Paint Wood Paneling the Right Way

How to Paint Woodwork
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Wood paneling can make a home feel warm and comfortable. However, if your house is full of paneling that is dated, damaged, or made of an inferior veneer, it might have to go. If you don't have the budget to remove it, consider a coat of paint. It can instantly make that dingy paneling look fresh and bright for a fraction of the cost.

To Paint or Not to Paint?

Whether or not to paint wood paneling and moldings is a controversial topic. When it comes to the cheap wood veneer that was so popular in the 1970s, the answer is almost universally, "yes." When discussing higher-quality, solid-wood paneling, the decision can be more complicated. For one thing, there's no going back, as it's pretty much impossible to completely sand paint from paneling if you ever change your mind. Also, solid-wood planks have numerous joints that can open up and show hairline cracks if the planks contract during periods of low humidity.

If you do decide to paint over the wood paneling in your home, follow the proper steps to ensure it's done right. It may seem like cleaning, sanding, and priming are unnecessary, but paneling requires extra attention if you want the wall to look its best.

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

  • Rags
  • TSP or TSP substitute
  • Wood filler
  • Putty knife
  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • Caulk
  • Caulking gun
  • Stain-blocking primer
  • Paint roller with foam roller covers
  • Paintbrush
  • Wall paint
  • Trim paint


Clean the Molding and Paneling 

Before attempting to do anything with your wood paneling, be sure to clean it. A damp rag will get rid of most of the dust, dirt, and cobwebs. If there are layers of grime, use a solution of TSP (trisodium phosphate, a heavy-duty cleaner) or a TSP substitute (which can be less toxic) and water to get it all off.

Never paint over a dirty surface because the paint won’t adhere properly. It will also look quite sloppy because the paint will pick up clumps of dirt, making it impossible to get a flat, clean look.

Fill and Sand the Wood

Fill any holes or cracks with wood putty, using a putty knife, and allow it to dry. Once it’s completely dry, lightly sand all of the paneling (don’t forget the trim and moldings) with 150-grit sandpaper. The idea is to take off the sheen and create a lightly gritty surface so the paint will adhere. Try not to get carried away and sand too hard, either. When you're finished, wipe it down with a damp cloth to remove all the dust.

Note: Sanding is optional depending on the paneling and the type of paint you’re going to use. If you plan to use a primer finish on wood walls, sanding may not be necessary. When in doubt, it's always a good idea to sand.

Caulk Around the Trim

Apply caulk to any gaps between the panels and trim, and around the windows and doors. Make sure to use "paintable" caulk. Allow the caulk to dry as directed by the manufacturer.

Prime the Wood

Apply a thin coat of primer finish on wood walls, using a foam sponge roller. Keep a brush on hand to get into any cracks, seams, or corners where the roller can’t go. Make sure to cover the entire surface, including any trim. It’s best to use an oil-based primer or a latex stain-blocking primer. These will prevent any grease or wood stains from coming through and ruining your paint job. 

Paint the Paneling

Apply a thin coat of your paint to all paneling surfaces. Begin at the top and work your way down, making sure to cover all the gaps between the panels. Watch for and remove any excess paint that gathers between the panel grooves with your brush. Take care of any drips right away, too. Let the first coat dry, as directed, then apply a second coat.

After the primer and first coat, your wall may look finished, but a second coat will ensure the best coverage and improve its durability. It’s definitely worth the extra time and materials.

Paint the Trim

Paint the trim your desired color. It’s usually best to use a glossier finish than you chose for the walls, but it really comes down to personal preference. Glossier paint helps the trim stand out and creates a smoother surface that is easier to clean.