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

photo by zeke ruelas for ehd | from: moody mid-century home office

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. 

Emily Henderson Pastel Paint Colors For Grownups (166 Of 225)
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!

Bedroom 2 C 001
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. 


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2 years ago

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!

Beth L
2 years ago
Reply to  katy

Yes, eggshell is so much better! I despise flat paint.

2 years ago

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!

2 years ago

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!

2 years ago

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!

2 years ago

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!!!

2 years ago

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.


2 years ago
Reply to  Syreeta

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 years ago
Reply to  Syreeta

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.

2 years ago

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!

Rachael White
2 years ago

Should interior doors match the millwork?

2 years ago

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

2 years ago
Reply to  Lynn

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.

2 years ago

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!

2 years ago

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

2 years ago

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?

2 years ago
Reply to  Karyn

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.

Joan Renee Stark
2 years ago

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.

Joan Renee Stark
2 years ago

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

2 years ago

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!

Jennica Atkinson
2 years ago

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

2 years ago

What are your low VOC paint suggestions?

2 years ago

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?

2 years ago

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.

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