What Paint to Use on Which Surface: A Guide.

As regular readers know I take a break from blogging in August. This is partly to recharge my batteries and partly because I suspect that since I blog four times a week many of you don’t have time to read everything, or you might skip a post because it doesn’t feel relevant when it’s published and then suddenly it does and you need to go back and find it. So in that spirit I am starting August with another look at what paint to use on which surface because I get asked a lot. I have, however, changed some of the pictures to find more relevant ones and because I am conscious that otherwise it’s my house again. 

I am also going to point you in the direction of my Do Less Harm directory as I am aware that more and more people want vegan paint, or paint with few chemicals etc. There is a full section on some of the main brands of paint. I am adding to it all the time.

farrow and ball inchyra blue gloss and matt
farrow and ball inchyra blue gloss and matt

Now I wasn’t going to post this as I thought you might all know the answer, but I get asked this a lot so I’m going to assume that some of you don’t. So I thought it might be worth laying it all out as a guide for you to virtually cut out and keep. Every day I am asked which paint to use for a radiator, for a skirting board. Or when to use gloss. Or eggshell and so on. So here we are: What Paint to Use on Which Surface: A Guide.

knightsbridge bed from with walls in bone china by little greene paint company
knightsbridge bed from with walls in bone china by little greene paint company

We’ll start with the walls as that’s the biggest area. Now I’m sure you know that’s basically emulsion but you need to consider what finish you want. In recent years, the trend has been for ultra flat matt paint with a slightly chalky finish. This is because it holds the colour really well and gives a wonderfully soft, almost powdery, finish. This is the paint that will change with the light which means that sometimes it can look almost velvety. This is the paint that makes it so hard to find the exact shade because it changes according to the weather, the climate and the time of day. It’s beautiful stuff.

But it’s not tough. You put this in your hall at your own peril because it attracts fingerprints and black marks and can chip easily too. And you can’t wipe it down. Shall I say that again – you can’t wipe it down. So it’s not the most practical in high traffic areas – by which I mean halls and stairs etc because it is not washable.

For that you will need something with a slight sheen to it that you can take a cloth to. It’s not like the ultra shiny vinyl silk of the 1980s, but even a three per cent sheen is better than nothing. Now you have to look out for the different names so Mylands call theirs Marble Matt Emulsion, because it contains ground marble powder that gives it a hard wearing finish. Little Greene have Intelligent Matt – also washable and hard-wearing as opposed to their Absolutely Matt, which has a stunning flat finish and is not classed as washable. Farrow & Ball estate emulsion has a two per cent sheen and is enormously popular but it won’t like a hall wall. Their Modern Emulsion has seven per cent sheen and is washable and wipeable. I’m not going to list all the brands but hopefully this gives you a sense of what to look out for.

sitting room by
walls and woodwork in fallen plum by Atelier Ellis, floor and ceiling in wimborne white by Farrow & Ball

But – there’s always a but isn’t there –  the more matt the paint, the flatter the finish and the more it will hide any lumps and bumps on the walls. This paint will always look good no matter how poor your painting skills are (once you have applied enough coats that is) whereas a shinier paint will show up every lump and bump on the wall. So you might want to consider that too.

When it comes to kitchens and bathrooms, however, use the paints with a higher sheen as the super flat ones can end up with water marks from condensation etc and they will stain. So again you need to look for the ones with a slight sheen.

green bathroom by
green bathroom by

And here Dulux can be a good place to go with its Easycare range that, for the bathroom, is moisture resistant and protects against mould and, in the kitchen, is grease and stain resistant – the marks will simply form into beads that can be wiped off. It’s based on the hyrdophobic qualities of leaves, in case you were wondering, Dulux also offers a flat matt paint that, they claim, won’t mark like traditional chalky paints.

But Marianne Shillingford, the company’s creative director, advises that it can be hard to get a super flat matt in an intense bright colour because of the amount of pigment required with the matting agent. “It’s easier to get a lower sheen in rich muted atmospheric colours and gorgeous greys,” she says.

It’s also worth noting that  you can also use gloss paint on walls. Traditionally used on woodwork as the high shine makes it tough on skirting boards and doors, while gloss also looks good in bathrooms and small spaces as the shine bounces the light around. Consider it also for a ceiling where it will reflect the light not just from electric bulbs but the natural stuff that comes through the windows as well. I have used it in a tiny bathroom and while it’s a nightmare to apply, a really good finish can look like lacquer if it’s well done.

gloss ceiling via carlaypage
gloss ceiling via carlaypage

Gloss paint used to all be solvent-based and take ages to dry – as well as giving off a strong smell – but these days there are lots of quick-drying water-based gloss paints around which are more environmentally friendly and have a much lower VOC content (volatile organic compounds*). Gloss tends to be around 80 per cent sheen and is fully washable and tough.

In recent years gloss fell out of fashion – possibly because of the drying times and the smell, and along with flat chalky paint, everyone wanted a softer eggshell finish.

image by KW-S pink bedroom
Pink walls in Mylands marble matt threadneedle and Spruce Things up by Dowsing and Reynolds green

Now the first thing to note, and this is the question that everyone asks – you can’t use emulsion on wood and metal. It will just chip off. You must use a wood paint for a wooden surface. And that basically means eggshell . (or gloss). These days you can get matt eggshell for wood and eggshell with a slight sheen that matches the walls – which is perhaps where the confusion arose – but you can’t put matt wall paint on the skirting boards or the radiator. Most companies will have a wood and metal paint that will do the same job.

Right, now that that’s been cleared up, you are basically free to choose the finish you want. If, for example, you have panelling on your walls – currently all the rage – you will need an eggshell or specialist wood paint to cover it – even if it’s on the wall – for the reasons above.

credit paul raeside paint and paper library temple

Finally floor paint. I have used water-based floor paint from Farrow & Ball and it’s not as tough as an oil-based paint from, say Little Greene. But it dries faster which is a major consideration when you are already living in a house. With two teenagers and a cat. If I were starting again, or had yet to move in, I think I might chose an oil-based paint for the floors. Some people swear by Ronseal Diamond floor paint which is acrylic but it comes in only 10 colours and it’s white or cream, black or grey and many of us require a little more subtlety of shade than that.

I have used images of my own house to illustrate this and below is the unfinished (at the time of writing) spare room with its metallic gold ceiling, which is acrylic paint. That means I was also able to paint the plastic light fitting to match the ceiling as well. The window frame is about to be painted to match the walls.

fireplace in rothschild st, walls in threadneedle, ceiling in FTT-002 all by Mylands
gold ceiling – mylands FTT002

VOCs are solvents that are released into the air as soon as the paint dries. Paint used to contain lots of them and in addition to causing headaches and dizziness there was a question over whether they were actually carcinogenic. Their presence in paint is now heavily regulated although, according to the British Coatings Federation, paint contributes less than one per cent of the VOCs found in the UK – exhaust fumes, fabric softeners and cleaning products being among the other, greater, contributors. VOCs are not banned but must remain at low levels – reduced from 400g per litre in 2007 to 300g in 2010.


Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Great article, thanks Kate. I’m hopefully moving into an old property soon and have been told that lime-based paints will be needed to allow for good ventilation (and prevent the mould reappearing). I know Bauwerk is a supplier of good paints, but do you recommend any other brands? And I assume I can use emulsion on the internal stud walls if I wanted, and limit the lime paint to the inside of external walls?

  2. I have to say that I have often used emulsion paint for radiators and skirting boards and sometimes doors and it has always been fine! Not as a policy decision but to use up paint and not buy extra eggshell. I have also painted walls in eggshell again to use up extra paint and a ceiling in Mylands gold!

  3. When I last repainted the interior doors and woodwork in my house (mostly white, sorry not sorry!) I decided to go for eggshell finish instead of the usual gloss. Big mistake. Grubby fingerprints around every single door edge and newel post, hand-prints where doors have been shoved open without using the handle….whereas with gloss a quick wipe would have sorted this out, it is much harder to clean the surface with eggshell. I think I will stick with gloss, at least until my revolting children leave home.

  4. I have been using Francesca’s paints, wonderful colours, lovely paint and great service. Their paints are chalky and they change with the light and they look like velvet. They mix paint to order and if you need to alter the colour they can do it on the spot, they keep a formula and they will be able to remake the exact colour. Their colour charts are fantastic, they are hand painted. Their Studio is fun, The mixing room is out of this world, splattered with paint everywhere, I spent an afternoon there and left with everything I needed and my house looks amazing. Their eco emulsion is VOC free and environmentally friendly.I am so pleased, I found them researching on the net, a very good find. They also make eggshell and lime wash and any other paint.

  5. One additional thing worth mentioning is what to use for a cast iron bath. I was told by CP Hart not to use a water based gloss, and that it had to be oil based. I wanted a Farrow and Ball purple but their wood and metal paints are all water based so I ended up colour matching.

  6. Excellent and very informative article Kate.

    You are right to say that you can’t use emulsion paint on wood, but I have used it on flat radiators to good effect. They needed 3 coats.

    There’a product called Polyvine which is a milky acrylic liquid that comes in Matt or Shine finish. If you want to paint small pieces of wooden furniture, picture frames etc using up sample pots of emulsion paint, the painted wood can be successfully sealed with Polyvine. Check it out.

  7. This is a fantastic post – thank you. We are about to install tongue and groove panelling in our bathroom using soft wood. It will be be behind bath and sink. What type of paint do you think would be best to use on it? Something long wearing and waterproof? Does that exist?

  8. Hi Kate, I have an acrylic free standing bath that I would like to paint on the outside. Firstly, is it possible to get a paint to adhere to it and secondly, if so, what type of paint please?


    1. I would check with the paint company who supplies the colour you choose to make sure it will stick. See if you can find an acrylic eggshell or an epoxy paint. You might also need to give it a light sand to provide a key for the paint to stick to. Rustoleum paint is also good for unusual surfaces but I would have a look online for a tutorial first as you need to find out how to get the best finish.

  9. Oricalcum – linseed paint is the most durable and gorgeous for painting windows inside and outside. I wouldn’t use anything else now on my sash windows and it’s completely environment friendly:

  10. This soiunds very counter-intuitive: “the more matt the paint, the flatter the finish and the more it will hide any lumps and bumps on the walls” – my manicurist always takes the longest when I choose matt nail polish, according to her matt tends to show every bump while shiny polishes are much more forgiving. How come it’s the opposite with wall colours?

    1. So I’m going to say that your nails are flat to start with so perhaps that’s the difference? Whereas very few walls are completely flat and the matt seems to even it out, while the gloss will catch the light on every lump and bump and reflect it back. My decorator also counselled us against painting the woodchip ceiling in a dark (matt) colour as he said the dark shade would also highlight the uneven surface. I don’t know the science but there’s a couple of theories to add to the mix!

  11. Thanks for this but what is your advice on painting skirtings, door frames etc same colour as the walls ? If you use emulsion on the walls and want all the woodwork and radiator in the same colour what then? Because I can’t find wood paint or radiator paint in the exact colour of my walls. Any thoughts?

    1. I’m surprised you can’t find paint in the different finishes. I have always bought one colour in two finishes – matt and eggshell – for walls and woodwork. Most paint companies – certainly all the ones mentioned here offer a range of finishes depending on what you want to paint. Eggshell works perfectly well for metal (radiators) as well as wood. What brands are you looking at? If you are having paint colour matched you should still be able to buy two tins, one in each finish.

    2. Little Greene say their Intelligent Matt Emulsion is fine for woodwork & radiators – I was disbelieving of it at first, but has worked fine on skirting & painting a metal fireplace.

      1. I used their intelligent emulsion on ceiling wall skirting and radiator in my hall and it looks terrific. Saves on buying another tin of paint too.

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