How to Select the Right Paint Finish

Color isn't the only consideration when planning your next paint project. The finish you choose will determine how vivid details appear and how easy the surface will be to clean. Our pros explain how to pick the right sheen for every job.
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November 25, 2014
By: Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson

Photo By: Behr Paint

Photo By: Sherwin-Williams

Photo By: Behr Paint

Photo By: Behr Paint

Photo By: Behr Paint

Photo By: Behr Paint

Photo By: Behr Paint

Sheen On

Color options run the gamut, but there are typically just four to five finishes to choose from within every paint manufacturers' line. And while each brand refers to their finishes differently, the distinguishing factors are essentially the same — luster and washability.
In general, paint finishes range from completely "flat" or matte to shiny or "high-gloss." Glossier finishes contain higher levels of resin and lower levels of pigmentation, whereas less shiny ones contain more pigment than resin.
"Selecting the ideal sheen involves both aesthetic and practical considerations," says Aimee Desrosiers, Director of Marketing for Behr. "From an aesthetic standpoint, sheen creates visual interest and from a practical standpoint, the right sheen can help extend the life of the paint job," she says. Image courtesy of Behr

Prep School

Proper prep is the difference between a smooth paint job and a bumpy or streaky one. Depending on the surface you're painting, you may need to use a primer or an undercoat prior to applying the paint. Steve Revnew, vice president of product development for Sherwin-Williams, also notes that shinier paints require thinner roller covers than flat finishes. Image courtesy of Sherwin-Williams


At one end of the spectrum you'll find the chalky finish known as "flat," which features a matte sheen that absorbs light and helps hide surface imperfections. Flat paint is ideal for high-traffic areas and ceilings where irregularities and lap marks may exist. It's important to note, however, that all flat paints aren't created equal. The kind made specifically for ceilings is designed to roll on with minimal spatter and resist yellowing over time. Image courtesy of Farrow & Ball


With a bit more luster than flat paint, eggshell enamel offers superior scrubability to completely flat finishes. In this room, the subtle difference between the eggshell paint on the walls, the semigloss paint on the door and the high-gloss paint on the table is evident even under soft candlelight. Image courtesy of Behr


Semigloss paints reflect light for a bright, shiny appearance most evident in rooms with a strong light source. Use it on areas that are cleaned frequently such as kitchens, bathrooms, closet doors and trim. "While there are some exceptions, it is generally the case that the shinier a finish is, the more durable and easier to clean it will be," Desrosiers says. Image courtesy of Behr


Satin paints are similar to eggshell and semigloss except for their warm, pearl-like finish. They're also excellent at resisting mildew, dirt and stains (they can better withstand cleaning and light scrubbing) making them more suitable for frequently used spaces than their eggshell counterparts. Try this finish in hallways, children's rooms and on woodwork that will need to withstand modest wear and tear. Image courtesy of Behr


One benefit that high-sheen colors possess over flat sheens is depth of color. The higher the sheen, the more vivid and rich your color will appear, making it ideal for deep, jewel-toned colors such as reds, forest greens and navy blues. Experts are partial to this finish for wood surfaces, such as trim, cabinets and doors, but only when blemishes are minimal as shinier surfaces make flaws more evident. Image courtesy of Behr

Metal, Masonry and More

Latex or oil-based paints, in any finish, work just as well on harder-to-paint surfaces such as metal and masonry. The key is applying the right primer before you start. Floors, on the other hand, require paint specifically designed to stand up to abrasion, traffic and heavy scrubbing. Image courtesy of Farrow & Ball

Big Finish

When selecting paint sheens, keep in mind that shiny surfaces, because they are reflective, help to make a small space feel larger. "Use a semigloss sheen to visually expand a small kitchen or bathroom," Desrosiers says. Softer sheens, such as satin or eggshell, give bedrooms — especially kids' rooms and living areas — a more subtle finish. Image courtesy of Behr

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