Should You Paint Walls or Refinish Floors First?

The Answer Will Surprise You...

Painting Bathroom Wall With Roller 182398842
Painting Bathroom Wall With Roller. Getty / Michelle Gibson

Process is key in home remodeling.  Get the process right and things work smoothly:  your work remains clean and undamaged.  Get the process wrong and your current work messes up your previous work.  Bad!

That's the reasoning behind the question of whether to refinish your floors or paint interior walls first.

This question was first raised by a reader who asked, "What do you recommend ... painting or refinishing wood floors first?

It seems like it would be easier to protect the floor from paint than to protect the walls from the floor sander.  So floors first?"

It's a close call and both sides have merit.  Let's look at both angles.

Why People Say:  Refinish Floors First

First, let's be clear about one thing.  If you simply have no floor coverings yet, just a sub-floor--then you will greatly benefit by painting first.  You can paint with pure freedom--even spray paint--and spill wherever you want.  

Plus, 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, that's the way it works--walls first.

  • Matching:  Which surface's appearance is more permanent--floor or walls?  If you said, "floor," you're right.  Wall color can be changed over the course of a weekend; by Monday, your formerly pink walls will be blue.  But it's more difficult to change floor color.  Since that project involves floor sanders and lots of dust, you may be more reluctant to do it.
  • Damage:  As noted by the reader, when you run a floor sander around a room, there is the possibility of scuffing up your newly painted walls.

Why People Say:  Paint Walls First

  • Paint on the Floor:  The main and only reason why homeowners may want to paint the walls first is because they fear dripping or smearing paint on their newly finished floor.  Floors are expensive, but walls are not.  It can be difficult to clean paint off of a floor, but you can endlessly patch up walls.

    My Answer:

    Given a choice, I would choose floor, and my answer has nothing to do with mess or damage.  It's about appearances.  Floor finishing is permanent, or at least 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--gloss or semi-gloss, a certain hue--and the look of the walls should follow from there.

    Paint Drips:  With a Hired Painter

    What about paint dripping on the floor?  It's a valid concern.  If you hire a paint contractor, it's almost certain that he will lay down plenty of drop cloths.  This is his stock in trade:  not just painting, but protecting non-paintable areas.  That's what he does.

    Paint Drips:  With You

    If you do it, the best way to clean paint off of a newly finished floor is to not do it in the first place.  Be sure to purchase a canvas dropcloth.  It's a great investment in your house, because you can use it repeatedly (plastic dropcloths must be thrown away, plus they are slippery).  

    Even if you drip on a finished floor, as long as you get the drip within a few seconds, it's almost like it never happened.  If the latex paint drops dry, they will pry off of the floor with a fingernail.