Which paint finish should I use?

Which paint finish should I use is a question I am regularly asked.  As part of specifying I always advise clients but it isn't always that straight forward and personal choice is important too.

Firstly before I get into specifics or even think about styles, these are the main points when considering which paint finish to use that you should take away from this post:

  • The more matt a finish is, the less light it bounces around a room.
  • With matt finishes you see fewer imperfections.  As the sheen level increases and therefore more light is reflected, the more imperfections in the substrate become evident.
  • As the sheen level increases, so does durability.  A high gloss finish is much more durable than a low sheen but will show the most imperfections on the surface.
  • In addition to being more impervious to knocks and dents, a higher sheen level also comes with increased washability.
  • Colour will change with the sheen level.  The more matt the finish, the more light is absorbed and the darker the colour will become.  Always ensure when you test a sample of a colour that you consider this.

Paint companies know that the market craves finishes which are matt but durable and therefore paints have been developed that have washability as well as a low sheen level.  These are perfect for homes with families or for commercial environments.  Each company's product is different though so do a little research to find one you are happy with.  A good paint store will have examples of each finish with a technical document demonstrating how washable and durable the paint is.

Paint companies now sell a dizzying array of paint finishes.  Not even considering all the fabulous specialty finishes that you can now get, just the standard offerings come in a wide range and each company uses slightly different terminology.  The following list of the jargon used may be helpful:

Flat Acrylic paints

Sometimes referred to as Ultra Flat – these paints have maximum colour saturation and as they suggest are VERY matt.

Eggshell Acrylic paints

Like an eggshell they have a delicate lustre rather than a matt or shiny finish and are usually washable.  Some paint companies refer to these as their low sheen option with anything between a 5 – 10% shine.

Satin paints

These have more shine than an eggshell finish but not a glossy appearance.  They reflect light but are still understated but will have superior washability

Low sheen Acrylic paints

This is often another word for a satin finish and will have a very soft slightly reflective finish rather than a full on shine and again are usually washable.

Low gloss enamel

These paints are now being developed for woodwork where a low sheen/matt finish is desired but with some durability.

Semi-gloss enamel

Sometimes referred to by paint companies as their Satin finish and others as their Low sheen one which can make it a little confusing.  An enamel paint is perfect for woodwork and in semi-gloss gives you a slight shine and some good durability.  An Aqua enamel paint will wash up easily and will not yellow with age.

Gloss enamel paint

A full gloss with a high shine that will be the most durable and reflect the most light.

Which paint finish should I use for my home exterior?

Before we start, I just wanted to say that these views are mine and reflect the look that I like – there is not necessarily a right or wrong.

My general rule of thumb for exterior finishes is:

Gutters, facias, posts, trim, eaves and front door in a good quality exterior low sheen finish.  If you do like a little bit more shine you can opt for a semi-gloss paint for everything but the eaves.

Walls – weatherboards in a low sheen finish and masonry in a matt finish.  You can also use a matt finish for weatherboards, particularly if it is a rough sawn timber or you are creating a soft, natural, weathered look.  For masonry I like to use a paint that has a fine stone finish which helps to cover any imperfections in the substrate.

Paint finish for front door
Image: Homes to Love 

Front doors, particularly on older homes, benefit from a low sheen paint.  However, always remember that a semi-gloss paint will be more durable so if you have children who scuff the door as they enter you may benefit from a touch more protection here!

Gloss finishes for exteriors
Image: Homes to Love

I do have clients who love a gloss front door and I do agree that it can look very smart if the door is in good condition.  Consider the door in relation to the other trim colours on your exterior.  You can either carry this through to these areas or just have your front door as the stand out feature.

I always recommend eaves are painted in a low sheen finish as this is an area of imperfections and one that needs regular cleaning.

Which paint finish should I use for my interior surfaces?

Walls should be washable but with as low a sheen as you can get away with.  Some paint companies now offer a matt wall paint that is washable but they are never as washable and durable as their low sheen version.  Look for a paint that is low sheen but with only a 5-10% sheen level.

When determining which paint finish is best for your walls you will need to consider the following:

  • Does your home need to stand up to a lot of wear and tear?  Do you have pets?  Or children who like to run their hands along the wall, or scrape their school bags as they walk down the hallway?  If so then a low sheen washable paint is probably the best option.
  • If your home doesn't get a lot of wear and tear you could opt for a matt finish.  Some of these are beautifully velvety and absorb light well so if you have a calmer household and don't mind a little repainting here and there, then this would be preferable.
  • Have you chosen a very dark colour for your walls?  If so, then a matt finish can look better.  I do find that marks can really show though on a dark surface so you need to give this consideration.
  • What are the other finishes in your room?  For example, is your kitchen joinery shiny or matt?  Do you have a polished stone benchtop or a matt finish?  This will have a bearing on the wall finish that you opt for.
  • What is the substrate that you are painting?  Think about whether it has any imperfections.  Is it a simple plastered wall or are you painting over bricks?  I like to paint bricks with a fine stone paint so that I get a very natural, matt finish on the surface.

Which paint should I use for my kitchen

By keeping all the finishes similar – wall panelling, internal doors, kitchen joinery etc. you create a very cohesive interior.

When determining which paint finish to use for timber trim and internal doors, always consider the following:

  • The style you are creating
  • How much durability you need
  • The other finishes in the room
  • The quality and finish of your timber
Which paint finish should I use?
Photo by Lasse Møller on Unsplash

A classic style, perhaps an upmarket Hamptons look, a Plantation style home or a traditional Heritage home will easily take a semi-gloss finish on woodwork.  While a laid back Coastal or Bohemian style is better suited to relaxed low sheen and matt finishes for timber doors and trim.

Which paint finish should I use for my living room

ALWAYS buy the best quality paint that you can afford.  A good quality washable wall paint with a very low sheen is a great investment whether you are using it on walls or on woodwork.

Which paint finish should I use in my bathroom

A special note on paint finishes for wet areas.

If you don't have good ventilation and you do get a regular build up of steam, perhaps in a kitchen, laundry or bathroom, you should consider using a paint that has anti-bacterial/mould inhibitors.  You really do need a low sheen washable paint for these walls too.

Finally, a note on the paint to use for ceilings.  This should always be a matt finish as ceilings will show imperfections more than other areas.  Always tint a ceiling white to a white that suits your scheme – don't just use the paint company's ceiling white as it is often a grey or blue white that won't necessarily suit your scheme.

You don't have to use white for ceilings – you can use something very dark to get a different effect, in which case you will simply use an absolute matt paint tinted to your desired colour.

Related: How to find the right white

Related: Manipulating a space with colour

Related: What colour do I paint my skirting boards and architraves

Related: What colour do I paint my internal doors

Specialty paint finishes

Fresco paint finishes for interior walls
Image: Sydney Harbour Paint Company 

I will write a more comprehensive post on special paint finishes.  There are so many available and each time I visit a favourite traditional paint store, there seems to be another added to the range.

You can achieve a beautiful aged plastered wall, a soft mellow lime wash finish which will bloom differently depending upon the weather when you apply it, or a soft ultra matt chalk finish.  You can create a rust finish or an aged copper look – the list is pretty endless.

I hope though that this first look at the mainstream and basic paint finishes has helped you to decide which finish is right for your next decorating project and for you creative types to know that there are so many other options available to you too.

What paint finish should I use

Don't forget that I have a FREE resource library so if you are renovating or decorating I have some useful tools to help you, including checklists and e-books.  Download them here.

19 thoughts on “Which paint finish should I use?

  1. Mark says:

    Hi, you don’t mention ceilings. I know a Matt finish is generally preferred to reduce imperfections but what if you have timber ceilings in good nick?

    • Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Mark If you have timber ceilings in good condition I would simply oil them in a matt finish. I have a separate post dedicated to what you should paint your ceiling and you will see more advice there. Thanks Samantha

    • Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Carrie the finish for the inside of your front door should be in line with the rest of the interior. So if you have used a low sheen on your other doors, then carry this through with the front door too. Samantha

  2. Miriam says:

    Hello! We have just painted our red brick house exterior black with a low sheen paint (professionally) but I’m finding it too reflective and glossy, is there a way to soften and provide a less reflective appearance? Another coat in a stone finish as you have mentioned, or some kind of Matt top coat? Thank you in advance, Miriam

    • Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Miriam I would speak to the painters but another coat in a stone finish would certainly help and give a more natural, darker, less reflective finish. Good luck Samantha

  3. Sarah says:

    Hello Samantha from a fellow colour lover! I’ve just discovered your blog and am so enjoying it.

    I’d really appreciate your input on the paint finish I should choose for my trim once my renovation is done. The style will have both Australian country and French Provincial influences, and I love matte finishes where feasible.

    The walls will be tongue and groove panelling in Porter’s Eggshell in Haloumi. The trim will be in Harvest Moon, and I was thinking Low Sheen? Or do you think I need Satin Enamel?

    (As an aside, the house is split level and everything I’ve just described is on the lower level. The upper level has plasterboard walls and I plan to lime wash them. Thinking something halfway between Himalayan Salt and Majolica for the bedrooms, and a pale sage green for the entry.)

    Thanks, Sarah

    • Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Sarah so glad you are enjoying the blog! If you love matt finishes then I think you should stick with the Porters Low Sheen. Their Satin Enamel is lovely but has slightly more shine. I love Porters Haloumi with Harvest Moon and these soft tones with a green base will work well. Something in the Himalayan Salt and Majolica range will certainly suit the French Provincial style that you love too. Hope you love the end result Samantha

  4. Magdalena says:

    Hi Samantha,
    I will be doing board and batten wall panelling in my living room. I want to paint it white as is the rest of the room. I’m not sure what paint finish should I use matt or satin? I want them to be easy to clean but not shiny. Can you help me please?
    Magdalena

    • Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Magdalena I like a low sheen (satin finish) on wall panelling so that it matches the finish of skirting boards and architraves that it will butt up against. Low sheen paints are washable but have very little shine. Hope this helps Samantha

  5. Afton Jackson says:

    Your tips on how to properly use matte finishes both on the exterior and interior of a house were really helpful. This kind of style has always attracted me whenever I see houses in showrooms or magazines, so getting this kind of style for my own house could really help me be satisfied with it. Once I find a painting professional that can assist me, I’ll make sure I use all of your tips to get a good-looking coat of matt paint.

  6. Isabella says:

    Thanks for the very helpful post! What would you recommend for an old Georgian house with sash windows for all the internal woodwork (e.g. windows, doors, skirting boards etc.)? We currently have a high gloss white paint but I can see all the imperfections and hate it. However, I also need to retain as much light as possible…I’m not sure what I should do?

    P.S. would it be better to strip the windows completely, restore the wood as best we can and then repaint them?

    • Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Isabella for windows that have a lot of imperfections, it is advisable to paint these in a low sheen finish. Many paint companies now have a low sheen paint that is durable. It is always best to strip the windows and restore them if you can but this is a big job. In terms of colour, this will really depend on the other colours in the room. I have an article about which colour should I paint my architraves and skirting boards which may help you to decide. https://www.makingyourhomebeautiful.com/colour-paint-skirting-boards-architraves/ Samantha

  7. Anita kirkby says:

    I’ve always used matte paint on my walls I’m painting my hall and kitchen my flat is quite dark so was thinking of doing a pale pink in soft sheen would you say it would Britten my flate up very frustrated help .

    • Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Anita yes, a subtle sheen on the walls will bounce the light around more as matt finishes absorb the light. A low sheen paint will also be more durable for a hallway and kitchen which is a good idea Samantha

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