How to Pick the Best Paint for Wainscoting and Other Wood Paneling

Choosing the right paint for wainscoting and other wood paneling can seem daunting, but with some key considerations in mind, you can pick a paint that will look beautiful and stand the test of time. Here are the most important factors to keep in mind when selecting paint for wainscoting and wood panels.

Analyze the Wood Type

The first step is to identify the specific wood that makes up your paneling. Softwoods like pine are more porous and prone to absorbing paint, while hardwoods like oak have a smoother grain and denser surface. This will impact the type and amount of primer and paint needed for an even coat. For example, softwoods generally require oil-based primers and paints to fully seal the grain compared to latex paints which work better on hardwoods.

Consider Sheen Level

The sheen or glossiness of the paint also matters. Higher sheen paints like semi-gloss and gloss highlight imperfections like nail holes or seams between boards. They also amplify color variation in wood grain. For a smooth overall look, lower sheen eggshell or satin paints are best for wainscoting and paneling. Matte finishes hide flaws but may look dull on wood.

Stick to Quality Paint Brands

Invest in premium quality paints from trusted brands like Benjamin Moore or Sherwin-Williams. The higher content of solids like pigments and resins create more durable, harder paint films that will better withstand bumps and scrapes. Cheap paints can look good initially but lack longevity.

Opt for Paints Formulated for Trim

Seek out paints specifically made for trim, cabinets, and furniture. These are finely tuned for painting vertical surfaces and hardwood. Compared to wall paints, trim paints are denser and self-level better to create a smooth surface. Alkyd-based trim enamels are also very hard and protective.

Prepare the Surface Properly

Proper sanding, cleaning, patching, and priming are musts before painting wainscoting or wood panels. addressing issues like mildew or glossy old paint allows for proper adhesion. Oil-based primers further block stains from wood knots and tannins. Sand between coats too.

Apply Multiple Thin Coats

Thinner paint coats adhere and cure better than thick coats. For wainscoting or paneling, apply at least 2-3 thin, even coats allowing proper drying time between coats. Thin passes with a high-quality brush also minimize brush marks. Back-brushing while painting produces a smooth finish.

Consider Color and Sheen Compatibility

The new paint color and sheen should generally match or coordinate with existing wall paints for a cohesive look. Dramatic differences in sheen are also more noticeable. If paints contrast too much, consider repainting walls for a more uniform appearance.

Proper prep work and the right type of premium quality paint make all the difference in getting a durable and beautiful finish on wainscoting, paneling, and other trim work. Analyze the wood surface needs, stick to paint formulated for trim, apply multiple thin coats, and ensure color compatibility with walls. With attention to these key tips, you can achieve a flawless and lasting paint job.

Frequently Asked Questions About Painting Wainscoting and Wood Panels

Should I use oil or latex paint on wainscoting and paneling?

Latex paints work well for most hardwoods like oak or poplar while oil-based alkyds are better for soft, porous woods like pine. Oil paints fully seal the wood grain while latex adheres better if properly primed first.

How do I get an ultra-smooth finish on wainscoting?

Sand surfaces thoroughly prior to priming and painting. Apply multiple thin coats of high-quality satin, eggshell, or semi-gloss paint, allowing proper drying time between coats. Fine sand lightly between coats too.

What primer should I use before painting wood paneling?

For the best adhesion and sealing properties, use an oil-based primer like Zinsser Cover Stain before painting wood wainscoting or panels. It seals stains, knots, and tannins so they won’t bleed through paint.

Should I take down wainscoting before painting it?

In most cases, wainscoting can be painted in place, but it’s wise to remove any mounted trim pieces like chair rails or decorative molding first. Use painter’s tape for clean paint lines.

What sheen of paint is best for wainscoting in high-traffic areas?

For wainscoting in busy household areas, use satin, semi-gloss, or gloss sheens. These harder paint finishes resist marking, scuffing, and cleaning better than flat, matte, or eggshell finishes.

How long does it take for paint to cure on wood paneling?

In general allow at least 2 weeks for paint to fully cure and harden before cleaning or applying any protective finishes on painted wainscoting or wood paneling. Oil-based paints may take longer to cure than latex.


Painting wainscoting, paneling, or other architectural wood elements adds color, protects the surface, and updates the look of any room. But the painting process for wood requires careful selection of paint and sheen, proper surface prep, priming, and application of thin, even coats. Considering the wood type, paint formulas designed for trim, sheen level based on location, quality prep and paint brands ensures you achieve durable, beautiful results. With a well-executed paint job, you can refresh wainscoting, paneling and wood trim for years of enjoyment.