How to Identify and Fix Problems in Your Paint Job

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Paint thinner
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Paint is a marvelous thing. A fresh coat can revive an antique, brighten a dingy room, and rekindle the love affair with your home. Painting can be miraculous, but it can also become a nightmare. When paint fails, it fails abysmally, creating a bigger problem than the one you were trying to cover up. The reality at those moments is that the new paint may have little or nothing to do with the failure. There may be some underlying problem or unseen error that is causing this wondrous miracle-maker to appear guilty. If you find yourself in a situation where you are questioning the integrity of your paint, step back and look at what is happening underneath. Here are some of the most common paint problems DIYers face and what to do when they occur.


This imperfection can be identified by the development of bubbles on the surface of the paint, which resemble pimples under the skin. This is caused by a restricted loss of bonding between the paint and the surface. This can occur by using a solvent or oil-based paint on a wet or moist surface or a surface that becomes moist after painting. It can also be caused by insufficient surface preparation before painting

To avoid this problem, always make sure that the paint surface is clean and dry before you begin. Prepare the wall with a solution of trisodium phosphate (TSP), allowing it to dry completely before proceeding. If there is moisture or the presence of a leak, find it and fix it. This may require removing and replacing sections of damaged drywall.

To fix blistering, scrape and sand the surface as far down as necessary. Patch or smooth the surface if needed, and apply a moisture barrier primer. It is then safe to apply the new paint.


This unfortunate phenomenon tends to occur during the normal wear of paint, when the binder begins to break down, releasing the pigment. Pigment begins to flake off while the color starts to fade. It typically takes paint several years for this to happen, but premature chalking can occur within a much shorter time period because of the application of over-thinned paint, the use of the wrong type of paint, or color break down due to sun exposure. Sun exposure is one of the biggest culprits in premature chalking.

For natural chalking, the only solution is to paint again. Since the natural breakdown of the binder is a slow process, repainting will be an infrequent occurrence. For premature chalking, make sure that the right type of paint was used for the job. For example, if interior paint is used on the exterior of a house, it will not withstand the abuse of wind, weather, and sunshine. It is not designed to. If the problem is occurring on the inside of the house, make sure that you are using a good-quality paint. Cheaper paint may save you money for the short term, but you may find additional and unnecessary expenses later on when the cheap paint fails. Don’t try to thin and use old paint that has begun to dry out. You run the risk of adding too much thinner, creating bigger problems for yourself later on.

Stains Bleeding Through

Most often found in pre-owned homes and older furniture, mysterious stains can be found on any surface. They are especially difficult to deal with when the cause of the stain is unknown. Sometimes a previously undetected stain can actually be brought to the surface by a fresh coat of paint, creating streaks, or dark patches that are extremely noticeable. This type of bleed through typically is caused by a conflict between the blotch and the applied paint, compounded by using either the wrong type of primer on the wall or no primer at all.

If you see a stain on the wall, expect you will need to use a high-quality primer or sealer before applying the intended color. Make sure that the wall is clean before you begin. Use a solution of TSP, following the directions on the package for solution strength, to clean and prep the surface. Hold a piece of paper to the stain for several seconds, applying pressure the entire time. If the stain bleeds onto the paper, allow the paper to sit for an hour. If the stain on the paper dries during that time, chances are you have a moisture source behind the wall that should be dealt with appropriately before you continue. If the stain does not dry, chances are it is an oil-based stain, and to paint over it, you'll need to find a primer that is designed to block oil-based stains. If the source of the stain is still unknown, use the best sealer or primer you can find—one that is considered a high-hiding type.

Paint Bleeding Through

This problem most often occurs when trying to paint over a dark color, but it can crop up when going from a light to dark color. There are two main reasons for the paint bleed-through. Either there is too much moisture behind the newly applied paint, causing the water-soluble pigment to seep to the surface, or the initial color is too bright or too dark to be covered with a conventional paint.

If moisture is the problem, find the source of the extra moisture and fix it before moving on. Once the problem is solved, apply a moisture barrier primer to the surface to ensure that the problem does not appear again. If moisture is not the issue, begin the painting process by applying a high hiding-primer to the surface to cover the overpowering color. Once the primer is completely dry, paint with the intended color as you normally would.


This is identified by a cracked pattern on the paint surface resembling the skin patterns of an alligator. It can be caused by applying a top coat before the bottom coat has dried completely or by applying various types of paint (oil-based, water-based, or alkyd) in multiple layers, creating an unbalanced ‘skin’ on the surface. Alligatoring can also occur during the natural aging process of oil-based paints, especially when the surface is exposed to a wide range of temperature changes from cold to hot to cold again. The temperature variance causes the paint to expand and contract, eventually creating mini-tears on the surface of the paint. Alligatoring may also indicate the presence of lead in the undercoat. This could be the case if the paint finish is more than 25 years old.

If lead paint is the suspect, call a professional immediately and have the paint safely removed. Do not try to remove it yourself. There are strict regulations surrounding the removal of lead paint, due to its toxicity.

If you know that lead is not the culprit, consider removing all of the older paint down to the wood and starting from scratch. Although this can be a messy process, it will eliminate a great deal of hassle in the long run. If an interior wall is doing this, consider using a low-fume or natural paint stripper to remove the previous layers. Make sure there is adequate ventilation. This is very important no matter what product you decide to use.

There are products and kits on the market that purposefully create the alligator skin look, to give the painted surface a distressed, aged appearance. If you like the distressed, use one of the many kits on the market. Do not try to purposefully create the look by painting a surface incorrectly.


Peeling occurs when the one or more layers of paint begin to slough off, very much like skin does after a burn. This can be caused by the presence of moisture during or after the painting process. Moisture is especially bad when using oil-based paint. Depending upon the location of the painted surface, peeling may indicate a leak either behind the wall or caulk failure. Peeling can occur because of cheap paint or even because of poor surface preparation as well. If blistering was detected and not fixed, it too can cause the paint to peel.

If moisture is suspected, find and fix the source of the leak. Make sure with any paint job that the surface is completely dry before starting the process. Also, it is always important to properly clean and prepare the paint surface. This includes removing all visible dust and dirt and washing the surface with a solution of TSP. In most cases, beginning with a layer of primer is the best option. Avoid using cheap paint as much as possible.


When the paint begins to look like old skin, wrinkling is probably to blame. This is most often caused by painting with oil-based paint in conditions that are too cold.

The rule of thumb in painting is, do not work in conditions below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures colder than that create problems, regardless of the type of paint used. The cold prevents even drying in all paints and prevents proper evaporation in water-based paints.


If the surface of your paint develops pink, gray, brown, or black spots, chances are mildew is most likely the cause. This can happen if moisture is present if existing mildew was not properly removed from a surface before painting, if poor quality paint was used, or if primer was not used on a bare wood exterior surface.

If mildew is detected, address the problem immediately. The sooner it is dealt with, the better off you will be. Mildew should always be cleaned up with a bleach solution or an appropriate mildew killing agent. Find and fix any leaks that may exist. Use a high-quality primer with ‘mildewcide’ to paint the affected area. For exterior wood, always prime and use high-quality exterior paint. It has ‘mildewcide’ built into the paint itself.

Before you pick up a paintbrush, remind yourself that painting of any kind is an investment of both time and money. Invest wisely by purchasing the best paint you can afford. If you are on a strict budget, save up until you can afford to buy high-quality paint instead of settling for cheap material because it will cost you down the road. An ounce of prevention combined with proper preparation of the surface will ensure that you will not be buried by unexpected costs and additional hours of unnecessary labor. Don’t miss the miracle that a fresh coat of paint can offer.