Painters and Paperhangers

There are a variety of finishes that can be used on interior and exterior walls. Paint and other sealers are applied to the exteriors of buildings to protect them from wear and decay caused by exposure to the weather. Paint is available in an almost infinite number of colors, and is a common finish for interior walls. Wallpaper is another common wall finishing that can add patterns and texture to walls. Some painting techniques such as faux (false) painting are growing in popularity, and are increasingly being used in place of wallpaper in home remodeling projects. Painters and paperhangers apply all of these finishes.


Painters apply paint and varnish to buildings, walls, ceilings, and other surfaces, including wood, metal, concrete, masonry, and plastic. Most painters begin by preparing the surfaces to be painted. If the walls were covered with old paint or wallpaper, it must first be removed. Cracks and holes made by nails must be filled and smoothed. If the surfaces have never been painted, primer must be applied. Finish paint can be applied with brushes, rollers, or spray guns depending on the surface and the size of the job. Painters must be skilled in handling painting tools, know which tools and materials to use for each job based on the surface to be covered, and be able to apply paint quickly and smoothly.

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Not all painters work on residential and commercial buildings. Some specialize in painting industrial structures such as oil rigs, steel bridges, water tanks, structural steel, and ships. Depending on the location, workers may be required to take a variety of safety precautions, which could include wearing full-body protective clothing, wearing safety harnesses and cables when working on scaffolds, or strapping themselves into a bosun’s chair (a swing-like device) when painting steeples or other pointed structures.

Paperhangers use decorative wallpaper, fabric, vinyl, or other materials aside from paint to make rooms more attractive and appealing to the eye. Like painters, paperhangers must prepare surfaces by filling any holes and smoothing rough spots. Then, they paint the walls with sizing, a mixture that makes the paper stick better. The worker measures strips of wallpaper, taking care to match the pattern, and then cuts them to fit the wall. Next, adhesive is applied to the paper. The paperhanger then places the paper on the wall, smoothing out air bubbles and creases and trimming the excess paper from the edges.

Painters and paperhangers become skilled at their trades through on-the-job training and by working as helpers for experienced painters. There are also a limited number of formal apprenticeship programs available. These last approximately two to four years, and combine on-the-job training with 144 hours of yearly classroom instruction in subjects such as color harmony, use and care of tools and equipment, paint mixing and matching, characteristics of different finishes, blueprint reading, and safety. Trade and vocational schools also offer training, which lasts approximately one year.

Salaries vary depending upon skill set and geographic location. The median hourly wage for painters, not including the earnings of self-employed individuals, is $15.85. The middle 50 percent earn between $13.13 and $20.55 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $10.75 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $27.16 an hour. The median hourly wage for paperhangers is $16.76. The middle 50 percent earn between $13.64 and $23.08 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $10.82 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $33.48 an hour.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest number of painters are as follows:

Nonresidential building construction $16.72
Building finishing contractors $15.48
Residential building construction $14.87

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook expects overall employment growth of about 7 percent over the next 10 years. Employment growth will be average for painters and below average for paperhangers. While all jobs in the construction industry are sensitive to economic fluctuations, interior and exterior paint are maintenance items. Homes require painting when they are first constructed, when existing paint ages, when redecorating projects are completed, and when properties are rented or sold. Exteriors require more frequent painting because the paint is exposed to the outside elements. Industrial painting to prevent corrosion and deterioration of structures will also drive the need for painters. Paperhangers, however, are finding that consumers are looking for cheaper alternatives to wallpaper or are using easy application materials, effectively reducing demand for their skills.