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How to Paint a Room With Unpainted Wood Paneling

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I have a passion for home improvement and love giving advice to others for their projects.

To paint or not to paint? That is the question. Long before putting the brush to the wood, an important question needs to be answered. Should we paint the wood paneling in this room or should we not?

This process can be reminiscent of the 'love me, love me not' game we played as kids, since arriving at the answer can seem just as trivial. Not only are you in a quandary with your own decision, but with that of your family as well.

In fact, we were told that the prior owner of our house never attempted the project because they could not agree as a couple whether to do so or not. One preferred the natural look of the wood and a cozier atmosphere, while the other preferred a more modern and clean finish.

Why We Decided to Paint Our Wood Paneling

For us, it was primarily a question of aesthetics. The original house was built in the 1930s in a traditional architectural style. The family room was added later to create more living space but with its wood finishes, it felt more like an afterthought than a part of the overall house. It evoked a sense of cabin living that neither fit with the design nor the suburban backdrop of our home.

Second, it was a question of lighting. Although we have an abundance of windows in our family room, a (beautiful) giant oak tree in the backyard provides a lot of shade. In addition, the position of our house on the lot is such that the family room does not receive sunlight until late afternoon.

Together, this means that the brightest part of the day in the family room is roughly a stretch of half an hour just before sunset. At any other time of the day, we constantly felt the need to turn on the lights.

How Do You Decide What Wood to Paint?

If the answer is paint, the next question should be 'What do we paint?' The question around the wood paneling on the wall was finally settled, but that did not necessarily include the exposed roof boards and rafters or the trim around the windows and doorways.

Wood Floors, Wood Walls, and Wood Ceiling

Before we got started, our family room felt more like a wood box. We were quite literally surrounded by wood floors, wood walls, and an exposed wood ceiling. How much of the current look called for a change?

We collected opinions from a lot of eager friends and family. Some felt we should paint everything the same color, including the pitched roof boards and exposed wood rafters. Others felt it would be best if we painted the ceiling rafters but not the roof boards in between. The feedback on the paint job for the trim was equally divided. To put an end to the dilemma, we turned online, looked at furniture catalogs and home design magazines to gather visual examples for our collection of ideas.

The most useful source came to us from a friend via Pinterest. Side-by-side examples which we could easily compare to one another was tremendously helpful. And with that tool in hand, it was finally time to take a vote.

Our Final Decision

Our final decision was heavily influenced by one key point: Including any part of the ceiling in our project created a lot of extra, and more difficult, painting. Everything else would be very manageable. Considering all of what we had learned, we were ready to move forward: paint the walls and all trim, leave the ceiling as is.

Caution: Men at Work

Caution: Men at Work

Uninterrupted Time Was Not Easy to Come By

In a perfect world, the paint job would be completed in one day. Much like a professional paint crew could have handled it. But our reality was that this time, it was a do-it-yourself job. And as a family with three young boys, uninterrupted time to complete a task is a foreign concept.

This highlights the fact that in planning out the project, we had to be mindful that it was impossible to transform the family room into a complete work space—since this is also the space in the house where we spend 80% of our time.

Preparing the Wood Paneling for the Paint Job

My patience was tested early when the paint prep itself took a whole weekend to complete. Merely (1) moving the furniture towards the center of the room, (2) removing any wall hangings, (3) removing nails, (4) removing light switch and outlet covers, (5) patching all holes, (6) sanding the wood to prep for paint, (7) wiping down the wood with a damp cloth to remove dust from sanding and, (7) taping the edges to start painting was all that we were able to accomplish in a 48 hour period.

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Extra Steps for Prepping Unpainted Wood

The following weekend was dedicated to getting a coat of primer on the wall. Sounded straightforward to start, but because we were working with 9 inch wood paneling, it added a few extra steps.

  1. We placed a drop cloth along the baseboards to protect the floor.
  2. With a 2.5 inch angled brush in hand, we cut in around the edges with the ceiling, baseboard, windows and doors.
  3. Next, we painted down and along every grove between the 9 inch wood panels.
  4. Finally, we applied primer to the remaining surface with the use of a paint roller.

What Kind of Primer to Use?

The paint store recommended we use Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer For All Surfaces.

Picking the right coat of white for the job was no easy task.

Picking the right coat of white for the job was no easy task.

Making the Perfect Color Choice

Once the primer was on the wall, the fun really began. Keeping in mind that our ultimate goal was to brighten up the space, white would have seemed like a natural and easy choice.

But if you have ever been in a paint store before, you know that there are endless shades of white to keep you from making up your mind quickly.

How to Compare and Choose Colors

With the help of a friend and a paint consultant in the store, we (1) selected four color samples to bring home. Next, we (2) painted the samples on the wall, two coats to best approximate the final result. Also, we were mindful to (3) repeat this process in at least three different locations around the room.

We were amazed to see the difference in appearance of the same color next to the frame of a window in comparison to the darker space next to the fireplace.

Finally, we made sure to (3) make our final color choice only after considering the effect of lighting as well as daylight in the room.

Paint Finish

A word about paint finish. Our preference is typically a paint with a matte finish. This is purely a matter of taste. Important to note here is the fact that the matte finish of our color choice (Benjamin Moore White Dove) came highly recommended also because it was easiest to maintain with kids. Dirt could be easily wiped off with a damp cloth. With three boys, it seemed like the final choice was basically made for us.

The matte finish of our color choice (Benjamin Moore White Dove) came highly recommended because it was also easiest to maintain with kids.

The matte finish of our color choice (Benjamin Moore White Dove) came highly recommended because it was also easiest to maintain with kids.

Putting on the Final Coats and Final Touches

We repeated the steps listed above for the application of primer to the application of our wall color. Although we were hoping to skip painting the groves between the wood panels with a brush, we found that the roller did not provide adequate coverage.

We were also very surprised to see how differently the wood paneling responded to the paint than the sheet rock we had been used to painting. The porous surface of the wood seemed to absorb so much of the paint that it covered less and appeared much more dull than we expected. Two coats of paint will be necessary, at a minimum. Especially when working with a light color. And, after applying the first coat, we decided to go back to the paint store and purchase a gallon of the same color but with an eggshell finish for the second coat. A worthwhile investment.

Four weekends later, we were finally done. Well almost. We are still pondering our next question: when do we start painting the walls of the rest of the house?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


saif113sb on July 09, 2013:

Nice work ideas to room wood painting.

Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on March 20, 2012:

I think you made the right choice in painting your walls. The room looks more current and inline with the rest of the house now. Plus, it really lightens up the space. Painting over wood is a lot of work, but in some cases it's definitely worth it!

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