The Ultimate Guide to Paint Finishes

We've got everything you need to know about choosing the right paint sheen for the job.

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You've chosen your paint color; the hardest part is out of the way. Now all that's left is to choose is the paint finish! Although many homeowners glaze over this step, there are some important factors you should consider. Sheen is a measure of how much light reflects back from the paint—in short, how shiny it is. Although sheen is controlled by quantity of the paint's pigments and additives, what's important to your choices is that certain sheens look better and clean easier on certain surfaces. Before you put that brush to the wall, be sure you have the right finish for the job. Here's a comprehensive list of all that you need to know to get it right the first time.

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Getting Started

Most paints fall into one of four sheen categories—flat, satin, semigloss, and gloss. Manufacturers may choose descriptive names such as matte or eggshell, so avoid surprises by checking actual samples when comparing paints. Sheen affects not only the appearance of a painted surface, but also its durability. The higher the sheen, the harder the paint.

But don't assume all glossy paints display the same reflectivity. Sheens are not standardized from brand to brand. One company's satin may be glossier than another brand's. Here's how the sheen of a paint can affect your choices.

The sheen of a paint may also alter the perception of its color. For example, the same tint of white may look whiter in a glossy enamel than in a flat wall paint. That's because more of the color is reflected, even though the color itself is the same. To make sure you have the paint sheen you want, take home samples and paint them on test boards.

Choosing Paint Finishes for Various Surfaces

Paint for ceilings
Ceilings don't suffer the abrasion other surfaces endure, but cooking vapors, airborne grease, smoke, pollution, and plain old dirt gradually make a ceiling dingy and dull. A flat or semigloss sheen is a good choice for ceilings because it hides imperfections well. Paints formulated specifically for ceilings are thicker so they are less spatter prone, are nonyellowing, and dry faster.

Paint for walls
Many homebuilders apply flat paints to walls to help disguise less-than-perfect drywall finishing. But flat paint quickly shows wear. Attempts to clean away dirty marks often result in creating a larger smudge. A satin finish is more forgiving, with substantially upgraded durability and without excessive shine. Paint made for bathrooms and kitchens contains extra mildewcides and is moisture and peel resistant. Ask your dealer about child's-room paints. Formulated for hard use, they can be perfect in other demanding locations, such as kitchens, baths, laundry rooms, and hallways. And for a kitchen, you can even apply a semigloss or gloss finish on the walls to make them easier to wipe clean.

Paint for trim
Doors, windows, and moldings typically take a higher sheen than walls because they get more physical contact and need a tougher surface. Besides, a glossy surface accentuates the woodwork and makes it stand out from the walls. That contrast between trim and walls adds interest to your design scheme. Choose trim paint that's at least one step glossier than the walls.

Flat Finish

Also referred to as matte, flat finishes are almost chalky in appearance. The finish doesn't reflect light, so there is very little or no shine. Because of the lack of reflection, surface imperfections are well hidden under a coat of flat paint. Flat finishes are the least durable of paints and do not stand up well to washing and scrubbing, though some paint manufacturers are developing stronger coats.

Pros and Cons:

  • Wall imperfections are less noticeable
  • Color is most true to paint chip
  • Difficult to clean
  • Shows scuffs

Where to Use:

  • Low-traffic areas
  • Blemished surfaces
  • Ceilings
  • Bedrooms

Satin Finish

A slight amount of light reflects off a satin finish, making texture more noticeable. Satin paint is sometimes referred to as eggshell, though eggshell can also be a finish in between flat and satin. Along with its higher sheen, satin is stronger than a flat paint. Because of this, it's a popular choice in kids' rooms where you might find yourself scrubbing the walls from time to time.

Pros and Cons:

  • "Just right" shine
  • Easy to clean
  • Shows some wall blemishes

Where to Use:

  • High-traffic areas
  • Hallways
  • Doors
  • Kids' rooms

Semigloss Finish

Semigloss has a higher luster than satin finish and is more durable. This finish won't wear down after being cleaned often, so we love it in kitchens and bathrooms. The gloss makes imperfections stand out, so make sure cabinets are smooth before painting. Semigloss' reflective surface adds light to a dark room, so it also works well in basements.

Pros and Cons:

  • Durable 
  • Easy to clean
  • Bounces light around the room
  • Shows wall imperfections

Where to Use:

  • Kitchens
  • Bathrooms
  • Trim

High-Gloss Finish

High-gloss finish is the shiniest and most reflective. Whatever you paint in this sheen will be a standout piece in the room. It has a hard surface that stands up to wear and tear, so don't be afraid to use this paint on hutches or vanities. However, the highly reflective surface draws attention to dings and dents. This is our go-to paint for smooth furniture or freshly installed trim.

Pros and Cons:

  • Most durable
  • Stands up to cleaning
  • Draws the most attention to surface imperfections

Where to Use:

  • Furniture
  • Trim
  • Cabinets in good condition
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