Ask The Painter: Which Sheen is Right for Me?

June 23, 2010

Save for a Few Considerations, Let Personal Preference Decide

One question that must be answered before paint can be purchased for any job is that of which sheen to use. “Old school” thinking is that flat is for ceilings, semi-gloss should be used in wet areas (kitchens and bathrooms), and Satin is for kids’ rooms and high traffic areas. Advances in paint chemistry have made the old norms outdated, and while there are a few things that should still be considered before choosing a sheen, it is now largely a choice of personal preference.

Before getting into specifics let’s examine what gives a paint its sheen. The reason that some paints have more sheen to them than others has to do with the paint chemistry. “Resins” are the chemical compounds in paint that bind the pigments and that give paint its durability after it has dried. The general rule of thumb is that the shinier a paint is, the more resin it contains. Microscopically speaking, the resins fill in the “voids” between pigment granules and this results in a smoother surface that reflects light. Paints with less resin are microscopically “rougher” on the surface and scatter light rather than reflect it. There is a scientific way of measuing sheen that involves shining a light on a painted surface and measuring the reflection but, practically speaking, we apply descriptive labels to measurement ranges.

Sheens are generally labelled “flat”, “matte”, “eggshell” or “satin”, “semi-gloss”, and “gloss”, in order of increasing amount of light reflected. To draw an analogy, think of dividing outside air temperature from 32 degrees to 100 degrees into ranges labeled “cold”, “cool”, “warm” and “hot”, and you get the idea. Carrying this analogy further, while we all might agree on the exact temperature where “cold” becomes “cool”, how much can we really notice that one degree of difference? Similarly, with paint, the sheen labels refer to ranges and it is possible to have a “satin” on the high end of its range appear to have virtually the same sheen as a “semi-gloss” on the low end of its range. To illustrate the sheen of their paints, most paint stores have some sort of “sheen guide” that you can use to visualize their sheens.

Perhaps the most important consideration in deciding which sheen is right for you is “washability” versus “touch-upability”. Because the flat paints are miscroscopically rougher, any soil that gets on the painted surface (a child’s dirty hand print, for example) may be trapped in the microscopic “pores” of the paint whereas with a semi-gloss paint, the soil may sit on the smooth surface. This means that flat paint will not wash as well as a smoother paint where it might be possible to simply wipe the soil off the surface of the smoother (shinier) paint with a damp cloth. If flat paint is to be used on walls that may need to be washed, it is advisable to use a premium or super-premium grade paint, as higher grade paints will withstand the scrubbing that goes with washing without wearing into the paint and taking some color off the wall. Still, the soil very well may not come off, and in this case the wall will need to be touched-up. Flat paints generally touch-up better than shinier paints.

Paints with sheens (satin, semi-gloss, gloss), on the other hand, may not need to be touched-up as often due the higher likelihood that soil may simply be washed off the surface of the paint. But if non-flat paints do need touch-up, there is a risk that the touched-up spots will appear shinier than the original, thereby making them stand out. This is because part of the sheen is determined by how thick the paint film is, and two coats of paint makes for a thicker (and therefore shinier) film than one. This “shiny spot” effect becomes more prominent with increasing sheen.

Another key consideration when choosing sheen is how the light will play off of the painted surface. Shinier paints will “show” imperfections in the painted surface more than flat sheen does. Just think how a “ding” on your car door jumps out at you when the sun reflects off the car in just the right way. This can be used to positive effect if you have a textured wall that and you wish to accentuate the texture. But it can also show underlying flaws such as inconsistencies in texture, prior repairs, or sheetrock seams where the tape & float is “heavy” or domed.

Shinier paints also have more range to their “look” as the lighting conditions change. Some people like that the room changes its look throughout the day, others won’t. In order to cut down on glare from reflected light, ceilings are almost always painted with flat paint. If it is desired to have the same colors on the walls and ceiling, and the walls are non-flat while the ceiling is flat, it will be very likely that the ceiling will not look to be the same color as the walls. This is due to the apparant color change due to lighting.
To round-out the discussion, here are a couple of special cases:

  • Home Theaters are typically painted with flat sheen to reduce glare.
  • Faux-finishing treatments usually require satin base coats.

So now let’s re-visit one of the the “old school” recommendations, use of semi-gloss in kitchens and bathrooms. This presumably had something to do with washability, and the thinking was that the higher sheen lent itself to being wiped down without wearing into the paint. But when was the last tiime you wiped down your bathroom walls? Plus, advances in paint chemistry have resulted in durable flat sheen paints that can withstand the wipe-down. Many people find semi-gloss or gloss sheen to be a bit too “institutional”, and so those sheens are mainly used on trim enamel now.

Between flat and satin then, it is largely personal preference regarding which sheen is right for you. The key considerations are washability versus touch-ups, whether you have unwanted imperfactions that shinier paint would draw attention to, and how you want the color to appear to change under varying lighting conditions.
Copyright 2010 Jeff Stec

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