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Applicator Choice & Overview

Paint Applicator Overview

Paint Applicators

Painting can become complicated, even before the actual painting process begins. There are many different types of brushes, rollers and applicators available, and one that’s best for your project. This section will help you find the painting tool that’s perfect for you, and simplify this complicated process.


Brushes, Rollers, Pads and Specialty Tools

The quality of your paint job depends as much on the applicators as it does on the paint. A first-time painter with high-quality brushes and rollers can do a better job than an experienced painter with cheap ones. And since you’ll have to live with the results for years to come, the better products are worth a little extra money.

Must-Have Tools: For most jobs, the following should be sufficient:

  • A two-inch angular brush for woodwork and windows
  • A two-inch trim brush for areas, like edges, that need extra control
  • A roller frame and cover with extension pole

Specialty Tools: You may want to consider:

  • Narrow rollers for trim and tight areas (e.g. behind toilet tanks and radiators)
  • Painter’s mitt for pipes and contoured surfaces like railings
  • A paint shield for protecting walls while you’re doing the woodwork
  • A paint edger with guide wheels (an alternative to masking)

Brush With Greatness: Better brushes hold more paint and hold their bristles, too – that’s important to help your job go quickly with good results. Brushes use either natural or synthetic bristles, or a blend. Natural bristles work only with alkyd paints; synthetic bristles work with both alkyd and latex.

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’…: For most walls and ceilings you’ll use a paint roller. The best generally have a steel frame, a metal cage, and a threaded handle that can hold an extension pole. When selecting a cover, choose a shorter nap (3/16″ or 3/8″) for painting smooth indoor surfaces, and longer nap (3/4″ or 1-1/4″) for rougher surfaces including textured walls, masonry and stucco.

Pad Applicators: For edging, cutting in and painting flat trim, foam pads provide a convenient alternative to brushes. Because they’re flat, they leave less surface texture in the paint and and they tend not to drip or spatter. Their flexibility also makes them ideal for reaching inside tight areas (like vents of heat registers).

Great Paint Jobs Are Made With The Right Paint Applicators

Paint Brushes

The principle is pretty simple – the bristles pick up the paint, and as the brush is drawn along the surface, the paint flows from the bristles and out onto the surface that you are painting in a nice even coat. I have given that exact explanation to many people just to have them look at me and say, “Yeah right! If only it were that simple.” Well, it is. There are several reasons why people get frustrated with brush painting.

The first is that they are thinking about it the wrong way. A brush is not designed to wipe paint onto a surface. The point of a brush, as mentioned above, is to allow the paint to flow onto the surface. Granted, higher quality paints will flow better than others, but the principle is what is important. When you dip the brush in the can, don’t think about covering it with paint, but instead think about filling it with paint. If the bristles are full of paint even in the middle of the brush, then you will only have to apply minimal pressure, and a nice slow, even stroke will allow the paint to flow out of the brush. With a little practice you will even find that you are able to do this without leaving brush strokes.

The second reason that people get frustrated with brush painting is because they are using low quality brushes. If you take a high quality brush and a cheap one and dip them into the same can of paint at the same depth, you will see just how much more paint the high quality brush holds. This increased volume of paint makes it easier to allow the paint to flow, and saves a lot of time. These higher quality brushes also hold an edge. By that I mean that you can do pretty tight detail work when painting corners or cutting out along a ceiling. If you’ve never tried a more expensive brush, spoil yourself the next time you start a painting project. I promise you will never use a cheap brush again. Just clean out the expensive one well and it will last for a surprisingly long time.

The best brush to have in your toolbox is an angled brush that is 2 1/2″ to 3″ wide. This is a very versatile brush that can be used for lots of different jobs. It will work well when cutting in a wall that you are getting ready to roll. It will also work well to paint moldings and trim work. Finally, this brush is ideal for painting windows and doors. It is a nice size that is easy to work with and will still allow you to hold a significant amount of paint.


Paint Rollers

Rollers are the tool of choice when you have large flat surfaces to cover. Walls, ceilings, panels and large shelving units are ideal circumstances to use a roller. Unfortunately, many people grow frustrated with rollers for the same reasons that we discussed with brushes. Let the roller work for you. You shouldn’t have to push very hard, and if you do then you don’t have enough paint in your roller cover. The paint should flow out of the cover and onto the wall in nice, smooth, even coats. If you are pushing hard enough to leave a line at the edge of the roller, then you need more paint.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when choosing a roller cover is choosing the wrong size. Bigger is better, right? Not necessarily. The thickness of the cover is called the nap. For an interior wall you can usually use a 3/8″ nap roller cover, and for a finish coat a 1/4″ nap cover. Remember,the smaller the nap, the smoother the finish coat. Interior walls in high end residential settings are almost always finished with a 1/4″ nap if they are using latex paint. If they are using oil, then 1/8″ would be acceptable.

The larger naps, like 3/4″ and 1″, would be used for exterior or industrial applications. Things like cinder block walls and stucco are acceptable applications for these rollers. They hold a lot of paint, which is necessary to be able to work paint into the pits and crevices that are always found in a block or masonry wall. The same principle applies, though – if you have to push hard, you need more paint. Let the roller cover do the work.


What type of roller should I use on different surfaces?

1. Wallboard or smooth plaster – use a short nap 1/8 to 1/4 inch
2. Light-textured stucco or poured concrete – use a medium nap 3/8 to 3/4 inch
3. Cyclone fencing/wire fences – use long nap 1″ – 11/2 “

Does it matter what type of brush you use with any type of paint?

Generally, there are two types of paint brushes: those made of natural-hair bristles and those made with synthetic materials (usually nylon or polyester). Natural bristle brushes are preferred for use with solvent-based (oil- or alkyd-based) paints, especially for enamel or finish work. Natural bristles are hollow and can absorb the water contained in a latex paint, causing them to swell and become soft and limp (similar to your own hair when it is wet).

Most synthetic brushes work well with both latex and solvent-based paints, but always check the manufacturer’s recommendations on the brush. Some of the solvents used in solvent-based paints can break down the compensation of a synthetic bristle – once again check the label.

Keep in mind, the same above rules apply to roller covers: synthetic vs. natural (wool).

Which types of applicator applies paint the most efficiently?

In terms of time, the most efficient applicators are listed in order:

  • Sprayer
  • Roller
  • Brush

In terms of which is most effective, in least amount of wasted paint listed in order:

  • Brusher
  • Roller
  • Sprayer

Is an expensive brush really that much better than a cheap one?

High quality or more expensive brushes have distinct advantages over the cheaper ones. First of all, a high quality brush will finish the job more quickly. This is because a top-quality brush has the ability to “hold” more paint in reservoir, which means you will spend less time “painting the can” than applying the paint to the surface. Also, a topquality brush will have a tapered end, which means there are shorter bristles on the outside and longer bristles in the center. Tapered bristles give the painter more control over where and how much paint goes onto the surface. A top-quality brush will also not shed bristles like a cheaper brush, because of how firmly the bristles are seated in the ferrule (the metal band that attaches the bristles to the handle), and also determined by the material used as plugs in the ferrule. (Space plugs inside the ferrule that bond the bristles in the ferrule add taper to the bristles, and finally create “wells in the center of the bristles to hold paint.)

What type of brush should I use if both oil and water base paints are being applied?

Nylon & polyester blend paintbrushes work well in both oil and water base paints.

How many brushes do I need to purchase for a standard painting project?

Generally you need to buy two brushes. A 3″ to 4″ size brush for larger surfaces and a 1″ to 2″ angular brush for smaller surfaces, trim work, cutting in (trimming an edge or border with a brush, such as where a wall meets the ceiling or at the edge of woodwork) and touch up.

What should I look for to determine if a roller cover is of good quality?

Run your hand over the cover to see if it sheds any lint. If it doesn’t it’s probably a good cover.

Check both ends of the cover to see if there is any fabric hanging over either end. Good quality covers are “beveled” and there should be no overhanging fabric.

Look for the seam in the roller cover. If you don’t see one, then its probably a good cover. If you see any gaps in the cover or loose backing at either end, that means the cover is of inferior quality.

How does a good quality brush benefit me and my painting project?


  1. Faster overall painting with less effort
  2. No unsightly brush streaks
  3. Less bristle or filament shedding
  4. Easier “cutting in” for those tight areas
  5. Outstanding finish appearance

How does a good quality roller benefit me and my painting project?


  1. Levels the paint finish without shadows or valleys
  2. Will not shed lint on the painted surface
  3. Will not skid or track when rolling
  4. Will not de-laminate during use

How should I care for my brush so that it maintains its performance level use after use?

Clean immediately after use – paint thinner with bristle brushes; soap and water with nylon/polyester brushes.

Use a brush comb to clean and straighten the bristles.

Do not soak your brushes for extended periods of time. They will lose their shape if you do.

If possible, store your brush by hanging it. Do not store a brush on its tips. This will curl the working tip of the brush, rendering it useless.

Paint With the Right Tools

Roller Tray

A container that holds paint when using a paint roller.

  • Most trays have ribbed bottoms to remove excess paint from a roller cover after filling it.
  • Ladder-lock legs permit them to snap onto a stepladder.
  • A good quality tray can last indefinitely if cleaned after each use.
  • Plastic tray liners are also available.
  • Some trays features a lid that closes and seals paint, roller or brush inside the tray. This eliminates the need to clean the painting equipment after each use. It also saves paint.

Paint Bucket

Rectangular plastic bucket used for painting

  • Common sizes range from 1 to 5 gallons
  • Can be equipped with accessories such as a bucket grid or screen to help clean paint from brushes and rollers when in use
  • Generally has a handle for easy carrying
  • Some buckets feature a lid that closes and seals paint, roller or brush inside the tray

Bucket Grid

Placed in bucket to remove excess paint from applicators before applying to surface

  • Generally used with smaller rollers
  • Similar to a wire screen or grid in construction
  • Has a flexible hanger that fastens over bucket rim

Paint Shield

Also known as a trim guard

  • Used to mask off areas not to be painted
  • Used primarily in corners where wall meets ceiling or where two walls meet that are not painted the same color

Masking Tape

Also called painter’s tape, it is a general-purpose, pressure-sensitive tape used to mask off areas not intended to be painted

  • Commonly colored blue for painting applications
  • All-purpose tapes are increasingly being replaced by tapes designed for specific tasks, such as specific tapes designed for baseboards and trim, glass, hard-to-stick surfaces, lacquer surfaces, brick and tile and delicate surfaces

Sand Paper

Many styles available in sheets as well as sizes for various sanding power tools

  • Comes in five general types, including garnet, emery, aluminum oxide, silicon carbide and alumina zirconia. Of these, the first two are natural minerals or abrasives; the others are synthetic materials that are tougher and longer wearing than the natural abrasives
  • Coarseness generally runs from 12 (extra coarse) to 1500 (ultra-fine). Grit finer than 600 is usually measured on the European FEPA scale, and identified with a “P” immediately before the number
  • The back of each sandpaper sheet contains important labeling information, including product and lot number, abrasive type, grit size, whether it is open or closed coat and backing. The backing weight is rated by letter. “A” is the thinnest weight, while “C” and “D” are the best options for hand sanding of wood. “X” is effective for heavy-duty sanding
  • Manufactured on a variety of backings, including paper, cloth and fiber
  • Garnet is a reddish-brown natural abrasive. By special heat treatment, a tougher, sturdier grain is produced. Garnet is used almost exclusively in the woodworking field; it is not suitable for use on metal
  • Emery is a black natural abrasive that can polish metal surfaces. Emery is typically used in conjunction with an oil lubricant
  • Aluminum oxide is the most common general abrasive. It is a synthetic brown that is hard and long-wearing. It is used on wood, metal or painted surfaces and is well suited to finishing high-tensile materials such as steels and bronzes, as well as some hardwoods
  • Silicon carbide is hard and sharp—effective in sanding low tensile materials such as cast iron, aluminum, copper or plastic. It is also useful between coats of finish
  • Alumina zirconia is harder than silicon carbide and tougher than aluminum oxide. It should be used for grinding and shaping metal and wood—not for polishing
  • Sandpaper comes in two styles: open coat (OC) and closed coat. “Coat” refers to how densely the grain is adhered to the surface. “Closed coat” means 100 percent of the surface is covered with grain. Open-coat sandpaper has greater spacing between the grains, which prevents it from clogging up as quickly with sanding residue. Closed-coat sandpaper, however, fills more rapidly with the substance being sanded and must be discarded sooner

Steel Wool

A popular accessory item. It should be used before painting on any glossy surface

  • Uses include removing grime and sludge prior to refinishing, preparing new surfaces, removing old coatings on raw wood and for application in between coats of enamel, paint, shellac or varnish
  • Also removes paint from glass, furniture, tile and other surfaces
  • Comes in grades ranging from fine to coarse
  • More water-based strippers and finishes have led to a man made synthetic steel wool product. This product will not cause spotting in wood, as standard steel wool can when used with water-based finishes
  • Bronze wool is a popular alternative to steel wool