Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How to paint old plaster walls WITHOUT painter's tape.

Our Victorian home is from the 1890's.  In addition to tremendous charm and character, it has plaster walls which are not smooth where they meet wood moldings, and there is almost nothing perfectly straight or plumb. 

The word "plumb" is not in my normal vocabulary, but I notice my husband's great displeasure when using his favorite toys - i.e. the laser level or such - at the fact that whatever plumb IS, we are not. He finds comfort at times hearing from new-house owners that they are not plumb at their house either.  

My husband is a detail guy, a perfectionist and amazing at math, so when he does projects, he uses  things foreign to me such as measurements, numbers and things like laser levels and this string that you snap to make a straight chalk line (what is that called?). 

That having been said, you can appreciate why the not-straight-or-plumb-or-level state of things in our house can be troubling for him. He levels the planters outside.  He is amazing.  My brain hurts trying to think about this stuff.

I'm an "eyeballer." In college I studied art, and I am a much more free-handed person when it comes to how I do projects.  Measuring things, trying to figure out where to put the screw for pictures, all of that - it gives me an anxiety attack.  It takes me right on back to high school AP Chemistry (which I dropped), and I can feel the cold sweat breaking out.  Oh my goodness.... I can hardly take it. 

Me with every single solitary thing in our bedroom piled up in a heap. I took photos to avoid starting work.  Nobody actually cares about seeing a photo of me doing a Vanna White in front of a big ol' mess. I know.

So we painted our bedroom last weekend, and we have this plaster-meets-woodwork issue. The walls are not smooth (or probably plumb), so precision tools like painter's tape are not terribly helpful.  

I don't use painter's tape when I paint anyway.  
For me, it's like painting trim is like doing one humongous French manicure.  

Painter's tape won't lie flat on the bumpy surfaces of the plaster, so it's not easy to get a clean, straight line.  Eyeballing it gives me better results.  I'll show you a few of the things I do to get a look I like. 

I always start with the woodwork.  

Paint the doors, because, as you can see, the white I've added is much crisper looking than the aged white on the door.  

Brush along the grain, one segment at a time.  

Extend the white out onto the edge of the wall a bit, as you see here. 
This way you'll fill the spaces and uneven places. 

Here's a great example of the woodwork and the plaster not having a really super-clean edge.  If I taped this, there would be boatloads of space for paint to leak under the tape.  Not cool. The white trim paint going onto the wall serves as a sort of "caulking" effect, visually, closing the space. Or I suppose you could actually use caulking. 

If you're right-handed work from left to right as you move through the room.  That way, you'll always be able to see your work.  

Don't overload the brush, to avoid drips. 

HGTV asked me for permission to use this Instagram photo in their #lovehome campaign! Way cool!!!  

Take the kids up on offers to help.  Just kidding.  I had to suppress hyperventilating to let her try using the brush on a totally un-harm-able part of the trim.  She had a great time. 

My grandfather used to let my mom and uncle help paint the house every year.  True story! He is a saint.  I didn't inherit that gene.  

It's something I would like to get better at, whether it's cleaning, cooking, project-doing.... I'm working on it, but it bumps into my Type-A personality with a thud. I am trying to relax, though.... anyway. 

(Notice the trim paint on the wall between the mop board and window - that's exactly how I like it when I'm starting out.)

"Cut-in" the wall color, from left to right around the trim.  
Extend it at least 1" so your roller won't hit the freshly painted trim!

You can see in these photos, that the cutting-in is where I make the really crisp, clean line. 

Keep your eyes focused just slightly ahead of where your brush IS, so you are looking at where you WANT the brush to be next.  It's a moving the eyes with the hand thing.  You'll feel it when you're "in the zone."  

Let your gaze draw the line you want.  
It sounds artsy-fartsy, but it works.

After you've done the cutting in, you can begin to roll the paint.  I work in areas that are probably 3'x3' at a time. 

We only did ONE COAT to cover the red, because we rolled really thoroughly.  Both red rooms I've painted have covered like a dream.  The navy room needed two coats of taupe paint. 

Lesson: don't be afraid to paint over dark walls.  Seriously.  It's not a big deal.  

(This room we painted with Valspar paint-plus-primer.  I like it on the walls.  I don't think it was worth the extra money on the white trim paint.  That seemed much thinner.  I wouldn't buy that again for my trim.) 

Here's another peek at the finished product.   

If you have painting questions and would like my non-professional advice, ask away!!!!
And if you have advice for us, please leave any helpful hints right in the comments or on the Facebook Page, so we can all enjoy your tips. 


  1. Impressive and valuable sharing, you have done from this post. It makes the task of plastering a wall in Victorian without using any Tape. Thanks for Sharing...
    Plastering Supplies,

  2. You're a pro in my eyes, Shannon! I don't think I have it in me to paint walls without the help of painter's tape. I might end up with half an inch worth of paint on the walls with having to get it right and even. Great job! -Leeanne @ Master My List

  3. I am painting a room in my hundred year old rowhouse, and I keep going back and forth between thinking I should do the walls first vs the trim first. I like the idea of freehanding the trim (your picture of the corner is just what my edges look like). But if I'm using a higher gloss paint for the trim, will it be a problem to cover with a more matte wall color?

    I had a professional fix much of the plaster in the house before I moved in, so I'm working in a room that has already had walls repaired and primed.

    1. Hi Susan! You should be totally fine to use any finish over the trim paint that gets up on the wall. I usually use a flat or eggshell. If you want to come back and follow the newest adventures at our farmhouse (we moved from the Victorian pictures here recently), come on by www.shannonkwheeler.com

  4. Thanks so much for sharing. I get relavant information from your post.
    Elcometer 500