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How to Choose the Right Type of Paint for any Surface

Learn how to choose the right type of paint for any surface! This post includes lots of questions and answers about which type of paint, paint finishes, primers, etc.

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?

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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),


Debi Daniels

Saturday 15th of May 2021

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.? ?

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Sunday 16th of May 2021

Hi Debi, it all depends on the type of furniture you are painting (wood, veneer, laminate) and what finish you want to put on it. This post might be helpful to you: Let me know if you have any other questions.

Sheri Lew

Friday 15th of May 2020

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

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Friday 15th of May 2020

Hey Sheri, If the current paint is chipping and flaking off then yes you need to remove it. This post shares how to strip furniture; If the current paint isn't chipping or flaking, then you don't have to remove it, just prime it. I would apply at least one layer of a good primer (I suggest this one: and then apply at least two coats of chalk paint. You don't have to sand in between coats. Sanding in between coats gives it a smoother finish, but not necessary. As far as sanding chalk paint, you can do it by hand and use a very fine grit sandpaper. Here is a post on how I chalk painted a table top; I hope this helps!

Callum Palmer

Sunday 6th of October 2019

We are doing some painting next weekend and are looking for some tips. Most of the painting will be done on the walls so I'll have to find the right type to use. As you said here, there are a few to pick from. I'll probably go with the eggshell finish since it is a bit more durable than the others.

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Monday 7th of October 2019

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