Newbie DIYers Guide To Types of Paint


Wandering into a DIY store for the first time as a complete painting and decorating novice, the range of different types of paint was overwhelming.  And you could be forgiven, on reading the paint blurbs, for thinking that you must need about 8 different types of paint to decorate a room.

Our first efforts were part research, part experience (and one surprisingly informative call to the Farrow & Ball helpline -those guys know their stuff!).

Having painted all of 3 rooms in my life I’m by no means an expert, but between Liz and I we’ve cobbled together (in non-DIY nerd speak) the basics any newbie should know…

3 paint tins

Base Coats

Primer – this is paint that goes on another surface to make it ready for painting. It’s the same concept as face primer in make up – it creates a nice smooth base for the upper coats to go on top of. You don’t need it for walls if they’re already in good condition, but it’s especially important if you’re painting directly onto a surface like wood, MDF or metal.  If you’re painting directly onto wood make sure you use a wood primer that blocks knots (or a dab of knotting solution) or the little blighters will bleed through.  Stain block primer was also a lifesaver for us when we discovered a mysterious dark patch on our wall that seeped through the new paint above.

Undercoat – paint manufacturers always seem to recommend you purchase their undercoat, but  as far as I can tell, it’s really only needed in cases where you’re changing shade.  So if you’re going dark to light or vice versa, it helps to have a dark/light undercoat to save cash in needing several coats of your expensive top coat to get the true colour.  It’s also handy to have a layer of undercoat under a gloss top coat (see below).

Mist coat – this isn’t a type of paint you can buy, but if you’re painting onto new plaster it’s really pourous, so if you paint directly onto it it will suck in all the moisture from your paint and probably cause it to peel when it dries.  To avoid this you should do an initial ‘mist coat’ which is a watered down version of a matt emulsion paint (we used 50:50 water to paint – any colour will do).  This  helps seal the plaster so  it’s ready to paint on.  If your plaster’s a bit old and dodgy you’ll probably need some primer too.

More advice under the cut…


The Lingo

Latex?  Oil based?  Acrylic?  (sounds like an Ann Summers shop…)  It’s easy to be bamboozled by all those techie terms, but these basically just refer to the stuff your paint colour (pigment) is mixed with.

Emulsions (or water based paints) were traditionally used just on walls and ceilings, but technology has developed so you now see tougher latex and acrylic types of water based paints which can be used on more surfaces.  They are less toxic (and easier to get rid of) than solvent paints – you can tell it’s water based if you can clean the brushes in water. These paints are quicker to dry but it can be a bit trickier to get them to look smooth as they tend to show brush marks a bit easier.

Solvent (or oil-based) are the ones that often make you light headed when you pop them open (keep the windows open!).  They are generally not great for the environment – you’ll see the labels warning of high VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and you can tell they’re oil based as you’ll need to wash your brushes in white spirit. Historically they’ve been viewed as more hard wearing and smoother to apply, though water based and eco-friendly paints are raising their game in both respects.

Paint tester pots

Top Coat Finishes

There are hundreds of types of paint out there, but the basic indoor wall paint goes on a spectrum of finishes increasing in shininess that looks something like this:

  matt/flat emulsion >  silk  emulsion> eggshell  > satin (or soft sheen) >  semi gloss  >  gloss (acrylic) >  gloss (oil)

It obviously varies a lot from one brand to another, and they don’t always do all of these (and confusingly all call slightly different names), but it gives you a general gist, and here are they key players:

Matt emulsion – this is what most people think of when they refer to paint – the top coat you slap on walls and ceilings.  And it’s the format that most tester pots come in.  It’s water based, dries quickly and you usually need a couple of coats to do the job.  Finishes range from the chalky matt end of the scale, which gives a lovely traditional finish and is forgiving on uneven walls (but not great with marks), to the more modern matts which aren’t quite as chalky.   The next jump up is to the ‘silk’ stuff which is also designed for walls but is a bit more wipeable and a bit more shiney.  You can also get emulsion with anti fungal / water resistant magic in it which is good for bathrooms and kitchens susceptible to damp and condensation.

Eggshell – as the name suggests, this is a bit tougher and has a bit more sheen than your matt emulsion paint, but isn’t as super shiny (or as hard wearing) as gloss.  I’m not the biggest fan of gloss, so I quite like to use it on skirting and wood work in areas where it’s not going to get crazily scuffed.  We’ve also used it on the top of shelves where the surface gets a bit more wear from shoving books/CDs/folders in and out.  It’s usually used on woodwork, but you could use it on walls if you need a surface that’s easier to clean (eg. where small sticky hands might roam).  The sheen is really quite subtle (you can often only tell close up).  Traditionally oil based but you can get water based versions now.

Satin (sometimes called satinwood) is used in the same way as gloss but is less shiny.  It’s still pretty tough though, and a good alternative to gloss for skirting boards and woodwork.

Gloss – this is the super shiny stuff, very hardwearing, handy as you can wipe it down, and typically used for bits of the house that get scuffed a lot like skirting and cupboard doors and metal pipes.   It can also be used for stylistic effect on walls (dark shades in particularly can look impressive). It’s usually solvent based, and this gives the shiniest glossiest finish, but you can get water (latex) based versions which is less prone to yellowing but a bit less, well, glossy.

So there are your basics.  There are obviously hundreds of other specialty paints out there (masonry paints, floor paints, one coat/non drip variants, etc) , but these are the key ones to know as a beginner.  An honourable mention also goes to chalkboard paint as it can look great on a feature kitchen wall or even in a nursery.

p.s. before you buy your paint make sure you calculate the amount of paint you need (and leave a bit of room for error).  Coverage can vary from paint to paint, so measure up and get the calculator out  first!  You don’t want to be ¾ through a paint job and realise you’ve run out of paint (which we managed do in our office….)

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