Paint Finishes 101
Not sure which paint finish is best for your surface? Once you figure out what your needs are, it can be easier to figure out which sheen is best (excluding Charlie, he’s a hot mess).
- Do you need wipeability? You sometimes get small scuffs on your walls.
- Do you need washability? You have 4 kids, 3 dogs, 2 gorillas and an elephant in your home – you need a Hazmat suit to wipe down your walls.
- Do you have damaged walls? Too many haphazard picture hangings or ‘honey, we don’t need to hire a drywaller – I can fix it!’ situations?
In this photo, there are four different paintable surfaces with different needs
What paint finish or sheen should you use?
Flat Finish 0-5% gloss
Flat paint has little to no sheen. Because of this, it’s usually not washable or even very wipeable. A few of the higher-end brands have some luck with basic washability (Benjamin Moore Aura and Sherwin Williams Emerald), but I’m sceptical over the long-term for high-use areas.
Matte paint can have a 5-10% gloss finish, making it slightly more washable, but still not as durable as a shinier finish.
Eggshell 10-25% gloss
An eggshell finish is similar to that of an eggshell, not flat, not shiny – kind of in-between. Eggshell is a great overall finish for most rooms and is most popular for its wipe/washability and sheen level. The only eggshell finish that is different is Behr which is more like a satin finish (I would use it for furniture or trim, not walls, personally).
Satin or Pearl 25%-35% gloss
Satin or pearl is the next step up from eggshell. Satin/pearl has a reasonable amount of sheen to it without being as glossy as a semi-gloss. This is usually my bare minimum sheen for trim work and is quite washable. Satin can also be popular for bathrooms where the ventilation is poor.
Satin finish (and glossier finishes) can slightly brighten and enhance colour compared to flat and eggshell finishes.
Semi-gloss 70-85% gloss
This one has some kick to it with a sheen level that will reflect light back into the room. It’s the second most popular finish for trims and doors, but rarely for walls or cabinets.
High gloss 85% + gloss
The full meal deal. A high gloss finish adds drama, impact and has supreme washability. I usually find it to be way more than is necessary and prefer satin or semi-gloss.
However, the sheen is irrelevant if you buy crappy paint. The better quality your paint is, the more durable your finish should be. – a la moi
The Best Paint Finish for Trims, Doors & Mouldings
Satin or semi-gloss
If you get a lot of dust, drips and build-up on your baseboards, a higher sheen paint will be more washable and last longer.
- old homes look fabulous with a semi-gloss trim
- newer or modern homes tend to suit a satin finish
- shiny finishes can expose flaws, so make sure your trim is in tip-top shape – same with your painting skills
- the photo above shows a satin finish
The Best Paint Finish for the Ceiling
In 99% of cases, a flat finish is best for a ceiling. Why? There are a few reasons…
- you don’t want your ceiling reflecting light back at you and shinier finishes are reflective
- Ceilings are often textured and textured finish will be enhanced with shiny paint
- a flat finish is the best for reducing the look of the texture and camouflaging flaws on a flat ceiling
Read more: What Colour Should I Paint My Ceiling?
The Best Paint Finish for Walls & New Drywall
Flat, matte or eggshell
When it comes to walls, there are many considerations…
The best paint finish for walls that are in great shape – flat, matte or eggshell
- If your walls are smooth, in good condition and you don’t have kids or dogs, you can definitely consider a high-quality flat/matte finish.
- If your walls are smooth, in good condition and you DO have kids, dogs or a spouse with Dorito fingers (oh, we’ve all had them) you may want eggshell. That being said, I have all of the above and prefer matte walls for the LOOK, even though they aren’t as washable.
The best paint finish for walls that are damaged or uneven – flat, matte or eggshell
- Any sheen will expose flaws on your walls, so if your walls look like they had a mortar thrown at them, you may want to consider a flat or matte finish.
- However, if you have kids/dogs/spouse/gorilla, you may need to sacrifice that low sheen for some wipeability with eggshell.
The best paint finish for textured walls – flat or matte
- The great thing about textured walls is that the texture will help disguise any fingerprints, smudges, etc…
- IF you’re worried about washability, you can use eggshell, but it will enhance the look of your textured areas.
SHEEN WILL ENHANCE THE LOOK OF TEXTURED WALLS OR CEILINGS, MAKING THE TEXTURE LOOK MORE OBVIOUS
Read more: The Gray and Greige Paint Colours
The Best Paint Finish for Cabinets & Furniture
In my experience, I’ve yet to meet a semi-gloss or high-gloss cabinet that I love UNLESS it’s on a flat panel cabinet in a more modern setting. Satin is almost ALWAYS the best finish for cabinets.
- Hands-down, my favourite sheen for cabinets is satin-pearl (particularly Benjamin Moore Advance).
- This sheen is great for washability, without reflecting my purdy lil’ face back at me. I have done some pieces in semi-gloss and they looked sharp but were too reflective. And again, the shinier the paint is, the more you will see flaws, so if you are painting your own cabinets, satin will have a bit more forgiveness for a less than perfect job.
The Best Paint Finish for Your Front Door
When it comes to the front door, satin is usually a safe bet. Why?
- Direct natural light can expose flaws such as dents, scuffs, brush and roller marks. Add a glossy finish to this and it’ll be a hot mess.
- Dark colours in a glossy finish can be a bit garish if not suited to the home.
- Flat or eggshell finishes can look chalky on the front door and aren’t washable enough for the wear and tear that doors get.
- Satin finish on the front door is my fave. Wipeable, classy – not glassy.
The Best Paint Finish for a Brick / Stone Fireplace
Brick can look abrasive when shiny, yet dull when flat. For this reason, I like eggshell for a brick fireplace (more than satin).
- If you’re painting your brick a dark colour, eggshell finish looks best.
- If you’re painting your brick a light/white colour, eggshell or MAYBE satin.
A few more tidbits…
- If you are painting a medium or dark-toned colour (feature wall or whole room), it can look garish with too much sheen. Ideally, you would use a flat/matte finish.
- The more coats of paint you put on, the higher sheen you will get. What looked eggshell at 2 coats can look shinier at 5!
- The quality of your brush and roller matters DESPERATELY! Invest well.
Well, that about covers it! If you’re thinking of hiring a painter though, I highly recommend you read this: The 10 Questions You Need to Ask BEFORE Hiring a Painter!
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Originally written May 2017, updated 2021