Good question: Can you paint over wood paneling?

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Sep 20, 2011 | Linda Merrill

Painted wood paneling. Photo: Kurt Dwyer PaintingTo paint or not to paint old wood paneling, that is the question. When we think of wood paneling, we often picture old, tired knotty pine walls that have darkened or yellowed over time. However, paneled walls have been popular for centuries and may be restored and preserved beautifully. Walnut or pine walls dating back to the 1800s and earlier can be incredibly beautiful left in their natural state, even though they might originally have been painted. 

Classic vs dated wood paneling

In the twentieth century, less expensive paneling became a common feature of middle class housing, especially in finished basements and  homes in very humid climates like coastal locations. Painted beadboard paneling is a classic feature in seaside cottages as well as homes looking to emulate the casual beach house vibe. It’s the old dark paneled walls in the "downstairs den" that really scream "dated." Often varnished, these walls have darkened over time and can make an already dark space feel like a tomb.

Prep by cleaning

According to Jennifer McSharry of Kurt Dwyer Painting, "Preparing previously varnished or polyurethened walls to be painted takes a considerable amount of work, including the use of a chemical stripper or a de-glosser, depending on the condition or existing sheen of the wood. The deciding factor is usually a personal choice – wanting to modernize or lighten the look – as we could just as easily keep the natural wood and re-stain instead of paint. 

"Proper prep work is essential for any painting project and for painting over natural wood surfaces it is crucial," continues McSharry. "In order to paint any surface it must be clean, dull, and dry. That is the standard, so before a can of paint is opened, all surfaces should be thoroughly cleaned to remove contaminants like built-up dirt, grime, grease, body oils, etc.  Dirtex is great for cleaning surfaces." 

Sand off the varnish

Once the wood panels have been cleaned, the next step is sanding off the varnish. "After the surfaces are completely clean, they will need to be sanded until the surface is dull and there is no visible shine," instructs McSharry. "If sanding does not dull the surface enough, a chemical stripper or deglosser may be used to eliminate the shiny surface and ensure proper paint adhesion."

Prime before painting

As with almost all painting projects, applying a good coat of primer is key to good results. McSharry explains, "An oil-based primer is better for this situation than a latex but if the surfaces are prepared correctly, a latex primer can be used. Apply a thin layer of primer and allow to cure completely, followed by thin layers of paint, with sufficient drying time in between coats, to achieve the best finish result."

Painted wood paneling ideas

Beadboard walls, especially those that run only halfway up the wall, are often treated with glossy paint to match the trim. However, full paneled walls are usually painted like a standard wall. If paneled walls are left unpainted, a great way to update them is to strip them of their varnish, sand to a dull finish, and leave as is. Or they can be coated with a very thin white or gray paint or stain for a limed look. Vintage style with natural or limed woods, complete with nicks and scratches, is a very popular design trend right now. Natural wood walls mix well with careworn and faded vintage fabric slipcovers and industrial style fixtures, keeping the space on-trend and not overly dark and foreboding.

Work with your wood paneling

"I like real wood paneling because it has more character than sheetrock and can be refinished in countless different ways," Charles from Peace Painting Company commented on Hometalk.com. "Before you undo and redo, creating more landfill material and buying new products, think about being creative with what you've been given, even if it's not ideal. I think chances are, you could find a finish for your real wood paneling that you would like."

Paint wood paneling yourself or hire a reliable painting contractor to take of the job for you.

Linda Merrill is a Networx writer. 

Updated January 15, 2018.

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