Top coat: the expert guide to painting your house perfectly – from walls to floors to radiators

Tim Dowling
Photograph: sturti/Getty Images

Over the course of the past year you may have given idle thought to repainting all or part of your home. In lockdown, you might have decided now is the time. If so, you are not alone: paint companies are still delivering and sales are brisk. But is this really the time to embark on such a project? And can you make a success of it, even if you have never done it before? We asked the experts the best way to go about it.

Before you start

The good news is, you can save a lot of money by painting your own home, because labour accounts for the majority of decorating costs. The bad news is, there’s a reason painters are expensive. Painting is difficult.

The biggest mistake first-timers make is thinking too big, according to Joa Studholme, author of How to Decorate and colour curator for the paint company Farrow & Ball. “My main piece of advice is to start small,” she says. “If you have a small hall, that can be a good place to start. There you can indulge your fantasies of doing something quite strong and bold, which might be something you’re feeling you want to do right now, but then you don’t have to look at it all day.”

Painting a whole room will certainly keep you busy, but if you are new to it, you probably won’t find it terribly therapeutic. “I do it where I think: ‘Oh, I’m gonna paint this, and it’s gonna be really soothing,’” says Studholme, “And, actually, painting is stressful. Smaller things are much better to do.” For beginners, she suggests starting with your front door, or the legs of a table. “Paint the inside of a cupboard in a jolly colour and that will make you smile every time you open it,” she says. When you have some idea of what it entails, you can move on to a room.

Choosing colours

Lockdown may seem like fertile ground for ill-advised decisions, but Edward Bulmer, an interior designer and head of the Edward Bulmer Natural Paint company, says there may never be a better time to pick colours. “If you think about it, it’s not often that we can contemplate our rooms at all times of day,” he says, “and in varying weathers, and probably with full-on use, if you’ve got your family around.”

You can still order sample pots from many companies, including Bulmer’s and Farrow & Ball (delivery times may be a bit longer, but none of us is going anywhere). Instead of applying it to the wall, paint a generous piece of card – A5 or larger – or a bit of old wallpaper. “Then place it against the wall round the room and look at it in different lights,” says Studholme. “You might feel like a right idiot doing it, but that’s the best way to gauge how it’s going to look.”

If you don’t know where to begin, try being led by the colours of other surfaces in the room: floors, worktops, tiles, any large bits of furniture. “Some decision that’s already out of your hands,” says Bulmer. Work with what you’ve got.

Tools and supplies

At the minimum you will need a scraper, masking tape, some sandpaper, filler, ample dust sheets, a decent brush or two, and a roller and tray. “We advise a medium pile roller, not a foam roller,” says Bulmer. “It will help the paint lay a bit more like it would with a brush.” As for paint, the amount you need varies depending on the type, but five litres of emulsion will cover around 60 square metres. Emulsion is for walls and ceilings; eggshell for woodwork. Cheap paint is probably a false economy, because it won’t go as far. “One of the expensive ingredients in paint is titanium dioxide, the basic white pigment,” says Bulmer. “Normally, to make a paint cheaper you use less of that, so you’ll have less coverage.”

Getting ready

“Preparation is everything,” says Studholme. Professional painters spend far longer prepping a room than they do painting it. Push all the furniture into the middle of the room and cover it with dust sheets. Scrape away any loose old paint. Fill cracks and nail holes, and sand flat. Sand to create a key (an adhesive surface) for the new paint. Mask the edges of carpet. Apply primer to your walls, and don’t worry too much what it looks like; it’s just there to provide a stable painting surface.

If painting a ceiling, start by painting the edges and other tricky bits. Photograph: Cultura Creative (RF)/Alamy

The ceiling

If you are doing the ceiling, that should be done first; you can get up there with either a ladder or a roller on a pole. Beforehand, paint round the edges where the ceiling meets the wall or any architectural features, using a small brush. You can mask the edges with tape if you are unsure of yourself. Then roll. Expect to come away heavily speckled.

The walls

Start by “cutting in” the top edge where the wall meets the ceiling, carefully, with a brush, by eye. Do the same along any woodwork edges (you can be a bit less precise here, because you are painting the woodwork later). If this part sounds daunting, Studholme has a simple solution that also happens to be fashionable: paint everything – walls, ceilings, woodwork – the same colour. “It’s so much easier for home decorating and it makes the room look bigger,” she says. It’s by no means a radical idea. “There’s historic precedent for it. Georgian rooms were often painted in one colour.”

When it comes to rolling your walls, the main advice is to keep going. “That’s the single pitfall, really,” says Bulmer. “Modern emulsion is lovely and quick-drying, but it also means that what you have to do is start, and carry on. Not start, stop, take a phone call and have a cup of coffee.” A stop-start approach yields a streaky finish. Paint a single coat in one go, and let it dry overnight. Two coats should be sufficient in most cases.

Woodwork

This is where real care is required: painting windows, door frames and skirting boards with nice straight edges and without getting any drips or splatters on your freshly painted walls. Not once but three times, because you will need primer plus two top coats. It’s fiddly, but there is still an opportunity for some creativity here. “One trick is to paint the spindles of your stair balustrade dark,” says Studholme. “That’s quite laborious, but it’s quite a fun thing to do, and it makes a huge difference. It creates this satisfying dark core, a backbone through your house.”

Floors

“I love a painted floor,” says Studholme. “The rule with painted floors is that they always look much lighter than you expect. Nobody realises how much light bounces on to a floor. If you paint a floor light, it will bounce light all round your room.” It’s also just about the cheapest way to cover a floor there is.

You will need a robust, hard-wearing paint. There are specialist floor paints, and some experts even recommend boat paint. It is a big undertaking – you need to completely empty the room – but is not that technically challenging. “Painting floors is easy,” says Studholme. “Gravity helps. Having said that, you do need to let them cure for a few days before you walk on them.” If you are stuck in two rooms during the lockdown, now might not be the time to restrict yourself to one. You also need to think about what part of the room you are going to end up in when you finish, or you might literally paint yourself into a corner.

Radiators

The factory finish of a modern radiator does not need to be painted but if it is obtrusive, you might want to hide it. In that case, a light sanding and an oil undercoat, followed by “the eggshell version of the wall” should suffice, says Bulmer. There is such a thing as radiator paint, but it might not come in the colour you need. The radiator should be cold when you paint it and will need to remain off for 24 hours afterwards, so the weather forecast might be a consideration.

Finishing up

Once you have completed the project, Studholme suggests you make a record of all the colours and finishes you have used in case you need to repaint any bits later. Store leftover paint in a cool, dry, frost-free place, ready for touching-up or any other little projects. “Last night, I got on a ladder and painted a square round the mirror above our fireplace,” she says. “I thought it might be nice to have a little bit of colour there. It took me probably eight minutes to do it, and I can paint it out again tomorrow if I don’t like it.”