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Picking House Paint
You can tell a good paint by its can - if you know what to
by Fran J. Donegan
Why do some five-year-old paint jobs peel and flake while
others done sometime during the Reagan era look as if they
were laid on last week? The answer is deceptively simple:
Quality exterior paint - when it's properly applied over a
well-prepped surface - lasts longer than the cheap stuff.
But trying to find the
good stuff at the store can be an experience in sensory overload.
Besides pondering the oil-vs.-water-based dilemma, homeowners
have to choose from among several lines from each of the national
brands as well as from locally produced products. And, while
price usually indicates quality, with some exterior paints
tagged at $40 per gallon, going by price alone can get expensive.
Fortunately, there are some other indicators that will help
you buy the right paint - if you know what they are. So whether
your next exterior-painting project is imminent or a few years
off, read on to find out what, according to independent researchers
and industry experts, makes a quality product. You'll also
pick up some helpful tips on both the all-important prepping
process and the esthetic science of choosing colors.
THE CASE FOR "LATEX"
For years, there's been a lively debate about the supremacy
of oil-based or water-based paint. Oil-based products, which
include alkyd paints, clean up with mineral spirits. Water-based
products, which are referred to as latex paints though they
are now based on vinyl and acrylics, clean up with water.
Although the question still gets asked, water-based paints
win hands down for home exteriors. Research done at the U.S.
Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL)
in Madison, Wisconsin, shows that water-based paints expand
and contract with the siding. They also allow water vapor
generated inside the house to pass through the paint film.
Oil-based paints, on the other hand, dry to an inflexible
coating that blocks moisture. The results can be telltale
cracks as siding gives and paint blisters as trapped moisture
tries to find a way out. Water-based paints are also gentler
on the environment because they are lower in volatile organic
Does that mean oil-based paint should not be used at all?
Certainly not. "When asked to recommend a paint,"
says Al Beitelman, director of the Paint Technology Center
for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "I always ask about
the previous paint job. If it worked fine, I suggest using
what was there before."
When finishing intricate details like those shown here, you
want one-coat coverage with a paint that will last a long
time. These houses were finalists in the Prettiest Painted
Places in America competition, sponsored by the Rohm and Haas
Paint Quality Institute, the information agency of a major
supplier of acrylic polymers to paint manufacturers.
THE QUALITY QUESTION
The premium line from any manufacturer will almost certainly
cover better and last longer than its less-expensive versions.
Because the expense of painting is mostly in the labor, it
makes sense to buy premium paint.
But suppose you plan to move or want to change the color
scheme of your home in the next few years. Here's where you
can save with a mid-level paint that's backed for 10 years
or so versus 15 or more for many top-of-the-line paints.
"We find customers really don't believe warranty claims,"
says Lane Blackburn, vice president of architectural marketing
for Sherwin-Williams. "But they do use the warranty as
a guide to quality." For example, Ace Hardware, like
most retailers, offers two exterior-paint lines: Royal Shield
($20 to $25 per gallon, 15-year warranty) and Quality Shield
($16, 10-year warranty).
There are other ways to pick quality exterior paint out of
- Proper pigments. Quality pigments allow a good
paint to cover fully with just one coat. Paints with lower-cost
pigments often must be applied in several coats. That means
more work, which makes buying low-quality paint a poor financial
decision. The best pigment is titanium dioxide. Look for
it when ingredients are listed on the can.
- High percentage of solids. The solids are what's
left on the wall after the paint has dried. Anything over
45 percent is considered good; the higher the level of solids,
the better, because you'll wind up with a denser, more durable
coating. For example, a gallon of Duron Exterior Flat contains
52 percent solids by weight. However, be aware that some
companies add cheap fillers to beef up the percentage of
solids - that makes it wise to stay away from inexpensive
paints with a high level of solids. Although you typically
won't find information about solids on the label, check
with your paint retailer, ask to see product data sheets
or fire up your modem and check the company's Website.
- All-acrylic binder. The binder is what holds the
pigments, mildicides and other solids that form the actual
paint film. Look for latex paint with an all-acrylic binder,
which is inherently more weather resistant than vinyl or
vinyl-acrylic. Many paint companies use a modified acrylic
for their interior lines and all-acrylic for premium exterior
paints made to endure the elements. For example, Durons
Plasticote is an interior with a modified acrylic, while
its Weathershield is an exterior paint with an all acrylic
binder. If you don't see "100% Acrylic" or "All
Acrylic" in bold on the front of the can, check ingredients
for "acrylic polymer."
Also be sure you pick the right paint for the surface you're
covering. Most water-based exterior paints can be used on
wood and hardboard siding and trim. They're also fine for
vinyl and aluminum siding, and most masonry. On stucco prone
to cracking, use an elastomeric paint. It's more flexible
than standard coatings and leaves a durable film that's
twice as thick (about 5 mil). An example is the stucco paint
from Sherwin-Williams, which bridges hairline cracks to
keep out water.
You can also buy paint tailored to conditions in specific
regions of the country. Dutch Boy's Climate Guard line was
the first of these paints from a major manufacturer. For example,
its Southeast formulation has extra mildicides for a humid
climate, while Northwest paint is higher in solids to resist
months of rainfall.
Choosing and matching colors can be nerve-wracking, which
explains why there are so many white houses. Fortunately,
paint companies are taking the pain out of this process. Many
offer color cards that suggest color combinations for siding
and trim. Several have also come up with other approaches.
For example, Sears tracked colors customers preferred and
those found in nature for its Weatherbeater line. Research
by the company yielded palettes that correspond to different
regions of the country -one set of colors for the coasts,
one for the Sun Belt and a third for the center of the country.
Color experts from The Home Depot came up with 30 popular
combinations from its Behr line that range from soft pinks
and peaches to bold rusts and blues. And if you have a classic
home, or even a modern classic, the Sherwin-Williams Preservation
palette offers a range of historical hues.
Most paint dealers will also help you win the match game.
Some offer color-matching software. For instance, Benjamin
Moore dealers will also scan a photo of your house and let
you experiment with color on a computer screen. Or you can
choose a house from the program that looks like yours.
Whichever method you use, remember that your roof and landscaping,
along with the other houses on the street, won't change. So
consider these permanent colors when making your selection.
And favor lighter hues, suggests Mark Knaebe, a chemist at
the FPL. Dark colors absorb heat and are more likely to suffer
from moisture problems.
Even the best exterior paint can fail if it's applied incorrectly.
Always use a primer when painting any untreated surface to
seal it off and to provide a base for topcoats to stick to.
Alkyd primers are best for bare wood because they cover bleed-through
from wood knots better; be sure the label states that the
primer is designed to stop bleed-through. Water-based primers
are a good choice if knots aren't an issue. Water-based paints
are compatible with both types of primer.
When repainting, prime only when necessary. If the paint
hasn't cracked or flaked, you may not need to prime at all.
Most good paints are designed to go over any existing paint
without priming. If you must scrape down to bear wood, spot-prime.
Not sure whether priming is needed? Try this test: Paint a
small portion of the wall and let it dry. Then put an adhesive
bandage on the newly painted surface and snap it off. If paint
sticks to it, the old paint won't support a new coat and requires
a coat of primer. If the bandage is clean, power wash the
siding and paint.
For painting new construction, the FPL recommends dipping
each piece of siding in a paintable water repellent, priming,
then applying two coats of water-based paint. The lab also
suggests installing siding on furring strips, creating a ventilated
space behind it to reduce vapor. Seal the bottom with screening
to keep insects out.
If you hire a painting contractor, be sure he or she follows
the paint manufacturer's directions. For example, the temperature
should be between 50° and 90°F to apply water-based
paint. Also, the topcoat mechanical bond between the two won't
be as strong because the surface texture of the primer breaks
down. And if two topcoats are used (recommended for new construction),
the second should go on within two weeks of the first.
There are lots of exterior paints out there. Knowing how
to pick the best from a lineup of look-alike cans will help
your paint job last well into the next decade.