Painting a room on the cheap

Painting a room on the cheap is not as easy as the Home Depot thinks.

It seems like every other home store commercial features a young couple completing an ambitious painting project.  They fold their arms, regard their freshly painted room with pride, and nonchalantly toss their spotless tools into an equally spotless bucket.  What will they do with the rest of their Saturday? Play with a puppy? These ads work because we are attracted to the instant gratification and the relative harmlessness of painting a room on the cheap. (You can neither flood your house nor burn it down – usually).

Anyone who has attempted painting a room on the cheap knows that it is not so easy.  It does not go quickly.  It is physically demanding and requires uncomfortable positions. You can damage your home – especially floors and moving parts like doors and windows, and poor adhesion can ruin a surface for future painting.

Nevertheless, you can successfully paint a room on the cheap.  I am too cheap to pay someone to paint rooms for me.  After several renovations, I can give you some painting tips to help you get professional results, but it will never be as easy as the home store would have you believe.

Tips for painting a room on the cheap

Prepping the room for painting a room on the cheap.

Do not even think about painting until you have carefully prepped the room. Good preparation will make the job easier and give better results.

  1. Think about the surfaces you are painting.  Are you painting over new drywall, raw wood, joint compound, or masonry (brick, stone, etc.)?  Is the surface stable enough to paint over or is it flaking and crumbling? If you are painting over paint, is the paint latex, oil, or even lead-based?  These issues will determine the methods and materials you need to use.
  2. Be safe.  Prepping can harm your eyes, nervous system, and lungs.  Use a lead test kit if you think some surfaces may contain lead-based paint.  Wear a respirator when scraping or sanding.  Wear eye protection, as a single paint chip can permanently damage an eye.  If you are using a an electric sander, wear ear protection.
  3. High spots and problem areas. Knock off any loose paint.  Cut off or smash down high spots on the walls or ceiling.  You may have to do some damage (like removing large chunks of plaster) to completely fix problem areas, and that is OK.  It is easy to repair voids.
  4. Prime problem areas to be filled.  If you are using joint compound to fill crumbly voids, hit them with primer first; it will glue the crumbly stuff together and allow the joint compound to adhere.
  5. Fill the voids.  Use joint compound to fix all of the low, damaged areas.  If you still have some high spots or ridges, feather them out (build up the edges for a less noticeable transition) with joint compound and a wide drywall knife (10+ inches wide).
  6. Sand the repairs and all glossy surfaces lightly with 220 grit paper.  Glossy surfaces can lead to poor adhesion, but the scratches made by the sanding gives the new paint a way to grab.
  7. Buy the right primers and paints.  There are two basic types of paint: oil-based and water-based (latex).  They are not compatible for re-coating. Do not apply oil-based paint on water-based (latex) paint. You can paint latex paint over oil-based paint if you prime correctly.  Read the cans before you buy.  The cans will tell you if you can use the product directly on oil-based paint, metal, raw wood, masonry, etc.  I often use Bulls Eye 1-2-3 primer as it works on everything

Be safe! Remember that disturbing old surfaces can release harmful particles.  Keep yourself and your family safe.

Plan for one coat of primer and two coats of paint.

The home store is overrun with more expensive “paint and primer in one” options that supposedly cover in one coat.  Avoid these products when painting a room on the cheap.  You have to go way to the back of the aisle (by design) to find the less expensive paint used by people who know how to paint properly.

the paint aisle

Primer is more like glue than paint.  It sticks to glossy, dirty surfaces so that paint can stick to it, but it covers poorly.  Try to avoid leaving heavy brush strokes as primer will dry quickly and leave visible ridges (use a good brush that minimizes bristle marks). It can start covering up the color and stains you are painting over, so pick a white primer when prepping for lighter colors or a dark-tinted primer for rich colors.

Even if you have a “one coat” paint, do two coats. You will never have a perfect first coat; the second coat will help.  Two light coats will always look better than one thick coat.

Why not a third coat of paint? Three coats of paint starts to magnify problems with build-up, errant bristles, debris landing in the finish, etc.

Paint the room in the proper order: ceiling, trim, and then walls.

This is key to making your painting a room on the cheap easier.  Whenever possible, paint the ceiling first, then the trim, and then the walls.  This way you can be messy with the ceiling paint (overlapping a bit to the adjacent surface instead of carefully cutting in) and a bit messy with the trim paint.  Do the walls last, and carefully cut in (painting carefully around edges with a detail brush) around the ceiling and trim.  If you are carefully cutting in on all three phases, your life will be miserable.

Use the proper paint finish types: flat, semi-gloss, and eggshell.

There are different finishes for reasons beyond aesthetics.

Ceiling paint is extra flat (no shine) to hide imperfections on such a large visible plane. Ceiling paint is very cheap, so I recommend it. Flat paint offers good adhesion for touch-ups down the road.  It may be “on trend” to paint ceilings in bold or shiny paints, but I don’t recommend it.  The cool, almost gray hue of flat ceiling paint hides imperfections from the dry-walling or plastering.  Furthermore, if you slop ceiling paint on to the walls during the early stages, you will have not trouble painting over it with the wall paint.

cutting in around ceiling

Semi-gloss paint makes the trim and baseboards “pop.” It holds up to abuse (I’m looking at you, Roomba), and can be cleaned easily.  The tops of baseboards, casings, etc. always collect dust and grime, so you want something that can take some scrubbing.  You could use an even shiner and more durable gloss or high-gloss paint on the trim, but the higher the sheen, the more it will show imperfections.

For best results, apply trim paint by using a brush and following the direction of the wood grain. When the brush strokes do not follow the grain of the wood, it looks odd.

Watch out for doors and windows in older homes because excessive paint build-up can bind movement.  Look at the door edges and/or window sashes before painting and determine if the paint build-up is going to be a problem.  You may need to sand, plane, (or avoid painting) moving surfaces that are too close together. You do not want to finish painting a realize that something has to be fixed and painted again.

PRO TIP: You can give the appearance that any surface is painted wood.  For example, take a look a the reveal around my windows.  It is drywall underneath, but I used semi-gloss trim paint and a bristle brush to give the appearance that the windows are surrounded by wood.  This technique works well in making MDF trim, faux-wainscoting, etc. look like painted wood.

making drywall look like wood

Eggshell finish is perfect for walls that do not suffer under excessive abuse or moisture. Eggshell is toward the middle of the luster spectrum, but it is a bit more forgiving (roller marks do not show as much) than a satin finish. Eggshell paint looks sharp when applied with a roller.

Blue tape is for chumps.

There are very few instances where using painters’ tape will give you better results when painting a room on the cheap. Spraying paint or creating complicated patterns are the exceptions.  Most of the time, the paint will sneak behind the tape anyway.  Learn how to cut-in in properly and stop wasting time and money messing with blue tape.

PRO TIP: If you are painting around windows, slopping a bit of paint on the glass won’t matter.  (This does not apply to Plexiglas). It easy to scrape it off later with a razor blade (primer is a bit harder to scrape off).  Clamp a fresh razor blade into a pair of vise-grips and you have a comfortable, effective tool for removing paint from glass.

scraping paint off glass

Make yourself comfortable when painting.

I hate painting because it is often uncomfortable.  I always end up crawling around on the floor with aching wrists or trying to squeeze my fat behind into awkward corners.  Under these conditions it is tempting to do a crumby job just to get it over with. Make sure you have a good platform to stand on, comfortable shoes, a comfortable vessel for loading your paintbrush, and maybe even a set of knee pads.  I found the the painting cup shown below at the dollar store, and it was worth every penny. (12)

PRO TIP: If you don’t need knee pads very often, fold up some washcloths and duct tape them over your jeans.  I find this to be more comfortable than real knee pads.  If you do this with shorts on you will achieve a smooth finish (on your legs).

Learn to cut in like a pro.

“Cutting in” is not when you see an attractive person painting and offer to help. “Cutting in” is using a detail brush to paint around the edges that you know you will not get with the roller.

Cut in first so that you are rolling over some of your brush marks.

Buy a small (1.5 – 2.5 inch), angled brush that you can push, slide, and cajole into corners. Don’t be cheap on this brush. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)

Be patient when cutting-in.  Don’t apply paint directly into the corner; you will go past the corner or put in too much paint.  Lay the paint on close to the corner (but not in the corner) and massage it in as you “lay off” (evening out and thinning the layer) with second pass.  “Swoop” the tips of the bristles into the corner where you want it to be and move it slowly down the line as you slide the paint (that you left on with the previous stroke) to the edge.

laying on paint to cut in
Apply the paint away from the corner with the first stroke. (14)
“Swoop” toward the edge with the second pass. At the proper angle, the bristles will find the corner and slide the paint into place.
painting an irregular edge
When held at an angle, the bristles can follow an irregular edge.

painting a corner

Use the tip of the brush to finesse the paint into corners.  Try different angles and don’t worry if you don’t get it all the way in to the corner on the first coat.  It is easier to be patient than to clean up a mishap in a corner.

Now you are rolling.

Don’t bother with pumping rollers or other gimmicks when painting a room on the cheap.  A cheap roller and extension handle will cover quickly and effectively. You can often use a broom or mop handle that you already have to screw on to your roller.  The extended handle makes the job much more efficient and comfortable.

Clean the lint off a new roller so that particles do not end up in the finish.  Rub your hands from the center of the roller to the ends and remove the fibers that collect. (16)

Use a kitchen-size garbage bag to cover your tray so that you won’t have to clean up every time.  It is a bit wasteful, but it reduces effort and reduces the amount of paint going down the drain when cleaning trays.

Cover the tray, tie a knot in the bag, and rip a hole in the underside so the bag will lay flat.  The wrinkles from the bag will not matter. When your painting session is finished, collect the excess paint, remove the bag carefully, and drop the bag in the garbage.

bagged paint tray

use a bag for paint rolling

Getting great results with a paint roller

A poor job with a roller results in poor coverage or nasty little ridges from the ends of the roller.  Use proper technique to avoid these issues.

Using a paint roller requires the same method as cutting in; lay on the paint and then go back to spread it out evenly.  Don’t roll near the edge of your selected area with your initial application, it will be harder to even out.  A roughly 4′ x 4′ area is appropriate for the amount of paint held by most rollers. Always move the roller in the direction of the roller’s metal bar.  The lighter pressure on the opposite side is less likely to leave paint ridges.

applying paint with a roller
This is the first pass where I am “laying on” the paint.  Note that I am going from left to right here so that the bar side is leading the way.
spreading out paint with a roller
Then re-roll the area to spread the paint out evenly and reach the edges.
using a paint roller with handle
Roll toward the side with more pressure (bar side).  Advance two or three inches at a time so every inch gets a couple of passes.
rolling paint near the edge
When you reach an edge, reverse the head of the roller so the lighter pressure is facing the edge.
debris in paint finish
Watch for debris landing in the finish.  Take a moment to pluck out little nasties and re-roll the spot, but don’t obsess.

PRO TIP:  Use a longer handle to make your job easier, but don’t buy one.  Most mop handles, broom handles, etc. are threaded the same way.

Keep a bucket of clean(ish) water on hand.

This will allows you to fix mistakes immediately and care for your painting tools. The larger it is the longer you can go before refreshing it.  Keep a large sponge and a small sponge in the bucket so that you can wipe off mistakes immediately with slow, heavy pressure.  Only wipe mistakes with a clean part of the sponge. Dunk brushes, rollers, cups, etc. immediately after use so that they won’t dry before you can clean them thoroughly.

Take care of your painting tools or pay more later.

Clean roller handles after each use so that paint doesn’t build up on the moving parts. I don’t clean and save rolls; I have tried, but I can never get them clean enough to re-use. I store the one I am using in a bag when between coats.

storing paint roller in a bag
You can extend the life of the roller by sealing it in plastic between coats. Some people even put the bagged roller in the refrigerator to slow drying.

Dunk brushes in your water bucket after cutting in and go straight to rolling so that you can have a “wet edge” and minimize brush marks and problems caused by finishing a coat on top of semi-dry paint.

Clean the submerged brushes after you have finished the coat with the roller using hot water. Quality brushes are not cheap.  When you wash brushes, squeeze and massage the bristles, but don’t damage them by bending them too much or scraping them. Allow brushes to drip dry in their appropriate shape.

paint brushes dripping dry
Allow brushes to drip dry in their ideal shape.

PRO TIP: Remember that primer is like glue.  It will adhere faster and stronger to your tools.

Painting a room on the cheap conclusion.


  • Attack problem areas
  • Buy the right materials
  • Repair and prep. problem areas
  • Prep the entire surface
  • Learn to roll paint and cut-in properly
  • Paint in order (ceiling, trim, and walls)

That’s it!  Painting a room on the cheap is not fun, but you can get results that will please you.  It won’t be perfect, but professional results are never perfect either.  Only you will see the imperfections.  I wish you the best in painting a room on the cheap.

painting a room on the cheap (27)

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