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A ladder, a brush -- and a free afternoon

THE laws of house painting have a few things in common with the Ten Commandments: so simple, so evident, so hard to follow.

Manufacturers offer plenty of tips, but they often understate intangibles, such as the painter's "feel" and the mental toughness it takes to do things right. These are the things only a pro really knows. So I decided it was time for a consultation. Mark Havens, president of the National Alliance of Professional Painters, a trade group based in Colorado, offered tips on everything from equipment to brush techniques.

First, Havens noted that modern formulations of paint give the amateur advantages that didn't exist 20 years ago. It should be possible, he said, for anyone to get passable results by following a few painting commandments.

Unfortunately, just as I expected, there's still no escape from the hours of preparation — scraping, sanding and spackling — that has to be done before it's time to even open a can of paint.

For heavy sanding on woodwork, Havens recommends a palm sander. Its back-and-forth action breaks up hidden bubbles well enough, and it can be used with one hand. He sands the old coat even if it's still intact. The roughness gives more bite for the new paint.

For the more adept do-it-yourselfer, my weapon for beating the tedium of heavy-duty outdoor sanding is an angle grinder. I've found that No. 36 aluminum oxide grit on a fiber sanding wheel spinning at 11,000 rpm blasts old paint away like nothing else.

Granted, this method is not approved by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. It requires two hands and is recommended only for those comfortable with power tools.

A stickler for safety, Havens suggests the use of a disposable fabric dust mask for sanding. I could never tolerate the heat buildup inside these little white cups until I invested nearly $5 in one with two straps and an exhale valve.

Another important safety measure is testing for lead on any house built before 1980. Lead in paints manufactured before 1978 poses a serious health risk if inhaled or ingested, especially by children. Disposable test kits sell at paint stores for about $5. If the result is positive, it's time for a certified professional to remove it.

Once the preparation is done, it's time to face the plethora of paint superlatives. What's it going to be? "Premium Plus," "Evermore," "American Tradition" or "Master Choice?" And what about "wool shearling" versus "shed resistant" rollers or nylon/polyester versus black Chinese bristles?

For these choices, Havens has a fairly simple rule. Among the nationally marketed brands, most products come in grades that translate roughly into low, medium and high. If the names don't make it clear, the price will.

Havens said the grade was more important than the brand name. Professionals usually buy the best, whether it's paint, brushes or rollers. He said the paint lasted longer, while the brushes and rollers held more paint, spread it more easily and left a better finish

That means the mid-$20s for a flat interior latex (the payoff will be in higher washability) and $30 or more for an exterior enamel. Havens suggests rollers in the range of $8 to $10 with a nap of half an inch or less. (For homeowners, he recommends a wool and synthetic blend.)

If there's any place to skimp, he said, it's on brushes. A professional will pay $20 or more, expecting to get years of use. In the hands of the average homeowner, the lifespan may not justify that price. Havens suggests spending at least $12 for a 3-inch brush.

Whether the surface to be painted is fresh wood or old paint, a primer should be applied, Havens said. Where the old paint is flaking off, the primer should go on exposed wood and intact paint alike. It's formulated to penetrate both wood and paint, giving the new coat a better bedding surface.

Once the painting begins, method is everything.

Dip in the brush a quarter of the length of the bristles and tap it on both sides to prevent drips. (Scraping removes too much paint.) With enough paint on the brush or roller, there's no need to work the finish excessively hard. That's the cause of fatigue and brush marks. Paint a spot once and move on.

To refill a roller with paint, dip it three times, smoothing the paint on a grid each time. On woodwork, roll on a fairly thick layer quickly and brush lightly with the frizzy tip of a nylon brush to smooth the surface. Havens paints doors and frames first, walls next and baseboards last. A strip of 1-inch masking tape protects the baseboard during rolling.

Wet brushes go into baggies or cellophane when they are not going to be used for an hour or two.

One way to know how you're doing is by the amount of paint on your hands and clothes: "Most painters who have any time in the trade have very little paint on them at the end of the day," Havens said.

Professional skill may take years to acquire, but Havens suggests one trick that will instantly improve anyone's technique: Paint out of a 5-gallon plastic bucket, with a roller grid attached. This eliminates dripping cans and flimsy roller pans that can be kicked over.

Clean brushes and rollers immediately in soapy water and rinse. It's illegal to dump the cleanup water down a storm drain, but the toilet is OK. Solvents used to clean oil-base paints must go to a county hazardous waste center.

And the last commandment: Do not covet your neighbor's professional paint job. You did yours yourself. Be proud of it.

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Numerous variations of the basic steps can be found on manufacturers' websites. A good starting point is dmoz.org/Home/Home_Improvement/Painting/.

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