All Paint Finishes Explained
Your Guide to Choosing Paint Finishes that Meet Your Needs
As professional painters, we encounter several misconceptions regarding paint finishes, and when paint terminologies and references evolve, the confusion is exacerbated.
Keeping up with paint changes that most deem frivolous is nearly impossible unless you are an informed painter.
Even painters are often confused, so it’s no surprise that others may be as well. We will reveal the most common paint finish controversies, finish advantages, and how each finish is determined.
Paint Finish Options Explained
Paint finishes refer to how much light reflects off a painted surface after the paint has dried. The term finish, in many ways, is synonymous with shine and is primarily used by the paint industry.
Overall, interior and exterior acrylic paints offer the most extensive finishes. Since oil-based paint resins are naturally shiny, they are often limited to higher reflective finishes such as satin, semi-gloss, gloss, and high-gloss.
Water-based acrylic paints include flat, flat enamel, matte, low-sheen, eggshell, pearl, satin, low-luster, semi-gloss, gloss, & high-gloss finishes, to name a few.
Mid-level water-based finishes are the most confusing because many terminologies overlap.
Paint manufacturers are notorious for changing descriptive vocabulary. In many cases, the wording merely makes the paint sound exclusive or unique, offering little to no difference. For example, Benjamin Moore’s Pearl finish is comparable to a Sherwin-Williams low-luster.
Most will be satisfied purchasing any medium paint finish, as the human eye cannot detect the nuanced difference between such close relations.
Sheen & Durability
Most of the topics we cover derive from questions and often misguided objections from the public, and paint durability is one of them.
The question of which finish provides the most protection is a dated question, thanks to Sherwin-Williams Duration Interior and Benjamin Moore Aura Interior Bath & Spa.
Both offer flat/ matte finishes that perform better than most leading brands because they are emulsified using the same acrylic polymers found in satin and eggshell finishes.
Fortified flat finishes are often referred to as flat enamels.
But since the durable interior flat paint category is somewhat new, we still get the question and assumption that all flat paint is less water resistant than eggshell or satin paint finishes.
While this statement is valid for the masses, it doesn’t consider the few resilient exceptions. In today’s market, paint product knowledge is essential.
Flat vs. Matte Paint Finishes
Which is better, flat or matte paint? Outside of the few exceptions, cheap flat paint is mainly clay-based. Therefore, most interior flat paint applications are prone to moisture and oil absorption, and surfaces are consequently harder to clean and maintain.
Mar and scuff marks are common issues with flat paint. Additionally, darker colors often look chalky and have less color depth.
A key feature advantage of flat finishes that remains across product lines and extends to outdoor usage is that flat paint hides surface imperfections. If you have nail pops or uneven wall seams, flat paint is best at hiding those flaws.
Flat paint is also an option for those who prefer a perfectly even or duller finish, preventing surface glare in direct sunlight or well-lit areas.
Matte is a newer finish that was once exclusive to higher-end interior paints and now, in many ways, is an enhanced flat finish offered by multiple brands.
Matte paint finishes incorporate the natural characteristics of flat and are emulsified with small amounts of vinyl and acrylic polymers. But make no mistake, you cannot touch up a flat wall with matte paint, as matte has an ever so slightly higher sheen.
Fueled by customer demands, matte paint finishes have increased the overall durability expectations of all premium interior paints. Easy-to-use matte finishes require a precise mixture of raw materials; unfortunately, only a few paint manufacturers have accomplished this.
Some matte finishes will flash, leaving thicker painted areas shinier than others. So, applying matte paint finishes, in many cases, makes it trickier to achieve a uniform surface.
Satin vs. Eggshell Finishes
Satin and eggshell finishes are most often confused. Distinguishing what eggshell means is easily misunderstood when eggshell is also used to reference paint colors like Benjamin Moores’ 2026-70.
The verbiage sheen and gloss are separate paint reflective measurement standards making each reference misleading because surfaces reflect more light at greater angles.
Standard gloss measurements are taken at a 60-degree angle. In comparison, sheen reflective properties are measured at angles as low as 20 degrees.
Low-grade paint options use sheen descriptions instead of gloss. Changing the standardized measurements allows the use of fewer raw materials. So, a low-sheen paint will reflect less light than satin finishes.
On the other hand, comparing eggshell and satin finishes is relatively easy since they are measured similarly. When comparing the reflectivity of eggshell and satin finishes, satin is shinier, reflecting more light.
Eggshell is the highest sought-after interior paint finish. The reason is eggshell paints are easier to wipe and are less reflective than satin. Eggshell paint reflections range from 10- 15%. The scale range is from 0-100%, with satin edging out eggshell at 25-40% light reflection, depending on the paint brand.
When comparing finishes within the same paint line, eggshell and satin finishes often provide enhanced antimicrobial and moisture-resistant properties superior to their flat counterparts. But being washable doesn’t tell the entire story.
Satin and eggshell paints will also increase the illumination of surface imperfections, increasing the visibility of interior and exterior surface flaws.
Reflective Property Measurements
- High Gloss: 80-96%
- Gloss: 70–90%
- Semi-Gloss: 41–69%
- Satin: 26–40%
- Sheen: 15–25%
- Eggshell: 10–15%
- Matte: 10-12%
- Flat: 6-10 %
Semi-Gloss vs. Gloss Paint
Professional painters will use the phrase “trim paint” to refer to semi-gloss and gloss finishes. While high-gloss paints are also shiny, most high-gloss applications are limited to specific surfaces such as furniture, elaborate trim, cabinets, and focal pieces.
Semi-gloss and gloss paints are everyday staples for interior and exterior trim, doors, and windows. The added durability and abrasion resistance make the surface easy to wipe clean, so semi and gloss finishes are also ideal for mantels, bookcases, and shelving.
High-quality semi-gloss and gloss paints offer enamel characteristics that won’t attract dirt and prevent dust from adhering to the surface.
Since interior and exterior trim is often the most tedious to paint, it’s equally critical that trim paint covers well. Trim paint containing higher levels of pigment will inevitably outperform lower pigment offerings.
If you are painting white trim, high Titanium Dioxide percentage paints are in your favor. Darker trim colors will have less Titanium Dioxide but are compensated with elevated amounts or colorants.
Often semi-gloss and gloss finishes are hard to distinguish. But for those gloss finishes maxing out at 90% reflectivity, they are sure to offer a glaring pop.
What is Sheen Control?
Acrylic resins are shiny by nature. Therefore, paints containing high percentages of acrylic polymers are naturally glossy. Dark colors require a lot of colorants, and large quantities of pigments can also increase paint sheen.
For manufacturers to produce flat finishes in a wide range of colors, they have to limit how shiny the paint dries – this process is often referred to as (sheen control).
Flat paint finishes are controlled by adding emulsified additives referred to as fillers. “Paint fillers” generally describe multiple raw materials added to a paint mixture. However, most manufacturers’ additives are the same, with only subtle differences.
The base of most flat paint is clay. Clay is described in many ways ranging from Kaolin, calcined clay, and Earth, to name a few.
Which is Cheaper?
Generally, flat paints will be the cheapest, ranging from $15 to $65. Most flat ceiling and commercial-grade products will be among the least expensive. However, fortified flat paints will be on par with eggshell and satin finishes.
Eggshell and satin finishes will be comparable, ranging from $35 – $80. Some of the best interior paints, such as Benjamin Moore Aura, will cost $90 or more.
Oil and trim paint prices are the most expensive within any brand. For finishes ranging from semi-gloss to high-gloss, expect prices to be $45, topping all the way out at over $100 for specialty finishes.
In the world of paint purchasing, there is no doubt that you have to pay for quality. Outside of the finish, get quality paint meeting your needs and expectations. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the finish is synonymous with the overall quality of the paint.
You will love the long-term durability even better if you like how it looks and if it’s a quality product.
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