" Now divide by 12" 160/12 = 13.33 feet. You might think that an 8 foot extension ladder would be perfect for this job, or maybe a 12 foot step ladder. Don't do it. Always get the next size or two taller ladder. Here's why: your ladder will be on an angle (it has to be longer than the straight up-and-down measurement); the taller ladder will be less extended, therefore safer and you will likely get to have your feet standing on TWO rungs not just one while you are working, which is much more comfortable; a taller ladder when split can be more useful for scaffold applications; a taller ladder may allow you to rest ABOVE the working surface, maybe even allow you to get on the roof if needed.. So, for a ranch style*, or single story house - get a 10 or 12 foot extension ladder. *some ranch style homes have no gable ends (no tall triangle pieces on either end), but rather a 'hip roof', which makes for walls the same height on all four sides - in this case do no waste money buying a big ladder. Step ladders will do.

Okay, so you have the proper ladder(s). Now let's discuss how to position the ladder properly. If you get it too close to the house, it will feel like you are going to fall off the ladder backwards. It the base of the ladder is too far away, it will feel like you have to crawl up the ladder and lean on it real hard and maybe the end will slide out and away from the house, giving you a wild ride to the ground! It is very easy to find the perfect angle: extend your ladder to the desired height. lean it toward the house gently. Let it touch the house. Stand with your toes touching the base of the ladder. Now extend your arms straight out, parallel to the ground. the tips of your fingers should touch the ladder directly in front of you. If the ladder is too far for your fingers to touch - your angle is too great. Lift up on the ladder and scoot the feet a little closer to the house and test it again. If your hands go through the ladder - you are too close - scoot the base away from the house. With this method, you should find the perfect working angle every time. CAUTION: when working on a hill, you may have the perfect working angle, yet there is still a danger that the bottom might slip out. When in this situation, pound a large crowbar into the ground in such a way as to catch the bottom rung of the ladder to prevent it from sliding out. If this is not possible, you must tie off the ladder by attaching a rope to the bottom rung and as close to the ground as possible run the rope BACK toward the the house and attach the rope securely to the base of a strong bush or tree or what-have-you. Should no handy tie-off be available - improvise! Back your car or truck up to the ladder to prevent it sliding out. A secure ladder is most important. Do whatever you have to do to make it safe before you get way up there. There is no worse feeling in the world than to feel your ladder going when you are way up there and there is nothing you can do at that point but hope you don't get hurt too bad.

Scraping. Sanding, Powerwashing

Some guys powerwash everything. I don't. You can do a lot of damage with a powerwasher. Some siding materials are very soft and/or very porous. Powerwashing can inject water deep in the wood, or mar the wood leaving tracks where you swept the powerwasher over it. Make sure the wood is sound and tough before you go crazy with the water. Powerwashing will often raise up the grain of the wood and magnify the paint edge between raw wood and old paint. This makes for more work, where a little scraping and sanding would have been fine. If there is a lot of loose scaling paint and you are planning to scrape and sand a lot anyway, try the powerwasher on a small area. Then stop. let it dry. Go to lunch, or work on something else. After it dries, see if it is going to be more work or less after having used the powerwasher.

You cannot paint over loose paint and have a good result. You must get to the tight edge, then sand it smooth, then dust it off and apply primer. You do all this so the paint will look uniform. Otherwise the new paint will magnify the transition from bare wood to old paint.

It's best to prep at least the whole side of the house you are working on. I like to prep and finish it side by side. This prevents a lot of extra ladder moves or scaffold setups. Some guys like to prep the WHOLE house, then paint the whloe house. This is not good. You end up setting up for everything twice. You may not own enough tarps to surround the whole house. You may be doing this on weekends - and not be able to finish the whole house in one weekend - but you should be able to do one side. But most importantly - it leaves the house unpainted and unprotected longer, and if the weather changes before you get all the way around, you have raw wood exposed to the elements.

So what makes a job "Professional"?

It's in the preparation, the application and even the clean-up.

Don't just scrape loose paint. Scrape it yes, but stop when it stops coming off easily - that is when you start sanding. Sand the raw wood a little, but concentrate on the place where the old paint meets the raw wood. There must be no line here.

Then prime the raw wood. Use a brush for small areas, roller for larger areas. Use your judgement. If you can braush it all, go for it. Larger areas, like soffit, may make more sense to roll. LET THE PRIMER DRY. Don't be in such a hurry to finish a side that you paint over wet primer. You might get away with it - but you are taking a chance that it will all dry and stay smooth and not peel later. If you are going to do that, better to NOT prime the wood than to try to put paint over wet primer.

Painting. What separates the men from the boys? Getting the paint where you want it, making it look smooth with no runs, drips, sags, or missed spots AND keeping the paint OFF the things you do not want painted. TAKE OUT all window screens. It is very easy to clean a paint drip off of a window. Not so a screen. Take them off/out and AWAY somewhere far away from all paint. Also, many homes have stone or bricks that should not have any paint on them.

  • TIP: flat surfaces, like window sills made of stone/brick should be covered beneath where you are painting. Keep a small clean bucket of water, clean rags and a soft wire brush handy. As soon as you see a drip on the stone/brick - stop painting, go and clean it. And always, after you finish a section, put down your bucket and brush, and before you move the ladder - LOOK for drips and speckles of paint. It is easy to remove them NOW while your ladder is there, while the paint is fresh - hard to do later.

Paint Spayers, types and applications

While most jobs are 'Brush and Roll', there are times when a sprayer is better. If you have access to a sprayer or want to buy one - be aware of a few things:

  • sprayers can make a bigger mess if not used properly
  • you will likely have to thin the paint to the sprayers recommendations
  • clean-up is critical if you plan to use the sprayer ever again
  • wind is a big factor in paint 'over-spray' going where you do not want it
  • you CAN save a lot of time, for example on fences, raised panel doors, large areas of siding or soffit
  • greater care is needed to keep paint off of windows, trim, brick/stone

There are two types of sprayers most often used. There is the small electric 'cup/gun' type made popular by Wagner. Then there is the professional type that syphons paint right out of a 5 gallon pail and sends it through a hose and out a hand-held spray gun. Either type works about the same. Both types must be thouroughly cleaned after use.

If you plan to do a lot of painting inside and out, say you own apartments and you paint them yourself - then investing in a professional sprayer might make sense. You dohave to do a lot more covering up when spraying, to keep the mist from settling on areas not wanting to get painted, but the time savings can be worth it.

The best use of a sprayer for smaller jobs is on backyard fences where overspray is not such a concern and where brush and roll would be tedious. For these jobs I would use the Wagner type sprayer. They can apply a lot of paint very quickly and precisely. You can even paint the whole house with it - but the paint must be thinned. (remember: you will get more paint on the surface with brush and roll techniques, and paint applied that way is paint that has not been thinned). One of the disadvantages is you have to fill the little cup with paint often. They have methods for using a pick-up tube from a larger container, but it gets clumsy and you still have to thin the paint to the right viscocity or it wont spray properly. Walking along a fence-line is not going to work.

TIP: If you see a 'cup/gun' type of sprayer at a garge sale - DO NOT buy it, no matter how great the seller says it was, or how they never even used it. If they never used it, they could have taken it back to the store for a refund. If the seller had such great luck with it - why is it only $5? Because it's junk. You can spend $60 on a new one and if you are never gonna use it again, just throw it away. You must spend an hour cleaning the thing or you might as well throw it out anyway because it will not work next time unless you clean it properly.

Changing from Stain to Paint:

If your home is covered in wood that is stained and you would prefer to paint it instead - first, I would say "You're CRAZY!" Then I would try to talk you out of it by telling you the benefits of just staining wood versus painting, then if you would not be disuaded, I would tell you how to do it.

First of all: "YOU'RE CRAZY!" if you want to paint instead of stain. Stain goes over stain with little fuss. It is easy to apply, very forgiving if you get a little on the brick or stone and lasts a long time. It is good at preserving wood and shows off the beauty of the wood.

Before you choose to paint, consider a solid color stain. It will change the look and apply over the existing stain nicely.

No? Okay. You must SEAL the wood with an OIL based primer. Many stains are oil based, or simply oil with pigment, like linseed oil. You cannot paint over these. At least not with typical latex house paint. You might get away with an oil based paint. Best to seal the wood and/or prime the wood with a good oil based primer. Let the primer cure for several days. Watch for places that bleed through. Seal or prime these again. Wait. Let it dry. When it is truly dry to the touch and not soft at all, then you may apply paint.

Finishing well

For a finished professional look - be careful how you pick up the tarps! Unwrap the bushes/trees and let any paint chips fall onto the tarps. Then carefully roll up the tarps in such a way as to capture all the debris IN the tarp and do not shake it out until you are holding it over a garbage can or dumpster. If you just whip the tarps out and let the chips fly - you might as well not even use tarps! But a freshly painted house, with no chips of paint on the ground, and no paint on the bushes or flowers - THAT makes a job look professional!

Now put all that paint stuff away and take your wife out to dinner with the money you saved. I bet you get lucky.


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