Skip to Content

How to Choose the Right Type of 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 manufactures guidelines for specific instructions after you’ve chosen a paint.

how to choose the right paint

I want to break this list down and be a little more specific.

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?

If the surface has been painted before, how do you know if it’s been painted with oil based or water based paint?

  • 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 do you use water based paint over oil based paint?

Lightly sand the surface with a fine 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 do you use oil based paint over water based paint?

The method for painting oil based over latex or water based is about the same as above, but use a 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!

If the surface you’re trying to paint did have old paint, (and you’ve prepped it for new paint) next decide exactly what material you are painting.

How to choose paint for wood

There are so many different products you can use to paint wood. You have Chalk paint, milk paint, latex paint and oil based. These are the main four. Refer to my chart for more details.

How to choose paint for metal

One of the best ways, in my opinion, to paint metal is with spray paint. There are a TON of fabulous spray paints that are formulated to work REALLY WELL on metal. Check out my post about painting outdoor furniture where I’ve shared a lot of tips on painting metal furniture.

How to choose paint for laminate surfaces

I have a full guide on how to paint laminate cabinets. You can also see a post about how to paint laminate IKEA furniture.

How to choose paint for plastic

Painting plastic is a lot like painting laminate. You can use the same guidelines as I used above. My best piece of advice for plastic is to use spray paint. Just make sure you use a spray paint formulated for plastic.

How to choose paint for walls

Most interior wall paint is latex paint. Head to your local hardware store and they should have loads of interior wall paint.

how to choose the right type of paint

The last important step to deciding what type of paint to use is choosing a finish!

What are the 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.

What if you are painting furniture and not walls?

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.

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

These two are traditionally used for furniture painting because they adhere really well and are so easy to use!

choose the right type of paint

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.

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 or milk paint which only comes in one “matte like” finish?

Chalk paint and milk paint require a top coat 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.

Always follow the manufacturers 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),


DIY X Sofa Table from Scrap Wood
← Previous
How to Seal Painted or Unpainted Furniture for a High Traffic Surface
Next →