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DIY - Paint Like a Pro - How To Choose The Right Type of Paint

Updated on February 22, 2012

The paint aisle can be a very confusing place because there are so many types of paint available. And yet for almost every project, there is only one good choice; the difficulty lies in narrowing your options down to that perfect paint. I’m an artist as well as an unreformed Do It Yourselfer, and it’s a rare day that will pass without a paint brush in my hand! I’ve found that the best way to unlock the mysteries paint is to begin with an understanding of the differences between paint types. Below is a glossary of the most common paint type terminology; I hope it will prove helpful:

Acrylic Paint - Acrylic paint is a water-based paint, meaning that water serves as the vehicle for an emulsion of man-made acrylic polymer, which serves as the drying agent. It is an extremely durable coating that's ideal for areas subject to high traffic and use. Acrylic paint comes in many different finish types (see below for an explanation of finish types). Exterior house paints are moving away from the less expensive latex paints (see below) to acrylic because it is a great deal more elastic than latex, easily expanding and contracting with heat and cold. As a result acrylic paint sticks to a surface much better than latex, which justifies the difference in price since acrylic paint can last may years longer than latex paint, especially in climates with great temperature variations. There are also wide selections of paints that are part acrylic, part latex, combining some of the durability of acrylic with the economy of latex. Synthetic bristle brushes are the best choice for acrylic paints.

Alkyd Paint – Alkyd is an especially durable type of paint recommended for high traffic, easily scuffed areas. An alkyd is a polyester molecule modified by the inclusion fatty acids, the inclusion of which gives the dried paint added flexibility. Alkyds are the main binder in most commercial "oil-based" coatings, therefore these paints need paint thinner or turpentine to clean up. Natural bristle brushes are the best choice for alkyd paints.

Casein Paint - Casein paint is a fast-drying, water-soluble medium made from proteins found in mammalian milk. Casein paint is the most ancient form of paint, having been used since the Egyptians of the classic age. Casein paint was widely used by commercial artists as the material of choice due to it’s flat, even surface when dry, and it remained so until the late 1960s when the newly created acrylic paints began to dominate the art world. You will not find casein paint in the paint aisle at your local home improvement super store, but it is still used by artists. I mention it here to elaborate on my description (below) of shellac, since casein joins shellac as being one of the authentic paint types appropriate for the restoration of antique furniture and vintage buildings.

Deck Stain / Exterior Stain – These paints are formulated to resist fading as well as seal exterior wood against water and come in an almost endless number of colors and finishes. The basic question is if you prefer a colored or natural finish, which is a highly personal decision.

Deck stain in action


Enamel Paint – Enamel paint is basically a varnish with pigment added that therefore has all the toughness and permanence of a varnish (see below). The use of soft, natural bristle brushes is very important in getting a glossy, smooth finish with enamels, as is protection of the painted surface from dust and dirt during its long drying time. Cleanup is difficult, requiring paint thinner or turpentine.

Epoxy Paint - As is the case with all epoxies, these paints are a two-part, mixable system. Extremely durable, epoxy paints are recommended for really tough applications such as painting steel, aluminum and other substrates to which few paints will adhere. Along with that extraordinary adhering ability come several real negatives, among them real hazards from skin contact, fumes, and great difficulty in cleanup—basically, if you use it for an epoxy paint, you’re going to throw that brush away.

Finish Type - It once was that you had the choice between flat and glossy, with some (but not all) paints also drying to semi-gloss or satin finishes. Oh my, how that has changed! Almost all types of paint are now available in a mind-boggling number of finish types, and your choice on this question is the single most significant decision you will make after you pick a color. For this reason I’ve added a really helpful video, I hope it helps you as it has helped me.

Here's a really helpful video on choosing the correct finish type for your project

Lacquer – The word “lacquer” is an inexact term for a varnish that dries by the evaporation of its solvent component and results in a hard, especially durable finish. Lacquers can dry to any finish type (see above) from flat to glossy. The words "lacquer paint" generally are used to describe paint that dries to a harder and smoother finish than other paints. The word lacquer itself originates from the Sanskrit word laksha , which translates as "one hundred thousand." This large number referred to the Lac insect because there were so many of them, and the resin it produces that was used to make varnish (see below). Today, lac-based varnishes are usually called shellac, and the word “lacquer” instead refers to modern polymers dissolved in volatile organic compounds. It also can mean acrylic compounds dissolved in lacquer thinner , which is a blend of some pretty nasty solvents, usually butyl acetate, xylene or toluene. Lacquer and shellac are traditional finishes and therefore appropriate for restoring antique furniture and vintage houses. Of the two, lacquer is the more durable finish. Both require natural bristle brushes and cleanup is neither easy nor environmentally friendly. So be it.

Latex Paint - Modern latex paint is a water-based suspension of tiny polymer particles. The term "latex" when applied to paint means an aqueous dispersion; in spite of the name, naturally occurring latex rubber, which is the sap of the rubber tree, is not an ingredient in these paints. Latex paint remains the most popular modern paint due to its durability, ease of use, water cleanup, environmental friendliness (as compared to oil-based paints) and economy of price. Exterior painting is increasingly moving away from latex, however, and toward acrylic (see above), in large part because acrylic paint is inherently more elastic when cured than is latex paint, which results in a longer lasting paint. As the time it takes for a profession to apply paint becomes more costly, it has become practical to pay more for the paint if it will last longer. Your time is valuable, too, so even a Do It Yourselfer should consider acrylic rather than latex, especially for exterior projects. Synthetic bristle brushes are the best choice for latex paints.

Lettering Paint – A minor but interesting part of the paint aisle is comprised of these highly specialized paints designed to flow smoothly from a brush, but cover in one smooth, even coat. Should you need to touchup an existing sign or create a new one, these are the paints for you, although unless you reach out to specialized sources (meaning Google “lettering paint”) you will only find it in a very limited range of colors.

Oil-Based Paint – The family of oil-based coatings are the descendents of the paints developed in the 1100s in Europe by combining ground pigments in oil, most commonly linseed oil. These paints were very thick and were thinned to the desired consistency with solvents such as turpentine or white mineral spirits; varnish (see below) was often added to increase the glossiness of the dried finish. Artists' oil paints can still be made with this exact formula—I have made my own oil paint using pigments I ground myself and to which I slowly added linseed oil, which is blended into the paint on a palette. The result was the creamiest, most gorgeous paint I have ever used for landscapes, and yet I know I will never again make my own oil paint, or probably use any oil paint at all. And I’ll extend that statement to include oil-based house paints, which are also still superior to latex and acrylic paints, especially where their extreme durability is a plus. The reason is simple: The environmental consequences of using oil-based paint are not worth the benefits. Every component in their manufacture is hazardous, as are all the chemicals required for cleanup.

Blending pigment with linseed oil to make oil paint

One Coat Coverage Paint - These paints combine the high hiding and adherence of primer (see below) with a finish coat, resulting in a tremendous saving of time and money. Still relatively new in the market, look for these paints to begin to dominate the paint aisle as manufacturers perfect more formulas.

Paint for Vinyl – Relatively new to the paint aisle, these are special paints designed to adhere to vinyl siding and trim without causing the warping that plagued earlier attempts to paint those surfaces. Look for more saturated colors in these paints as formulae are developed that will not only stick to vinyl but allow for a wider color palette.

Polyurethane/Urethane – This family of paints are a very good, long lasting coating for woodwork, especially flooring, since floors are vulnerable to abrasions, spills, stains, scuffing and many other hazards, and polyurethane paints are the most resistant to these. The most valuable aspects of polyurethane paints are a perfect, glossy finish and high resistance to water and chemicals, including even gasoline. Polyurethane goes on clear and dries to a hard, extremely tough shell, although it tends to yellow with age. Always provide lots of ventilation when working with polyurethane paints because the fumes are very strong. If proper ventilation is not possible, use a canister-style respirator, not a paper or fabric mask because these are not able to filter the harmful fumes. Never use these paints near flames or furnaces because they are very flammable. Also wear proper eye protection, and avoid skin contact. Cleanup is not easy, requiring paint thinner or turpentine. Natural bristle brushes are the best choice for polyurethane paints.

The right primer can make all the difference


Primer - A primer is a paint that provides a toothy surface to which finishing paint will adhere much better than if it was used without the primer. Because primers do not need to be engineered to have durable, smooth finished surfaces, they are instead designed to have optimal filling and binding properties with the surface being painted. They can soak into wood or fill in some abrasions and dry with a tooth that will hold the finish coat, in other words. Some primers (B.I.N., Kilz brands) contain chemicals that prevent the growth of mildew or the formation of stains from knots in the wood, or can seal and “kill” existing stains, These primers are therefore useful when covering areas subject to high humidity (window sashes and sills) or which have been damaged by water staining (ceilings, basement baseboards). Primers can be infused with pigment and a dark-toned primer can dramatically reduce the number of coats of finish paint required to cover light paint with dark. Primers can be water-soluble or oil-based, so read the paint can closely before purchasing to know what you are buying and choose your brush accordingly. Spray primers are another useful variation on this paint type and are available for an extremely wide range of applications and finish coats.

Rust Preventative Paints – These paints contain patented formulae that inhibit and/or encapsulate the oxidation of metal, the process we commonly call rust. As such they have many specific applications and are recommended for many uses, including painting outdoor furniture, old wrought iron and anything made from metal that might be exposed to moisture.

One of my favorite paints, for giving rusty old stuff a new lease on life, Rust-Oleum's amazing Rust Reformer

Rust Reformer ™ - This is a spray paint manufactured by Rust-Oleum that converts existing rust into a non-rusting surface. In my opinion this product has single-handedly given new life to a million old metal objects, because it literally stops oxidation in its tracks. I highly recommend it!

Shellac – Believe it or not, shellac is still made from a sticky resin secreted by the female Lac bug, collected by hand from trees in Thailand and India. This resin is dried, upon which it forms flakes. The flakes are dissolved in ethyl alcohol to make shellac—as it has been done for centuries. Liquid shellac is an extremely versatile product, used as a stain, food glaze and wood finish. Shellac is an extremely durable natural primer, sanding sealer, stain, tannin-blocker (it keeps wood knots from ‘bleeding’ sap), odor-blocker, and glossy varnish. Shellac used to be utilized for electrical purposes as it is a very good insulator, and gramophone records were made from shellac during the 78-rpm recording era, which preceded the 1950s. Shellac is among a handful of historically accurate finishes for early 20th-century wood floors and paneling. It, along with casein paint, linseed oil, spar varnish and lacquer are the remnants of the pre-synthetic age of paint. From the early 1900s—when it replaced the traditional oil and wax finishes common up until then—shellac was one of the most frequently used wood finishes in the world; it was not replaced as such until nitrocellulose lacquer was introduced in the 1920s. Over time, however, shellac can darken considerably, and the almost-black finishes commonly found on furniture from the early 1900’s is often the result of this unfortunate discoloration. Old shellac is readily removable with modern products, however, and a beautiful new finish can revitalize those old pieces. Natural bristle brushes are the best choice when applying shellac.

Spar Varnish – This is particularly long-lasting, water resistant form of varnish (see below) named for its original application: the wooden masts and spars of sailing vessels. Modern varnishes contain only a few ingredients: oil, resin, and some type of solvent. By changing the types and percentage of these basic components, manufacturers create a wide range of coatings that are expressly suited for either indoor or outdoor use. Due to its unique ability to resist salt water, spar varnish is still the best choice for not only its original purpose, but also for sealing exterior wooden furniture or structures, especially in seaside locations. Natural bristle brushes are the best choice for all varnishes.

Spray paint. It is grafitti? Or is it art? You decide....

Spray Paint – Here is the part of the paint aisle where you will find the greatest variety of media, finishes and specialized applications, in part because modern cans of spray paint are particularly economical and easy to use. Paint has been sprayed for a very, very long time—the concept of mixing pigment with air is ancient (some of the most venerable cave art was created by artists mixing pigment with air in their mouths, then blowing it over their hand to create a reverse image on the wall of the cave), and airbrushes, which are hand-held and used for finely detailed work, predates other aerosol paint technology. The modern spray paint can originated in 1949 when Edward Seymour added paint to early aerosol can technology, and spray paint very quickly carved out a niche for itself. The ability of aerosol application to create an even, impeccably smooth finish has made spray paint hugely popular, although the danger of the aerosol chemicals being abused has also generated concerns, as has spray paint’s unique contribution to the urban landscape: graffiti. Call it vandalism or call it art, any foray into any city on the planet will be greeted by a montage of spray paint!

Stain - A wood stain is made from pigment suspended in a solvent. The solvent might be water, alcohol, petroleum distillate, or the finish paint (shellac, lacquer, varnish, polyurethane, etc.). Stained finishes, sold as stain and finish in one, do not penetrate the pores of the wood and will disappear when the finish itself deteriorates or is removed intentionally, whereas traditional stains will linger long after the finish coat is gone. Stains can make one wood look like another (cherry stain applied to pine), create a patina similar to that of old wood in new lumber, or even give raw wood a weathered appearance. Because some stains are water-soluble and others are not, read the label and purchase your brush based on whether or not you will be cleaning it, or throwing it away after applying the stain.

Applying varnish is an art


Varnish – Varnish is a clear coating that dries to a hard, tough, glossy shell which is resistant to moisture. As such it is deal for a natural-grained look of woodwork, interior and exterior. Varnish is traditionally a combination of a drying oil, a resin, and a thinner or solvent and is usually glossy, but may dry to a satin or semi-gloss sheen if combined with flatting agents. Varnish is transparent, and has no added pigment, as opposed to paints or wood stains. Varnishes are most often applied over wood stains as a final step to achieve a glossy finish and surface protection. Some products are marketed as a combined stain and varnish and are similar to polyurethane stains (see above). Varnish is most often an oil-based paint, but check the label to see what type of cleanup will be required as manufacturers are working on water-base varnishes. Natural bristle brushes are the best choice for all varnishes. (The word ‘varnish’ is also used as a verb and as a noun to describe any clear, finish coating applied to wood and is therefore often used to refer to products such as polyurethane or shellac.)

Water Sealing Paint – Formulated to fill in and plug porous surfaces such as cement block, brick and stone, these specialized paints are often sold as soluble powders. While they can be amazing cures for problem areas, read the label carefully because they can also be tricky to mix and apply, and cleanup can be difficult as well.

Whitewash – This venerable paint is also known as calcimine, kalsomine or lime paint and is an economical paint that is a combination of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and chalk (whiting). Sold as a wetable powder, whitewash cures when it reacts with carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate. Whitewash can take several days to completely anneal, depending on humidity and temperature; until the process is complete whitewash is fragile and soft, but once fully annealed it forms a strong, durable, very water-resistant finish. Cured whitewash has natural antibacterial properties so is traditionally used in dairies, where its application to barn stalls and dairy areas is mandated by law to be renewed yearly. It is a very economical product and, while not used as widely as once was the case, is a valuable substitute for more costly paints.

Explore and enjoy the paint aisle, it contains not only a huge variety of paint, it contains history, from shellac made from the resin extruded by a beetle to the miracle of paint in a spray can!

Okay, this is a big subject, and I tried hard, but I bet I missed something you’ve encountered in the paint aisle…just use the Comments box, below, to tell me what I missed and I promise I’ll do the research and add it to this article, and thanks so much for your interest!

(I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at

Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.

When I walk down the paint aisle I feel:

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    • homerevisor profile image

      Home Revisor 

      8 years ago from New Jersey

      This is an all-encompassing, quality guided to choosing the right type of paint. Really great work, you went over everything in great detail and provided some very nice insight into how its done right! I'll be Following you from now on DIYmyOhmy!

    • DIYmyOmy profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Tireless- I'm also a big fan of old fashioned semi-gloss for surfaces that take a beating or get wet often. It can be too much shine for large areas, but I've had good luck combining a more color-saturated version of the same wall color in semi-gloss for the vulnerable parts of a room with the coordinating flat paint. If done with a clean edge (Frogtape!) you can achieve a designer look while actually just doing a practical paint job.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      9 years ago from California

      Especially liked how you spoke about the correct brushes to use. Look forward to reading more of your hubs. The last paint I bought was interior semi-gloss for our rental. Like the way semi-gloss cleans. Our renters have two dogs and a baby.

    • DIYmyOmy profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      What was the last project for which you purchased paint, and what type of paint did you buy?


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