Painter and Paperhanger Careers

For both practical purposes and aesthetic appeal, build­ing surfaces are often painted and decorated with various types of coverings. Although painting and paperhanging are two separate skills, many building trades craftsworkers do both types of work. Painters apply paints, varnishes, enamels, and other types of finishes to decorate and pro­tect interior and exterior surfaces of buildings and other structures. Paperhangers cover interior walls and ceilings with decorative paper, fabric, vinyls, and other types of materials. There are approximately 486,000 painters and paperhangers working in the United States.

Painter and Paperhanger Careers History

The history of the skilled house painter’s occupation in this country begins in the 18th century, when American colonists made their own paints for use on their homes. There were few people in the business of manufactur­ing paint in the colonies, and it was unusual to order materials from other countries because the shipping and transport industries were not as sophisticated as they are today.

Painter CareerInstead, builders and owners depended on local products for making paint. Milk, for example, was often used as a base. Soil from land that had traces of iron was burned to make paint with a red pigment, or colored tint. Material called lampblack, which is black soot, was also used to make pigmented paint. In 1867, manufactur­ers made available the first prepared paints. After this, machines were invented to enable manufacturers to pro­duce paint in large amounts.

Paperhanging as an occupation probably began around the 16th century. Although the Chinese invented decorative paper, it was the Europeans who first used it to cover walls. Wealthy homeowners often decorated the walls of their rooms with tapestries and velvet hangings (which was often done for warmth as well as decoration); those who could not afford such luxuries would imitate the rich by hanging inexpensive, yet decorative, wallpa­per in their homes.

Paperhangers and painters were in great demand as building construction developed on a large scale in the early part of the 20th century. Since the middle of the 20th century, there have been great advancements in the materials and techniques used by these skilled trades workers.

Painter and Paperhanger Job Description

Workers in the painting and paperhanging trades often perform both functions; painters may take on jobs that involve hanging wallpaper, and paperhangers may work in situations where they are responsible for painting walls and ceilings. However, although there is some overlap in the work, each trade has its own characteristic skills.

Painters must be able to apply paint thoroughly, uni­formly, and rapidly to any type of surface. To do this, they must be skilled in handling brushes and other painting tools and have a working knowledge of the various char­acteristics of paints and finishes—their durability, suit­ability, and ease of handling and application.

Preparation of the area to be painted is an important duty of painters, especially when repainting old surfaces. They first smooth the surface, removing old, loose paint with a scraper, paint remover (usually a liquid solution), wire brush, or paint-removing gun (similar in appear­ance to a hairdryer) or a combination of these items. If necessary, they remove grease and fill nail holes, cracks, and joints with putty, plaster, or other types of filler. Often, a prime coat or sealer is applied to further smooth the surface and make the finished coat level and well blended in color.

Once the surface is prepared, painters select premixed paints or prepare paint by mixing required portions of pigment, oil, and thinning and drying substances. (For purposes of preparing paint, workers must have a thor­ough knowledge of the composition of the various mate­rials they use and of which materials mix well together.) They then paint the surface using a brush, spray gun, or roller; choosing the most appropriate tool for applying paint is one of the most important decisions a painter must make because using incorrect tools often slows down the work and produces unacceptable results. Spray guns are used generally for large sur­faces or objects that do not lend themselves to brush work, such as lattices, cinder and concrete block, and radiators.

Many painters specialize in working on exterior surfaces only, painting house sidings and outside walls of large buildings. When doing work on tall build­ings, scaffolding (raised support­ive platforms) must be erected to allow the painter to climb to his or her position at various heights above the ground; workers also might use swing-like and chair­like platforms hung from heavy cables.

The first task of the paper-hanger is similar to that of the painter: to prepare the surface to be covered. Rough spots must be smoothed, holes and cracks must be filled, and old paint, varnish, and grease must be removed from the surface. In some cases, old wallpaper must be removed by brushing it with solvent, soaking it down with water, or steaming it with portable steamer equip­ment. In new work, the paper-hangers apply sizing, which is a prepared glazing material used as filler to make the plaster less porous and to ensure that the paper sticks well to the surface.

After erecting any necessary scaffolding, the paper-hangers measure the area to be covered and cut the paper to size. They then mix paste and apply it to the back of the paper, which is then placed on the wall or ceiling and smoothed into place with brushes or rollers. In placing the paper on the wall, paperhangers must make sure that they match any design patterns at the adjacent edges of paper strips, cut overlapping ends, and smooth the seams between each strip.

Painter and Paperhanger Careers Requirements

High School

Although a high school education is not essential, it is preferred that workers have at least the equivalent, such as a GED diploma. Shop classes can help prepare you for the manual work involved in painting and paperhanging, while art classes will help you develop an eye for color and design. Chemistry classes will be useful in dealing with the paints, solvents, and other chemicals used in this work.

Postsecondary Training

To qualify as a skilled painter or paperhanger, a person must complete either an apprenticeship or an on-the-job training program. The apprenticeship program, which often combines painting and paperhanging, consists of three years of carefully planned activity, including work experience and related classroom instruction (approxi­mately 144 hours of courses each year). During this period, the apprentice becomes familiar with all aspects of the craft: use of tools and equipment, preparation of surfaces as well as of paints and pastes, application meth­ods, coordination of colors, reading of blueprints, char­acteristics of wood and other surfaces, cost-estimating methods, and safety techniques. Courses often involve the study of mathematics as well as practice sessions on the techniques of the trade.

On-the-job training programs involve learning the trade informally while working for two to three years under the guidance of experienced painters or paper-hangers. The trainees usually begin as helpers until they acquire the necessary skills and knowledge for more dif­ficult jobs. Workers without formal apprenticeship train­ing are more easily accepted in these crafts than in most of the other building trades.

Other Requirements

Basic skills requirements are the same for both painters and paperhangers. Most employers prefer to hire appli­cants in good physical condition, with manual dexterity and a good sense of color. For protection of their own health, applicants should not be allergic to paint fumes or other materials used in the trade.

Exploring Painter and Paperhanger Careers

Paperhanger CareerYou can explore the work of painters and paperhangers by reading trade journals and watching instructional videos or television programs. Those who already have some experience in the trade should keep up with the news by reading such publications as the monthly Paint­ers and Allied Trades Journal, available to members of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades union ( Look for educational books and videos at your local library. The projects tackled on television home improvement shows almost always feature the work of painters or paperhangers to some extent.

Certainly, painting and paperhanging in your own home or apartment provide valuable firsthand experi­ence, often impossible to obtain in other fields. Also valuable is the experience gained with a part-time or summer job as a helper to skilled workers who are already in the trade. Those who have done satisfactory part-time work sometimes go to work full time for the same employer after a certain period of time.


There are approximately 486,000 painters and paper-hangers employed in the United States; most of them are painters and trade union members. Approximately 50 percent of these workers are self-employed. Jobs are found mainly with contractors who work on projects such as new construction, remodeling, and restoration; others are found as maintenance workers for such estab­lishments as schools, apartment complexes, and high-rise buildings.

Starting Out

If you wish to become an apprentice, you should con­tact employers, your state’s employment service bureau or apprenticeship agency, or the union headquarters of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. You must, however, have the approval of the joint labor-management apprenticeship committee before you can enter the occupation by this method. If the apprentice program is filled, you may wish to enter the trade as an on-the-job trainee. In this case, you usually should con­tact employers directly to begin work as a helper.


Successful completion of one of the two types of train­ing programs is necessary before individuals can become qualified, skilled painters or paperhangers. If workers have management ability and good planning skills, and if they work for a large contracting firm, they may advance to the following positions: supervisor, who supervises and coordinates activities of other workers; painting and decorating contract estimator, who computes material requirements and labor costs; or superintendent, who oversees a large contract painting job.

Some painters and paperhangers, once they have acquired enough capital and business experience, go into business for themselves as painting and decorat­ing contractors. These self-employed workers must be able to take care of all standard business affairs, such as bookkeeping, insurance and legal matters, advertising, and billing.


Painters and paperhangers tend to earn more per hour than many other construction workers, but their total annual incomes may be less because of work time lost due to poor weather and periods of layoffs between con­tract assignments. In 2005, median hourly earnings of painters, construction and maintenance were $14.81 (or $30,800 annually), according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL). Hourly wages ranged from less than $9.54 (or $19,850 annually) to more than $25.31 (or $52,650 annually). In general, paperhangers make more than painters. The USDL reports that paperhangers earned a median hourly salary of $16.08 (or $33,450 annually) in 2005. Wages ranged from less $11.13 ($23,160 annu­ally) to $27.88 ($57,990 annually). Hourly wage rates for painting and paperhanging apprentices usually start at 40 to 50 percent of the rate for experienced workers and increase periodically. Wages often vary depending on the geographic location of the job.

Work Environment

Most painters and paperhangers have a standard 40-hour workweek, and they usually earn extra pay for working overtime. Their work requires them to stand for long peri­ods of time, to climb, and to bend. Painters work both indoors and outdoors, because their job may entail paint­ing interior surfaces as well as exterior siding and other areas; paperhangers work exclusively indoors. Because these occupations involve working on ladders and often with electrical equipment such as power sanders and paint sprayers, workers must adhere to safety standards.

Painter and Paperhanger Careers Outlook

Employment of painters and paperhangers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Most job openings will occur as other workers retire, transfer, or otherwise leave the occupation. Turnover is very high in this trade. Openings for paperhangers will be fewer than those for painters, however, because this is a smaller specialized trade.

Increased construction will generate a need for more painters to work on new buildings and industrial structures. However, this will also lead to increased competition among self-employed painters and painting contractors for the bet­ter jobs. Newer types of paint have made it easier for inexpe­rienced persons to do their own painting, but this does not affect the employment outlook much because most painters and paperhangers work on industrial and commercial projects and are not dependent on residential work.

For More Information: