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Painters and Paperhangers

Significant Points
  • Employment prospects should be excellent due to the expected job growth, coupled with the large numbers of workers who retire or leave the occupation for other jobs.
  • Most workers learn informally on the job as helpers, but training experts recommend completion of an apprenticeship program.
  • Nearly one-half of all painters and paperhangers are self employed.

    Nature of the Work

    Paint and wall coverings make surfaces clean, attractive, and bright. In addition, paints and other sealers protect exterior surfaces from wear caused by exposure to the weather.

    Painters apply paint, stain, varnish, and other finishes to buildings and other structures. They choose the right paint or finish for the surface to be covered, taking into account durability, ease of handling, method of application, and customers’ wishes. Painters first prepare the surfaces to be covered, so that the paint will adhere properly. This may require removing the old coat of paint by stripping, sanding, wire brushing, burning, or water and abrasive blasting. Painters also wash walls and trim to remove dirt and grease, fill nail holes and cracks, sandpaper rough spots, and brush off dust. On new surfaces, they apply a primer or sealer to prepare the surface for the finish coat. Painters also mix paints and match colors, relying on knowledge of paint composition and color harmony. In large paint shops or hardware stores, these functions are automated.

    There are several ways to apply paint and similar coverings. Painters must be able to choose the right paint applicator for each job, depending on the surface to be covered, the characteristics of the finish, and other factors. Some jobs need only a good bristle brush with a soft, tapered edge; others require a dip or fountain pressure roller; still others can best be done using a paint sprayer. Many jobs need several types of applicators. The right tools for each job not only expedite the painter’s work but also produce the most attractive surface.

    When working on tall buildings, painters erect scaffolding, including “swing stages,” scaffolds suspended by ropes, or cables attached to roof hooks. When painting steeples and other conical structures, they use a bosun’s chair, a swing-like device.

    Paperhangers cover walls and ceilings with decorative wall coverings made of paper, vinyl, or fabric. They first prepare the surface to be covered by applying “sizing,” which seals the surface and makes the covering adhere better. When redecorating, they may first remove the old covering by soaking, steaming, or applying solvents. When necessary, they patch holes and take care of other imperfections before hanging the new wall covering.

    After the surface has been prepared, paperhangers must prepare the paste or other adhesive. Then, they measure the area to be covered, check the covering for flaws, cut the covering into strips of the proper size, and closely examine the pattern in order to match it when the strips are hung. Much of this process can now be handled by specialized equipment.

    The next step is to brush or roll the adhesive onto the back of the covering, if needed, and to then place the strips on the wall or ceiling, making sure the pattern is matched, the strips are hung straight, and the edges are butted together to make tight, closed seams. Finally, paperhangers smooth the strips to remove bubbles and wrinkles, trim the top and bottom with a razor knife, and wipe off any excess adhesive.

    Working Conditions

    Most painters and paperhangers work 40 hours a week or less; about one-fourth have variable schedules or work part time. Painters and paperhangers must stand for long periods, often working from scaffolding and ladders. Their jobs also require a considerable amount of climbing and bending. These workers must have stamina, because much of the work is done with their arms raised overhead. Painters often work outdoors but seldom in wet, cold, or inclement weather. Some painting jobs can leave a worker covered with paint.

    Painters and paperhangers sometimes work with materials that are hazardous or toxic, such as when they are required to remove lead-based paints. In the most dangerous situations, painters work in a sealed self-contained suit to prevent inhalation of or contact with hazardous materials.

    Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

    Painting and paperhanging is learned mostly through on-the-job training and by working as a helper to an experienced painter. However, there are a number of formal and informal training programs that provide more thorough instruction and a better career foundation. In general, the more formal the training received the more likely the individual will enter the profession at a higher level. Besides apprenticeships, some workers gain skills by attending technical schools that offer training prior to employment. These schools can take about a year to complete. Others receive training through local vocational high schools. Applicants should have good manual dexterity and color sense. There are limited opportunities for informal training for paperhangers because there are fewer paperhangers and helpers are usually not required.

    If available, apprenticeships are usually the best way to enter the profession. They generally provide a mixture of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. Apprenticeships for painters and paperhangers consist of 2 to 4 years of on-the-job training, supplemented by 144 hours of related classroom instruction each year. Apprentices or helpers generally must be at least 18 years old and in good physical condition. A high school education or its equivalent, with courses in mathematics, usually is required to enter an apprenticeship program. Apprentices receive instruction in color harmony, use and care of tools and equipment, surface preparation, application techniques, paint mixing and matching, characteristics of different finishes, blueprint reading, wood finishing, and safety.

    Whether a painter learns the trade through a formal apprenticeship or informally as a helper, on-the-job instruction covers similar skill areas. Under the direction of experienced workers, trainees carry supplies, erect scaffolds, and do simple painting and surface preparation tasks while they learn about paint and painting equipment. As they gain experience, trainees learn to prepare surfaces for painting and paperhanging, to mix paints, and to apply paint and wall coverings efficiently and neatly. Near the end of their training, they may learn decorating concepts, color coordination, and cost-estimating techniques. In addition to learning craft skills, painters must become familiar with safety and health regulations so that their work complies with the law.

    Painters and paperhangers may advance to supervisory or estimating jobs with painting and decorating contractors. Many establish their own painting and decorating businesses. For those who would like to advance, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited English skills; Spanish speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Painting contractors need good English skills in order to deal with clients and subcontractors.


    Painters and paperhangers held about 486,000 jobs in 2004; most were painters. Around one-third of painters and paperhangers work for painting and wall covering contractors engaged in new construction, repair, restoration, or remodeling work. In addition, organizations that own or manage large buildings—such as apartment complexes—employ maintenance painters, as do some schools, hospitals, factories, and government agencies.

    Self-employed independent painting contractors accounted for nearly one-half of all painters and paperhangers, significantly greater than the one in five of construction trades workers in general

    Job Outlook

    Job prospects should be excellent because each year thousands of painters retire or leave for jobs in other occupations. There are no strict training requirements for entry into these jobs, so many people with limited skills work as painters or helpers for a short time and then move on to other types of work. Many fewer openings will arise for paperhangers because the number of these jobs is comparatively small.

    In addition to the need to replace experienced workers who leave, new jobs will be created. Employment of painters is expected to grow as fast as average for all occupations through the year 2014, reflecting increases in the level of new construction and in the stock of buildings and other structures that require maintenance and renovation. The relatively short life of exterior paints as well as changing color trends will stir demand for painters. Painting is labor-intensive and not susceptible to technological changes that might make workers more productive and slow employment growth. Paperhangers should see slower than average employment growth as easy application materials and reduced demand for paperhanging services limits growth.

    Jobseekers considering these occupations should expect some periods of unemployment, especially until they gain experience. Many construction projects are of short duration, and construction activity is cyclical and seasonal in nature. Remodeling, restoration, and maintenance projects, however, often provide many jobs for painters and paperhangers even when new construction activity declines. The most versatile painters and skilled paperhangers generally are best able to keep working steadily during downturns in the economy.


    In May 2004, median hourly earnings of painters, construction and maintenance, were $14.55. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.59 and $19.04. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.47, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $25.11. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of painters in May 2004 were as follows:

    Local government $18.36
    Residential building construction 15.09
    Nonresidential building construction 14.97
    Building finishing contractors 14.44
    Employment services 11.31

    In May 2004, median earnings for paperhangers were $15.73. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.23 and $20.71. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.57, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $26.58.

    Earnings for painters may be reduced on occasion because of bad weather and the short-term nature of many construction jobs. Hourly wage rates for apprentices usually start at 40 to 50 percent of the rate for experienced workers and increase periodically.

    Some painters and paperhangers are members of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. Some maintenance painters are members of other unions.

    Related Occupations

    Painters and paperhangers apply various coverings to decorate and protect wood, drywall, metal, and other surfaces. Other construction occupations in which workers do finishing work include carpenters; carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers; drywall installers, ceiling tile installers, and tapers; painting and coating workers, except construction and maintenance; and plasterers and stucco masons.

    Sources of Additional Information

    For details about painting and paperhanging apprenticeships or work opportunities, contact local painting and decorating contractors, local trade organizations, a local of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, a local joint union-management apprenticeship committee, or an office of the State apprenticeship agency or employment service.

    For information about the work of painters and paperhangers and training opportunities, contact:

    • International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, 1750 New York Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20006. Internet: http://www.iupat.org/
    • Associated Builders and Contractors, Workforce Development Department, 4250 North Fairfax Dr., 9th Floor, Arlington, VA 22203. Internet: http://www.trytools.org/
    • National Center for Construction Education and Research, P.O. Box 141104, Gainesville FL, 32614-1104. Internet: http://www.nccer.org/
    • Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, 11960 Westline Industrial Drive, Suite 201, St. Louis, MO 63146-3209. Internet: http://www.pdca.org/
      • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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