Here’s How to Always Pick the Right Paint Finish!

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An Easy Guide to Paint Finishes and SheensBrian Woodcock

Paint is one of the most important components of any home decorating project. While it’s easy to spend hours in your local hardware store searching out the best soothing blue for your kitchen cabinets or a warm brown color to cozy up the guest room, your mission doesn’t end there. Choosing your paint finish (also known as paint sheen) is an equally essential part of the journey!

“Selecting the proper paint finish is key in any design plan,” says Country Living Senior Homes & Style Editor Anna Logan. “The finish has a huge impact on how your room feels due to the way it interacts with light, so it’s imperative to test various finishes in the room you plan to paint.”

But with so many options out there, and some being better suited for certain spaces than others, how to know where to start? With Country Living’s easy-to-follow guide, of course! Read on to learn the difference between all the various finishes, as well as insight on picking the best paint sheen for your next project.

The Most Common Types of Paint Finishes

Paint sheen, or paint finish, refers to how much light a painted surface reflects. The higher the sheen, the glossier the surface will appear. “Wisdom dictates that the shinier a finish, the easier it is to clean, but the harder it is to conceal nicks or dents,” Anna explains.

A paint’s finish can also affect how its color appears. Because a high-gloss color will reflect more light than it’s flat counterpart, it will likely appear brighter. (Hence the need to test multiple finishes before you fully commit!)

These are the most regularly used types of paint finishes, listed from dullest to shiniest—and (as a general rule) least to most expensive.

Flat Paint Finish

Sometimes referred to as matte, a flat paint sheen reflects little to no light. This finish goes a long way in masking dents, cracks, and other imperfections on a surface, but it’s also the hardest to keep clean, as it doesn’t hold up particularly well to scrubbing. It’s best-suited for a low-traffic area or a ceiling.

Eggshell Paint Finish

One of the most versatile interior paint finishes, eggshell has slightly more luster than flat paint. It’s still very low-sheen, which goes a long way in hiding imperfections and undesired textures, but is significantly easier to clean. It’s an excellent choice for the walls of the spaces where we spend the most time, such as bedrooms and living rooms.

Satin Paint Finish

Another versatile finish, satin is typically considered the highest sheen choice for interior walls. (It is also sometimes used on trim in lower-traffic rooms.) Because it bounces more light than eggshell, it will help make a hue appear brighter in a well-lit room. It’s also sometimes considered a better choice for bathroom and kitchen walls, which are more often in need of regular wipe-downs.

Semi-Gloss Paint Finish

Easy to clean and adept at showing off the intricacies of millwork, semi-gloss paint is a great choice for high-contact areas such as kitchen and bathroom cabinets as well as baseboards. The higher reflectivity quotient does require a more careful application, though, as drips will be more immediately noticeable.

High-Gloss Paint Finish

If it’s a slick, high-shine look you’re after, high-gloss is the way to go. (Just be sure to budget accordingly, and, if possible, leave the paint job to a professional.) While it certainly delivers a wow-factor, this finish can appear more fancy or formal, so it may be better suited for jewel box spaces, such as a powder bathroom or library.

How to Choose the Right Paint Finish

Different areas of the home often demand different paint finishes. Here’s an overview of what’s best suited for where.

The best paint finish for walls

Eggshell and satin are the two most commonly used paint finishes on interior room walls. If the walls see more traction, which often happens in playrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens—especially with kids at home!—the more durable satin may be a better choice, while eggshell often makes more sense for living rooms and bedrooms. That said, the decision will likely come down to how the hue varies from finish to finish, so painting a few test patches or boards is well worth it.

The best paint finish for ceilings

Because there’s minimal risk of regular wear and tear on a ceiling, durability is less of a concern when it comes to paint finish for a ceiling. This makes a flat paint finish a good choice, especially because the matte look won’t draw attention. That will keep the focus on furnishings and decor, so get that gallery wall ready!

The best paint finish for trim

Satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss finishes are all great choices for trim, as they hold up better to scuffs and buffs. Just bear in mind: the higher the shine, the more formal the look.

The best paint finish for furniture

A semi-gloss paint finish is most commonly used when coating furniture pieces such as armoires, buffets, dressers, and even chairs, as it allows for regular wipe downs and protects from everyday wear and tear.

The best paint finish for kitchen cabinets

Semi-gloss is also most often the way to go with kitchen cabinets, as it provides a factory-smooth finish and has reliable stain resistance. The higher sheen will also help bounce sun rays, thus making your cooking space appear lighter and brighter—clutch when you’re spending the day whipping up a delicious pie or a soul-warming soup.

The best paint finish for bathrooms

Satin and semi-gloss paint finishes have the added benefit of being more moisture-resistant, making them better able to endure long, steamy showers without warping or peeling.

Oil-Based Paint vs. Latex-Based Paint

Alkyd (or oil-based) and latex paint aren’t paint finishes. Rather, these terms refer to what makes up the paint product: oil or water. For most interior paint projects, latex—or water-based—paint or enamel is ideal. Latex dries quickly, cleans up easily with water, and doesn’t have a strong odor. Alkyd dries slower and gives off a strong smell. The pro of using alkyd paint is that it provides a smoother, almost hard, enamel-like finish that resists scratching, fingerprints, and stains. This type of paint also tends to stick to its surface better, so it’s a good choice for rougher surfaces, furniture, and even floors.

Additional reporting by Kathy Barnes.

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