Priming Our Wood Paneling (The Bane Of Our Existence)

And now, for the dang paneling update. Hold on to your hats ladies and gents. This post = wild ride.

As you probably know, we’re no strangers to priming and painting paneling. Sure we could remove the paneling, but it would mean removing and rehanging all the cabinets since they’re hung in front of it – and revealing goodness knows how many scary issues behind it (they’re old plaster walls so that just felt like a big ol’ can o’ worms). And we could attempt to drywall over it (but it would mean drywalling around the existing cabinets and a lot more expense/trouble than just painting it). So we decided early on that we’d once again say yes to painted paneling – just like we did in our former den (which ended up being our favorite room in the house) when it (slowly over the course of 4.5 years) went from this…

… to this:

We never regretted the whole painted paneling choice – I guess it’s just like painted brick to us (we don’t mind the grooves that remain after it’s painted since they just add charming and subtle texture). But folks have caulked or puttied those grooves to hide ’em, so you can always do that (or rip it the heck out) if it’s not your thing.

But this time there was a slight variation to the painted paneling process since the last time we tackled it. That variation: the time that it took to get ‘er done. Last time it took us an afternoon (more on that here). So we went into this whole priming and painting thing with high hopes that it would be a quick little project. Yessiree, an afternoon spent completing the paneling would have been awesome (as would seeing a unicorn on our front lawn or finding out that Burger laid golden eggs). Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.

The time difference was all because we decided to attempt to prime and paint our paneling the no slash low VOC way this time. Just because we like the idea of avoiding as many harmful fumes as we can since we work so regularly with paint and caulk and primer (especially now that we have a baby around). We knew this choice wasn’t a short cut. Heck, it would crack our margin for error right open (since oil-based stainblocking primer is the only professionally recommended way to guard against nasty yellow-orange wood-bleed, which can ooze through as you prime and paint). But we thought it was a risk worth taking in the name of family health. And it was in the end… it just took a while to get there. So here’s how it all went down.

First, here’s what our kitchen looked like before we embarked on our little priming adventure:

And here’s an old shot of the kitchen from the other direction just for reference (it was actually taken a while back, before we removed the wood stove and painted the fireplace):

Step 1: We wiped down the paneling, beams, and trim with a moist cloth. Some people use TSP for their wipe-down, but we didn’t (didn’t use it last time we painted the den paneling either – but it’s not a bad idea, especially if your paneling feels especially greasy). We also didn’t sand at all (didn’t last time either) but you can if your paneling is especially tough, splintery, or super glossy & shellacked.

Step 2: We removed the vent covers and outlet covers since we decided that we’d be replacing them all (they were bisque and we wanted fresh white).

Step 3: We spent about three hours applying a coat of primer to the trim, beams, and paneled walls with Olympic No-VOC primer.

After our first coat it looked like this (about fifteen minutes in we knew we were in trouble):

Primer never needs to be super consistent and perfect looking (it often looks uneven and rough but still totally does the job) but we experienced almost immediate bleed-through in a number of spots (when the orangey-brown stain of the wood seeps through the primer and threatens to ruin your paint job). Not good.

Step 4: We waited for that to dry a bit and tried a second coat of the same primer in certain obviously-bleeding spots, hoping it would block more nasty orange seepage. Nope. It did not.

Step 5: We noticed that we had a can of Behr Primer + Paint (in white semi-gloss) in the basement from a previous project (which is low-VOC and nice and thick) so everything got a coat of that (yup, the trim, beams, and paneling got another full coat).

We still had bleed through. Not much, but in certain places it was definitely still there. And it was maddening.

Step 6: We went to Home Depot and found Kilz Clean Start No-VOC primer. It said “stainblocker” right on the label so we gave it a shot on everything (yup, another full coat of a third type of primer went up on the trim, beams, and walls).

It worked. Angels sang and two white-haired Petersiks rejoiced in the privacy of their freshly primed (finally) kitchen.

Step 7: We painted just the trim and beams with our Behr Primer + Paint (in white semi-gloss) since leaving things primed but not painted for the long term can lead to a nasty and grungy hard-to-wipe-down mess (it’s a dust and dirt magnet since primer is intentionally sticky for paint adhesion). Happily the Behr stuff had great coverage over that last coat of Kilz and looked glossy and amazing. A sight for sore eyes (and arms).

Step 8: We removed all the painter’s tape while the last coat of paint was still fresh for the cleanest lines possible (waiting for everything to dry can cause the paint to peel when you remove the tape). In cases when it was stuck to the primer/paint, we used an exacto knife to carefully slice it along the line of the tape so the primer/paint wouldn’t get pulled off with it.

We’re usually happy to avoid painters tape when we can (I rely a lot on this little miracle short handled brush instead) but since I’m short and I’m the resident cutter-inner/edger, I don’t have as much control up on a stool. So taping around the ceiling trim (and in this case tossing down a quick frame of tape around the baseboards) helped me go faster while I was happy to freehand around the door frames and fireplace.

About 48 hours after the beginning of our priming adventure, it finally looked like this. The trim looks whiter because it’s topped with that semi-gloss Behr paint and not just a flat finish white primer (which was more creamy and less snow-white-ish in color). Now we just have to paint those walls.

We’re not sure if the Kilz No-VOC primer worked because it was the best choice for the job or because it was layered with the other methods beneath it (perhaps on its own you’d need two or even three coats of it to get full bleed-blockage) but we definitely would recommend 2-3 coats of Kilz Clean Start No-VOC primer followed by two thin and even coats of latex paint if you’re planning to paint your paneling without messing with fumey VOCs. Fingers crossed that’ll work for ya. Otherwise one coat of oil-based stainblocking primer followed by two thin and even coats of latex paint should do the trick (find more step by step instructions on that method here).

It probably won’t take you an afternoon if you go low/no VOC (it took us two days with some babysitting help from John’s parents just to complete the priming stage). And we’re not gonna lie. It was not fun. But it was worth it as soon as we got through to the other side. You know, when we finally crossed that rainbow bridge from bleed-ville to clean-white-walls… hallelujah. It should be mentioned that in very rare cases bleed can come through weeks or even months later (which would make us want to stick paintbrushes in our eyes). Thankfully we painted the wood trim in the living room using the same no-VOC method (four coats of Olympic Premium Paint instead of with an oil-based stainblocking primer) five months ago and nothing has since seeped through. And because the baseboard and trim in the kitchen is the same exact wood, all signs point to: this should work. Of course we’ll tell you if something supremely annoying happens though.

So if somebody would be so kind as to do a nap-time dance for Clara, we’d really appreciate it. So far swinging her stuffed giraffe back and forth and saying “you are getting sleeeepy” isn’t quite doing the trick. Well it’s making us sleepy, but we’re not the target. Has anyone else tried to paint paneling without VOCs? Or been forced to apply four coats of paint or primer for any reason at all? Sucks right? Let’s commiserate.

Psst- Read more about the whole Phase 1 kitchen plan here.


  1. Becky says

    I have paneling in my house that was already painted when I bought it. I made the mistake of painting that section of the wall a deep moody blue — after living with it for about 6 months I have decided I don’t like it. I have a can of Olympic no-VOC out and ready … but maybe I will have to rethink my choice!

  2. Kirsten says

    The guys at our local paint store recommend an oil-based primer for use on paneling. (Something about “I don’t care what they say, latex primers bleed through…”) That worked for us – in one coat! :) But of course, it ain’t low VOC so not the best choice if there’s a little one in the house.

    • says

      Yup, that’s what we did in our den at our first house, but we decided to go rogue this time. So far so good- but we’ll let you know if it all comes crashing down at some point. Haha.


  3. says

    We painted our 20×25 living room paneling and it was a freaking nightmare. It took probably six coats of paint and there are still some areas that it bled thru but I gave up and just put furniture against those spots..

  4. says

    Wow! That already made a HUGE difference. I guess with three coats of primer you would hope it would, right? ;) Hopefully the real paint will go on a lot faster!

  5. says

    Our house is where the 70’s came to die, so i feel your paneling pain! I broke my wrist this week trying to paint out the wood trim that is 75% of our bathroom!! I used Zinsser 1-2-3 primer as recommended and was told that sanding was NOT required. We had a teeny bit of bleed through…which I opted to ignore. One coat of primer, a coat and a half of white paint down and it’s looking good. Did have some peeling when i removed some tape though so i’m a little worried that skipping the sanding was a mistake. (fingers on good hand crossed ;))

    • Chels says

      The 70s died here, too! You can touch up the bleed-through spots with the Zinnser and then paint with your color. Sometimes the peeling is just from using a too-harsh tape…I like the blue “delicate surface” myself.

  6. Kate says

    I always use Kilz, I definitely think it’s thes best. And I’ve never had any problem with bleeding through, even with the Eco version. Good luck, it looks great!

  7. Meghan, UK says

    WOWEE. Your hard work certainly paid off! This does remind me of your first house though (in a completely positive fashion) – will you be going off-piste?

    • says

      We’ll just have to see how the room evolves. The color on the walls of the kitchen will be like the inspiration room (which is a lot brighter than anything we’ve used on the walls of our last house) and we’d love to add some more happy vibrancy with a window treatment and some fun accessories. But the cabinets will most likely be glossy white again. Can’t wait to see where we end up!


    • Meghan, UK says

      I think I’m much like a lot of your readers – this makeover is very exciting to read about. I hope you have fun along the way!

  8. says

    Oh great, I’ve had Olympic primer on the lower half of the walls in my entryway for over a month now! It doesn’t look dusty and dirty though. I hope it stays that way until I can finally paint it! School has been kicking my arse.

    The kitchen looks great already and I can’t wait to see it all painted! It’s definitely going to be one of those game changers for you guys!

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