Skip to Content

How to Choose the Right Type of Paint for any Surface

Tired of not knowing what type of paint to choose for which surface? Check out this easy paint guide to find the right paint for any surface!

Taking a trip to the hardware store for paint is a little different than it used to be 20 years ago. Today it seems that you need a map to decipher what color, what type, what finish and what brand. Picking paint can be hard, and that’s why I’ve created a simple list of guidelines on how to choose the right type of paint for any surface.

how to choose the right type of paint for any surface

Are you painting your walls? Are you painting an old piece of furniture that’s been previously painted like with chalk paint? Does the surface already have paint on it and is it oil based or water based?

Choosing the right paint is daunting, I get it.

I’m going to try to make this as easy as I can.

Disclosure: there are MANY different ways to paint different surfaces. This is not a right or wrong answer. I am sharing MY THOUGHTS and simple guidelines about how to choose the right paint and finishes from MY EXPERIENCE. Always refer to the paint manufacturer’s guidelines for specific instructions after you’ve chosen a paint.

Paint Guide Chart

paint guide

I want to break this list down and be a little more specific. Oh and I want to discuss that ugly old paint that became outlawed…


What is lead paint?

The CDC says “Lead-based paints were banned for residential use in 1978. Homes built in the U.S. before 1978 are likely to have some lead-based paint. When the paint peels and cracks, it makes lead paint chips and dust. “

Chances are if you own a home that was built before 1978, it has some form of lead paint in it. BE AWARE of the toxins that lead paint can cause.

How to check for lead paint

You can purchase a lead paint kit on Amazon or any hardware store. Most kits consist a swab that you rub on the surface and wait for it to change colors. Depending on the color is what indicates if it’s lead paint.

It didn’t occur to me until after I got home with my chippy door that it might be chipping lead paint. Once it dawned on me that I might be bringing a toxic wood piece into the house, I ran out ot the nearest hardware store and purchased a lead kit.

Thankfully the chippy paint was a recent application and it was NOT chippy lead paint! Thank goodness because I did NOT want to get rid of my chippy door.

modern farmhouse entryway with chippy door
chippy door modern farmhouse

If you have indeed found lead paint in your house or piece of furniture, I would reach out to a professional to discuss how to remove it safely. Remember, the dust particles of lead paint are poisonous so I would caution against trying to remove it yourself unless you’ve done a lot of research and are very confident.

How to choose the right type of paint for any surface

  1. Decide if the surface has been painted before? Is the previous paint water or oil based? (refer to instructions below)
  2. Identify what the surface is that you are painting.
  3. Decide what finish you want to create.
  4. Do you need a top coat or sealer?

How to know if paint is oil based or water based?

You can do a simple test to decipher if it’s oil or water based. Pour a bit of acetone (nail polish remover) on a rag and wipe the surface with it. If the old paint rubs off on the rag then it’s latex or water based. If it doesn’t wipe off then it’s oil based.

Since oil and water don’t mix, figuring out WHAT TYPE of paint is on the surface is a must.

How to use water based (latex based) paint over oil based paint?

Lightly sand the surface with fine grit sandpaper. Clean it really well and use a good primer (water based or oil based) over the surface. After the primer is dry you can use whatever type of paint you want!

How to use oil based paint over water based paint?

Lightly sand the surface with a fine grit sandpaper. Clean it really well and use a good WATER BASED primer. In a nutshell, sand the surface, clean the surface, add a water based primer and then use the oil based paint.

The key to painting oil based paint over water based paint or visa versa is PRIMER!

how to choose the right type of paint

What are common paint finishes?

  • Matte paint finish– least reflective and hard to clean. Does well at hiding imperfections.
  • Eggshell or satin finish– some reflectivity, better durability and mostly used in bathroom and kitchen areas.
  • Semi gloss or gloss- most reflective and highly durable. Mainly used for trim. Does show imperfections.

Disclosure; this post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. This does not affect the price you pay. This disclosure statement refers to the rest of the Amazon links in this post. See more on my disclosure page.

What if you are painting furniture and not walls?

You can still use latex paint, but there are a few other options such as CHALK PAINT.

This is traditionally used for furniture painting because it adheres really well and is easy to use!

I won’t go into all the details of each, but if you want to know more check out my posts on How to Chalk paint furniture and chalk paint vs. milk paint.

Due to the variety of new paints for furniture, you don’t see oil based paints used as much for furniture anymore. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them, they just aren’t used as much.

choose the right type of paint

If you want to know more about how to paint furniture and the steps you need to follow, I’ve got a whole post dedicate to that.

What if you are using chalk paint which only comes in one “matte like” finish?

Chalk paint and milk paint require a top coat or sealer because of their matte like finish. It is not recommended to use either without one.

You will either need a chalk paint wax, or a high traffic sealer.

I’ve shared all about how to seal furniture for a high traffic finish. You can also check out a recent post all about sealers below.

Related post:

Protect your Furniture! Best Clear Coat for Wood for a Lasting finish

Best Paint Colors for Low Light Rooms

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions as far as using a top coat.

I know that was a lot of information, BUT if you got through this post hopefully you feel a wee bit more confident about HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT PAINT.

As always, if you have any questions, send me a message in the comments below.

Happy painting (or choosing a paint, LOL),


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Debi Daniels says:

    I want to paint an old kitchen table and chairs, what process is necessary , and what paint is best, best look, less work and upkeep.?

  2. Sheri Lew says:

    Thank you for your posts. I am a complete novice and have never painted anything before. I’d like to paint my already painted kitchen table-the paint hasn’t held up well, and my puppy has chewed some of the legs. From reading your posts, it sounds like chalk paint is the way to go. How do I prepare it to paint? Do I need to sand it first, or do I just clean and start the chalk paint? Also, do I need to sand between any of the coats? I believe you said to sand between layers of chalk paint what kind of sand paper do I need, and is this just a light sanding I can do by Hand? Thank you

  3. Eggshell is my favorite. Good luck and Thanks for stopping by.