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Guide To Choosing The Perfect Paint

Updated on February 27, 2010

Buttercream or Lemonade? Wasabi Green or Apple Orchard? Choosing paint colors from those tiny chips is tough enough, then you've got to decide what kind of paint to use and which finish. It's not just a matter of fashion: Your choices determine how well the paint holds up as well as how good it looks.

The great divide in the world of paint is between water-based (usually latex, acrylic or vinyl acrylic) and oil-based, or alkyd. Because latex and acrylic paints are water-based, cleanup is quick and easy, using soap and water. Cleaning oil-based paint from brushes, rollers and your hands is much more of a chore and requires smelly, flammable mineral spirits or turpentine. Water-based paints dry faster, too, and with less odor.

The one time that it is generally recommended to use an oil-based product is when you're painting over multiple coats of oil-based paint. Let's say you've moved into an older home and you're not sure what's on those surfaces. It's probably oil-based, and if so, it's best to stick to oil paint.

Now you can start mulling over the parade of finishes, from flat, which looks velvety and has no sheen, to high gloss. Between those extremes, beginning with the least shiny, are satin, also called high-sheen flat; eggshell, or low luster; and semi-gloss. Your choice of finish depends on which room you're painting and how much the walls will have to put up with.

If it's a 5 year-old's bedroom, think crayons and peanut butter and jelly, you'll want a paint that's tough and washable. As a rule, the shinier the paint, the easier it is to clean without damaging the surface and the better it resists stains. For much-used or moist rooms, such as kids' bedrooms, kitchens and baths, experts recommend a semi-gloss or gloss finish.

In a formal living room or dining room, where the walls won't take a lot of abuse and you want a sophisticated look, flat paint is the best choice. Flat paint looks flat because its particles of pigment and binder are coarse, refracting light, or breaking it up in many directions. Because flat finishes scatter light, they also minimize the look of surface imperfections. Glossy paints, in contrast, reflect light uniformly, making defects in a wall's surface more noticeable.

Determining the True Color of Your Paint

Paint chips aren't big enough to give you a true idea of how colors will look in your home. Before you make a decision, purchase quarts of your top choices and apply each one to the wall in question in a 3 foot-by-3-foot or larger square. Live with the colors for a week or two before you buy, noting how they look at different times of day and under different light conditions.

Ready to shop for a high-quality paint? Here's a quick guide to some terms you're likely to see bandied about:

Blocking: The tendency of painted surfaces to stick to objects touching them. If you're painting a shelf or mantel, for example, look for paint that's block resistant.

Burnish-Resistant: Flat or low-gloss paint that won't become shiny when you scrub or wipe it.

Enamel: Typically means a tough, very dirt-resistant paint for kitchens, baths and other demanding rooms.

Flow or Leveling: A product's ability to "even out" after it's applied so brush and roller marks disappear, leaving a smooth film.

Hiding: The higher the paint's hiding ability, the fewer coats you'll need to get an attractive, uniform look. Pigment and flow both help determine hiding power.

Kitchen and Bath Paint: A formulation designed to resist water and mildew and to be easy to clean.

Mildew-Resistant: Products that contain a mildew-cide to retard fungal growth in moist areas such as kitchens, baths and laundry rooms.

Primer: The first coat of paint. The primer coat promotes adhesion between the wall's surface and the outer layers of paint.

Scrubbable: Tough paint of any finish, even flat, that is easy to clean without damage to the appearance or surface.

Spatter: Droplets of paint that fly off the brush or roller during painting. High-quality paint is less likely to spatter, making cleanup easier.

Stain-Resistant: Paint with a tough outer film that's less likely to absorb grease and dirt.

Topcoat: The final layer of paint, or finish coat.

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