What’s The Best Choice?

Decoding interior paint finish options

By Nikki Luttmann, Interior Designer

Paints today come in a whole range of colors and finishes. While choosing a color can be difficult and even agonizing, choosing the correct finish for your application shouldn’t be. The rule of thumb used to be gloss for trim, satin for living spaces and semi-gloss for bathrooms and kitchens. Please don’t do this! The new paint finishes are mainly water-based acrylics and have been developed to be very, very durable, even in low-luster finishes.

While high-gloss paint can certainly be used for trim, it can also be used for a wide variety of techniques, including “lacquering,” which entails layering a rich-pigmented oil-based paint to achieve a glossy, polished, jewel-like finish. While this sounds impressive, it is certainly not for everyone, and something that high gloss accomplishes very well is highlighting every little flaw in the drywall or woodwork. This technique is best left to professional painters and requires perfect smooth-finish drywall and doors without dings of any kind. Glossy paint is very unforgiving, and I seldom recommend it, even for trim work.

Instead, I recommend a semi-gloss or even satin finish for trim and millwork. The smooth finishes of these paints do a great job of repelling dust and grime and can be easily wiped down, but they are not so glossy as to call attention to little flaws or nicks that most of us have lived with on our doors or baseboards.

As far as using satin or semi-gloss on bathroom and kitchen walls, don’t do it. These finishes can look cheap and are hard to touch up. It is far better to use a more matte paint that touches up easily than to use something with a high sheen to it. The thought is that the glossier the paint, the more waterproof it is, but this is no longer the case. Any paint you use today is going to have a level of water protection, as most are synthetic latex paints, otherwise known as acrylic. In essence, we are coating our walls in thin layers of plastic. Now, does shinier plastic protect better from moisture than matte plastic? Not really.

Does that mean you should go with the flattest of the flat paints? Something with no sheen at all? I wouldn’t recommend going that direction either. Flat paints can show imperfections in another way—their light-absorbing surfaces show any change in color or texture. In addition, they are particularly susceptible to fingerprints, grease, or cracks of any kind.

My recommendation when choosing paint is to stay away from the extremes. For walls and ceilings, choose a matte paint, something with a light sheen that is still washable. This will be your most flattering—and most forgiving—surface. It bounces just enough light around to be beautiful, while still being durable enough for most interiors. These finishes can be called matte, eggshell or sometimes velvet, depending on the brand. Ask the paint specialist for the finish they would consider their “washable matte.” They will know how to help you.

For trim and millwork, choose a satin or semi-gloss finish. This will be easier to care for and look good in the long term. It also contrasts nicely with a more matte wall paint.

Always keep a bit of each paint on hand for touch-ups (I like to keep mine in labeled mason jars under the sink), and don’t be afraid to wipe down your trim regularly with a mild abrasive-free cleaner. Usually a little dish soap and water will do the trick. This will keep your new coat of paint looking great well into the future.


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