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Choosing Your Perfect Paint

paint buckets

Get the most design bang for your buck with a new coat of paint. Of all the improvements you can do around your house, painting involves the least amount of money and achieves the most dramatic results. You can paint an entire room in less than a weekend and update its appearance, mood and charm.

And although painting is a relatively simple do-it-yourself project, choosing the right paint for the right project is key to getting the job done.

Oil-based vs. latex

There are two common types of interior paint: oil-based and latex. Oil-based paint dries slower than latex, and cleanup requires turpentine or paint thinner. However, oil-based paint flows better, which results in a smoother finish. Once dry, it’s also harder and withstands scrubbing better than latex.

“Oil-based paint is useful where extra adhesion and hardness are required,” says Carl Minchew, director of color technology for Benjamin Moore Paints. “It is also useful for suppressing stains, such as tannin bleeding from cedar wood.”

On the other hand, latex paint dries relatively fast, and cleanup requires only soap and water. “Latex paint dominates the architectural market because of its ease of use, durability and quick drying properties,” Minchew says.

“Latex paint is available to fulfill virtually every need.” It’s also generally less expensive than oil-based paint, and it’s fade-resistant and environmentally friendly.


Once you’ve decided on an oil-based or latex paint, you need to decide on the sheen, or the term used to describe the degree of light reflection paint has. Manufacturers use various terms to describe sheen, but the most common names include flat, satin, eggshell, semi-gloss and high-gloss.

Choosing the right sheen is as important as choosing the right color, as shiny surfaces have different appearances than flatter ones. “Sheen (or gloss) is largely a matter of taste, but there are practical considerations,” Minchew says.

Diana Passig, paint department manager for Lowe’s in Marietta GA, agrees. “The most popular sheens are eggshell and satin because they provide a low gloss on the wall, but are good for cleanup. Eggshell and satins can handle light cleaning solutions, high-gloss can take heavy chemical cleaners and flats can’t handle much more than a damp rag.”

Aside from appearance, there are several factors to consider when choosing sheen:

  • Overall appearance. Low-gloss finishes have a softer, smoother look, while high-gloss tends to amplify minor dents and dings in the drywall.
  • Ease of use. Low-gloss or flat paints are best for inexperienced painters—especially on walls and ceilings.
  • Serviceability. High-gloss finishes tend to resist marks and smudges, and they clean better than flatter paint. However, flat paints tend to touch up the best.

In general, use flat-finish paints on the ceiling to minimize glare; flat, satin or eggshell on walls; and low-gloss or semi-gloss on trim and woodwork. And avoid flat paint in mildew-prone or damp areas like the kitchen or bath.

Passig says she recommends painting kitchens and bathrooms with paint that is designed to help prevent mildew from developing. “And if you’re painting a room that is dark and doesn’t have too many windows, go with a satin sheen because light from lamps can bounce off the wall and give you more light,” she says.

The right color

Choosing Your Perfect PaintIf you’re considering a new color—especially a bold or vibrant shade—buy a small can and paint a section of the room.

“Paint at least a one-foot area either beside or directly across from a window.”

Passig says. “This will give you a chance to see if the paint is something you can live with.”

Keep your flooring, window coverings and fabrics in mind, as well. “Most of the time, the color will have to work with existing furniture and carpet. These don’t have to limit creativity, but they can provide some direction.”

Passig also suggests choosing a feature in the room for inspiration. “If there is something vital that you want to bring attention to, like the fireplace, bedspread or wallpaper, that’s where you want to begin,” she says.

Consider coverage as well. Repainting with a new color may require several coats of paint. Using a similar color to the existing paint can save you time and money.

Prepping the surface

“The most important step in a paint job is the surface preparation,” Minchew says. “A new coat of paint simply can’t do its job over a poorly prepared surface.” To ensure your paint goes on smoothly, follow these steps:

  • Clean the surface of peeling or chipped paint, dirt, grease or chalk. Look for signs of trouble, like water stains, excessive mildew, blistering or severe peeling and repair damages.
  • Patch holes, cracks and other imperfections with a premixed spackling paste, and sand the patched areas once they are dry.
  • Dust and wash the ceilings, walls, baseboards, windows and door moldings.
  • Clean wallpaper can be painted over, but in almost all cases, it’s best to strip it, because once you paint over it, you’ll never be able to remove it. If you do paint over it, test in an inconspicuous area and wait a few days to see if the pattern bleeds through or the paper begins to peel.
  • Use a primer on any new construction to condition the surface for paint, or where you’ve made repairs so they blend in.

Quality counts

No matter what you do, choose high-quality paint, because performance matters. “Quality paints apply better, last longer, and are easier to clean than inferior counterparts,” Minchew says. “Better paints cost more to produce, so they cost more to buy, but it is important to look at the cost of a paint job as a whole, and not just the price of the paint.”

Considering that the surface prep and the labor to apply the paint are the same, the additional cost for a high-quality paint is really very small. In return, you get a more durable paint, a much better color selection and easier application.