Should You Paint Walls Before or After Refinishing Floors?

Floor Sanding After Painting
Sollina Images/Getty Images

Developing an orderly process is crucial in home remodeling. When you get the process right, things work smoothly. Your work remains clean and undamaged. When you get the process wrong, your current work is at risk of damaging your previous work. For some projects, it is patently obvious that one thing must happen before the other thing. Insulation happens before drywall. Drywall installation happens before painting. Yet what about other processes that seem like a close call? Refinishing floors and interior painting are two home remodeling and building projects that usually happen around the same time. When scheduling, should you paint the walls before or after refinishing the floors? It's not an easy decision, and each side has its merits. Much of it depends on shifting factors, too, some of which may be particular to your own project.

Refinishing Floors Before Painting Walls

Pros

  • Easier to match the wall color to the floor than the opposite
  • Damage to walls from floor sander is easier to patch and paint over than the opposite
  • Dust from floor sanding will not damage newly painted walls

Cons

  • Paint might drip on newly finished flooring
  • Total and well-secured drop cloths across the entire floor are necessary

If you simply have no floor coverings yet and just a subfloor, then you will greatly benefit by painting the walls and ceiling before refinishing the floors. You can paint with pure freedom, even using a paint sprayer, and spillages rarely cause much damage. In this case, the decision is practically made for you already. 

Consider the matter of appearance. Which surface's appearance is more permanent: floor or walls? Wall color can be changed over the course of a weekend. But it's more difficult to re-stain a floor to change its color to coordinate with the wall color.

Also, the lack of baseboards and other floor trim means you can paint all the way down without any masking. In new-construction homes where no flooring has been laid yet, this is the way it works: walls are put up first, then the floor covering comes later.

When you run a floor sander around a room, there is the possibility of scuffing up newly painted walls. Even though you will have removed the baseboards, enough activity happens that you might scrape or gouge your perfectly painted walls.

Paint drips are a major concern. If you drip on a fully finished, sealed floor, as long as you get to the drip within a few seconds, it's almost like the drip never happened. If the latex paint dries, pry off the drop with a fingernail. Even so, the pigment can stain the finished floor's surface. 

Sanding floors creates a huge amount of dust. This dust settles not only on horizontal surfaces but clings to vertical surfaces such as walls. Flatter sheen paints seem to have the unique ability to attract dust. Even worse, the flatter the paint sheen, the more difficult it is to clean. Truly flat paint at the end of the sheen scale can be so difficult to clean of dust that it is almost easier to entirely paint the walls again.

Painting Walls Before Refinishing Floors

Pros

  • Light paint splatter can often be sanded away
  • Painting activity and tools that damage flooring can be sanded out

Cons

  • Paint spilled on raw wood can be more difficult to clean than paint on finished surfaces
  • Walls must be protected if sanding is expected to create a great deal of dust

One reason why homeowners may want to paint the walls first is that they fear dripping or smearing paint on their newly finished floor. Floors are expensive and difficult to fix, but the walls are not.

If you paint the walls first, some homeowners may think that it is possible to paint with relative abandon, then sand out your paint drips. Paint that has dripped and hardened on a sealed surface will come off floor sanding. But it only makes your job more difficult, plus it gums up the sandpaper. If the floor happens to be raw wood, paint can seep into the wood and stain it almost beyond repair. You would have to sand deeply into that raw wood to remove the paint pigment. So, even if you choose to paint the walls first, it's best to protect your flooring from paint drips.

Which Is Best for You?

The final decision, of course, depends on your situation, as well as your likes and dislikes. Floor finishing is semi-permanent. Stained flooring retains its color for a long time, and it's difficult to sand it all out. The floor will have a certain look, whether glossy or semi-glossy, or a certain hue, and the look of the walls should follow from there.

Paint drips are a valid concern, whether you have previously finished the floor or not. The best way to make sure that your flooring stays clean is to avoid spilling paint on it in the first place. Be sure to use a canvas drop cloth. A good dropcloth is a wise investment in your house ​because you can use it repeatedly. Plastic drop cloths must be thrown away, plus they are slippery.