Paint Wood Paneling the Right Way

How to Paint Woodwork
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Overview
  • Working Time: 8 hrs
  • Total Time: 24 hrs

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.

If the paneling has old paint that was likely applied before 1980, do not sand the paneling unless you have the paint tested to confirm that it does not contain lead. If old paint tests positive for lead, skip the sanding and simply apply a good primer to ensure the paint job will stick.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Rags
  • Putty knife
  • Caulking gun
  • Paint roller with foam roller covers
  • Paintbrush

Materials

  • TSP or TSP substitute
  • Wood filler
  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • Caulk
  • Stain-blocking primer
  • Wall paint
  • Trim paint

Instructions

  1. 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.

  2. Fill and Sand the Wood

    Fill any holes or cracks with wood putty, using a putty knife, and allow it to dry. If desired, 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 slightly damp cloth to remove all the dust.

    Note: Sanding is optional and often is not necessary. Using a good primer that will stick to the old finish usually means you don't have to sand the wood. Just keep in mind that if the primer doesn't stick well, neither will the paint. Sanding always improves adhesion.

    Some paneling that appears to be wood may just be a faux melamine finish. If it is, sanding and a primer are recommended. Check with your paint supplier for the proper primer.


  3. Caulk Around the Trim

    Apply caulk to any gaps between paneling planks, 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.

  4. Prime the Wood

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

    When painting knotty pine, use a primer formulated to cover knots, which can bleed through several coats of paint if not properly primed.

  5. 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. Remove any excess paint that collects in the panel grooves, using 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.

  6. 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.