What Determines a Good Paint Job?


We have gotten wildly different quotes for paint jobs for our living room. What should we be looking for when it comes to paint jobs -- and why should painting contractors differ so much in their quotes for the same room? (Marcie from Mobile, AL)



Marcie, it's a great question. Generally with design industry standards, the more preparation involved before the painting starts, the better and more expensive your paint job. It's hard to stress this enough. When you look at poorly prepared walls and trim and better prepared walls and trim, it's like comparing polyester to silk or stainless steel to sterling silver.

When you get close to a freshly painted wall, it's easy to immediately grasp the texture of the wall and the quality of the paint job. It really pays to have beautifully sanded walls and trim before a spot of paint goes on your walls. This careful preparation really enhances the finished product.

There are definitely different levels of painting and the painting skills of workers. The New York design crowd usually refers to an A level or a AAA paint job. This is Top of the Line painting, employing very professional crews, a lot of wall and trim prep before the paint is applied, and a very careful paint job.

Then there is the "shmear" or dab-on paint job that's done by a handyman or a day laborer to give a wall three coats of paint and pronounce the job "done." In an apartment, this is often accomplished "on the cheap" when tenants move out and you freshen up the place before the new tenants move in. We sometimes call the paint job "landlord issue" when white paint has been freshly but amateurishly applied to the walls of an apartment or new home.

This type of paint job costs much less, but you get less for it in return. The walls and trim have not been properly prepped and sanded. Holes have not been filled and smoothed over. And certainly the walls have not been skim coated, which gives them such a beautiful finish.

Skim coating is a great way to make walls uniform in a room, particularly when you're mixing new drywall surfaces with existing, older walls. In skim coating, you take a fine plaster compound and you actually plaster the walls. The skim-coated wall surface feels cooler to the touch than sheetrock and it's smoother than bare sheetrock. It gets sanded between coats. It's very dusty to do this, but once the dust settles and the room is cleaned up, the paint is beautiful when applied. Don't forget that sheetrock has a texture to it, let's say like a very fine orange peel texture, but when you join two boards of sheetrock together, you spackle it with joint compound. If you paint over these new walls with shiny paint, the spackled joints are smoother and they will be more reflective and shinier than the rest of the wall. Skim coating just makes the entire wall surface smoother and more uniform.

Using shiny paint enhances any imperfection, so if your walls aren't skim coated and are full of imperfections, these will stand out. If you skim coat, you can use an eggshell shiny-finish paint without hesitation and give your walls a beautiful, lustrous sheen that you normally wouldn't be able to get away with. It's a very rich look and feel. You know that you can touch the walls and they won't feel chalky to the touch as flat paint might feel.

Sometimes the best painters use paint with carefully prepared additives. Oil-based paint is usually more beautiful and lustrous on a wall compared with water-based paint, but there are many instances were oil-based paint is banned or being phased out (the smell of this type of paint is overpowering and unhealthy). The slower drying the paint, the more the edges where you've painted tend to blend in and "emulsify," and this is the big advantage of oil-based paint. The little peaks and valleys are less extreme with oil-based paints that take a longer time to dry. Floetrol is an additive that can be added to water-based paint, and this helps the paint dry slower and the brushmarks to blend in better. It helps mimic the quality finish you get with oil-based paint. Hopefully your painter will use the best possible paints available as well as the best additives. Having low VOC levels to all paints and additives would be a big, healthy plus, too.

So back to the AAA quality paint job -- all the walls and the ceilings would be skim coated before paint is applied. Many painters will even hold a light bulb up against the wall to see if any shadows are cast; those areas with imperfections get spackled and respackled and sanded between coats until the wall finish is completely uniform.

The AAA paint crew is usually more professional and they do a slower job than other painters providing lower cost estimates. They're more patient and are NOT speeding up the job because they have a flat rate that they feel forces them to finish up quickly and pack up and leave for fear of losing money. This is similar to fine carving, embroidery, or other craftsmanship that you wouldn't want to see rushed to compromise the highest quality standards and details. The more hours and labor in a paint job, the finer the end result will be.

Marcie, the difference between a good paint job and a not-so-good one can be triple, 5 times, or even 10 times the cost. The variance can be absolutely enormous. The AAA paint job for one living room could be as high as $10,000. Compare that to about $600 for the "shmear" job (like quickly spreading a pat of butter on a roll). At the end of the day, they're both paint jobs. But a pair of Prada shoes and shoes from Payless invite the same comparison -- they're both pairs of shoes, but there is a quality difference that may or may not be important to you. If budget is your key consideration, go with your lowest paint job bid. If quality is your primary goal, see what level of preparation and paint service you'll be provided before making a decision.

Jay JohnsonComment