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Painting Soon? Here’s a Crash Course on Paint Finishes So You Get It Right the First Time

From Mallory: I did it. I really did it this time…I’ve officially made my first big design mistake. A VERY preventable mistake at that. You guys will laugh, and that’s okay, because I’m admitting my mistake so no one moving forward will have to deal with the situation I’m dealing with currently. Here we go. I painted my bathroom in A FLAT paint finish. There I said it. And it’s not holding up well. At all. After making this horrid mistake, I quickly googled to see if we had written a post on what paint finish to use in each room and sure enough, there it was. This amazing post that had been buried for the last 3 years, so I felt it was time to resurface. Also the timing seemed great because Emily is browsing paint options for the Farmhouse (she’s using Sherwin-Williams and their colors are GREAT if you’re in the market). Now, friends, join me reading this post & never “winging” your paint finish again:

Hey everyone! Contributing writer Laurren here to talk some nuts and bolts design. You ready?

The journey to finding the perfect paint color can be a long one. You flip through sample after sample until the eyes blur and everything starts to look the same (wait…how many shades of white are there?!?). Finally, somehow, you land on your top 10 or so favorites. You test drive each one, staring at them in varying times of day in case your perfect-at-10am gray starts to lean a little purple by happy hour. AND THE FUN DOESN’T STOP THERE because once you’ve found your hue of choice, you have another important—and possibly more crippling—decision to make: what paint finish are you supposed to use.

And no pressure but you better get it right because not only does sheen impact how easy your walls are to clean but it may also alter the perception of the color (and the style of the room). That crisp white you sampled in a flat paint and loved? It may come off a little sterile in a glossier finish since more of the color is reflected. To complicate matters even further, sheens aren’t standardized from brand to brand, so you can’t assume all paints display the same amount of reflectivity just because they share the same naming convention. The takeaway? Test and test and test again—not only to find your choice color but also to get a true feel for any finish you’re considering. 

photo by jess isaac for ehd | from: our favorite pastel paint colors (for adults)

To help simplify the process of finding the perfect finish for every space—and in case my dramatic commentary made you want to swear off painting forever—we tapped our friends Nathan and Heather Spaulding of Spaulding Company, a boutique general contracting and design company based in Northeast Los Angeles that are actually currently working their magic at Emily’s LA home, for their expert guidance on navigating the what and where of paint finishes. Take it away, guys!

photo by zeke ruelas | from: orlando’s master bedroom reveal

Hi! We’re Los Angeles natives and former Seattleites, Nathan and Heather Spaulding! We started Spaulding Company in 2015 in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, with the mission to help homeowners and entrepreneurs create spaces that inspire and offer a respite from the mundane. You can find our work in homes and businesses in Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Echo Park, Highland Park, Studio City, Malibu and more. We’re excited to be here today to talk paint finishes, but before we do, let’s go over a few things that are good to remember no matter what paint you choose.

Take your time with surface preparation, taping, and masking.

We know it isn’t fun, but properly cleaning (tape won’t stick to dusty surfaces!) and masking off walls will make the painting process go much more quickly and smoothly since you won’t need to be as careful along edges (meaning fewer touch-ups in the end).

Prime your walls.

If you’re painting walls from light to dark or dark to light, it’s important to use a tinted primer. This will help you get the job done in fewer coats and ensures your wall color is true to your swatch. You might think you’re spending more “time” or “money,” but the truth is, you’ll end up spending more of both on the back end if you skip the front-end work of priming. 

Take a photo. 

Before you crack a paint can, email yourself a photo of the label including the color code and a picture of the branded can. List out the locations where that color/sheen was used. This helps for touch-ups down the line when you’ve forgotten all the choices you made once upon a time. 

Don’t throw paint in the trash.

Many cities have a local drop off or guidelines on how to properly dispose of hazardous waste such as paint. (Note from Laurren: I list extra paint on Craigslist under the free section—someone is always happy to have it for small projects.)

Now, let’s break things down. In general, you want to use a maximum of three finishes in your home. One for high-moisture, high-traffic areas, one for living areas and bedrooms, and one for millwork. Never say never…but never use a flat or matte paint on millwork. You’ll be battling dirt, scuffs, and fingerprints for the rest of your life.It’s also important to note that some brands have additional sheens or alternative naming conventions. For example, Dunn-Edwards and Benjamin Moore have exclusive sheens, Velvet and Pearl, which we’ve included in this guide. Farrow & Ball has a finish called Modern Eggshell that is actually a bit closer to a standard semi-gloss than a traditional eggshell, and Estate Emulsion which is pretty matte but also somehow a bit satin (it’s lovely). More reason to always test a hue and finish before committing!

Okay, now, to get onto the subject we’re all here for today…how to pick a finish. Again, sometimes it’s a personal/stylistic choice (i.e. going high-gloss on the ceiling, walls and millwork of an entryway for a glam look), but you gotta know the rules before you try to break them.

photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: arlyn’s dark, moody dining room makeover takeover



  • BEST FOR: Low-traffic areas (i.e. formal dining room, den), non-moisture areas
  • PRO: Hides imperfections of surfaces, forgiving application for the not-so-savvy painter  
  • CON: Difficult to clean, reacts poorly with moisture (Ever notice those drip lines down your bathroom wall from shower steam? They are super difficult to remove from flat paint.)


  • BEST FOR: Bedrooms, living rooms, hallways, non-moisture areas 
  • PRO: Slightly more washable than flat, similar surface concealing
  • CON: Still not ideal for easy and regular cleaning 


  • BEST FOR: Bedrooms, living rooms, hallways, non-moisture areas
  • PRO: Historically the most popular paint finish. Balances cleanability, sheen, ease of application. Sits nicely with your standard semi-gloss sheens on millwork or other rooms. A good choice if you are concerned with longevity and cleanability in living areas 
  • CON: Shows slightly more surface imperfections due to higher sheen  


  • BEST FOR: Kitchens, bathrooms, high-traffic areas, millwork
  • PRO: More stain resistant and durable with a subtle luster  
  • CON: Shows surface imperfections, slightly more difficult to apply for the novice painter


  • BEST FOR: Kitchens, bathrooms, high-traffic areas, millwork
  • PRO: Historically the most popular for wet zones, millwork—durable and easily cleaned
  • CON: Shows surface imperfections, slightly more difficult to apply for the novice painter


  • BEST FOR: Millwork
  • PRO: The most durable and easily cleaned 
  • CON: Enhances surface imperfections, difficult to apply (so best left to the pros)

Navigating Paint Trends

image source

We love how cocoon-like a room can feel when millwork, walls, and ceilings (and sometimes even floors!) are painted the same color. You could use the same finish throughout to achieve this look, but to make things easier on yourself, we’d highly suggest using one sheen for ceilings and walls and a more durable option for the millwork. (And don’t even think about going with anything less than a semi-gloss on floors.)

photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: 7 keys to nail the monotone paint look

Across the board, paint finishes with less sheen are trending and while beautiful, the lowest sheen we’d suggest for high-traffic areas is Velvet (Dunn Edwards), which still requires continual maintenance. If you dare to do full-on matte, be sure to shell out for a high-quality paint, always use a primer, and don’t skimp on the number of coats you apply. Be prepared to use many a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and keep a jar of paint and blue tape handy for regular touch-ups (it chips away far easier and scratches with just the subtlest move of a picture frame). We hope this helps you pick up that paintbrush with confidence.

Thank you, Nathan and Heather, for offering your expert advice.

Do you have any painting regrets? Happy surprises? We want to know! And as always, let us know if you have any questions. 

Opening Image Credit: Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | Produced and Art Directed by Emily Henderson | Designed and Styled with Velinda Hellen and Erik Staalberg | From: The Color Trend We’re VERY Into (That You’ll Love, Too)


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50 thoughts on “Painting Soon? Here’s a Crash Course on Paint Finishes So You Get It Right the First Time

  1. This is actually super helpful! We are building a house and I’ve never really given much thought to paint finishes – I thought it was always matte for the walls, semi-gloss for the trim, the end. But I have always had to magic eraser the crap out of my walls and touch up paint when that fails. I didn’t know that I could make my life easier with eggshell. So thank you!

    1. Behr paint at home depot sells a flat paint called scuff defense that you can scrub. Paint finishes have come a long way. I’m an interior painter and many of my clients have been happy with scuff defense. Old flat finishes were impossible to manage.

  2. Gasp! The past two homes I’ve lived in have had major cracking in the ceiling and top of the wall above the shower! I never understood why, and now I see it’s because flat paint was used EVERYWHERE including the bathrooms! I can’t believe I just learned this valuable life lesson. Thank you!

    1. Older bathrooms were almost always painted with a gloss, semi gloss or something else with a sheen. Flat paint painted OVER glossy paint without using a bonding primer (often done when someone wants to quickly make the space look refreshed or to cover water stains) plus a humid environment is what likely caused the cracking, not the flat paint itself. Flat isn’t great for a bathroom but doesn’t usually crack on its own

  3. Thank you so much for this post! This is the kind of info I’ll absolutely refer back to when we paint next, which is hopefully soon. As much as I love reading about upcoming trends, sourcing cool furniture, and so forth…I also love it when this site breaks down really fundamental design issues. You are all teachers as well as stylists/designers, and I love it!

  4. Very very helpful! Thank you very much.
    Question for Millwork if you are after that more authentic older painted boiserie panels, ie definitely more “thirsty” looking wood than shiny is there any other finishes you can put on a flat paint like a wax coat?
    Thanks again for all the info!

  5. This is so timely and MUCH APPRECIATED. We bought our first house last September — it had been “flipped” by some brokers who, let’s just say, clearly didn’t consult anyone who knew anything and obviously made choices based entirely on bulk materials they had!

    The most truly mind-boggling decision was paint: EVERY. SINGLE. ROOM. was painted in a *matte* gray paint. And when I say “every” room I mean it: even closets and bathrooms! And here’s the kicker: THEY PAINTED THE CEILINGS MATTE GRAY TOO. A 2400 sq. ft. house in the dark PNW woods with brown millwork and doors and they painted the entire house with a paint that sucks light out of every room.

    Needless to say we have a big job ahead of us, as we couldn’t afford to have the house painted prior to moving in. Ceilings and bathrooms are clearly where we need to start! Thank you EHD and Spauldings for this super helpful guide!!!

    1. “Paint it all matte gray” must be somewhere in the flippers guidebook, you can always tell a flip here by the gray paint. Though where I’d live they’d also paint all the woodwork white, even original antique woodwork.

    2. They hired a guy with a sprayer for cheap. Spraying it ALL means not having to take time to tape anything off. And they likely used cheap cheap paint. Make sure you use a bonding primer on anything you repaint. So sad for you!

  6. Wow, this was definitely helpful and a go-to for me moving forward. However, what advice you can provide about paint for furniture? Would love to hear your thoughts or see content addressing it.


    1. I second the request for advice on paint finishes when painting furniture, thanks! (Also, loved this post. This is the exact sort of thing that makes EHD such a valuable resource!!)

    2. I think furniture looks best with a non-flat sheen. I prefer semi-gloss or possibly gloss. It’s a pain to use, but enamel paint (oil based rather than water based) will give you a great and really long lasting finish. Then again, the chalk paint route is another good option. This will give you more of a matte finish but is much more durable than buying a typical flat paint. Chalk paint is REALLY easy to put on and dries quickly too.

  7. Oh my god thank you SO much for this! We’re moving into a new apartment and will be repainting the entire thing ourselves…GULP. The existing paint is weirdly shiny in the bedrooms and hard to clean in the kitchen and now I know why–and how to fix it! Thank you!

  8. I’d love to hear more about tinted primer. Tinted how? And thank you so much for this valuable resource. Bookmarked!

    1. I think when she says tinted primer they mean it’s easier to use a tinted primer if you plan to use darker colors. Most primer is white and it will be noticeable if you miss a spot. You can always ask to color the primer the same shade as your paint color. If it is really dark they will try their best but it won’t be an exact match. Also, primer is a matte sheen.

  9. Wow this is incredibly helpful!

    Would love if you could convert the type / pros / cons section to an image so I can pin it. 🙂

    Thank you again!

  10. What about doors??? Interior doors I mean. I never know what finish is best. Thanks!!

  11. Hi and thank you for the tips!! Can you give some guidance on painting doors as part of the trim? What is the best way to paint them? Spray paint? Roller? Do you take them off or paint them on the hinges?

    1. I’ve always had the most luck with a brush, but if you can take doors off and have a place to paint them outside, a sprayer would probably be the easiest/most even!

    2. Leave them on and paint them with a roller. Very quick & easy if they are flat / without panels. If they do have panels, use a brush to get into the indented parts and use a roller to do the raised flat parts. Doors are the easiest thing of all. Just put some tape over the hinges first.

  12. In older homes there may be lead paint. Buy test swabs and test it. Then research what to do about it.

    I have oil base paint in my 1960’s house on the trim. We didn’t know better in the 1980’s and tried to paint over it with latex paint. It just peeled off in spots.

    Consider getting a quote from a contractor before you DYI it. You may learn lot and then you can decide if doing it yourself is a good idea.

  13. Here’s another suggestion for what to do with paint samples or extra paint, donate to a high school drama department for scenery painting.

  14. Thank you for this! My weekend project is finalizing all paint for our new house so this is super helpful and timely!!! What about ceilings. I get that “wet” area ceiling should be more of a satin or semigloss like the walls in that space. But what about “dry” high traffic areas? We have an open concept kitchen/dining/living space with vaulted ceilings. I was planning eggshell on the walls and flat on the ceiling… or should I do eggshell on the ceiling too? Help!! Thank you!

    1. You can use flat/matte on the ceiling. As it won’t take a beating like walls do, you don’t need an easily cleanable surface.

  15. So helpful!! Thank you for neatly organizing this info. I’ll definitely be bookmarking this.

    1. Nearly Anything that’s not oil based is now low VOC paint these days. Behr paint at hime depot, Sherwin Williams Benjamin Moore all carry low VOC.

  16. Oh, tragedy, the workers painted the stair spindles with a flat paint, which is now flaking like REALLY bad dandruff. What can I do? Will painting it over with Kilz allow me to paint over with an oil base paint, or a gloss sheen, at least?

  17. Be careful with the Magic Eraser. We had flat paint throughout our old house (old, imperfect, orange-peel plaster walls), and after a few years with a toddler, I could see a hand-height dirt line through our kitchen. Magic Eraser fixed it, but… made the paint shinier there. So instead of a dirt streak, we had a shiny streak. Sigh. Maybe it was the paint quality, but I’d still be super wary of using it on anything with a flat finish.

  18. Painted my first kitchen 40 years ago with flat paint – everyone makes paint mistakes! Lesson learned. Big Lesson.
    Only place I ever use flat paint is on the ceiling.

  19. I know it’s a repost, but so dang timely, I am ordering paint this week! One thing I learned from shopping around is that Sherwin Williams is a corporate owned business while Benjamin Moore is usually sold through local distributors. My local BM seller is a small business and I chose to support them. Something to consider. Happy painting!

  20. Finish is so important! A couple years I painted my bathroom with BM’s Aura Bath & Spa in a matte finish and it still looks good–highly recommend it for bathrooms!

    1. Yes I wanted to add- matte paint is great for bathrooms if you want it to look vintage and like” its always been there “

  21. When I was working for a design firm I was at a client’s apt. and noticed that the movers had left a mark on the wall. I used a Mr. Clean sponge to remove it and it took some of the paint with it. The paint was a matte finish. So I advice you not to use that sponge. We had to send the painters back to repaint that wall.

  22. Team Flat Paint for LYFE. I know I’m not supposed to use it in the bathroom… but I just hate semi-gloss on walls SO much. I’d much rather have to touch it up every so often than have to deal with reflect-y walls.

  23. There is actually a flat paint on the market now by Behr (probably only available in US at Home Depot currently??) that is matte finish with the durability of a higher sheen finish. It is called Scuff Defense. Also, interesting fact about Sherwin Williams – their paints are very targeted at professional painters who value quick dry time (squeeze in more jobs per day) and coverage over durability. If you are looking for a paint that will be more durable you may be better suited to other brands. Though it sounds like for the Farm SW is a sponsor so maybe not an option for Emily.

    1. Agreed. All.the contractors spray Sherwin Williams on new builds and it doesn’t hold up. Behr, Ben Moore are both better

  24. Does the color of the paint impact the recommendation for sheen? I have a small powder room that I want to paint with a dark blue, green color on the walls, ceiling, millwork, doors (everything!) for a “jewel box” feel. I’m not worried about moisture since there are only a toilet and sink in there. Will the end result look more high end if I use a flat or velvet paint for the dark color?

  25. Man I wish I read this before I painted my front entrance stairs. We painted them black and used matte as suggested by the Sherwin William associate. I love the color but I have no idea why the guy said matte! It stains so badly!!

  26. We just painted the entire interior of our home (2500 sq feet) as part of a major renovation. In the past we’ve been super happy with Sherwin Williams Emerald Flat but Emerald paint is not available right now. Your article didn’t mention any of the worldwide shortages and supply chain problems. We had to choose different paint and finishes on the fly. For most of the house, our choices worked out okay. In one room, though, we used a flat paint that still has a bit of a sheen and it’s super distracting. We will have to re-paint that room once Emerald is available again. While you mentioned some of the proprietary sheens, it would be helpful to have a this is similar-ish to that comparison.

    I hope Emily doesn’t run into the same global supply problems we did. Sherwin Williams is so low on extra-white base that no store within 100 miles would even sell us the little test pots of paint! We had to choose our colors off of the paint chip only. And, our contractor was only able to purchase in five gallon increments. Nutty, right?!

  27. Let’s not forget the ceilings. If you don’t tell your contractor all of those details, they will get a generic can of white ceiling paint and let er rip. Good contractors ask all the annoying details and man it feels like a lot of choices. It is a lot of choices esp if you’re doing multiple rooms at once.

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