DIY & Decorating Dilemmas Part 1: What Type Of Paint Finish Should I Be Using?

how to pick a paint finish

I recently put out one of those handy little Instagram features asking my followers what decorating dilemmas they faced. I wanted to know what people just couldn’t get their head around or what really confused them within the sphere of DIY. The idea was that I would take this feedback and compile a blog post that answered these questions in a clear and simple way. I know myself that when I Google a lot of DIY questions, in return I just get a lot of long, boring videos of ‘pro’s’ in their workshops chatting ‘trade talk’ that makes things even more complicated and harder to grasp. My aim with this new collection of blog posts titled ‘DIY & Decorating Dilemmas’ is to turn that around, make things more straightforward and hopefully, easier to understand.

what type of paint should i be using?

From the answers on Instagram that I received, without a doubt they were all pretty much about paint. What’s the best type of paint to use on radiators? What paint should I use on windows? Should I use gloss or eggshell? What paint is best with kids and pets? So, in part 1 of my DIY & Decorating series I am going to be focusing on paint types and finishes and where you should use them in the home. In part 2 I’ll be paying more attention to primers, decorating tapes and paint tricks and tips, so stay tuned for that one.

farrow and ball sample pot

First of all, I should say that the result of any paintwork is only as good as the time you put into the prep work. Prep work is so boring, but it’s absolutely key to getting a perfect, non-chip finish. All surfaces should always be filled of any cracks or holes with a filler. There are a wide range of fillers suitable for hairline cracks through to large chucks of missing plaster. Any filled areas of uneven surfaces should be sanded down with a fine grade sandpaper, then it should all be washed down with sugar soap. Do not be tempted to just use a rag and a bit of water as there may be marks not visible to the eye that then come through your new paintwork. Sugar soap will get rid of all grease and dirt and will provide a clean base to paint on. I actually really rate sugar soap wipes that make the job so much easier than the conventional spray and rag.

If what you are painting is actually in quite a bad way and there are problem areas like patching or stains, you would need to apply a good primer or an undercoat first. For walls and ceilings use an undercoat. This is especially true if you are going to use a really dark colour on the walls as it helps with the overall coverage. This is quite a random comparison but it’s a good one: if you wear make-up, an undercoat basically acts like a foundation primer - it smooths out the surface, fills in any large pores and you get a perfect, even, smooth top coat finish with your foundation that stays put all day!

how to choose the right paint

Any previously painted, shiny surfaces like skirting and doors need to have the sheen completely removed before you apply any new paint. A hardy, durable eggshell will still chip if just painted over a previously glossed surface. If you really do not want to give a full sand back (and who does? Heavy sanding is really messy, hard work) then give the area a light sand with some paper and use a primer called Bulls Eye 1-2-3 by Zinsser. Bulls Eye provides an amazing adhesion for hard-to-stick surfaces without the need for heavy sanding. It’s also a stain block and good for getting rid of marks and knots found in wood that can leak through paint. The right primer is also absolutely key if you are painting a previously non-painted surface or something like plastic or metal (especially radiators).

how to choose the right paint

So, that’s the prep, what about the paint? I talk to so many people who make the mistake of using a basic matt emulsion paint for all projects around the home, when really there are are a wide range of paint finishes and a basic emulsion should only ever be used on walls and ceilings in low-traffic areas like bedrooms. So, let’s compare and contrast……


If you go into a DIY store and say you want to paint a wall or ceiling they will point you in the direction of basic emulsion paint. However, there is more than one type of emulsion and the type you use should depend on the sort of finish that you want and the area that you are painting. A general emulsion, which can be known as Estate Emulsion, Intelligent Emulsion, Dead Flat or simply Matt Emulsion offers a chalky, flat finish with hardly any sheen, which is a really lovely look and generally the most preferred overall paint finish. What is doesn’t offer, however, is washability, so if you are painting a high-traffic area like a hallway or a playroom, you should instead look to a more advanced emulsion paint. Advanced emulsion paints, also known as Modern Emulsion, Silk, Architect’s Matt or Intelligent Matt can be scrubbed and washed down with no adverse effects to the paint. They do, however, offer a slight more sheen to the overall look of the paint (Farrow & Ball’s Estate Emulsion has 2% sheen, where as the Modern has 7%).

Scandi paint brand Jotun Lady is an extremely flat matt emulsion paint. Image credit:    Jotun Lady.

Scandi paint brand Jotun Lady is an extremely flat matt emulsion paint. Image credit: Jotun Lady.


Never be tempted to buy one large tin of emulsion and paint the walls, skirting, radiators and doors all in the same paint! Wood and metalwork in a room work harder as things like skirting get knocked by the hoover, while the window frames can get dirty and need cleaning regularly. For wood and metal, you’ll need a more durable paint called ‘eggshell.’ You can also paint woodwork in gloss or satinwood, but that is a very dated, 80’s style high-shine look so you are better off going for eggshell (unless you do gloss right - see below for my guide to gloss!) Again, you can get eggshell that is lower in sheen (although it will always be a higher sheen than emulsion), or a higher sheen that is more durable. Use the most durable eggshell on those things that will get the most use such as staircases, kitchen cupboards, shelves and furniture. Use the less durable version on skirting and doors that won’t take so much of a daily hit. You will also find that you can buy eggshell paint as water or oil-based. Water-based eggshell is more environmentally friendly, dries a lot quicker, doesn’t smell and won’t stay on your hands for over a week if you get it on your skin. Oil-based eggshell takes forever to dry, but the durability is way up there as the best. Farrow & Ball stopped producing oil-based eggshells a good few years ago for water-based only, and I know many professional kitchen cabinet painters then refused to use Farrow & Ball going forward as the chip factor was way higher and they felt it would fall back to them as a bad paint job. Personally, I used oil-based once for a project and I hated it. The chemical heavy smell lingered for ages and it took two days for one coat to be touch-dry! I have to say though, 10 years on, there’s not one chip on that kitchen island painted in oil-based!! Little Greene Paints and Paint & Paper Library still sell oil based eggshells if you would prefer your paint as hard-wearing as possible.

I painted the back of my front door in    ‘Niblock’ Eggshell Paint by M&L Paints.

I painted the back of my front door in ‘Niblock’ Eggshell Paint by M&L Paints.


Full gloss paints give the most shiny-sheen going and generally are used on the exterior of doors to give a gorgeous clean and shiny welcome. As mentioned, a lot of people used to use gloss on interior woodwork, but that high-shine look can be dated unless you do it right! There is now a massive comeback for gloss with people being really clever with how they use gloss in their home. In the picture below, lifted from the latest book by Farrow & Ball titled ‘Recipes For Decorating’, the hallway is all painted in the same colour, but the top is in a matt emulsion and the bottom is painted in gloss. This is really clever, as it is practical as well as being interesting to the eye. Gloss is a super-durable, wipe clean paint so the bottom half if the hall is damage and mark-proof without having a completely shiny hallway.

Gloss is also excellent to use to make a ‘feature’ without pattern or wallpaper. It’s also really on-trend now to paint ceilings in gloss so the light reflects and bounces around the room without having shiny walls. You can use gloss on pretty much everything, but it is totally dependent on if you want this high-shine finish or not. The end result is amazing but be warned - gloss shows off every imperfection and apparently it’s not the easiest to apply.

This gloss paint is Deep Brunswick Green' from    Papers and Paints    in the London home of journalist Rita Konig. Image Credit: Paul Massey for House and Garden Magazine.

This gloss paint is Deep Brunswick Green' from Papers and Paints in the London home of journalist Rita Konig. Image Credit: Paul Massey for House and Garden Magazine.

There are also paints available for specialist finishes for historic properties and also to create particular effects. If you are converting an old church or a really, really old building, then you want to look into finishes that have breathable qualities. If you simply want to create a more vintage look, then Limewash paints or specialist effect paints mean you can transform a basic room into a Parisian apartment with a few applications.

Image credit:    Bauwerk Paints.

Image credit: Bauwerk Paints.


Again, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to just paint built-in units, melamine IKEA furniture and shelves in emulsion paint. Anything that is going to be touched a lot or have stuff placed on it should never be painted in emulsion. For shelving and other built-in bits around the home, whether it be made from wood, MDF or melamine, I would advise priming with Zinsser B-I_N and then eggshell paint. Once you’ve painted it in eggshell do not place anything on the surface for at last a week (maybe less if it’s really hot). There is actually a difference in paint being ‘dry’ and it being ‘cured’. Paint being dry means you can touch it and it does not feel wet. Paint being cured means it has reached it 100% maximum hardness level and will not mark or chip when items are placed on it.

These    hacked IKEA Billy Bookcases    I painted in Earthborn Paints Eggshell paint (after two coats of primer) so they were the same colour as the walls.

These hacked IKEA Billy Bookcases I painted in Earthborn Paints Eggshell paint (after two coats of primer) so they were the same colour as the walls.

For freestanding furniture you have have the option to upcycle with chalk, milk, spray paints or eggshell or gloss paint. Eggshell paint gives you a wider colour choice, but chalk and spray paints are so easy and simple to use and often you don’t need to prime (winner). Always check the label on the back of the tin to tell you what you need to do! Try Grand Illusions and Annie Sloan for chalky furniture paints and craft-supply stores for a wide range of spray paints.


Specialist areas need specialist paint away from the general ‘colour card’ paint companies who tend to offer paint for walls, ceilings and woodwork only. For areas with high humidity and a lack ventilation, I would not advise kitchen and bathroom paint which is just not up to the job. Instead, get a specialist high humidity paint tinted to the colour you require (paint colours are distinguished and colour-matched with what are called RAL codes. Basically, it is the RAL code which specifies what base colours, plus the amount of each base colour, creates a certain shade). I would advise purchasing Zinsser Perma-White (and get it tinted if required) or Tikkurila Luja 7 (which I wrote all about using here). Your local decorators merchants can supply this paint to you. I know these places can be a bit un-nerving if you are not a trade professional, but if you find a good, helpful one they are worth their weight in gold.

I solved the problem of my bathroom ceiling constantly peeling by using the    right paint for humid rooms.

I solved the problem of my bathroom ceiling constantly peeling by using the right paint for humid rooms.

For problem surfaces like UVPC, concrete, brick, rubber and vinyl I would visit the Rustoleum website as a good starting point. They are the leaders in a wide range of primers and paints for all sorts of problem-paint products and they have a handy ‘search by surface’ drop down tool so you can find the right product for your job.


You will not be able to use the same paint outside as in, as exterior paint needs to be able to withstand the elements. Generally, you use masonry paint on the walls, exterior eggshell on the windows and the doors and full gloss if you want a super shiny front door (but lots of people are going for a matt finish these days with a flat eggshell paint). If you just want white walls and a blue/red/green front door or windows you are better off saving yourself money and going for Dulux Weathershield, which does the job for a good price. However, exteriors are now moving forward with charcoal or inky-coloured window frames and if you want to have the house that stands out from the rest on the street, companies like Little Greene and Farrow & Ball offer all the colours in their palette as exterior options.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

So there you have it - prep, prime, then use the right paint for the job and all your paint job nightmares should be a thing of the past! If you have any further paint questions that I haven’t covered in this post, please do leave me them in the comments box below!

paint sample pots