Preparing Drywall for Paint ??

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Friends, if anyone tells you that painting a house with fresh drywall is a pain, believe them.

A Return to Dust

When we volunteered to paint our house, I realized that I had no idea what that meant. We’ve done a lot of interior painting, but never starting with new drywall. I pictured a couple of days of rolling nice white paint onto walls as the sun shines in and birds chirp in the background. We’d be like happy people in a movie, with jaunty painter’s hats and hilarious splashes of paint on our faces, dancing to our favorite songs. Oh, the joy!

I’m not sure I’ve been more wrong about anything in my life. To understand why, take just a moment to look around the room you’re in, or imagine your bedroom, for instance. There is a strong possibility that you’re surrounded by drywall on walls and ceilings. In a majority of houses it covers every room, including the ceiling. It probably looks nice and consistent, if you’ve ever noticed it at all.

Those easy-to-ignore walls, at some point in the past, went through a process that I didn’t know existed. Getting them ready for paint was more work than I ever imagined and I will never look at a wall the same way again.

Ceilings are the WORST

The initial challenge we faced was dust. After the drywall was hung, the final step for the drywall team was something called “skim coating”, which means applying a thin layer of compound to every surface in the house. That layer is then sanded to create a “level 5” finish.

When we entered the house to start the paint project, it became clear that it was actually a multi-day dust removal project. It was piled up on the floors of every room and caked onto every wall. It turns out that skim coating is actually dust with a bit of moisture. All you had to do was blow on it and see the cloud that appeared. Before we could paint, every wall and ceiling in the house had to be dust-free. Part of me didn’t think it was possible. Had there been a mistake?

dust removal project

Over the course of the first day, we used respirators and leaf blowers to blow out the dust in huge clouds. Once it settled to the floor, we swept or vacuumed it up. I assumed a couple of passes and we’d be done. I was so very wrong. The entire house ended up requiring multiple passes using multiple tools.

Once we had the bulk of the dust removed, we started to brush the walls and ceilings. For me, that meant using a soft hand brush to remove the more stubborn dust without scratching the drywall. I developed open wounds on my knuckles from hitting the wall so often. Those wounds left streaks and gashes on the uncured drywall that didn’t escape Sachi’s attention. I was causing problems.

stubborn dust

After hours of blowing, vacuuming, and brushing we made headway that was marked by not needing the respirators. That was a relief. But the real work was about to begin in the form of wiping dust from every wall and window frame with damp cloths. Again, think about your home and what it would take to touch every surface multiple times. The cloths had to constantly be cleaned in Home Depot buckets of water that burned the wounds on my knuckles.

By the time the sun set on our second day, after nearly 10 hours of work, we were down to the final room and I was so very tired. It felt like gravity had become more powerful and was pulling my limbs to my side. The cloths became weights as we both stood on ladders and wiped tall ceilings.

wiped tall ceilings

This situation had the potential to become volatile as we both felt the strain. I started to anticipate how we might end the evening, or rather, how I could prevent us from working deep into the night.

Dust removal was not the end of our work. The next phase was masking the windows and doors and that would be a whole new project. I assumed we were reaching a stopping point and would resume the project the following day, but hesitated to ask. By 6pm, I had to bring it up. My worst fears were realized when Sachi said she was just about to start the masking process next, that night. I was incredulous. She offered to stay for awhile if I wanted to go home. I could “make dinner”, she said. Right.

I was not about to surrender. In my mind, I was standing up for a reasonable path, but to Sachi, I was just tired and feeling deflated. Either way, I resolved to change her mind. At the root of the issue was an expectation we set with Drew that on Monday, the windows would be masked so we could start painting. It was Sunday night and Sachi keeps her promises. Not being able to deliver on our work was a personal affront. My perspective was that there were no promises. The instructions we received didn’t come with a timeline. The work takes how long the work takes. The fact that I was hungry and exhausted might have added some extra spice.

Sachi relented with a requirement: we would continue the work at 7am. “Sure”, I said. Anything to go home. I thought to myself, having won a small victory, “We’ll talk about that later.”

We finally closed up shop and made it back to the guesthouse late for dog dinner. They barked at us more than normal. Our clothes were so drenched in dust that we disrobed at the entry.

drenched in dust

We fed the dogs, showered, stuffed our faces and had a drink. As I melted into my chair, Sachi turned to me and said, “I’m setting the alarm for 6:30 in the morning.” Ugh. I sank an extra inch. I wasn’t sure I could get out of the chair, much less the bed. Not knowing what to say, I was silent for an awkward moment as I collected my thoughts.

We had put in two long and exhausting days and achieved a lot. Getting up at 6:30 was not required because we still had so much work to do. No one would even notice if we were there early. I wanted to get a long night’s sleep. Did we really need to?

Sachi’s response, as usual, was well-reasoned and this time, I relented. Her point was that the earlier we got started, the earlier we could finish. She reminded me of a quote we often share from Lawrence of Arabia, “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” The alarm stood. I hoped for multiple snoozes. 

In what seemed like minutes, Monday morning arrived in the dark and we kept pushing. We arrived at the site by 7:30 and started masking the windows. The bulk of the hard work was complete and we were on the road to painting.

That day, I thought about spending our time on the house being a kind of strange vacation. We were working on the house for a number of days and doing very little of our normal work. Yet, it was still in service of the same goal. We might not be focusing on Common Craft, but we are applying our time to a project that we would otherwise pay others to do. We were taking on a challenge that we could celebrate and learning about the process. We were part of the construction team. Sweat equity pays in unconventional ways. 

Through the sweat and blood and strained emotions, I’m left with a couple of thoughts. First, if someone asks you to help them paint a house starting with fresh drywall, ask many questions. Painting is the easy part.

Second, I’m left with a deep appreciation for the people who do this work every day. Not only is it hard work, but it’s work that requires skill, precision, and dedication. More than ever, we appreciate the work of tradespeople, whose work is bringing our house to life. For the framers, drywallers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and the team of carpenters who are there every day, I have new respect and admiration. What looks easy is often more work that you can imagine.

I Can Recommend

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix). If someone suggested watching a limited series about a female chess prodigy, I might not have taken that advice. I don’t think of chess and TV making compelling companions. Yet, I loved this show.

Amazing Race (Amazon) We’ve watched the Amazing Race for years and recently discovered that there are 29(!) seasons of the show on Amazon.

Fall of Civilizations (Podcast) I love a good history story and award bonus points for stories about collapse. This is a well produced podcast that takes deep dives into fascinating collapses from the Han Dynasty to Easter Island. One of my favorite episodes was the first one, about Roman Britain.

Dog Time…

Piper knows how I felt after dusting for two days.

Dog Time

That’s what I have for now. Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my writing, pick up one of my books. Cheers!


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On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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