Trying to choose what sheen paint you should use on your project may not have been something you’ve given much thought to, but it can make a huge difference in how the final product looks. Not only are there a bunch of different sheens to choose from, but every paint company has a different name for their sheen levels. So, what do you choose and why so many sheens?
Different sheens of paint have different uses. Glossy paints hold up to traffic better and are easier to clean. Flat paints can’t really be cleaned at all, but they hide surface flaws better than anything. So, deciding what sheen paint to use is more a question of where, and less of when or why. I’ll go through each type of sheen and where you should use it for the best results.
Not only do you want to learn how to paint a room properly, but choosing the right paint sheen is just as important as technique.
Flat paint is the perfect way to hide rough walls or textures that you don’t like. It helps the wall have a uniform appearance and doesn’t highlight surface imperfections at all. Flat paint belongs in only low traffic areas where there won’t be a lot of hands touching it. Stay away from using flat paint on railings, doors, windows, and the like because they all get lots of hand traffic.
The reason it doesn’t work well with traffic is that is doesn’t have as strong of a grip and can often be scraped off very easily, as well as the fact that cleaning is not really an option. Any paint other than flat can usually be cleaned with a damp cloth to get dirt, crayon, pen, or scuffs off. Not flat paint. Cleaning with a damp cloth mostly smears the offending mark making more of a mess.
Flat paint excels when used on ceilings and rough textured walls as long as it is not used in damp or high traffic rooms like in bathrooms or kitchens.
The next step up on the paint sheen ladder is eggshell. Aptly named because it is about the same sheen as an eggshell (clever, huh?). Eggshell is a good all around paint for walls where it is probably the most popular paint sheen. It still hides like flat paint (though a little less) and has decent clean-ability. If your walls aren’t in rough shape, then an eggshell paint sheen won’t make you cringe at the flaws it reveals.
It’s not glossy enough for use on doors, windows, or trim, so keep it on walls only for the best results.
Satin paint is a good all around paint and it can honestly work just about anywhere you want. Satin is best reserved for walls in bathrooms and kitchens because of its very good clean-ability. The high moisture levels in bathrooms can wreak havoc on flat paints and so the minimum I recommend in these rooms is satin.
Satin is also sometimes used on trim, windows, and doors. This is the bare minimum level of sheen I would recommend for these high traffic elements. It is cleanable enough and gives an attractive appearance, especially if you have rough surfaces on your woodwork. Satin will help hide trim imperfections compared to its higher gloss cousins below.
Semi-gloss is a great all around paint for trim, windows, and doors. It is very cleanable and holds up to heavy traffic over years of use. The reason for its popularity is that it gives that high performance look of high gloss paint without showing every single solitary flaw. It’s relatively easy to apply compared to high gloss paint too, allowing it to hide brush marks better. Check out the video at the end of the post for some tips on avoiding brush marks!
Places that semi-gloss paint absolutely does not belong are ceilings and walls. Even the best drywaller or plasterer will leave marks on their work that would normally not be an issue when painted with eggshell or flat paint, but when you apply semi-gloss paint to a large flat surface, you will see every flaw distinctly. In addition, it causes issues with light reflection on walls due to its higher sheen, creating all kinds of ugly shadow lines. Don’t do it.
For the greatest impact, nothing beats a high-gloss finish. It shines like the sun and is extremely durable, but requires exceptional skill to apply properly. High-gloss paint is not forgiving of surface imperfections and shows every single brush mark like a secret posted on Facebook. There is no escaping the flaws that high-gloss shows.
But, when applied well to things like a front door, high-gloss paint is a beauty to behold. And there are really only two places I recommend it. Exterior doors and cabinets. It takes extensive prep and often a spray-on application to get it just right, but if you have the guts, then go for it because it is something special.
I hope this helps you discover what sheen paint you should use and where. One other little tip about paint sheens is that paint prices usually go up about a dollar a gallon for each increase in sheen. So, you can save a little money by only using the higher sheen paints when you need them. Good luck and now go paint something!
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.