How to Paint Paneling

How to Paint Paneling
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Owners of homes built from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s often have to deal with wood-paneled walls – either in the entire room, or as an accent wall. Along with popcorn-textured ceilings, wood (or faux wood, which was more commonly used) paneling is among the features that many homebuyers now consider a deal breaker.

Fortunately, you need not despair if your current home has a paneled wall or two. And if you’re house hunting, don’t be so quick to cross that otherwise perfect home off your list should it sport this unsightly interior touch of yesteryear. Rather than incurring the expense of removing the offending paneling and repairing or replacing the drywall under it, you can minimize its visual impact and create a pleasing, updated look with a little paint and a little time!


Wood Paneling – A Brief History

Long popular in American homes, real wood paneling can impart warmth and texture. However, plywood was more typically used in post-World War II suburban houses. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the look was considered sophisticated and space-age. Upscale homes featured paneling of solid wood or high-end furniture-grade wood veneer. As such materials were expensive, most homeowners opted for the budget-friendly wood composite panels manufactured with a faux wood grain pattern. Those favoring a contemporary look installed paneling in medium to dark brown shades, while those preferring a rustic-inspired style installed faux knotty pine paneling.

In addition, installing wood paneling was a relatively easy DIY project that – depending upon the number of walls involved – could be done in a single weekend.

Beginning in the ‘80s, homeowners considered plywood paneling to be cheap-looking and tacky. Even walls paneled in real wood appeared tired to contemporary eyes, and seemed to restrict decorating choices. Unfortunately, people learned that getting rid of paneling isn’t an easy task. Trying to remove plywood paneling can damage drywall, as glue was often used to attach it, while removing solid wood paneling involves prying panels from the wall with a pry bar, then pulling out nails. Needless to say, this also damages drywall, necessitating a great amount of patching.

Now that you know, painting over paneling is the less labor-intensive, less expensive option. But don’t feel that you’re compromising because you aren’t starting with a clean drywall slate, so to speak. You can paint the paneled wall the same color as the rest of the room to make it blend in while lending an extra layer of texture, or – if only one wall is paneled – keep it as an accent wall, but one that provides a stylish pop of color that complements your interior décor scheme.

Following are instructions for painting laminate wood paneling and solid wood paneling. Before starting, make sure you have the proper equipment that will allow you to do the job safely – such as an appropriate ladder – and cover flooring beneath with a drop cloth. Wear full-sleeve clothing (no T-shirts or shorts) in addition to gloves, glasses and a respiratory mask, as the cleaners used in the first step are toxic. Also be sure the room is well-ventilated. Keep pets and children out of the room.


Painting Laminate Wood

Home improvement and decorating website Hunker provides the following step-by-step instructions:

  1. Clean the panels thoroughly with soap and water. A dish detergent works fine in most cases, although you may need to use a stronger solvent for heavily soiled panels. Use a sponge to clean the panels, and then dry them with a towel.
  2. Prepare the panels for painting. Most panels have glossy finishes, so you will need to use sandpaper to lightly sand them down. Liquid Sandpaper is available in most hardware stores, requires no scrubbing or sanding and works wonders on fake wood panels.
  3. Wipe any shavings or residue left on the wood panels after you have sanded them or used the Liquid Sandpaper. Wipe them thoroughly to avoid imperfections from coming through your paint.
  4. Apply a normal coating of primer. Latex primer will work best for painting over fake wood panels. If you can still see through the primer, apply a second coat after the first one dries.
  5. Paint the panels with your choice of paint, as you would any other wall. Once you have the primer on, the rest is easy.


Painting Real Wood

Painting over solid wood paneling is a more involved process if you want to achieve the best possible effect. Writing for The Spruce, interior design expert Lauren Flanagan provides context for the project.

“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.”

Flanagan’s instructions are as follow:

  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.

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. 

Note: 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.


Everything Old is New Again – Including Paneling

Although certain types of wall paneling are outdated, other types are enjoying popularity. For example, shiplap, which has become in demand through its exposure on television home remodeling shows. This raises the question whether real wood paneling should be painted over, which Flanagan admits is controversial. If the wood isn’t stained or damaged, refurbishing the paneling to restore its warm glow and luster could be the better option.

In most cases, the poor-quality veneer paneling still prevalent in many homes is always worth painting over as an economical-yet-attractive alternative to removal. Whichever choice you make, we at The Paint Manager hope we’ve given you the information you need to enjoy your home to the fullest.

At the present time, our professional contractors are only available for exterior jobs. Of course, we will let our valued members know when we are again able to provide our full range of services. As always, we appreciate your support! Feel free to contact us to schedule an appointment or ask questions, and stay safe!

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