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Pro Tips for Painting Wood Paneling (or Wainscoting)

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

Painting paneling doesn't have to be a pain!

Painting paneling doesn't have to be a pain!

How to Paint Wood Paneling

Painting over old paneling is an easy way to update an outdated room in the house. The finished look of dark brown paneling painted white is an amazing transformation that can make the smallest room look so much brighter and even bigger in size.

The process for painting wood paneling is simple, but it does require a few important steps along the way to avoid problems. You can't slap a coat of paint directly over bare paneling and call it a day. Depending on the size of the room, it could take a couple of days to fully prepare and paint paneling the right way.

1. Clean the Paneling

Dirt and greasy residue on old paneling can prevent primer and paint from adhering properly to the surface. Paneling must be completely cleaned before priming and painting, especially if it's really old and dirty. The best cleaning method is to apply Krud Kutter, trisodium phosphate (TSP), or a liquid de-glosser, using a scrubbing pad. My favorite cleaner that I use more than anything else is Krud Kutter.

Wear protective clothing and gloves when using abrasive cleaners, as they may cause skin irritation. Throw down painter's plastic to prevent the TSP, or whatever cleaner you're using, from soaking into flooring. Be careful not to drip the cleaning solution onto electrical outlets.

2. Sand the Paneling

Most wood or PVC paneling is very smooth and coated with a protective finish. Sanding the paneling dulls the surface gloss to provide a stronger bond between primer and paint. Without thorough sanding, the paint can rub off when wiped for cleaning purposes later on.

Wear a dust mask or a respirator when sanding. The fastest way to sand paneling is with a random orbital sander, using 180-grit sandpaper. Sanding can also be achieved by hand, but an electric sander is best. You can also sand the surface by hand, using a sheet of sandpaper, but a random orbital sander is so much easier and more effective too.

After a thorough sanding, the surface should appear dull. Wipe the entire surface with a tack cloth to remove sanding dust. If gloss still shows on the paneling, continue sanding until it's gone, or use liquid de-glosser.

3. Prime the Paneling

Your choice of primer is really important. The correct primer helps form a stronger bond with paint and seal the surface too, preventing stains from bleeding through into the topcoats of paint. As a professional painter, I have used many different types of primer, but I prefer oil-based primer over latex. On older, stained wood paneling, water-based primer won't seal the surface.

Oil-based primer is formulated to block the toughest stains. I highly recommend Zinsser Cover Stain or ProBlock from Sherwin Williams. Both products completely seal paneling and provide a strong bond with paint.

Using an airless sprayer is the easiest and fastest way to prime and paint paneling, but using a roller is fine too. The best roller to use for applying primer on paneling is nine inches in length with 1/4" nap. A foam roller works even better.

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If the vertical grooves in the paneling are shallow, the roller nap fills them when rolling the primer, but deep grooves need to be filled with a brush before rolling. Be sure to follow the re-coat time for the primer you're using. Oil-based primer can usually be painted over in about four hours, but concentrations of primer inside grooves take longer to dry.

Brown paneling painted white is a popular color scheme, but if you plan to paint the paneling a darker color, have the store tint the primer to a similar color as the paint to get the best coverage.

4. Caulk Seams and Cracks

Caulk can be applied before or after primer, but if you're painting dark paneling white, cracks are much easier to see after white primer has been applied. When shopping for caulk, read the specifications on the tube to confirm the caulk accepts paint. Not all caulk can be painted over. Caulk needs to completely dry before painting. If paint is applied over wet caulk, the caulk will fail.

5. Paint!

What kind of paint works best for wood paneling?

  • High-quality semi-gloss paint is best for paneling.
  • A semi-gloss finish is very smooth and allows surface cleaning.
  • Acrylic-based paint is preferred.
  • Oil-based paint is very durable too, but oil paint in the color white turns yellow over time.
  • I personally use Sherwin Williams Pro Classic in the acrylic version, but there are several products on the market that work well for paneling. Another great option is Emerald urethane enamel from Sherwin Williams.

Should I spray or brush?

Spraying wood paneling saves the most time and achieves the best finish, but also requires extensive preparation. Flooring must be covered with masking paper, as well as furniture that could be exposed to over-spray. An airless sprayer works well for paneling, and you can even rent a paint sprayer from a paint store. Spray painting with an airless sprayer does take a little practice and technique. If you don't want to use a sprayer, you can always paint the surface by hand.

Brush or roller?

Like the primer application, paneling should be rolled with a 1/4" roller when using the brush and roller method. Before rolling, brush the corners and edges of the paneling. An angled paintbrush in a two-inch size is a good choice. Roll the paint in one direction, from one side of the paneling to the other side. The surface should be rolled evenly from top to bottom, without stopping in the middle.

How many coats?

Most paneling will need to be painted with at least two coats of paint after primer, but if the paneling was a dark brown color, three coats of paint might be needed. Each coat of paint should be allowed to completely dry to specifications before applying the next coat. Spraying lays paint on thicker so fewer coats are needed.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you spray paint paneling after washing with TSP solution?

Answer: The paneling should be sanded too. You should also spray primer first if the surface has never been painted.

© 2012 Matt G.


saif113sb on July 09, 2013:

Informative hub.

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