Exterior Paint Sheen Recommendations

House Painter

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When you paint your house exterior, the question of which paint sheen or finish to use should be assessed on an equal plane with the paint color and brand.

You will have a choice of four basic paint sheen groupings: flat or matte, satin/eggshell, semi-gloss, and gloss. Your home's exterior is subjected to major stresses that include rain, snow, UV rays, and physical wear. All of that is compounded by the sheer difficulty, cost, and extended timeline for painting a home's exterior, making the question of the perfect exterior paint finish a critical one.

What Is Paint Sheen?

Paint sheen relates to both the appearance and the performance of the exterior paint.

In terms of appearance, most homeowners are familiar with the shine—or lack of shine—that paint exhibits. A mirror-like paint sheen is glossy: light reflects off of it. A flat or matte paint sheen is dull: it absorbs light. Between those two extremes are a few other degrees of sheen.

But a paint's performance also hinges on its sheen. High-gloss paint is best for high-impact or wet applications. Paint sheens on the dull end of the spectrum are less durable and tend to attract dirt.

Paint Sheen Determiners

Paint sheen is determined by the ratio of resins and binders to pigment levels in the paint. Paints with a high level of resins/binders create a high-sheen, shiny surface, while those where the pigment levels are high, create a less reflective surface. Generally speaking, glossier paints are more durable, while flatter paints are less resilient but cover better. 

Although different manufacturers have different terms for describing their paints, in general, there are four different sheen levels to choose from: flat (also called matte), satin (sometimes called eggshell or low-luster), semi-gloss and gloss (or high-gloss). The ratio of resins/binders to pigments increases with each level.

For large exterior surfaces, glossier paints are usually reserved for trim areas, such as windowsills and doors, as well as surfaces that may be washed frequently. Normally, semi-gloss paint is the best choice for trim work, since high-gloss paints are so shiny that they highlight imperfections. 

For large areas of the home covered by siding, less glossy paints are a better choice. Here, you want to avoid shiny, glossy paints with highly reflective properties that will highlight each bump and imperfection. The choice, then, is between a flat (matte) paint or a satin/eggshell paint.

Flat or Matte Finish Paints

Flat paint has a non-reflective finish that will feel slightly chalky and rough when you run your hand across it.

The finish is quite velvety in appearance and is initially very attractive since the lack of reflectiveness hides bumps and gouges. It provides a very contemporary and modern look. However, just as it true on indoor surfaces, flat paints really cannot be washed at all.

Cleaning a flat-paint surface is like trying to wipe down a chalkboard with a dry rag—it smears but does not really come clean. You can scrub flat finish with TSP or water pressure washer, but often the best solution is to lay down another coat of paint. You can expect to repaint more often if you use flat paint.

Pros
  • No overlap marks: Whether brushed or rolled, the paint hides lap marks very well. 

  • Modern, contemporary look when the paint is new.

  • Hides flaws in the siding surface.

  • Quick drying time.

Cons
  • Very difficult, if not impossible, to scrub clean.

  • The surface may become chalky due to weather, requiring more frequent repainting.

  • May flake off or chip more easily than glossier paints.

Satin and Eggshell Finish Paints

Satin finishes are relatively low in reflection, which means that they also do a decent job of hiding bumps and imperfections in the siding surface.

To the touch, they still have the chalky feel of flat finishes, but with a slight waxy smoothness. The same paint color will appear slightly richer in a satin sheen than it does in a flat sheen. Satin/eggshell finishes can be wiped down or even hosed with water. Because of the hint of shine, satin paints have a somewhat more luxurious appearance than flat paints. 

Satin paints require a bit more care during application in order to avoid lap marks. As with interior painting, it is important to keep a wet edge during application. It is important that satin paints be thoroughly mixed before application to keep the resins and pigments in uniform ratio throughout the can. Satin paints should be mixed just before every painting session.

Pros
  • Satin finishes are more washable. 

  • The finish lasts longer than flat paints. 

Cons
  • Lap marks may be evident when painting.

  • Sheen can be uneven unless the paint is mixed thoroughly. Have stored paint thoroughly mixed at the store before painting. Boxing the paint (mixing several cans together) can also solve this problem.

Semi-Gloss and Gloss Finish Paints

In general, reserve the higher gloss levels only for trim and doors—surfaces that get a lot of wear and may need to be frequently scrubbed. The glossier paints are more durable so they will hold up well on these trim surfaces that take the brunt of the weather.

Glossy finish paints also may be a logical choice where an exterior will need to be washed frequently, such as in a climate where wind-blown dust is a problem, or in a home where active kids may soil the siding. But the reflective shininess will also spotlight every bump and imperfection, so for most people, they are not a good choice for large areas of the siding. 

Gloss and semi-gloss paints do, however, produce a richer color, so they are sometimes chosen when an owner wants to make a loud design statement. 

Exterior Paint Sheen Recommendations

Is there a universal exterior paint sheen, or finish, that works for most exterior applications? All things being equal, satin or eggshell finish is preferable for the exterior of a home. A satin/eggshell finish satisfies basic maintenance points while providing a pleasant appearance that appeals to the widest range of homeowners.

But other factors may skew your decision in one direction or another:

Will you be painting the house yourself? If so, and if you are less than confident in your skills, then a flat finish paint is easier to apply without leaving lap marks. For homes that need to be turned around quickly for resale, flat paint offers quick curing time and short-term aesthetic appeal at the expense of long-term maintenance issues.

For a more skilled do-it-yourselfer, either flat or satin paint is suitable. If you are hiring a professional painter, choose the paint finish based only on results, not ease of application. Professional painters are proficient at applying all types of paints and paint finishes. If they make an error, they are accountable and can be expected to fix the issue. 

Is your exterior riddled with texture-related blemishes? If so, then flat paint will help hide such defects.

Do you have children, pets, and a lot of outdoor activity? Bikes get laid against houses. Mud and snowballs land on the sides of the house. Just as you would choose a wipeable finish for the interior, so too with your exterior. A home that is expected to have heavy use should be painted with satin finish paint or even a semi-gloss paint.