How to Paint Walls Using Paint Brushes

painting with a 2" paint brush

 The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 3 - 4 hrs
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 days
  • Yield: 10 x 12-foot room (352 sq. ft. of wall)
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $80 to $150

The standard method for painting residential walls is usually to "cut in" around baseboards and wood trim with a small paint brush, then paint the "field" of the walls using a paint roller. But there are instances where painting the entire wall surface with a brush is the better strategy.

For example, paint rollers may be awkward to use on small wall areas, such as above countertops or in areas with lots of trim moldings. Walls with lots of obstacles can be tricky to paint with a roller. Or, you may simply prefer the look offered by brushed-on paint better than the texture created by a paint roller.

Tip

Though painting by brush is considerably slower than applying paint with a roller, even some professional painters choose to paint entire walls using only a paintbrush. The faint texture marks created by the paintbrush create a custom look that is much desired. Some very skilled painters don't even smooth out the paint, but instead brush it onto the wall with many small diagonal strokes applied at different angles to create an appealing texture that diffuses reflected light in a way that's not possible with a rolled-on surface.

Before You Begin

Painting a wall with brushes requires the same type of paint as used for rolling. Wall paints generally have a relatively flat sheen, though in kitchens and bathrooms, a higher gloss is sometimes better, since these surfaces may need to be regularly scrubbed. Be aware that brush marks will show up more readily in higher gloss paints.

If you are painting an entire wall by brush, you will need at least two different brushes: a 2-inch angled brush is best for cutting in around windows, doors, and baseboards; and a 3- or 4-inch straight-edged brush is best for distributing paint across the field of a wall and smoothing it out. A 4-inch brush can tire the arm after an hour or more, so the smaller 3-inch brush may be a better choice for many people.

Water-based (latex) paints are by far the most popular type for indoor painting, but you can still purchase oil-based (alkyd) paints, as well. Latex paints are best applied with nylon, polyester, or nylon/polyester blend brushes. Many synthetic brushes can also be used with oil-based paints, though the results may be better if you use natural-bristle brushes made with animal hair (usually pig bristles).

It's possible to lug around a full gallon of paint by its wire or plastic handle, but your arms will thank you if you instead buy a small paint pail with a convenient side handle, which can be reloaded whenever you need. The pail is small enough to hold a comfortable amount of paint and disposable liners are available to simplify cleanup. A magnet built into the side of the pail will grip the metal ferrules on paintbrushes so you can pause to take a break from your work without having to clean up or lay down your brush.

Some professionals swear that applying a coat of primer to new drywall is essential before painting. But many paints are considered to be self-priming, and DIYers often choose to omit the primer coat entirely. Priming is usually not necessary when you are painting over an existing coat of paint. There are some conditions where it makes sense to apply a primer:

  • If the previous coat of paint was a high-gloss surface
  • If the previous surface had stains (use a special sealing primer)
  • If the surface is especially porous, such as unfinished drywall

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Stepladder
  • 2-inch angled trim brush
  • 3- or 4-inch straight wall brush
  • Sponge and bucket
  • Cloths
  • Small paint bucket with handle

Materials

  • Drop cloths or plastic sheeting
  • Painter's tape (if desired)
  • Wall primer (if needed)
  • Wall paint

Instructions

1:54

Watch Now: Proper Paint Brush Technique for Painting Walls

  1. Protect Surfaces

    Painting carefully with a brush is generally a neater operation than painting with a roller, which can easily throw small droplets of paint every which way. But it's still important to cover vulnerable surfaces with drop cloths or sheets of plastic to guard against accidental spills.

    The use of painter's tape to mask off wood moldings or other areas is a debatable practice. Professionals and experienced DIYers are often skilled enough to cut around moldings with a trim brush so precisely and neatly that painter's tape is unnecessary. For these people, painter's tape seems worse than unnecessary—it makes the job longer and messier than painting freehand.

    Other people, though, swear by painter's tape and would never paint without it. If you choose to mask off woodwork or other edges with painter's tape, make sure to apply it so it bonds smoothly, without any gaps that could allow the paint to seep beneath it. And painter's tape should not be allowed to sit until the paint fully dries, when it can become difficult to remove. If you remove the tape while the paint is still quite damp, be very careful, as it is quite easy to create an enormous mess by brushing paint-covered tape against other surfaces.

  2. Clean the Walls

    Walls that are clearly dirty should be cleaned with a cleanser mixed with water, then rinsed by wiping them down with a sponge moistened with clear water. Even relatively clean walls should be wiped down with clean cloths to remove any dust before painting.

  3. Cut in Around Trim

    Weather you are applying a preliminary coat of primer or going directly to the paint coat, the first step is to use a small angled trim brush to apply a narrow band around all moldings and other obstacles.

    Dip the brush directly into the paint up to 1/3 of the length of the bristles. This stops the brush from being overloaded with paint and prevents dripping. Tap both sides of the brush lightly against the side of the can or pail. This loads the paint more on the interior of the brush.

    Do not scrape the paint off the brush by dragging it across the edge of the bucket. That just removes the paint, compresses the bristles, and makes the brush ineffective.

    If you are right-handed, cut in the wall at the ceiling corners from left to right. If you are left-handed, paint from right to left. This will give you visual control over how well the paint is flowing. When cutting in along vertical window or door casings, work from top to bottom.

    Holding the brush as you would grip a pencil, press the brush against the wall just enough to flex the bristles, and use the narrow edge of the paintbrush to distribute paint onto the wall. The best cutting-in motion is a series of overlapping strokes, gradually moving along the edge you're painting. 

    Convention has it that if the cut-in corner has two colors (wall/ceiling for example), then you first paint the lighter color, allowing it to slightly extend into the adjoining color area. Then you will cut the darker color over the top of the lighter color. This method ensures that you don't have to worry about the darker color showing through the lighter. 

  4. Distribute Paint in the Field

    After cutting in along ceilings, baseboards, and other trim, begin applying paint to the "field" of the wall, beginning at one corner near the ceiling. As with the trim brush, load your straight wall brush in the same way: dip it into the paint to about 1/3 of the bristle length, tap the brush on the side of the paint pail, and do not scrape the brush against the pail.

    Holding the paintbrush at about a 45-degree angle, apply paint to a small section of the wall using several diagonal strokes. Again, press the brush against the wall just enough to flex the bristles. It's okay if the paint goes on a little heavy here.

    Immediately, distribute the paint on the flat area with horizontal strokes of the paintbrush, working from top to bottom.

  5. Smooth the Wet Paint

    Once the paint is applied and distributed on a section of the wall, the next step is to smooth it out. This part is all finesse. Simply draw the brush lightly and across in long smooth strokes to even out the painted surface and eliminate brush strokes going in different directions. The rule here is ​"always paint to a wet edge"—this means to never allow the paint to dry completely as you stroke over it with a freshly loaded brush. Doing so will leave you with visible lap marks. 

    At the end of each stroke, lift the paintbrush from the surface. This action serves to slightly "feather" the paint stroke.

    Tip

    The quickest and easiest way to store a paintbrush when you'll be back to it within a few hours or even a few days is not to clean it at all. Simply take plastic wrap and tightly wrap the brush bristles. Be careful not to misshape the bristles when wrapping. A quality paintbrush is a precision tool that can last for years with proper cleaning and care

  6. Allow the Paint to Dry

    Follow the manufacturer's label directions for drying time before applying a second coat of paint. Drying times can vary depending on the humidity levels in your area. Running a dehumidifier can speed drying times somewhat, but it's best not to use fans or run the HVAC system, since this often blows dust onto wet surfaces.

  7. Apply a Second Coat (Where Needed)

    Despite what manufacturers sometimes promise, most paints will require a second coat to fully color the wall without any bleed-through of the old paint color. The exception is if the previous coat of paint was quite close in color to the new paint. Applying a second coat is also a recommended way to use up excess paint, eliminating the environmental hazards of disposal.

    Use the same techniques for the second coat as for the first—begin by cutting in around ceilings, baseboards, and wood trim, then painting the field.

  8. Complete the Cleanup

    Clean your brushes thoroughly with soap and water, then hang them straight up so they can dry in their natural shape.

    You can remove painter's tape (if you used it) and drop clothes while the paint is still drying.