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Paints

Paint buying guide

Last updated: May 2014

Getting started

Many aspects of paint performance depend more on the quality of the base than on the color. The tint base largely determines the paint's toughness and resistance to dirt and stains, while the colorant contributes to hiding and how much the paint will fade. Here's how to pick the right one for the job.

Interior paint

We've found that economy grades--typically dubbed contractor grade--haven't performed well. If a top-line paint can cover the darkest colors in two coats, lower-quality paints might need three or four. The best now cover old paint well with just one coat. Most even claim to eliminate the initial, primer coat.

Don't buy strictly by brand. Manufacturers tend to reformulate paints frequently to improve performance and comply with tougher regulations. That means the paint you loved last time may not do as well this time around.

Think about color. Use the store's color-sampling products and retailer and manufacturer computer programs. Most stores sell sample jars so you can test a paint before buying a large quantity. Manufacturers also offer large color chips, which are easier to use than the conventional small swatches.

Try out samples on different walls and look at them at various times of the day and in different light. Fluorescent light enhances blues and greens, but it makes warm reds, oranges, and yellows appear dull. Incandescent light works well with warm colors, but it might not do much for cool ones. Even natural sunlight changes from day to day, room to room, and morning to evening. Color intensifies over large areas, so it's better to go too light than too dark in a given shade.

Breathe easier. Manufacturers are reducing the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)--some of the noxious chemicals that can make paint smell like paint--in their products, in response to stricter federal standards. VOCs can cause headaches and dizziness, and are linked to pollution, smog, and respiratory problems. Earlier low-VOC paints lacked the durability of higher-VOC finishes, but now all of the paints in our tests are claimed to have low or no-VOCs and many performed very well.

Exterior paints and stains

To find out which finishes are likely to last longest on your home, we painted and stained pine test panels and placed them on the roof of our Yonkers, New York, headquarters. We faced the boards south at 25 degrees from vertical to intensify the effects of sun and weather. One year of such severe testing is equivalent to about three years of normal weathering on a typical home. Most exterior paints held up well for the equivalent of at least three years, and the best still looked fine after what amounted to nine years under the elements. Stains must typically be reapplied more often--some after as little as one year.

As with interior paints, manufacturers typically reformulate exterior paints and stains often, partly to meet tougher federal standards limiting volatile organic compounds. VOCs can cause headaches and dizziness, and are linked to pollution, smog, and respiratory problems. Reducing VOCs in exterior paint without compromising performance had been a challenge, but now many low-VOC paints top our Ratings. Whether you paint or stain, here are some tips for getting the best-looking, most durable finish possible:

Skip the cheapest paints. As with interior paints, we've found that economy grades of paints and stains don't weather as well as top-of-the-line products from the same brand. Pinching pennies now may mean spending more down the road, since you'll need to refinish more often.

Choose the right gloss level. Flat and satin finishes are best for siding because they hide flaws by reducing reflections. Semi-gloss paints add some shine to doors and trim, providing visual contrast.

Insist on top finishes. Hiring a pro? Be sure the contract specifies the brand, line, and number of coats; for paint we generally recommend two top coats plus a prime coat over bare surfaces if paint is not self-priming.

Look for deals. Holiday weekends, including Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, are popular times for paint promos.

Don't scrimp on the prep work. Good preparation is critical to a good, long-lasting exterior finish, whether you're paying a pro or are doing it yourself. That means scraping, sanding, and cleaning the siding thoroughly. And while the best paints cover in one coat--and many claim to eliminate the need to prime the surface--we recommend two coats for long life and optimal coverage. Other materials may require different procedures. Stucco and masonry, for example, may need sealing beforehand. If you sand or scrape paint on a house built before 1978, be warned: Older coats of paint may contain lead, so you'll need to take extra precautions. Indeed, federal law now requires that painters you hire be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and be trained in lead-safe work practices.

Types

We generally test premium lines from major brands, which tend to perform best over time. But we've found that some of the best-performing paints and stains still cost less than lower-scoring lines. Here are the types of paints and stains to consider.

Interior paint


The gloss level affects perception of color. Flat paints (and textured walls) absorb light, so colors seem darker. Glossy paints and smooth surfaces reflect, so colors look brighter. The degree of glossiness may differ from one manufacturer to another.

Eggshell and satin

Use them only on smooth, well-prepared surfaces since their shine can accentuate imperfections on the wall. These paints are best for family rooms, kids' rooms, hallways, and the like. Some might change sheen when scrubbed.

Flat

Flat finishes hide imperfections well, but are the least stain resistant so they're better for low-traffic areas.

Semi-gloss

Shinier still, these paints are formulated to stand up to stains. They're generally the easiest to clean, but some may tend to dull when scrubbed. They're ideal for kitchen and bathroom walls, windowsills, and other woodwork. Like eggshell and satin paints, semi-gloss paints require a smooth, well-prepared surface with few imperfections.

Exterior paint


Like interior paints, exterior paints come in a variety of sheens. Here are the types to consider.

Eggshell and satin

Like flat finishes, eggshell and satin work well on siding and have a slight gloss.

Flat

This dullest of finishes is the best choice if you need to mask imperfections. Flat finishes look best on siding.

Semi-gloss and gloss

These are most often used for trim because they highlight the details of the woodwork and are easy to clean.

Stains


Exterior stains range from clear, with no pigment, to solid, with lots of pigment. Some manufacturers offer different formulations for siding and decks, but most now are designed to be used for either application.

Clear

These stains allow wood to gray naturally. They have no pigment, so they show off wood grain the best. But that also means they offer minimal protection from the elements. Typically these need to be reapplied every year on a deck and every couple of years on siding.

Semi-transparent

Semi-transparent stains penetrate and let some of the wood grain show through--a plus with premium grades of wood.. Some go the distance better than others, but generally they need to be reapplied every couple of years on decks and every four to five years on siding.

Solid

These stains don't penetrate the wood, but form a paint-like outer coating. They hide the grain, but that's not a drawback with woods such as pine, where seeing the grain isn't important. Solid stains save time and money in the long run because they typically outlast semi-transparent and clear stains as a group. But even the best solid stains won't last as long as most paints.

Features


The features most important to you depends largely on the job at hand. Most of the time and expense of painting or staining your house goes into the prep work, so get a coating that can last longer even if it costs a few dollars more per gallon. Here are the features to consider.

Hiding ability

If you're changing interior walls or house siding from dark to light, you'll need a paint that's good at hiding. Many new paints can cover a contrasting color with a single coat. But for best coverage we still recommend using two coats, even with a top-scoring paint.

Surface smoothness

Interior paint should dry smooth, without showing brush or roller marks or leave a grainy surface.

Stain resistance

Satin and semi-gloss stains generally are better than flat paints at resisting stains, but there are exceptions.

Scrubbing resistance

This is very desirable for paints in rooms with lots of activity--kids' rooms, kitchens, family rooms--that may need regular and rigorous cleaning.

Change in gloss

Some paints dull, become shinier, or change color when cleaned aggressively. Semi-gloss paints are the most likely to change, so consider that when using semi-gloss on surfaces such as handrails and doors that will need frequent cleaning.

Resistance to sticking

Some interior paints never seem to dry completely. They can make a window difficult to open, or cause books to stick to a shelf.

Mildew resistance inside

This is especially important in a kitchen, bath, or damp basement.

Fade resistance inside

Fading has long been a problem in sun-drenched rooms, resulting in walls that become lighter over time as they're exposed to sunlight. In general, whites and browns tend not to fade; reds and blues fade somewhat; and bright greens and yellows tend to fade a lot.

Exterior resistance to dirt

Accumulation of dirt is a particular challenge for exterior paint in urban areas. Dark exterior paints and stains hide dirt best. Removing accumulated dirt requires scrubbing or pressure washing.

Exterior resistance to color change

Especially in sunny climates, exterior paints and stains tend to fade, change color, or develop a chalky film. Blues and yellows are the most likely to suffer; refinishing is the only remedy.

Exterior resistance to mildew

Staining and spotting from mildew are common in damp regions from rainy Seattle to steamy Tampa, on northern exposures, and on any house that gets more shade than sun. Removal requires washing with a solution of water and bleach.

Exterior resistance to cracking

This is the most important attribute for exterior paints because if the coating cracks, it exposes the underlying siding or trim to the elements. Typically paints and solid stains are best for this application. If you see even tiny cracks on your decking or siding, we recommend refinishing before they worsen and cause more damage.

Brands


When it comes to interior paints, avoid blind product loyalty. The Brand X finish you loved the last time you painted is probably not the same as what's on shelves today. Use these profiles to compare paints by brand.

Behr

Behr is a leading brand of interior paints and is available exclusively at The Home Depot. Along with water and oil-based interior paints, Behr offers primers, specialty finishes such as Venetian plaster, masonry waterproofers, wood-flooring coatings, and cleaners. Behr is a part of Masterchem, which also makes the Kilz brand of primers and paints.

Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore is part of the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio of companies owned by Warren E. Buffett. Benjamin Moore has positioned itself as an aspirational paint brand, particularly since breaking through the top tier with the introduction of Aura. Benjamin Moore has a network of 4,000 independent dealers who carry the brand, and has said that training and service are the key reasons why it hasn't entered the home-center channel. Benjamin Moore also operates more than 1,200 Benjamin Moore paint stores across the country.

ICI

ICI Paints is a part of Akzo Nobel, the world's largest coatings manufacturer. The ICI family of brands includes multiple coating names, with Glidden being the most recognized name among U.S. consumers. Glidden has several lines, with Evermore available exclusively at Home Depot, and Endurance and Spred, which are sold through independent paint & hardware dealers.

Olympic

Olympic is a member of PPG's architectural coatings family of brands. Olympic interior paints are sold exclusively through Lowe's, and include paints for the ceiling, kitchen, and bath, and primers.

Sherwin-Williams

Sherwin-Williams is the largest producer of paints in the U.S. and includes Pratt & Lambert and Thompson Minwax among its family of brands. Sherwin-Williams manufactures interior paints and sells them through more than 3,000 company-owned retail stores. In addition to paints, Sherwin-Williams offers primers, faux finishes, interior wood stains, and wallpaper. Its retail stores cater to professionals and consumers, and offer a variety of paint supplies and tools.

Valspar

Valspar originated more than 200 years ago as a varnish dealer. Valspar is a leading brand of interior paint, and its most popular lines—Ultra Premium and Signature Colors—are available exclusively at Lowe's. Valspar manufactures a wide variety of coatings under the Valspar brand for Lowe's and for independent paint and hardware dealers, including color-changing ceiling paint, kitchen and bath paints, and decorative textured coatings. The Valspar family of brands also includes Laura Ashley, McCloskey, Guardsman, and Goof Off, and the company recently expanded its presence in exterior stains with the acquisition of Cabot.

   

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