To touch up or repaint?

Jun 13, 2018

A painting contractor’s plea for a robust touch-up regimen vs. complete repainting

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by Nigel Costolloe, president, Catchlight Painting, a Historic New England Preservation Partner

As historical house painters we are typically tasked with repainting an entire house rather than simply maintaining the existing coating. The diligent old house owner would do well to enlist a trusted painting partner in touching up annually, rather than deferring attention until a more significant repainting project is required.

Most of the old houses we assess have paint in quite good condition on 90% of the siding and trim, while only 10% of the house may show light to severe peeling. We would argue that a careful washing of the entire house to remove the inevitable mildew, pollen, and dust will be sufficient in most cases, limiting restoration and repainting to the area in need.

This provides a few benefits:

In the photo below, this Brookline, Massachusetts, home was black with mildew after years of deferred attention. A walk around with the owner revealed an oil-based topcoat in excellent condition, showing the early stages of alligatoring but otherwise intact. We offered to revisit the notion of repainting after a thorough wash. The owner agreed and was delighted to find an almost perfect finish on his house once the cleaning process was completed.

Brookline home with mildew


It’s worth noting that power washing, in the wrong hands, can do more harm than good. While a power washer actually delivers less water to the side of a house than a garden hose, it does so with the assistance of air pressure. This makes power washing your home enormously effective at removing surface dirt, but it can also force water behind the siding and trim if used improperly.

Make sure that you or the professional you hire knows what they are doing. Watch manufacturer-sponsored videos online to gain a good understanding of effective power washing as well as what NOT to do.

Once your house has been washed and allowed to dry (humidity and precipitation obviously influence dry time so I can’t suggest a definitive period of drying), let the touch-ups commence.

Remove loose or peeling paint with a carbide scraper. Carbide is more effective than steel and requires less elbow grease. Like sanding, always scrape in the direction of the grain of the wood to avoid damage. Once loose paint is removed, use an orbital sander, attached to a HEPA filtered vacuum (we prefer the Festool system, which is expensive but a lifetime investment) with anywhere from 24 to 120 grit sandpaper to feather the paint edge so the transition from bare wood to paint is smooth to the touch.

Sanding before a paint touch-up

Apply a coat of oil-based, slow-drying primer (to seal wood tannins), allow proper drying time (same caveat as above) then topcoat by brush, in the direction of the grain, and be sure to coat the entire piece of clapboard, shingle, or trim end to end for best results.

Always make sure to have extra paint around, keep it from freezing, and cover the can opening with Saran wrap before sealing the lid for long-term storage. We find that purchasing a fresh gallon, even of exactly the same color by the same manufacturer, can yield minor color differences (due to formulation changes, inexact colorant measurements, or whatever the reason). Buy and keep extra paint for future touch-ups.


Nigel Costolloe is the president of Catchlight Painting, a full-service residential and commercial painting company serving Greater Boston. He is active regionally and nationally in the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America (PDCA) as a leader, speaker, and mentor.