How to Decide on a Paint Finish

Paint finish choices can seem confusing and the amateur decorator overwhelmed. A little research and the right choice can produce great results. Even on a tight budget,you can buy specialist paints online at a low price.


As the economy dips, painting can be the most attractive option for redecoration. For the cost of a few cans, an entire room can be transformed for a nominal cost by virtually anyone. Often one small piece of modest furniture can cost more than an entire paint job. While the range of choices available can initially pose confusion, understanding the difference in paint finishes and what goes into a can will lend to the most appropriate choice for a weekend project.


Typical Manufacturer’s Sheen Classifications:


  • Flat (or matte)
  • Eggshell
  • Satin
  • Semi-Gloss
  • High-Gloss


Understanding What’s in the Can


Interior house paint as we know it today is made up of basically four things:


  • Titanium Dioxide (TiO2)
  • Adhesives or binders (glues to hold the finish on the surface)
  • Pigment (to give the finished colour)
  • Vehicle (to allow transfer to a surface)


The only types of vehicles in paints one would find in most stores are oil and water. These evaporate as the paint dries. This causes the smell to linger for about 2-3 weeks indoors. It’s basically the vehicle leaving behind the pigment, adhesives, and titanium dioxide on the drywall. That’s why paint can be smeared and spread for the first hours after it’s applied but cannot once it has dried.


The difference between each finish (or sheen), is basically the extent to which the titanium dioxide is ground. A flat sheen has the least-finely ground minerals in it. The titanium particles within are jagged and oddly shaped. A human could not see this detail with the naked eye but when the paint is applied to the surface and the vehicle evaporates, the slightly uneven finish created by the jagged titanium particles causes light to reflect at all angles, making the surface appear dull.


By contrast, an enamel finish, like a satin or gloss, has progressively finer ground titanium that forms a smooth surface when dry. The finished result causes light to shine directly back at the human eye and appears shiny. Whether one “likes” the look of these is a matter of opinion, but that is the main reason for the appearance variations among finishes.


Many painters also attest to the durability of enamel paints. High gloss paint, for example, is generally very rugged, can repel liquid spills, and can stand up to light abrasion. Flat paint, on the other hand, shows virtually every fingerprint and mark. This is also due to the texture of the titanium. A finger running along the finished surface smooths out the jagged particles and allows light to shine back in the affected spot more directly than the rest of the surface.


Surface Priming


Once the finish has been decided, a primer can be selected. Most high-end paint companies offer primers that accommodate a particular finish. For example, one type of primer for flat and eggshell and another for the glossier finishes. The reasoning for this is based on the nature of the paint itself.


A proper first coat of primer can drastically affect the outcome of a job. Some do-it-yourself enthusiasts do not fully understand the importance of this step. According to paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams’ website, “primers anchor finish coats, level uneven areas, seal porous surfaces and make the finish coat smooth and uniform.”

Deciding on a Price Point


As the old adage goes, “You get what you pay for.” One could easily stand in a paint aisle at a big box home repair store and wonder why price gaps exist between seemingly similar products. Essentially, the difference in price indicates how much vehicle is in the can versus the other materials. For example, a premium paint may have very little vehicle (oil or water), and more titanium dioxide, binders, and pigment, providing a richer, more durable topcoat. By contrast, an inexpensive alternative may consist mostly of water or oil, which evaporates.


Most stores offer options at several price points, generally an economy, mid-range, and premium or designer option. Depending on the job, each has their benefits and applications.


Which Finish is Right?


Personal preference plays a large role in this decision but ascetics must be considered along with functionality. Some people may find a gloss finish too clinical looking for their living room while some might find a flat sheen to appear cheap. Regardless, there are some rules of thumb to consider:


  • Satin may be a good compromise for appearance and durability.
  • High-gloss paints are most durable and suitable for surfaces that will receive extensive wear and tear (doors, moulding, furniture, etc.).
  • Flat paint will nearly always show marks. Even flat paints marketed as being durable, although they may be more durable than a traditional flat, won’t compare with true enamel.
  • Due to the uneven ground of flat and eggshell paints, they possess a “filling” quality that can conceal marks or dents on older surfaces. Glossier finishes will show existing marks.
  • Oil-based paints are more durable than latex but are flammable, require special cleaners for tools and spills, and some people dis-like the odour. Oil-based paints are often used for industrial or commercial settings based on their strength.
  • Ceramic paints fall into another category altogether and some of the information in this article does not apply. Ceramic paints are also generally significantly more expensive than traditional interior paints.


There are elements of paint beyond the four ingredients listed here, but are minimal. The four listed comprise the majority of most popular brand’s contents.

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