Transform cheap paneling with a little elbow grease and a lot of paint

Fall House Hunt Home Improvement Style
Want to save money by painting over that dark, flimsy paneling in your fixer-upper? Preparation is key.
Want to save money by painting over that dark, flimsy paneling in your fixer-upper? Preparation is key. Adobe Stock

Flimsy dark paneling, the highlight of nearly every ’70s rec room, was as ubiquitous in Greater Boston as wood-paneled station wagons. But now it strikes fear in the home buyer tasked with sprucing up a fixer-upper on a limited budget.

You can save time and money and still lighten up your space with a little effort and a lot of paint. Here’s how:

1. Wash the entire surface with soapy detergent. A painter friend got me hooked on powdered Dirtex. Dirtex is an excellent general-purpose household cleaner for all washable surfaces, but it is gentle on the skin. It also leaves surfaces clean without rinsing or streaking.

2. Lightly sand the entire surface to be coated. Use a power sander as much as possible to save time. I recommend 120- to 150-grit sandpaper. Hand sand areas where the power sander will not fit. Sanding is the best approach, because it gives the surface some “tooth.’’ The goal is to create a good mechanical bond between the paneled wall and the primer. You could skip this step if you really don’t want to sand, but remember painting is all about the preparation.

3. Wipe down all surfaces.

4. Use a high-bonding acrylic primer that is designed for coating hard, glossy surfaces with minimal surface preparation.

5. Caulk all seams, corners, and along the baseboard. Fill any nail holes if you want a smooth surface.

6. Apply one to two coats of primer. Use a high quality 2-inch angled sash brush to cut in the corners, ceiling, and floor edges.

7. Once that is complete, “fill in the field’’ with a 3/8-inch nap roller. Roll in 4-by-4-foot areas, working from the top down.

8. You may want to use the roller to coat the grooves first, then fill in the flat surfaces. After the primer dries, fill in the grooves in the paneling with standard drywall joint compound, if desired. Use a putty knife to apply a thin layer. Sand it smooth, and then wipe down the surface. (Don’t use spackling compound, which isn’t durable enough, or caulk, which won’t sand smooth.)

9. Apply one to two coats of acrylic paint.

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