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Upon completing this section, you should be able to describe the procedures used in preparing surfaces for painting.

The most essential part of any painting job is proper surface preparation and repair. Each type of surface requires specific cleaning procedures. Paint will not adhere well, provide the protection necessary, or have the desired appearance unless the surface is in proper condition for painting. Exterior surface preparation is especially important because hostile environments can accelerate deterioration.


As a Builder, you are most likely to paint three types of metals: ferrous, nonferrous, and galvanized. Improper protection of metals is likely to cause fatigue in the metal itself and may result in costly repairs or even replacement. Correct surface preparation, prior to painting, is essential.


Cleaning ferrous metals, such as iron and steel, involves the removal of oil, grease, previous coatings, and dirt. Keep in mind that once you prepare a metal surface for painting, it will start to rust immediately unless you use a primer or pretreatment to protect the surface.


The nonferrous metals are brass, bronze, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, nickel, and others not derived from iron ore. Nonferrous metals are generally cleaned with a solvent type of cleaner. After cleaning, you should apply a primer coat or a pretreatment.


Galvanized iron is one of the most difficult metals to prime properly. The galvanizing process forms a hard, dense surface that paint cannot penetrate. Too often, galvanized surfaces are not prepared properly, resulting in paint failure. Three steps must be taken to develop a sound paint system.

  1. Wash the galvanized surface with a solvent to remove grease, waxes, or silicones. Manufacturers sometimes apply these to resist "white rust" that may form on galvanized sheets stored under humid conditions. Mineral spirits or acid washes should definitely not be used at this stage.
  2. Etch the surface with a mild phosphoric acid wash. Etching increases paint adhesion and helps overcome the stress forces generated by expansion and contraction of the galvanized coating. After acid washing the surface, rinse it with clean water and allow to dry. When using acid, remember the situation can represent actual or potential danger to yourself and other employees in the area. Continuous and automatic precautionary measures minimize safety problems and improve both efficiency and morale of the crew.
  3. Apply a specially formulated primer. Two basic types of primer are in common use: zinc-bound and cementitious-resin. The zinc-bound type is used for normal exposure. Most types of finish can be used over this type of primer. Latex emulsion paints provide a satisfactory finish. Oil-based products should not be used over cementitious-resin primers. A minimum of two coats of finish is recommended over each type of primer.


In Navy construction, concrete and masonry are normally not painted unless painting is required for damp-proofing. Cleaning concrete and masonry involves the removal of dirt, mildew, and efflorescence (a white, powdery crystalline deposit that often forms on concrete and masonry surfaces).

Dirt and Fungus

Dirt and fungus are removed by washing with a solution of trisodium phosphate. The strength of the solution may vary from 2 to 8 ounces per gallon of water, depending upon the amount of dirt or mildew on the surface. Immediately after washing, rinse off all the trisodium phosphate with clear water. If using oil paint, allow the surface to dry thoroughly before painting.


For efflorescence, first remove as much of the deposit as possible by dry brushing with a wire brush or a stiff fiber brush. Next, wet the surface thoroughly with clear water; then, scrub with a stiff brush dipped in a 5-percent solution (by weight) of muriatic acid. Allow the acid solution to remain on the surface about 3 minutes before scrubbing, but rinse thoroughly with clear water immediately after scrubbing. Work on small areas not larger than 4 square feet. Wear rubber gloves, a rubber apron, and goggles when mixing and applying the acid solution. In mixing the acid, always add acid to water. Do not add water to acid; this can cause the mixture to explode. For a very heavy deposit, the acid solution may be increased to 10 percent and allowed to remain on the surface for 5 minutes before it is scrubbed.

Repairing Defects

All defects in a concrete or masonry surface must be repaired before painting. To repair a large crack, cut the crack out to an inverted-V shape and plug it with grout (a mixture of two or three parts of mortar sand, one part of portland cement, and enough water to make it putty-like in consistency). After the grout sets, damp cure it by keeping it wet for 48 hours. If oil paint is to be used, allow at least 90 days for weathering before painting over a grout-filled crack.


Whenever possible, allow new plaster to age at least 30 days before painting if oil-based paint is being applied. Latex paint can be applied after 48 hours, although a 30-day wait is generally recommended. Before painting, fill all holes and cracks with spackling compound or patching plaster. Cut out the material along the crack or hole in an inverted-V shape. To avoid excessive absorption of water from the patching material, wet the edges and bottom of the crack or hole before applying the material. Fill the opening to within 1/4 inch of the surface and allow the material to set partially before bringing the level up flush with the surface. After the material has thoroughly set (depending on the type of filler used), use fine sandpaper to smooth out the rough spots. Plaster and wallboard should have a sealer or a prime coat applied before painting. When working with old work, remove all loose or scaling paint, sand lightly, and wash off all dirt, oil, and stains. Allow the surface to dry thoroughly before applying the new finish coat.


Before being painted, a wood surface should be closely inspected for loose boards, defective lumber, protruding nail heads, and other defects or irregularities. Loose boards should be nailed tight, defective lumber should be replaced, and all nail heads should be counter-sunk.

A dirty wood surface is cleaned for painting by sweeping, dusting, and washing with solvent or soap and water. In washing wood, take care to avoid excessive wetting, which tends to raise the grain. Wash a small area at a time, then rinse and dry it immediately.

Wood that is to receive a natural finish (meaning not concealed by an opaque coating) may require bleaching to a uniform or light color. To bleach, apply a solution of 1 pound of oxalic acid to 1 gallon of hot water. More than one application may be required. After the solution has dried, smooth the surface with fine sandpaper.

Rough wood surfaces must be sanded smooth for painting. Mechanical sanders are used for large areas, hand sanding for small areas. For hand sanding, you should wrap sandpaper around a rubber, wood, or metal sanding block. For a very rough surface, start with a coarse paper, about No. 2 or 2 1/2. Follow this with a No, 1/2, No. 1, or No. 1 1/2. You should finish with about a No. 2/0 grit. For fine work, such as furniture sanding, you should finish with a freer grit.

Sap or resin in wood can stain through a coat, or even several coats, of paint. Remove sap or resin by scraping or sanding. Knots in resinous wood should be treated with knot sealer.

Green lumber contains a considerable amount of water, most of which must be removed before use. This not only prevents shrinkage after installation, but pre-vents blistering, cracking, and loss of adhesion after applied paint. Be sure all lumber used has been properly dried and kept dry before painting.


Conditioners are often applied on masonry to seal a chalky surface to improve adhesion of water-based topcoats. Sealers are used on wood to prevent resin running or bleeding. Fillers are used to produce a smooth finish on open-grained wood and rough masonry. Table 8-1 presents the satisfactory treatments of the various surfaces.

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Table 8-1.—Treatments of Various Substrates

Since water-thinned latex paints do not adhere well to chalky masonry surfaces, an oil-based conditioner is applied to the chalky substrate before latex paint is applied. The entire surface should be vigorously wire brushed by hand or power tools, then dusted to remove all loose particles and chalk residue. The conditioner is then brushed on freely to assure effective penetration and allowed to dry. Conditioner is not intended for use as a finish coat.


Sealers are applied to bare wood like coats of paint. Freshly exuded resin, while still soft, may be scraped off with a putty knife and the area cleaned with alcohol.

Remove hardened resin by scraping or sanding. Since sealer is not intended as a prime coat, it should be used only when necessary and applied only over the affected area. When previous paint becomes discolored over knots on pine lumber, the sealer should be applied over the old paint before the new paint is applied.


Fillers are used on porous wood, concrete, and masonry to provide a smoother finish coat.


Wood fillers are used on open-grained hardwoods. In general, hardwoods with pores larger than those found in birch should be filled. Table 8-2 lists the characteristics of various woods and which ones require fillers. The table also contains notes on finishing. Filling is done after staining. Stain should be allowed to dry for 24 hours before the filler is applied. If staining is not warranted, natural (uncolored) filler is applied directly to the bare wood. The filler may be colored with some of the stain to accentuate the grain pattern of the wood.

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Table 8-2.-Characteristics of Wood

To apply, you first thin the filler with mineral spirits to a creamy consistency, then liberally brush it across the grain, followed by a light brushing along the grain. Allow it to stand 5 to 10 minutes until most of the thinner has evaporated. At this time, the finish will have lost its glossy appearance. Before it has a chance to set and harden, wipe the filler off across the grain using burlap or other coarse cloth, rubbing the filler into the pores of the wood while removing the excess. Finish by stroking along the grain with clean rags. All excess filler must be removed.

Knowing when to start wiping is important. Wipng too soon pulls the filler out of the pores. Allowing the filler to set too long makes it hard to wipe off. A simple test for dryness consists of rubbing a finger across the surface. If a ball is formed, it’s time to wipe. If the filler slips under the pressure of the finger, it is still too wet for wiping. Allow the filler to dry for 24 hours before applying finish coats.


Masonry fillers are applied by brush to bare and previously prepared (all loose, powdery, flaking material removed) rough concrete, concrete block, stucco, or other masonry surfaces. The purpose is to fill the open pores in the surface, producing a fairly smooth finish. If the voids on the surface are large, you should apply two coats of filler, rather than one heavy coat. This avoids mud cracking. Allow 1 to 2 hours drying time between coats. Allow the final coat to dry 24 hours before painting.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015