HOW TO PAINT PANELING

With the right prep work, you can transform your old paneling and achieve a beautiful new look.

Before and after split-screen photos of a room with painted wood paneling.
A homeowner touches wood paneling to determine the type. A homeowner touches wood paneling to determine the type.

Step #1: Assess

Before you start, take the time to determine what type of paneling you have. Polyurethane finish, layers of paint, and even a decades-long coating of cleaning products can mask the material underneath. Find a spot where a panel’s edge is exposed, which may require removing an HVAC grate or baseboard molding, to properly examine the end of a piece of paneling to see what you’re working with. If your paneling is veneer (which only has a thin surface layer of wood grain), fiberboard, or composite instead of solid wood, you want to be very careful not to damage it.


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Key Watchout

Veneer is a paper-thin layer of wood grain over a stronger—though unsightly—material like particle board or fiberboard. Be careful not to sand through it.
A homeowner cleans wood paneling with a clean rag. A homeowner cleans wood paneling with a clean rag.

Step #2: Clean

Grease, grime, and even cleaning-product residue can really build up on veneer or hardwood paneling over the years, which can then prevent your paint from properly adhering to the surface. Be sure to remove all contaminants and residue with a grease-removing cleaner before beginning work. If the paneling is still too glossy after cleaning, you may need to dull the surface a bit with a light sanding to make sure the paint has texture it can adhere to. Just be very careful if you’re dealing with veneer, as sanding can ruin the thin outer layer, exposing the fiberboard underneath.


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Important
Safety Note

Whenever you’re removing an old surface through sanding, it’s important to protect yourself from potentially dangerous dust with a mask and goggles.
A homeowner brushes paint into the grooves in wood paneling. A homeowner brushes paint into the grooves in wood paneling.

Step #3: Spot Prime

Do you want the finished look to be that of a smooth wall? Or will you retain the look of the paneled grooves? If you want to keep the grooves, skip to Step 4.

To get the best-looking smooth surface on your painted paneling, check out the video on this page. You’ll need to prime the paneling first—at least the areas you plan to fill with spackle or caulk—to ensure you get the best possible adhesion. Primer choices include:

A homeowner fills grooves in wood paneling with caulk for a smooth finish. A homeowner fills grooves in wood paneling with caulk for a smooth finish.

Step #4: Spackle and Caulk

If you are creating a smooth surface, wait until after the first coat of primer has dried before you spackle to get proper adhesion. You will need to use joint compound (also called drywall mud) or spackle to fill in all the grooves in the paneling to meet the rest of the surface. Using a quick-drying “hot mud” or patch, which has a high pH level, creates unique challenges and is not recommended. If you do use it, be sure to use a 100% acrylic primer for best results.

Whether you’re going for a smooth or grooved look, any seams between panels also need to be filled in. For this, you should use caulk instead of spackle. Caulk will expand as the panels shift slightly over time, as opposed to spackle, which can crack.


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Helpful Tip

Spackle or joint compound dries hard, whereas caulk can expand and contract slightly over time. This makes spackle better for filling grooves and caulk the better option for seams.
Homeowner wearing a dust mask sands the caulked grooves of wood paneling. Homeowner wearing a dust mask sands the caulked grooves of wood paneling.

Step #5: Sand, Vacuum, and Tack

A light sanding at this stage will create a smooth, dull surface free of imperfections, and also one that is just rough enough to give the paint proper adhesion. Using a fine sandpaper (220 grit is a good level here), focus on any areas that are uneven or that have dried drips, such as corners and edges. After you sand, be sure to vacuum the paneling thoroughly and tack or wipe everything down with a damp cloth to remove any remaining dust. Then let it dry.

A homeowner rolls paint in a wood paneled wall. A homeowner rolls paint in a wood paneled wall.

Step #6: Prime Again

Re-priming after spackling and caulking is one of the most important things you can do to ensure an even, professional finish. A second coat of primer will help conceal differences between the spackle and panel surfaces, cover any stains and knots in the paneling, and provide proper adhesion for your paint top coat. Be sure to give the primer enough time to fully dry as recommended on the label.

A homeowner finishes rolling white paint on a wood paneled wall. A homeowner finishes rolling white paint on a wood paneled wall.

Step #7: Paint

Use a paintbrush to cut in to corners and edges first, then blend any seams as you complete the rest of the wall with a roller. Note that a lighter paint color on dark wood may require an extra coat, depending on how well the primer masked the grain below.

Different Paints Offer a Range of Finish Options
Waterborne alkyds like Benjamin Moore ADVANCE® offer an easy-application top coat for painting paneling and cure to a durable, furniture-quality finish. Latex paints will give you more of a glossy or shiny look: Benjamin Moore’s AURA® Interior and Regal® Select Interior paints both offer rich, durable color with a mildew-resistant finish.

Benjamin Moore offers 3,500+ different colors from which to choose, and pint-sized paint color samples are available for shipping right to your door to make decision-making easier.

Step #8: Paint a Second Coat

After the first coat of paint is fully dry, apply a second coat for an even, spot-free finish. Be sure to allow a full 24 hours of drying time for the new finish to fully cure before replacing any wall decor, fixtures or furniture.