How to Paint Wood Paneling the Right Way

Give your dated wood paneling a fresh, new look.

How to Paint Woodwork
Elegant living room with painted paneling. Steven Miric / Getty Images

Wood can be beautiful and can make a home feel warm and comfortable. However, if you're looking at wood 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.

Wood Paneling: To Paint or Not?

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." Yet, when we're talking about more solid types of wood paneling, the answer is a matter of hot debate.

Consider the age of your home and the quality of the paneling before you make a decision. If you're still undecided and need some inspiration, browse photos of "painted wood paneling." You'll find plenty of examples that show you just how spectacular the final product can be.

If you do decide to paint over the wood paneling in your home, make sure to follow these steps. It may seem like cleaning, sanding, and priming are unnecessary, but paneling does require extra attention if you want the wall to look its best.

Clean All the Moulding 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, you’ll want to use a solution of TSP (trisodium phosphate, a heavy-duty cleaner) and water to get it all off.

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

Fill and Sand Cracks

Fill any holes or cracks with wood putty and allow it to dry. Once it’s completely dry, lightly sand all of the paneling (don’t forget the trim and moldings). 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, sanding may not be necessary. When in doubt, it's always a good idea to sand it.

Caulk Around the Trim

Make sure to apply caulk to any gaps between the panels and trim, and around the windows and doors. This can be done after sanding. Allow the caulk to dry before painting.

Prime Everything

Apply a thin coat of primer 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

Once the primer is dry, apply a thin coat of your paint to the entire surface. 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 it dry and repeat.

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.