How to Pick the Right Paint Finish

Bob Borson —  April 21, 2011 — 32 Comments

This is the (cough cough) long awaited follow up to the Introduction to the Color Wheel post I wrote a little while ago. If you wondered what the difference was between eggshell and semi-gloss – then I have finally delivered on my promise and collected information from a myriad of sources and added my own opinions where it seemed relevant.

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Paint Sheen Index in Gray


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Flat or Matte Finish
Flat enamel is a paint with a durable flat, matte finish. A downside to flat paint is that stains are more difficult to remove because unlike paints with a higher sheen, their non-reflective surfaces have a porous texture which can trap dirt and make cleaning more challenging. While some flat paints are advertised as washable today, you may need to touch up scratches or marks by covering with a bit more paint, so be sure to keep some on hand after you’ve finished painting. That having been said, I always ask people is “when was the last time you actually scrubbed your walls?”

I tend to like flat paint more than most other people – I think the color is truer with a little more depth to the tone. If you have poorly finished walls, this would probably be the best finish to use. I also think that you should always paint the ceiling with a flat finish. Always Always Always!

Eggshell (Eg-Shel) Finish
If you can picture the very low sheen on the shell of an egg, you have an idea of how an eggshell paint finish will appear. This finish has only a slight hint of shine or gloss so it’s a good choice for walls and holds up better with cleaning than a flat finish paint. In our architectural office, this tends to be the default sheen selection because it presents the best of both worlds – good color saturation and the ability to wipe down the wall around the light switch without changing the wall texture.

Satin Finish
Satin finish paint has a smooth, velvety look with a bit more gloss. It is most often used for windows, doors, and trim, but on rare occasions can also be used as wall paint. This is particularly suitable for kids’ room walls, kitchens, or bathrooms (spaces of high humidity or at the risk of getting wet), areas which get a lot of traffic. Paint with a satin finish is formulated to hold up to cleaning and light scrubbing.

Semi-Gloss
Semi-gloss paint is most often used on doors, trim, and cabinets in kitchens and bathrooms. It is easily cleaned and lays down a nice, subtle shine, without being too slippery looking. Take care with pre-paint preparation work, as poorly prepared surfaces can look downright criminal when highlighted by a semi-gloss surface.

High Gloss
High gloss paints have an almost reflective quality, as their shiny finish mimics the look of enamel or plastic. Though not widely used in home interiors, it is becoming more popular for a dramatic look on cabinets, trim, and furniture in very formal and very contemporary settings. This finish will magnify any and all surface imperfections, so through and careful preparation and sanding is essential before painting with high gloss paints. I generally stay away from feild applied semi or high gloss paints. Even in high end work, things can get dodgy really fast. If that speck of dust floating through the house lands on the surface – you’re screwed because it will be obvious to all.

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Paint Sheen Index in Juneberry

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I would like to take a few moments, go all “archimatectural” on you, and blow your head up with some important technical information. We need to review/ introduce an aspect of wall finishing that many people do not know about – wall level finishing. This is the designation standard for how your wall will be prepared to receive the actual final finish. I rarely hear people mention this in the articles I read and I think it is the most important aspect when preparing a new wall. Simply put, it’s how much drywall mud get slathered on the wall and in how many layers. Apply mud, dry, sand, and repeat. The more times this is done, the mo better your finished wall will be.

I am sticking this information piggy-back style at the end of this post because if you are simply painting over an existing wall, this doesn’t really matter to you.

All six levels of wall finish are listed and defined here but in my projects, we rarely go below a level 4 finish. Depending on the sheen of the paint on the wall – or if the wall is in a space that receives an abundance of natural light raking across the wall, you might really need a level 5 finish (defined below). Otherwise, you will see every tape joint and wall imperfection like it’s circled in blood from the person who painted your wall. So here you go – keep in mind the quality of the wall surface before deciding on which paint sheen you wish to use. Once you get to level 4, I included the recommendations from most paint manufacturers which sheen should go with what wall finish level.

Level 0
Level 0 is used in temporary construction or if final decoration is undetermined. No taping or finishing is required. Dust walls constructed in mall storefronts are an example of walls finished at level 0.

Level 1
A Level 1 finish is recommended in areas that would generally be concealed from view or in areas that are not open to public traffic. In Level 1, the surface is left free of excess joint compound. Ridges and tool marks are acceptable for a Level 1 finish. This level is often specified in the plenum area above ceilings, in attics, or in service corridors.

Level 2
In garages, warehouse storage areas and other similar areas where the final surface appearance is not of concern, a Level 2 finish is the recommendation. Level 2 may be specified where moisture resistant gypsum board is used as a tile substrate. Joint compound is applied over all fastener heads and beads. The surface is left free of excess joint compound. Ridges and tool marks are acceptable for a Level 2 finish.

Level 3
In areas to be decorated with a medium or heavy texture or where heavy-grade wall coverings will become the final decoration, a Level 3 finish is recommended. Fastener heads and accessories shall be covered with two separate coats of joint compound and all joint compound shall be smooth and free from tool marks and ridges. Before final decoration, it is recommended that the prepared surface be coated with a drywall primer prior to the application of final finishes. Level 3 is not recommended where smooth painted surfaces or light- to medium-weight wall coverings become the final decoration.

Level 4
If the final decoration is to be a flat paint, light texture or lightweight wall covering, a Level 4 finish is recommended. Fastener heads and accessories shall be covered with three separate coats of joint compound. All joint compound shall be smooth and free from tool marks and ridges. Before final decoration it is recommended that the prepared surface be coated with a drywall primer prior to the application of final finishes. Gloss, semi-gloss and enamel paints are not recommended over a Level 4 finish.

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Level 5 Finish Diagram

Level 5
Level 5 finish is recommended for areas where severe lighting conditions exist and areas that are to receive gloss, semi-gloss, enamel or non-textured flat paints. Level 5 requires all the operations in Level 4. Additionally, a thin skim coat of joint compound, or material manufactured especially for this purpose, is applied to the entire surface. The surface is smooth and free from tool marks and ridges. Before final decoration it’s recommended that the prepared surface be coated with a primer prior to the application of final finishes. The Level 5 finish is required to achieve the highest degree of quality by providing a uniform surface and minimizing the possibility of joint photographing and/or fasteners “burning through” the final decoration.

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I hope this information has some value and that I have cleared up some questions associated with selecting the right paint sheen.

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Cheers

  • Renae

    Building my home and have a vaulted beamed ceiling in my master bedroom. Beams will be SW Dover White. Am considering painting both walls and ceiling SW Quietude. Would you recommend flat finish all around or eggshell on walls and flat on the ceiling or eggshell on walls and ceiling? Thanks!

  • Gatiruns

    Love your site Bob, and this article was really super helpful. I’m in the process of remodeling my new condo and having a bit of a disagreement with my contractor. I want matte paint throughout, walls, doors & window trims and he seems to think you can’t do matte (black) for trim. I like minimalist and clean lines to a fault and I’m not a fan of glossy trim. Is it ok to do black matte latex paint in trim? Walls are pure white (matte as well) thanks!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      first off – just to be clear – your contractor should do what you tell them in this instance. This is your house, and they work for you … right?!?
      That having been said, while you can do flat on trim, I wouldn’t recommend it. You don’t have to go with a shiny finish, but I woulodn’t go flat. Split the difference and go with egg-shell.

      • Gatiruns

        Thanks Bob! Well let’s say that he has a bit of an attitude so have to wrestle him to the ground on each decision. They went ahead and did matte latex on the window trim and as you pointed out it’s not the best option. It looks a bit chalky. I’m hoping they can clear coat it to get a (harder) more polished finish. Definitely eggshell or satin for the doors and rest of the trim!

  • Sharron

    You helped me so much with this info. I recently purchased a home & really didnt pay enough attention to the walls.Every wall in the house is textured & bright white.In the hallway and 2 of the bedrooms you can see bad finishing,taping and repair areas. So from what I’m reading, I should go with flat paint but in my realistic world of 6 grandchildren would egg shell be ok to use incase of clean up needed for when they visit? All this white is like being in an asylum or hospital. Financially I cant fix the bad areas for a while. Thanks

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Egg-shell on walls and flat on the ceilings and you’ll be just fine.

      Glad I could help.

  • http://www.starscenic.net/ colorants

    really nice ideas.. thanks

  • http://www.dynamictouchpainting.com/ OrlandoPaintingContractor

    Very much appreciate the thorough detail, info and pics/diagrams to boot! You’ve done an outstanding job of outlining the many factors that come into play when selecting the right paint finish – quite useful post!

  • Pingback: How to Pick the Right Paint Finish | ecosolveamericas()

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nick-Dunse/100001746920846 Nick Dunse

    ben Moore Pearl is a great finish and paint been using it for years.  Great article re tweeted by me today and will save for customers.  Thanks Nick  http://www.thinkpainting.net 

  • LouAnn

    Missing “Pearl” my favorite wall finish for nearly everywhere!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      What area of the country (and maybe what country) do you live? We don’t have “pearl” as an option.

      • Karen Martin

        Benjamin Moore Regal Select has a pearl finish but I find it is really similar to most “Satin” finishes

  • http://www.acoadental.com/home.php Daniel Todman

    This is certainly a good read, especially now when everyone here’s prepping up for the remodeling. Which do you think is the best fit for a home office? They were thinking of white, or gray, but it’s good to seek some expert opinion, right?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Daniel,

      There are enough moving parts to make this question just a bit more involved. Glare (contrast between a bright surface and a dark surface) should be your biggest consideration. As a result, considerations would be the amount of natural light you receive in the room, time of day the majority of time will be spent working in the home office and whether or not you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen.  I would tend towards a darker color (well, darker than white at least) since it is easier to control the resulting amount of light in the space.

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  • Art2arch

    Hi Bob: As an Architect, I have specified Level 5 Finish when I am designing curved walls with GWB finish that is to be painted. This also helps to smooth out any imperfections in GWB installations when covering a curved wall per US Gypsum curving wall installation standards. Wet application of 3/8 GWD + 1/4 GWB top layer to achieve 5/8 GWB finish + Level 5 finish & paint.

    Ralph Martin Architect

  • Neal

    Awesome!

  • Stephanie N Smith

    Bob, as a residential contractor’s assistant I’ve worked with several painters in the area. One thing I’ve learned is that if you hang a lot of art (and therefore might move that art later) to always use flat. If you touch-up paint on anything other than flat then the light will reflect differently on that spot and the touch-up will be noticeable, also called “flashing”. Have you encountered this?

    Thanks for talking about wall finish, because that is very important and often overlooked. On all our jobs we do a level 5. We’ve also had some clients do lacquered walls over a crazy-perfect “level 10″ finish.

  • http://www.enochsears.com Enoch Sears

    Another pertinent post, as always. Well, almost always. Right-on about the tip to only use flat on a ceiling- the previous owner painted our plaster ceiling a semi-gloss and it looks like the Grand Tetons.

    Timely post, because we are just about to re-paint the house!

  • Kim

    I can’t be the only person here who gets newsprint, chocolate, coffee & wine (the diet of champion writers and editors and surely of bloggers?) around light switches, can I? Also, my cat likes to rub his face on the walls. And I splatter food on the kitchen walls. And bump into walls with luggage. And stuff. So flat doesn’t happen in my house, except on ceilings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brodiegeers Brodie Geers

    You mention that you always recommend flat paint for the ceiling, but not why. So…why?

    • http://businessofarchitecture.com Enoch Sears

      Brodie, flat paint is good on ceilings because you want to 1. minimize glare and 2. minimize visibility of imperfections. Because of the angle of the ceiling to the windows is 90degrees, the light coming in the windows will cast bumpy shadows all across your glossy ceiling. Flat paint also diffuses light contributing to more even lighting. Just my 2cents. Maybe Bob cares to enlighten us further.

      • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

        Thanks Enoch – I think you hit all the high points. I also appreciate you answering Brodie’s question, I lose track of these sometimes when I am sitting on the couch. Thanks for having my back!

        • http://businessofarchitecture.com Enoch Sears

          You got it Bob, can’t say it will always be right. Nice pun btw….all the high points…do these just come naturally?

  • YourNewHomeTuscaloosa

    Thanks for this informative article! After reading it I knew I HAD to share it!! Thanks again.

  • http://twitter.com/ReviHabitats revitalized habitats

    This is such a great article. Choosing the paint finish seems so simple, but in reality there is a lot to consider. I know, for my own home, I always tend to purchase exactly the same level of sheen as what we used when I was a kid (eggshell/semi-gloss) without thinking. And you’re right…I NEVER saw my Mom scrub a wall…but we *were* constantly reminded in her raised voice to keep our hands off the wall!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I think I have wiped off the wall around my daughter’s light switch a time or two but for the most part, I don’t let that drive my decision making.

      Cheers!

  • http://profiles.google.com/brendaslynn Brenda Lynn

    Bob, this is a very good and useful article (unlike the urinal one, but I digress) to help customers understand why they can’t or shouldn’t put that semi-glass paint in their living room! Thanks for your diligence.

    Brenda Lynn

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      You digress while I digest …

      I wondered how a technical post would do here – glad to see some people enjoyed it!

  • http://twitter.com/sabjimata deva cottage i.d.

    totally thorough! would not recommend flat paint for family’s with kids imho ;)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      thanks –

      I’ve been lucky in that my daughter likes to keep the crayons on the page and haven’t had to go around and clean the walls in her wake although I did recommend that Satin was well suited for children’s rooms.

      Cheers