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Painting Your House Exterior Safely Using Ladders

Expert design advice, information, and tips all about house painting, written by a professional painter and decorator.

Safety tips for using ladders when painting a house.

Safety tips for using ladders when painting a house.

Safely Painting With Ladders

Some homeowners want to paint their home's exterior, but the thought of working on ladders is enough to make them cringe, and they end up putting it off or hiring a professional.

Painting at heights can be a daunting task, and it is a good idea to leave this job to a professional painter, or at least let them take care of the high soffits and roof areas.

This can be hazardous work and requires skill using ladders and sometimes even a harness system, as well as steady nerves. But if you are set to tackle this project on your own, there are important guidelines one should know to be successful and not end up on a stretcher!

This article will discuss the methods of safe and effective exterior painting on ladders, so that you can paint your two- or even three-story home on your own.

Get the Right Ladder for the Job

The first step is to obtain the right equipment. This means a tradesman (commercial) grade and fully functional ladder. Don't borrow just any old ladder; you need it to function properly.

Ladder Grades and Weight Loads

Ladders are rated as Grade 3, 2, 1, and 1A, which indicate their durability in increasing order (1A being the highest, rated for 300 pounds and industrial use).

  • Grade-3 ladders are homeowner grade, and they can be quite narrow and are not advisable if working higher than 20 feet off the ground.
  • Grade 1A ladders are very rigid, but the downside is that they are heavier, which can cause safety issues when moving the ladder.
  • In most cases, you want grade 2 for painting; they are robust, rated at 225 pounds, and will also be light enough to maneuver safely.

Should You Rent or Buy?

You can rent ladders if necessary; you’ll need a 28′ or longer for many two-story homes to reach the second-story soffits, and third-story areas will require a 32′ or a 40′ ladder.

It is usually more cost-effective to buy a ladder or two, since you won't be rushed this way, and you are saving lots of money anyway by doing this job yourself. For lower areas, you want a shorter ladder.

Some of the most versatile are called "3-way" ladders, which can be set up as an A-frame, or a small extension ladder, which makes reaching various first-story house extremities easier.

How to Operate a Ladder

  1. Find a level, solid surface. When setting up, always make sure it is sitting on level, solid ground. if you are on dirt or grass, dig the spiked feet into the soft ground to avoid slippage. You can also dig out a hole for a leg of the ladder is on an incline. It is also very important to erect the ladder at a safe angle.
  2. Adjust the tilt. There is a rule of thumb to obtain the right ratio: you want three to four feet of rise for every foot of run. This means that if you set up against a wall, and your ladder is extended to a total of 20 feet, you want the base of the ladder five or six feet from the wall. Staying near this recommended ratio minimizes the chances of the ladder slipping on the ground or moving at the top.
Using ladder stabilizers around a window.

Using ladder stabilizers around a window.

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Tips for Working on Ladders

Always Work Within Comfortable Reach

The areas that you want to paint from the ladder should be within a comfortable reach. Set it up at a height that is just below the area you need to work. Your body should stay centered on the ladder and still be able to work effectively.

Always keep one hand on the ladder, and scrape or paint with the freehand. This can be tedious work, but you will be sorry if you lose your balance! You should also never step above the fourth rung from the top so that you can keep a hand on the top of the ladder comfortably.

Use a Paint Can Hook

Get a paint can hook. You don’t have an extra hand to hold a can of paint when working at heights!

Choose the Right Day

Work when it is not too windy. Wind can be quite strong 30′ off the ground, enough to cause you to lose your balance.

Get Help

Have a helper to assist with the ladder, especially with ones longer than 24'.

Use Stand-Off Arms (Ladder Stabilizers), Especially for Soffits

A great tool that I highly recommend for all exterior painting are ladder stabilizers, also known as "stand-off arms." In their most common design, these are simple metal loops that slide into the topmost rungs of the ladder and add both stability and versatility in positioning.

They effectively allow the ladder to 'stand off' the wall a little over a foot and are a great way to have better reach of soffits. And as the name implies, they add stability to the ladder in general, so they are a great addition when there is space to use them.

Use Ladder Stabilizers

If you have some tricky areas to access, such as a dormer above the roofline, you may also employ ladder stabilizers to place the ladder on the roof. They give that extra clearance over gutters so that you can position a ladder a few feet up the roof (depending on the pitch of the roof). The ladder arms are also great for working on or around windows since you can rest them on either side safely.

Use a Brush Extension

If, despite your best ladder-positioning efforts, you still can't quite reach an area, stay safe by employing this final pro painter trick. Paint stores will sell a simple device that allows you to fix a brush onto an extension pole. Use a four- or six-foot pole, and you can usually cover the gap in your reach.

Though it takes some skill to maneuver a brush on a pole, it's certainly better than risking a fall. You can also of course attach rollers to an extension pole as needed, and you can bring your paint with you in a bucket on a hook and with a roller grid so that you don't need to fuss with a paint tray.

Ladder "arms," or stabilizers should safely clear the gutter.

Ladder "arms," or stabilizers should safely clear the gutter.

Tips for Working Near Electrical Wires

Another important safety issue is working near electrical wires.

Use a fiberglass ladder. If you need to paint an area near the electrical connection point on your house, you must use a fiberglass ladder, since these will not conduct electricity.

If you don't have a fiberglass ladder.... The safe rule is to never go within five feet of live wires with an aluminum ladder. Even though they may be insulated, its not a chance you want to take; and the wires should not be touched under any circumstances. If significant prep work must be done around wires (such as if they run closely alongside the house) you may need to contact the city to have power temporarily disconnected.

Stay Safe!

Using a ladder is usually the greatest obstacle to painting your own house, but it is certainly possible if you proceed methodically and don't skip steps that could jeopardize your safety. Once you have the hang of it, you can focus on a great paint job, and adding lively colorful painting.

Ready to Paint?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


brent on November 16, 2017:

but dont paint your wifes house if she doesnt give a shit if you are going to die doing it or not!

Dan Dattilo from Venice, Florida on July 28, 2015:

When painting from a ladder, a new product called the Buddy System from Big Boy Ind. allows a painter a hands-free solution by having a paint bucket holder that attaches to your belt with a custom designed removable dripless paint bucket that fits into the holder. The paint bucket also has a brush holding magnet to carry the brush.

The dripless paint bucket holds over a quart of paint which is more than enough paint to cover the area you can work from a ladder.

Marcus Morgan on May 11, 2015:

I am looking to paint the outside of our house. I will have to use a ladder to the upper level of the house. I am a little nervous, so I am researching and looking for safety tips so that I don't get hurt. This article was exactly what I needed and has a lot of great tips and things that I can do in order to keep me safe.

Jeff Willan on February 06, 2013:

Hello, I just wanted to say that is blog is great!Very good safety tips for people! I would love to share this on my Face Book Page! Here is the link stop by if you when. I will be waiting on your next blog .... Thanks Jeff

Jeffn19 from Boston, MA on January 31, 2013:

We of course use a range of ladders for all our roofing needs. We typically go through Home Depot to get ours. We do a lot of commercial painting in Boston MA, and make sure extreme precautions are taken with all our ladders.

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