How to Use Paint and Choose Paint Finishes For Your Home

Essential Guide to Paint

Paint is your passport to colour and arguably the easiest, least costly and most immediate way to transform a home. It can be as simple as brilliant white, but that would exclude all the other drop-dead gorgeous colours. Paradoxically, it’s the vast choice that often poses a problem – there are just so many brands, types and shades on the market.

Choose from historical hues for period homes; sleek chalky finishes that stand up to the rigours of modern life; or new formulas designed to suit all surfaces. By understanding the product you can unleash all the design possibilities of paint that make it such a tempting medium.

Types of Paint

Water-based paints are usually referred to as emulsions and were traditionally used only for interior walls and ceilings. But recently tremendous advances in paint technology mean that water-based formulas, especially the high-performing acrylics, are available for all surfaces, from woodwork to metal, and for interior and exterior use. The advantages of these paints over oil-based ones is that they are cleaner, have less odour and are more environmentally sound. Brushes can be rinsed clean with water.

Solvent or oil-based paints are used where a tough, durable finish is required for interior and exterior timber, masonry and furniture – although, as mentioned above, the new generation of acrylics and multi-surface paints offers viable alternatives. In general, brushes need to be cleaned with turpentine or white spirit.

Make-up and quality All paints are made of four key ingredients: pigments, binders, liquids and additives. Generally speaking, the more pigment used to make the paint, the better the quality it will be: a ratio of 30 to 45 per cent binder and pigments by volume indicates a paint that will be durable and provide good coverage and lasting colour. Consider the following when you are faced with a wall of paint pots and are struggling with what to buy.

Pick a brand you can trust Companies with their own high-street shops, such as Fired Earth and Farrow & Ball, and those that sell through the DIY giants are the most accessible. However, buying paint online is increasingly popular and can bring you a wider choice, especially if you live outside major towns and cities.

Go for good coverage Look at the figures per litre not for the whole can; 12sq m per litre is average. Coverability varies between brands, making the difference between needing two or three coats. You will generally find more pigment in premium paints, giving a greater depth of colour.

Select the right product. There is a dedicated paint for practically every surface, including tiles and appliances, such as fridges. For high-traffic areas consider scuff-resistant multi-surface paints that can be used on both wood and walls. Kitchens and bathrooms benefit from specialist formulas designed to cope with humidity without flaking.

Try before you buy Colour cards are fine for making an initial selection but you will want to see a true paint sample in situ before committing. Tester pots vary in price from £1 to £4. Paint onto a sheet of paper that you can move around the room to enable you to see the colour in different light conditions. The effect varies greatly. The window wall can seem dark while the wall opposite will be flooded with light. And of course there is a dramatic difference between natural and artificial light. Finally paint a patch directly onto the wall to gauge the colour, coverage and the final finish.

Specialist wall, floor and furniture paints

These days, there are paints to decorate every surface in the home, from melamine to ceramic tiles. Many of these formulas require no specialist preparation – Crown’s Cupboard Makeover Paint is available in 12 colours and does not need a primer.

There are also multi-surface paints, such as B&Q Colours Everywhere for walls, ceilings, woodwork and radiators, and Bedec MSP Multi Surface Paint, which can be used on everything from plastic to masonry. Areas such as bathrooms and kitchens benefit from durable, mildew-resistant coverings, which are available in pre-mixed colours.

However, for the more discerning, Dulux Kitchen & Bathroom paint can be mixed in any one of its 1,200 colours, and Farrow & Ball is launching Modern Emulsion. Designed to complement its original Estate Emulsion, the paint has a slightly higher sheen, is fully washable and available in the full colour range.

Specialist paints also include some exciting new finishes, such as suede effects, metallics and high-sheen lacquers. Judy Smith, colour consultant at Crown, suggests an accent wall in one of these to lift a neutral scheme. Crown’s Feature Wall range, which includes eight metallic finishes, nine bright colours and a highly reflective Pure Brilliant White, comes in convenient 1.25 litre tins.

If you have a timber floor that’s not particularly attractive or is made from a patchwork of old and new wood, paint makes the perfect disguise. There are plenty of choices – all the colours from Farrow & Ball are available as floor paint and Nordic Style offers an elegant selection, too.

Alternatively, a timber floor in good condition can be treated to a natural or tinted stain, which allows the grain to show through. Eve Johnson’s Scandinavian woodcare oils will take the yellow edge off pine.

If you are grappling with the problem of choosing a woodwork colour to go with neutral walls, check out Architectural Colours by David Oliver, the founder of Paint & Paper Library. He arranged his off-whites for ceilings, cornices, walls and woodwork in chromatical groups and the concept has been so well received that chromatically arranged colours, such as soft greys, greens and pinks, have been introduced.

Exterior Masony and Woodwork Paints

Specialist masonry and exterior woodwork paints are now available in many of the sophisticated colours offered for interiors.For example, the new Weathershield range of satin and gloss exterior paints from Dulux features innovative shades such as Wild Berries and Wild Roses.

When choosing colours for exterior surfaces, consider the style of the brickwork or masonry of your home along with the colours used on nearby buildings, so as to pick colours that are sympathetic to these surroundings. Colours for fences and sheds should be selected with the same criteria in mind.

Technical advancements are constantly being made to improve the life span, durability, wear and performance of exterior paints. The Akrylatfarg range at Ray Munn, for example, is an environmentally sound water-based option.

Masonry paints come in a wide variety of finishes, from textured to ultra-smooth. Opt for a texture if you need to disguise fine surface cracks. If you favour traditional finishes, then consider limewash, which is available from specialists such as Francesca’s Lime Wash. The beauty of this paint is that it will mellow and weather with time. However, do check with the supplier first to ensure that the surface is suitable for this finish.

Traditional Paints

Available from specialists such as Farrow & Ball and The Real Paint & Varnish Company, lime wash and distemper paints can be useful for restoration projects, although some of the contents are potentially hazardous and can irritate eyes and skin. Use the modern equivalents where possible, as these are usually safer and more effective.

Cutting Down on Paint Chemicals

Everyone knows the nasty smell of paint drying – worse with oil-based paints, but also noticeable with vinyl emulsions. This is caused by paint solvents containing VOCs. They are proven health risks, and can cause allergies, headaches and breathing problems and irritate eyes, nose and throat. They are also an environmental hazard.

Following a European directive, the British paint industry has reduced VOCs in two stages, the second of which came into force in January last year.

Five categories are used to describe VOC content. For guidance, a minimal VOC content is up to 0.29 per cent, whereas a very high VOC content is above 50 per cent. All brands have, where necessary, reformulated their ranges to give minimal VOC content.

There is still no standard labelling scheme for paint. The blue globe label, pioneered by B&Q, led to VOC reduction on the mass market and has been adopted by other brands, while the European Ecolabel, recognised in 15 EU member states, looks like a flower and appears on brands such as Earthborn. Germany also has a Blue Angel label and there is a green Nordic Swan as well. You will find more detailed information on most of the paint company’s websites, as well as a wealth of practical and design advice.

Ecological Paint

The “organic” paint brands, such as Ecos, which emerged in the late 1980s, heralded a new era of odourless paints, free of solvents and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and paved the way for other companies’ environmentally safe formulas. Following European legislation, the first stage in lowering the solvent content in paints and varnishes is set to come into force in 2007.

Traditionally, the solvents or VOCs and other chemicals used to make paints easier to apply give off toxic fumes that seep into the atmosphere for years after application. Paints with reduced or no VOCs are healthier for decorators and the people whose homes are painted with them.

The leading brands now flag up paints with lower VOCs and produce paints that are virtually odour-free – the Breatheasy range by Crown is one example. Most leading brands now produce high-quality water-based acrylic paints which outperform the older technologies of vinyl and oils.

Today, it is increasingly easy to source ecologically sound paints, as most specialist ranges, such as Ecos, Earthborn, Georgina Barrow and Auro are available via mail order. There is a wealth of colour options in these pre-mixed ranges that include lush shades and muted palettes, reflecting their natural ingredients. Ecos continues to lead the field. It has recently developed Atmosphere Purifying Paint, which absorbs and neutralises volatile chemicals, solvents and VOCs from the atmosphere in a home.

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