Wood is used extensively in every part of our homes — from roof trusses to skirting boards. Structural timber is usually left rough and unfinished, while joinery — windows, doors, staircases, architraves and so on — is usually decorated in some way. Wood has just one drawback; as a natural material it’s prone to deterioration and even decay unless it’s protected. Painting wood is one way of combining decoration and

Painting is the most popular way of decorating and protecting much of the wood in our homes. As with so many do-it-yourself jobs, getting a good finish depends on your skill. Here’s how to paint wood perfectly.

Protection, and the popularity of paint is a testimony to its effectiveness. Properly applied and well looked after, it gives wood a highly attractive appearance and also provides excellent protection against dampness, dirt, mould, insect attack, and general wear and tear.

Of course, paint isn’t the only finish you can choose for wood. If its colour and grain pattern are worth displaying, you can use./; – 1 – oils, stains or varnishes to enhance and protect it. But as most of the wood used in our houses is chosen more for performance and price rather than looks, bland and un-interesting softwoods are generally the order of the day for everything from windows and door frames to staircases, skirting boards and door architraves. And painting them offers a number of distinct advantages. Firstly, paint covers a multitude of sins — knots and other blemishes in the wood surface, poorly-made joints patched up with filler, dents and scratches caused by the rough and tumble of everyday life — and does it in almost every colour of the spectrum. Secondly, paint provides a surface that’s hard-wearing and easy to keep clean — an important point for many interior surfaces in the home. And thirdly, paint is easy to apply.. and to keep on applying. In fact, redecorating existing paintwork accounts for the greater part of all paint bought.

What woods can be painted?

In theory you can paint any wood under the sun. In practice, paint (solvent-based or emulsion, see is usually applied only to softwoods spruce (whitewood), European redwood (deal), pine and the like – and to man-made boards such as plywood, blockboard, hardboard and chipboard. Hardwoods and boards finished with hardwood veneers can be painted, but are usually given a clear or tinted finish to enhance their attractive colour and grain pattern.


Paints for wood can be:.

– solvent-based gloss (the ‘oil’ paints of the days before the advent of synthetic resins), which can be used indoors or outdoors.

– solvent-based satin (also called eggshell or silk), intended for indoor use.

Both are fairly slow-drying, have a strong smell and have to be cleaned from equipment with white spirit, paraffin (kerosene) or proprietary solvent.

– water-based satin and gloss (emulsions) don’t give a finish as hardwearing as that of a solvent-based paint but are quicker drying and have less smell. Clean equipment with hot or cold water and soap or washing-up liquid.

Non-drip paints (thixotropic or jelly paints, as they’re also known) are available in both solvent-based and emulsion forms.

Paint systems

If you’re decorating new wood, there’s more to it than putting on a coat of your chosen paint It would just soak in where the wood was porous and give a very uneven colour — certainly without the smooth gloss finish expected. It wouldn’t stick to the wood very well, nor would it form the continuous surface film needed for full protection. All in all, not very satisfactory. So what is needed is a paint system which consists of built-up layers, each one designed to serve a particular purpose.

The first in the system is a primer (sometimes called a primer/sealer) which stops the paint soaking into porous areas and provides a good key between the bare wood and the paint film. Next, you want another ‘layer’ — the undercoat — to help build up the paint film and at the same time to obliterate the colour of the primer, so that the top coat which you apply last of all is perfectly smooth and uniform in colour. With some paints – emulsions and non-drip glosses — an undercoat is not always used and instead several coats of primer or two top coats are applied with the same result.

The general rule to obey when choosing primer, undercoat and top coat is to stick with the same base types in one paint system, particularly out of doors and on surfaces subjected to heavy wear and tear (staircases and skirting boards, for example). On other indoor woodwork you can combine primers and top coats of different types.

If the wood you are painting has been treated with a preservative to prevent decay (likely only on exterior woodwork) an ordinary primer won’t take well. Instead use an aluminium wood primer — not to be confused with aluminium paint — which is recommended for use on all hardwoods too. Oily woods such as teak must be degreased with white spirit and allowed to dry before the primer is applied.

As far as man-made boards are concerned, chipboard is best primed with a solvent-based wood primer to seal its comparatively porous surface. Hardboard is even more porous, and here a stabilising primer (a product more usually used on absorbent or powdery masonry surfaces) is the best product to use. Plywood and blockboard should be primed as for softwood.




Large areas – in all cases coverage per litre depends on the wood’s porosity and the painter’s technique:

Wood primer 9-15 sq metres (95-160 sq ft)

Aluminium primer 16 sq metres (170 sq ft)

Primer/undercoat 11 sq metres (120 sq ft)

Undercoat 11 sq metres (120 sq ft)

Runny gloss or satin 17 sq metres (180sqft)

Non-drip gloss or satin 13 sq metres (140sqft)

Runny emulsions 15 sq metres (160 sq ft)

Non-drip emulsions 12 sq metres (130 sq ft)

Small areas – add up all the lengths of wood to be painted. One sq metre is equivalent to:

– 16m (52 ft) of glazing bars.

– 10-13m (33-43 ft) of window frame.

– 6m (20 ft) of sill.

– 10m (33 ft) of narrow skirting.

– 3-6m (10-20 ft) of deep skirting


The best brushes have a generous filling of long bristles and are an even, tapered shape. Cheaper brushes have short, thin bristles and big wooden filler strips to pack them out. The ideal sizes for wood are:.

– 25mm (1 in) or 50mm (2in) for panel doors, skirtings

– 50mm (2in) or 75mm (3in) for flush doors, skirting, large areas

– 25mm (1 in) cutting-in brush for window glazing bars

– 12mm (Vfein), 25mm (1 in) or cheap paintbox brush for spot priming, applying knotting Alternative to brushes

Paint pads are more widely used on walls than on woodwork, but the crevice or sash paint pad will do the same job as a cutting-in brush. It should be cleaned with white spirit or hot water and washing-up liquid (paint solvents might dissolve the adhesive between the mohair pile and foam).


Before using a new (or stored) brush work the bristles against the palm of your hand to remove dust and loose hairs. —I

There’s one other thing you need to know. If the wood you want to paint has knots in it you should brush a special sealer called knotting over them to stop the resin oozing up through the paint film and spoiling its looks. If the knots are ‘live’ — exuding sticky yellowish resin — use a blow-torch to draw out the resin and scrape it off before applying knotting.

Paint on paint

You’ll often want to paint wood that has already been painted. How you tackle this depends on the state of the existing paintwork. If it’s flaking off and is in generally poor condition, you will have to remove the entire paint system — primer, undercoat and top coat — by burning off with a blow-torch, applying a chemical paint stripper or rubbing with an abrasive. You then treat the stripped wood as already described for new wood.

Where the paintwork is in good condition, you simply have to clean it and sand it down lightly to provide a key for the new paint and to remove any small bits that got stuck in the surface when it was last painted. Then you can apply fresh top coat over the surface; the paint system is already there. You may, of course, need two top coats if you add a light colour to a dark one to stop the colour beneath from showing through.

If the paintwork is basically sound but needs localised attention, you can scrape or sand these damaged areas back to bare wood and ‘spot-treat’ them with primer and undercoat to bring the patch up to the level of the surrounding paintwork, ready for a final top coat over the entire surface.

Painting large areas

Though the same principle applies to wood as it does to any other large surface area — ie. You divide it into manageable sections and complete one before moving on to another — if you’re using an oil-based gloss paint you have to make sure that the completed area hasn’t dried to such an extent that you cannot blend in the new. On the rare occasion that you might want to paint a whole wall of wood you should make the section no wider than a couple of brush widths and work from ceiling to floor.

With emulsions there isn’t the same problem for although they are quick drying the nature of the paint is such that brush marks don’t show.

You might think that a wide brush is the best for a large area but the constant flexing action of the wrist in moving the brush up and down will tire you out fast. Holding a brush is an art in itself and aches are the first indication that you’re doing it wrongly. A thin brush should be held by the handle like a pencil, while a wider brush should be held with the fingers and thumb gripping the brush just above the bristles.

You’ll find a variety of paint brushes on sale — some are designed to be ‘throwaway’ (good if you only have one or two jobs to do), others will stand you in good stead for years. But remember before using a new brush to brush the bristles back and forth against the palm of your hand — this is called ‘flirting’ and will dislodge any dust or loose hairs that could spoil your paintwork.

It is wise to decant the paint to save you moving a heavy can from place to place — a paint kettle which resembles a small bucket is made for the purpose. Plastic ones are easier to keep clean than metal ones.

Never be tempted to dip the bristles too far into the paint and always scrape off excess from both sides. Paint has the habit of building up inside the brush and if this happens on overhead work, you risk it running down the handle and onto your arm.

Painting small areas

These tend to be the fiddly woodwork on windows, around doors and lengths of stairs or skirting boards — and the hardest bit about all of them is working out how much paint you’ll need which damages the bristles in the middle of the brush. With windows and panelled doors you should also follow an order of working to


Avoid causing overlap marks on the parts you’ve already painted.

Fiddly or not, they are the jobs you have to do first if you are putting up wallcoverings (if you’re painting a room, the walls should be done before the woodwork) so that the drops can be placed against finished edges. If you want to touch up the paint without changing the wallpaper, it’s best to use a paint shield.

Getting ready to paint

Ideally, before painting doors and windows you should remove all the ‘furniture’ — handles, fingerplates, keyholes, hooks etc — so you can move the brush freely without interruption. You should also take time to read the manufacturer’s instructions on the can. If, for example, they tell you to stir the paint, then stir it for this is the only way of distributing the particles which have settled.

If you open a can of non-drip paint and find a layer of solvent on the top, you should stir it in, then leave it to become jelly-like again before painting.

All your brushes should be dry — this is something to remember if you are painting over several days and have put them to soak overnight in white spirit or a proprietary brush cleaner. If you don’t get rid of all the traces of the liquid it will mess up your paint- work. They should be rinsed, then brushed on newspaper till the strokes leave no sign.

Cleaning up

When you’ve finished painting clean your brushes thoroughly, concentrating on the roots where paint accumulates and will harden. They should be hung up, bristles down, till dry, then wrapped in aluminium foil for storage. Don’t ever store them damp for they can be ruined by mildew.

If there’s only a small amount of paint left, you can either decant it for storage into a dark glass screw-topped jar so you can use it to touch up damaged spots — it’s important to choose a suitable sized jar so there’s very little air space. Air and dust are both potential paint spoilers and there are two ways to keep them out if you’re storing the can. Either put a circle of aluminium foil over the paint surface before putting the lid on securely, or — and this is the best way if the lid is distorted — put o’n the lid and then invert the can to spread the paint round the inner rim to form an airtight seal. Set it back the right way for storage.

If despite these safeguards a skin forms on the paint (usually over months of storage) you have to cut round the edge of it with a sharp knife and carefully lift it off.


Primers can be solvent- or water-based. Outdoors, use the former (plus a solvent-based undercoat); indoors, you can use either, but water-based primer dries more quickly. If in any doubt as to which primer goes with which undercoat, consult your local supplier. Other primers include:.

– stabilising primer, for hardboard which is very porous

– aluminium wood primer, for wood that’s been treated with a preservative, and for hardwoods.


Paint that has been stored badly can become bitty, and should be strained into a paint kettle before use. Secure nylon stocking over the kettle rim with string or an elastic band, and pour the paint through into the kettle.


To ensure the long life of brushes:


Store brushes when dry wrapped in aluminium foil held in place with elastic bands. Don’t distort the bristles.

– remove excess paint from the bristles with the back of a knife

– wash out solvent-based paint in white spirit followed by soapy, then clean water – the soap restores flexibility and softens the brush

– wash out non-drip paint in a hot water/ washing-up liquid solution then rinse in clean cold water

– hang up brushes, bristles down, to dry (drill a hole in the handle to take a nail)

– at the end of a job a build-up of paint can be difficult to remove; soak the brush in a proprietary brush cleaner

– if leaving brushes overnight before continuing a paint job, suspend them in a jam-jar containing white spirit (drill a hole near the ferrule to take a nail) but remove all traces of spirit next day

Paint on Wood

Choosing the right colours for a room isn’t easy – especially when you have existing fabrics, carpets and furniture to consider. So it’s often better to start with those, choosing colours for walls and woodwork that have similar tones – or, if you want to pick out particular features, ones which make good contrasts.

Although starting from scratch may seem easier, in practice it can be even more daunting. Colour is so much a matter of taste that the only golden rule is to avoid colours that clash – remembering, however, that too many contrasts in a room won’t make for a peaceful setting. Nevertheless, picking out small details like a picture rail, or the beading on a panelled door, needs some contrast of colours to be effective.

Most paint manufacturers’ charts group colours in ranges based on a limited number of main colours. For example, there might be several varieties of red, plus a number of different shades or tones of red – and the same for blues, yellows and greens. From this you’ll see how well a bright green, for example, can be set off by a pale green. If you wanted to make a feature of a staircase without introducing more than one basic colour, you might decide on a rich green for the woodwork, with pale green for the walls, and white for the skirting board to provide a clean dividing line between walls and floor.

To emphasise interesting pieces of furniture, brightly patterned fabrics or even a richly coloured door or window, it’s usually advisable to choose pale tones as a background, since they help to set off stronger colours. Even so, don’t feel restricted by the normal use of plain white for woodwork in window frames, architraves, skirting boards and so on. These can create more interest in a room if they’re painted in a slightly darker or richer tone, or even a strongly contrasting colour.

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