Picking The Right Paint Finish

Picking the perfect paint finish is all about learning the pros and cons of each one and then exercising your right to choose. In other words, it’s one part knowledge and one part personal preference. Here’s a little rundown of paint finish possibilities along with a few facts about each one to help you hone in on the one that’s right for you.

Flat paint: This is a great choice for hiding imperfections in your walls and it’s by far the easiest to touch up. The cons are that many people say that it shows more wear than its more wipe-able counterparts (like eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss) but we have found that with a Magic Eraser and sometimes just a kitchen sponge there are a surprising amount of scrapes and marks that come right out. Paint quality is getting better and better, so non-durable and easily marred flat paint of the ’80s is a thing of the past. Plus because it’s the easiest finish to touch up without any telltale signs of a patch job, those few stains that can’t be wiped off can easily be eliminated with a smidge of fresh paint.

Where we used it: We actually chose flat paint for all of our rooms except for the nursery, the kitchen, and the bathrooms since it provides such a smooth and even look (hiding all those dings and cracks that are much more obvious when the paint is more glossy). Oh and all of our ceilings (save for the ones in the bathrooms) are painted in a flat finish as well. Update: in our new house we use satin on all walls except for the kitchen and bathrooms since we have a mobile kiddo and like that it’s slightly more wipeable and durable.

Eggshell paint: This is a slightly less matte version of paint with a tiny bit of sheen added to introduce a bit of wipe-able protection that is a tad better at holding up to fingerprints and other wear and tear than flat paint is. It definitely still looks pretty matte on the walls (nothing glaring or shiny) but it does add a nice little buffer of protection. Although the hint of sheen makes it a bit harder to touch up than flat paint, it’s still definitely possible.

Where we used it: Nowhere. Now this isn’t because it’s a bad choice- we’re simple people, so sticking with the few finishes helps us keep track of what’s what (if every room were a different finish it would be hard to keep it all straight).

Satin paint: This is ever so slightly more glossy than eggshell but still not as shiny as semi-gloss. In fact it’s a lot closer to a flat or an eggshell look than a glossy one. As you may guess it’s therefore even easier to wipe down but also a bit harder (although still not impossible) to touch up due to the shine factor. It’s a nice elegant choice in a more formal space where you’d like a bit of shimmer without going overboard into super shiny territory (like a candle-lit dining room for example) and many people go with satin for their bathroom and kitchen walls as well.

Where we used it: We went with satin for the nursery because we reasoned that it would provide a little more wipe-ability while still hiding the majority of our wall’s imperfections since it’s far from the shiny texture of semi-gloss or gloss (which emphasizes any dings or dents as opposed to hiding them). It still went on very smooth and was a nice “compromise” when it came to adding a bit of kid-friendly function to the space. Update: in our new house we use satin on all walls except for the kitchen and bathrooms since we have a mobile kiddo and like that it’s slightly more wipeable and durable.

Semi-gloss paint: This is a great choice for areas that are exposed to more water and grease than the average room (ie: bathrooms and kitchens). Some people fear that semi-gloss paint is a bit too shiny for their liking and opt to go eggshell or satin in their kitchens or bathrooms, but for unparalleled protection and wipe-ability, semi-gloss really is the more thorough choice. Of course it’s not as easy to touch up but the durability that it offers is a great perk. We actually painted our kitchen backsplash in semi-gloss paint (along with the rest of the room) and 2+ years later it’s still in perfect condition (even with grease and other cooking side-effects working against it).

Where we used it: Both of our bathrooms are semi-gloss (including the ceilings) along with the kitchen (but the ceiling is flat in there since there’s less steam & moisture). We also opted to paint all of our interior and exterior doors in semi-gloss paint along with all of our home’s molding and trim (it’s so much more wipe-able and easy to maintain). And as a side note, for some reason while semi-gloss paint is hard to touch up on the walls without getting that telltale “ring” around the newly painted area, trim can easily be touched up time and time again without any issue – which is always a good thing.

Gloss or high-gloss paint: This finish provides the shiniest, most lacquer-like effect. As you can imagine, it’s super wipe-able and durable (it has a lot of flex in it) but it highlights imperfections in a major way (a small ding in the wall that would virtually disappear when covered in flat paint would look a lot deeper and more pronounced when covered with gloss instead). It’s also extremely difficult to touch up without creating a noticeable “ring” where the new paint is applied. So it’s best to repaint an entire wall with glossy paint when you need to refresh it (instead of applying spot touch ups which can be easily detected).

Where we used it: Nowhere, but again it doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice. Some people think it can be a bit overpowering on the walls (especially in a modestly sized house like ours) but that’s really a personal preference thing. We’ve seen small rooms look like glittering jewel boxes with dramatic glossy paint jobs- and it’s always a great choice for painting furniture (it really gives you that lacquered look). Even doors and trim throughout a house could look glamorous and sleek painted in a high gloss finish instead of the standard semi-gloss one.

So what about you guys? Do you have any finishes that you prefer for certain jobs? Any nightmarishly bad finish decisions that you had to redo (we painted all of our house’s trim with flat paint before realizing that was a terrible idea- talk about a major project to take on twice!).

Psst- Got more paint questions? Check out the top of our How To page for all of the answers that you seek.

Comments

  1. Chris says

    Great paint advice! I’m currently painting every room in my house and needed this. Question though….what do do with those chair rails? Do I leave them the trim color? Do I paint a darker color beneath? Thanks….love your site and congrats on the little one!

    • says

      Hey Chris,

      That’s all personal preference. We’ve seen chair rails look amazing when painted the same tone as the trim, the walls, or even a third accent color. As for the wall under them, that usually looks better in a darker color than the wall on top if you’re choosing to create a two-toned look (it can look top heavy if the darker color is on top). In the end, there are so many ways to go with a room like that. Just experiment by bringing home a ton of paint swatches and see what you love!

      xo,
      s

    • Michelle says

      I’m repainting my kitchen and plan to use Olympic. What did you dislike about it? I haven’t bought the paint yet, so I have time to change my mind.

  2. Caitlin says

    Great advice, will be bookmarking for future painting endeavors.

    I second the “never again will I use Olympic paint” sentiment, Amanda! I bought it exactly once, to help a friend paint a dresser for her son while she was pregnant(we bought it because a) it’s no-VOC and b) it was on sale) and four coats later you can still see right through it. Valspar is my BFF.

  3. Lauryn says

    We have textured walls…our house is a 100 yr old stucco and the previous owner painted all the walls in a flat paint, because as you’ve said it covers imperfections better. Which is the obvious choice since we have textured walls. But after living with it for a while, we decided to repaint the living room in eggshell. We will eventually be repainting everything but we started with that room. I dont know why we like it better. Maybe its because we are too lazy to do touchups? I was wondering if you guys use something specific for the baseboards? Maybe you mentioned it and I missed it, sorry! We use a semi-gloss for those. Thanks YHL!

    • says

      Lauryn- Yup, we use semi-gloss for baseboards, trim, and interior doors.

      Laura- We didn’t use special kitchen or bathroom paint in any room except for the full bath, but thankfully all three rooms have held up well. We used Behr in the kitchen and half bath and Olympic Bath & Kitchen Semi-Gloss No-VOC in the full bath.

      Liz- Nope, no problems at all!

      xo,
      s

  4. Laura says

    Hi Sherry,
    Did you use a specific kitchen-and-bath paint for those rooms in addition to using semi-gloss paint? We’ve been having some problems with peeling in our bathroom and have to re-do it. We didn’t use kitchen-and-bathroom paint last time because they didn’t make a low-VOC version at the time. I’m especially concerned about VOCs because we have a small child and I’m pregnant (my husband will be doing the painting, don’t worry). Do you have a favorite low-VOC paint that you think will stand up well to moisture? Thanks!

  5. says

    This came at such a perfect time. We’re about to repaint our kitchen/living/dining room (all one big room) and I was worried about choosing a flat finish for the kitchen ceiling. We’ve heard different things from different paint pros.

    Have yall had any problems with ‘stuff’ on the ceiling (ie: grease or food splatters) not coming off?

  6. says

    I’m going to respectfully disagree that eggshell doesn’t touch up as nicely as flat. I use eggshell in all of my bedrooms, living room, hall and dining room. I’ve touched up every single one of those rooms and you can’t tell the difference between the original paint and the touched up areas. I’ve had bad experiences with flat in that when you wipe it with a cloth or magic eraser, it comes right off the wall.

  7. Christin says

    This is an extremely helpful post. I have trouble keeping all the different finishes straight. Thank you thank you thank you!

  8. says

    I love the look of Flat paint, however with a toddler running around we needed a paint that could withstand explosions of crayons and Markers [eek!]. The Magic eraser does wonders but using it on flat paint [with some elbow grease involved, especially with the crayon] I have noticed the paint will peel off from all that rubbing. It has with stood the semi gloss though!

  9. says

    We used eggshell in all of our rooms except the bathroom and laundry, where we used a semi-gloss. We have 140 year old plaster walls in every room, so anything glossier would really show the imperfections.

    As plaster goes, our house has really smooth plaster, so I chose the easier to clean egg-shell. Previous owners of our house used a semi-gloss white on all of the trim, which I am not fond of but too lazy to scrape off and start again.

  10. says

    Interesting! I would not have thought to put flat paint anywhere but the ceiling. We made a huge mistake painting our guestroom in a satin finish. Since we used a dark brown paint and it’s a small room, I thought the glossiness would help the light bounce around. Instead there’s a glare that highlights our horrible paint job! Oh well.

  11. Lisa says

    We used satin in the bathroom and kitchen, with a flat ceiling (on the advice of the paint guy at Lowe’s; I probably would have gone semi gloss for the ceiling in the bathroom but he acted like I was crazy). I might use satin in the rest of the house, or eggshell. I’m not a huge fan of flat paint, it seems to catch dust easily and absorbs light.