Brush Up on Paint

Photograph by Patrick Molnar/Stone/Getty images

Jill and Andrew Greene had been house-hunting for several months before settling on a well-maintained colonial in Farmington Hills. When they took possession, their first order of business was to make it their own by changing the wall color.

Thinking “paint is paint,” and hoping to save money, the couple decided to go to their local paint store to select the paint themselves. Once inside, however, they were confronted with a confounding array of choices, prices, and styles.

“I’m a systems analyst and my wife is a schoolteacher,” Andrew says. “We couldn’t tell you what a flat was versus a satin.”

Most homeowners have experienced similar confusion.

Here’s a shorthand explanation. Latex paints are water-based, durable, and lower in odor than oil-based products. Latex paint can be cleaned up easily with soap and water, and is preferred for most interior surfaces. Oil-based paints are extremely durable and resist scraping and wear-and-tear. Most contain alkyd, a soya-based resin that dries harder than latex. Since these paints are solvent-based, brushes and spills must be cleaned using a paint-thinner. Oil-based paints are used primarily for exterior jobs because they stand up to the elements.

Nearly as important as the right color is the choice of paint finish. The finish of paint, or its sheen, is also known as the gloss level. The higher the gloss, the more sheen it contains. The higher the sheen, the more light it will reflect and the shinier (and more washable) it will be.

Here’s a brief overview of the six primary finishes:

1. Flat

These paints are ideal for low-traffic areas such as formal dining rooms and master bedrooms. Flat finishes are the best at hiding minor wall imperfections. The drawback of the beautiful matte finish is that it may scuff easily and is typically tougher to wash. If you opt for flat, keep extra for touch-ups.

2. Eggshell

This finish is similar to flat, but with a subtle sheen that gives just a hint of shine. Eggshell is easily washable and is ideal for bedrooms, halls, home offices, and family rooms.

3. Satin

This finish works in most rooms. It provides a nice balance between washability and subtle gloss. Satin finishes have a smooth, velvety look with a bit more gloss than eggshell.

4. Semi-gloss

With a high shine, semi-gloss paints are highly durable and moisture-resistant. Semi-gloss is typically reserved for bathrooms, children’s rooms, kitchens, and trim. Semi-gloss washes easily and maintains a high shine.

5. High-gloss

Used exclusively for highlighting trim and other detail work, high-gloss paints have an almost reflective quality. They’re also the best choice for doors and cabinets and other high-use areas.

6. Ceiling flats

Beautifully matte, they’re extra splatter-resistant and hide minor imperfections.



Rules of thumb

Durability and easy cleaning

Some latex paints clean better than others. Experts say the shinier the paint, the easier it is to clean and the more it will stand up to repeated washing and scrubbing. When choosing paint for children’s rooms, many recommend eggshell or satin because of their ability to withstand repeated cleaning.

Rustic appeal

For a lived-in, worn look, try a flat finish for walls or furniture. If ease-of-cleaning is an issue, experts suggest flat enamel for the trim or eggshell for the walls.

Kitchens and baths

Rooms that will be exposed to water, moisture, or steam are candidates for semi-gloss paint, which is designed to wash easily and repel water.


Most people use the word paint to refer to the application of color to a surface. However, when talking about the exterior of your home, think “stain.”
For decades, paint was used on both the inside and outside of homes. But, after a few years, you’d be forced to get out your scraper and remove the peeling paint. Painters have begun to use oil-based stains on wood exteriors. Stain does what it says; it imbeds color into the wood’s porous interior. Wood, being an organic material, loses pigmentation over time when exposed to the elements. However, stain does not peel.

Most homes are sided in wood, vinyl, aluminum, or brick. Brick can be painted. Consult your local dealer regarding the best paint for exterior brick.

Because it’s non-porous, vinyl siding can’t be stained. Don’t like your vinyl color? The only real option is to replace it.

Aluminum siding, on the other hand, can be covered with an oil-based paint, but you will be forced to re-apply it every few years after scraping and cleaning the surface.

If you have brick, aluminum, or vinyl, you might want to investigate a new product called Liquid Rubber Siding. It sounds odd, but works if you have an expert apply it correctly.


All the details of paint type and quality are dizzying enough without the dizzying effects that can be caused by volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

VOCs are solvents that get released into the air as paint dries. Although long-term effects of VOCs are uncertain, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suspects that some are carcinogens.

The federal government caps VOC content in paint at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat finishes and 380 g/l for other finishes. However, some manufacturers have opted to comply with more stringent limits (50 g/l), set by California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Manufacturers have made great strides in improving the quality of low- and zero-VOC paints, and there are now several brands on the market that Consumer Reports has tested and given high praise, including Benjamin Moore Aura, True Value Easy Care, and Glidden Evermore. For expert advice, visit