Demystifying Paint: What You Need to Know

Find out more about some of the many paint options out there with help from the experts.

By: Dan Lipe

When you go shopping for paint, the options are endless and the terminology can be confusing. We hope to shed a little light on the subject and help you get a head start.  First off, let’s define a couple of key terms so you know what you are working with.

A can of blue paint, a paint brush and a can opener resting on a workbench

A can of blue paint, a paint brush and a can opener resting on a workbench

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

Alkyd is typically an oil-based paint with synthetic resins. 

Latex is a general term for water-based paints that use synthetic polymers (acrylic, vinyl acrylic, etc.) as a binder.

Enamel is a harder paint type that is synonymous with producing a high gloss finish and durability.

Acrylic Alkyd is a best-of-both-worlds paint that allows for wares to clean up easily, but has the durability of oil-based paints.

Aspects of Paint to Consider

Sheen

A glossier sheen is great for painting cabinets. Look for cabinet and furniture paint for a little extra umph in the durability department.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

A glossier sheen is great for painting cabinets. Look for cabinet and furniture paint for a little extra umph in the durability department.

 

The sheen is shine. It ranges from ultra matte to high gloss and everywhere in between. Sheen is typically associated with durability - the higher the gloss, the harder and more durable the paint. While a matte finish might be appropriate in a guest room, a higher gloss would provide more protection and clean-up in, say, a boy’s room. Just keep in mind that semi and high gloss will show imperfections in your walls or on your furniture more than a matte paint, so plaster walls in older homes often do better with a matte or eggshell/satin finish rather than a gloss.

Durability

When it came time to spruce up my old toybox for my son, I grabbed some furniture paint. It went on easily over the '70s brown and has yet to be destroyed. Only time will tell...

When it came time to spruce up my old toybox for my son, I grabbed some furniture paint. It went on easily over the '70s brown and has yet to be destroyed. Only time will tell...

In terms of interior wall paint durability is typically associated with how glossy the paint is. With other interior paints, like furniture or cabinet paint, the water-based paint may have some amount of oils in it to help produce a harder more durable finish. Enamel, a hardener, is included in many paints as well to produce a glossy hard coat. There are also special formulas for use in high heat applications, like on your grill. A great question to ask yourself is "how much abuse will this paint take?"

Another byproduct of higher sheen and durable paints are the ability to clean or scrub the surface. A matte finish paint will come off with a scrub, while an hard enamel gloss will stay true with even the hardest cleaning.

Ease of Use

Even though you can buy paint with primer, I still prefer to start with primer.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

Even though you can buy paint with primer, I still prefer to start with primer.

 

Self-leveling paint is great when you want a smooth, clean look without the visible brushstrokes. This is key for painting furniture. Two examples of paints that do this are Sherwin Williams Pro classic line and Valspar’s furniture paint. These aren’t the only ones, for sure. The benefit of self-leveling paint is that any brush strokes should disappear on their own leaving a clean, smooth finish. Clean-up for me is also part of the ease-of-use category. Water clean-up is a must at my house.

In terms of ease of application alone, oil-based paints are perhaps the easiest. Because of the longer drying time, the paint has longer to self-level resulting in a brush-stroke free surface.

A number of paints are marketed as having primer included. If you're painting old walls, then having the primer included is a solid choice. Primer will help the paint cover stains and seal the wall. Personally, I prefer to apply primer as a pre-painting step. While I don’t have an opinion on them, it seems like a good idea, but I rarely find the “one coat and you're done” to be more marketing than truth. 

Water or Oil

Oil paint historically has a bit of a yellow or amber caste to it, but it has higher durability than water based. Clean up requires turpentine or paint thinner. The initial benefit of water-based paint was ease of clean up as well as truer colors but a sacrifice in durability.  Paint has come a long way way even in the last 10 years. We now have products on the market that combine water and oil-based properties. Water based cleanup with the durability of oil? Sure thing. One company sells Acrylic Alkyd which is a water-based paint with some oils mxed in.

Milk and Chalk?

Milk paint and chalk paint require a top coat to be durable. Suitable top coats include wax, polyurethane, shellac and lacquer to name a few.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

Milk paint and chalk paint require a top coat to be durable. Suitable top coats include wax, polyurethane, shellac and lacquer to name a few.

 

Milk paint and chalk paint are characterized by their lack of luster and less need to prep the surface you are painting. They are both described by their respective manufacturers as ultra matte finish paint. But there’s more to it than that. While both types of paint will give you a more traditional feel, the two products are very different.

Traditional milk paint ships as a powder and is mixed with water to produce a calcium-based gritty matte pigment. This style of paint is reminiscent of traditional methods for creating with color. There is at least one milk paint on the market that is really more like a super matter finish acrylic paint the comes already mixed. It’s really easy to use and provides a nice traditional vibe on any furniture. Chalk paint is a little more unique, but lies somewhere between the two milk paints. One note about using either product - they are not that durable. Manufacturers of chalk paint generally produce (and recommend) a specially formulated wax or other finish to go with it to provide some level of protection for the pigment.

Toxicity/VOCs

We hear a lot about VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and low-VOC or no-VOC paint formulas. Oil-based products typically have a higher VOC particle composition than the latex paints. What this translates to is that the paint gives off harmful fumes as it cures. Open a window and turn on the fan and be sure to wear a proper respirator. The good news is that just about every major manufacturer offers low or no VOC formulas that are found to be a little easier on the lungs. 

Whatever paint you choose, be sure to use quality applicators to do the job. It seems like brand marketing, but the job will be easier and the final outcome will be better with good quality tools. Spend the extra cash on a good roller frame and don't forget the fine bristle brush. The best tool I can recommend is the pro working at the paint store. They can help you pick the right product and even make color recommendations.

Yes, we use a lot of blue. Because we have young kids and pets, I prefer low to no VOCs in my paint.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

Yes, we use a lot of blue. Because we have young kids and pets, I prefer low to no VOCs in my paint.

 

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