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A Complete Guide to Painting Plaster Walls

A living room with light red painted walls.

For well over a century, plaster interior walls were the preferred construction in American homes. From antique mansions to old country cottages, these beautiful walls can still be found in many homes today. Modern homeowners are probably familiar with drywall or sheetrock, but not plaster. This guide will answer all your questions about painting your plaster walls.

Can you paint plaster walls?

Many classic homes may come with perfectly intact plaster walls hidden behind dated wallpaper or layers of peeling paint. The good news is you can paint these walls with the same equipment you would use on sheetrock! From a classic restoration to a modern restyle, you can make plaster walls look great with a fresh coat of paint.

Paint on plaster will only look as good as the prep work underneath it though, so make sure not to skip any steps.

Preparing Plastered Walls for Painting

Safety Tip: Most older house paints contain lead. Always wear eye protection and a respirator when sanding or stripping old paints.

Remove Old Paint

The first step to painting old plaster walls is to remove whatever is covering them. Old paint can be removed in two ways:

  • Paint scrapers and sandpaper – For chipped and peeling old paint.
  • Chemical Strippers – For paint that’s relatively intact.

Patch and Repair Plaster

Once you have the walls stripped down to bare plaster, you’ll need to repair and patch any cracks or old damage. This process can be tedious, but it’s one of the most important steps. Plaster walls are unforgiving, and any cracks that are left alone will likely spread.

Paintable caulk can be used to fill minor cracks. It remains flexible, so the crack will be less likely to reappear. Larger holes from old bolts or longer cracks should be patched just like drywall and sanded. The goal is to create a smooth, even surface with no visible cracks or holes.

To do that, start by blending any patches or new plaster into the old plaster with rough grit sandpapers. Once the surface is roughly level, smooth the surface with high grit sandpapers to create a smooth surface for the primer coat.

What’s the best primer for plaster walls?

Plaster walls are more vulnerable to moisture than drywall, and require high-quality primers. Oil-based primers are the best option for old walls. They have superior stain blocking abilities, and will keep any old stains from bleeding through to new paint. Oil-based primers are also great at sealing out moisture, which can be a major problem for old plaster walls. Perhaps most useful are oil primer’s ability to fill and seal the surface of the plaster.

Kilz brand primers are known for their stain-blocking capabilities and are available at many home improvement centers. For a premium option, Sherwin Williams offers durable primers specifically for plaster.

Some bright colors, especially reds and yellows, will usually look better with a tinted primer. The paint shop or home improvement store should know if your paint requires this, and can mix the appropriate primer.

What is the best paint finish for plaster walls?

Plaster walls can be finished in any luster, from high-gloss to ultra-matte. The most versatile finish for most home applications is a satin finish that combines the soft warmth of a matte or flat finish with the ease of cleaning that comes with semi-gloss or gloss finishes. If your home has traditional Victorian styling, a softer finish will finely complement lacquered or glossy enameled trim around doors and around ceilings.

Flat or matte finish paint will not be as easy to clean and will show scuffs much easier than satin paint, but the lightly textured finish can be very useful for hiding minor imperfections in the underlying plaster.

What kind of paint should I use on plaster walls?

The best kind of paint for plaster walls is whatever color appeals to you!

Once plaster walls are properly patched and primed, they can easily take any color or finish. Satin and eggshell finishes are very popular, and lighter, neutral shades of cream and white are ideal if resale value is a concern.

There is one kind of paint you shouldn’t use: all-in-one paint and primer. The label is misleading, as these paints do not actually have a primer in them. Instead, they are blended to create a thicker, more durable coat.

While durable paint is not a bad thing, these products won’t help with the two largest problems that primer solves on old plaster: making paint stick to the wall better and blocking decades of potential stains from bleeding through to the fresh paint.

Painting Plaster Walls

So your plaster has been patched and the surface is smooth and primed. Now it is time to paint!

Plaster can be easily painted with the same techniques as drywall. Even with a good coat of primer, plaster walls are notoriously thirsty for paint. Using a roller for open spaces and brushes around trim and borders, spread an even coat of your choice of paint. Don’t try to completely cover the wall in one go. Two or three thinner coats will create a much prettier finish than one thick coat, which is likely to end up running and looking uneven.

Plaster walls also lend themselves to creative painting schemes, like sponged paint and rustic, antiqued finishes.

Five Steps for a Flawless Paint Job on Plaster Walls

Old plaster walls most likely experienced years of homeowners hanging pictures, painting, and placing wallpaper. Because of this, they usually entail a more extensive preparation process for a new paint job than drywall. Here are the five steps to follow for an optimal painting experience and results:

Test the Walls for Lead

It is crucial to make sure that your plaster walls are free of paint containing lead, as it was a commonly used paint ingredient of the past. This is because continued exposure to lead poses a number of serious health risks. Always double-check with an at-home lead test kit before proceeding with any other steps.

Remove Old Paint

If the lead test doesn’t detect any contaminants in your plaster walls, it’s safe to start removing old paint. If there are any visible paint chippings, peelings, or loose plaster, it’s best to scrape them away to ensure that you have an even surface free of bumps. A putty knife is a great tool to help you with this process.

Fill Cracks and Holes

Plaster walls are prone to developing holes, dents, and cracks over the years. For smaller cracks and holes, a paintable caulk is your best friend for fixing them! For larger areas of damages and dents, repair the area by adding mesh tape and filling the area with a compound.

Sand Down The Walls

Sanding down your plaster walls is essential for smoothing out anything that wasn’t taken care of with the previous steps. It gives you one last chance to level out the walls before priming it up! Use both rougher and finer sandpapers to achieve the best results.

Apply High Quality Primer

When you’re happy with the smoothness of your wall’s texture, you’re ready to apply a high-quality primer. Old plaster walls are better off with an oil-based primer. This is because oil primers are far more superior at preventing any stains from water and other materials from showing through, which is a more commonly found problem with plaster walls.

After the primer is completely dry, you’re well-equipped to begin the fun part: painting!

Need Help Painting Plaster Walls?

Find a professional painter near you.  If you need a home painter in South Jersey, including Marlton, Cherry Hill, and Moorestown, give Pizzazz Painting a call today! Call 609-702-8200 today.

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