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Exterior Paint Sheen

Whenever you paint anything on the inside or outside of the home you not only have to pick the right color, but also the sheen. It’s just as important in many ways as the color and you should give it some serious thought. So which exterior paint sheen is best for your home?

A paint’s sheen is the amount of shine or gloss it has. The higher the gloss level the shinier it looks. The different levels of sheen are flat/matte, eggshell/satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. Flat having no shine at all and gloss being the shiniest. Which exterior paint sheen is best for your house is a complex questions because different areas of the home look better with a different sheen. For example the walls are typically painted with an eggshell, but we use a flat paint on columns and railings. Accent pieces like shutters have slightly more gloss than eggshell because we want them to stand out but we never go high gloss on anything except occasionally the front door. And different sheen levels can make the color look slightly different because it reflects light in different ways.

Exterior paint comes in a wide range of sheens. Glossy and flat paint are on totally different ends of the shine spectrum and look different in the light. The finish you choose will be based on the type of surface you’re painting and the look you want to achieve.

Beautiful classically styled home painted with an eggshell sheen.

Beautiful classically styled home painted with an eggshell sheen.

Is Paint Sheen Just About Looks?

Paint sheen effects both the appearance and the performance of your exterior paint. So when you paint your house, the sheen is just as important as the color and brand.

Your home’s exterior is subjected to major stresses that include rain, snow, UV rays, and physical damage from storms. The sheen of your paint reflects light and provides a protective coating for the paint. When sunlight hits paint that has a high sheen some of the light and therefore heat bounces off. That reflectivity is partly why high gloss paint is so shiny. On the other hand a flat paint doesn’t reflect light as much so it absorbs a lot more heat. For this reason high gloss exterior paints tend to last longer then flat ones. The only problem is that they’re ugly on a house. I mean who would want to live in a shiny high gloss house.

All of this is compounded by the difficulty, cost, and time it takes to paint a home’s exterior. House painting isn’t something most homeowners want to do often so there’s a balance between picking what looks best and what has some additional durability.

Because of these issues we try to use at least a small amount of sheen on surfaces that see a lot of sunlight like the exterior walls. Egg shell works fine. We use a flat sheen where there’s shade or rounded surfaces that don’t absorb direct sunlight like the columns and railings.

What Makes An Exterior Paint’s Sheen?

Paint sheen is created by adding resins and binders into the mix. The level of sheen is determined by changing the ratio of those additives in relation to the pigment.

Paints with a high level of resins/binders in relation to pigment have a high sheen. Paints with high pigment and very little resins/binders have a low sheen. In general glossier paints are more durable for outdoor use, while flatter paints are less resilient. This is because some light and heat bonces off glossy paint while flat paint absorbs it.

Different manufacturers have their own terms for describing sheen levels but in general there are four basic levels to choose from:

  • Flat/Matte. We don’t use totally matte paint much for a home’s exterior.
  • Satin/Eggshell. Best for siding because it’s a low-reflective finish that’s good at hiding imperfections. It has a slight gloss so it stays clean, is more easily washed, and stands up to abrasion better than flat or matte paints.
  • Semi-gloss. This shinier sheen is easier to clean, more durable, and more moisture resistant than a satin or eggshell paint. Best for trim details like windowsills.
  • Gloss. This resin-rich formula is durable and dirt repellent. The high shine adds richness and depth to colors but it also magnifies surface imperfections. Use it sparingly. We find it’s best for shutters, doors, and surfaces you touch or come in close contact with.

One thing worth noting about sheen levels is the more glossy a surface is the more imperfections stand out. This is because gloss makes any small difference stand out more. Edges catch light and shone or cast shadows. Matte paint doesn’t reflect light as much so things look a lot flatter.

Beautiful rustic style home using a mix of matte and eggshell sheens.

Beautiful rustic style home using a mix of matte and eggshell sheens.

Flat Exterior Paint

Flat paint has a finish that doesn’t reflect light. Of all the paint sheen options this one has the least amount of resins.

Because matte paint doesn’t have a finish it typically feels slightly chalky and rough to the touch. The finish has a sort of textured look to it. Because there’s no shine any imperfections or bumps are less visible.

Matte paint provides a very contemporary and modern look. We don’t really use it much on most traditional homes but every now and then someone with a modern exterior will ask for it.

Flat paints aren’t as easy to wash but we’ve had good results using a power washer on a very low setting with a gentle soap and water solution. But even that doesn’t clean the walls that well. Because there’s no glossy protective layer the paint absorbs some dirt into it’s pores and it’s hard to get out. Scrubbing can actually take some of the paint off so that’s not a great idea. If you use flat exterior paint then expect to re-paint more often if you want your house looking new.

We’ve found that flat exterior paints chip, peel and flake more often then glossier sheens. It’s probably due to all the extra heat it absorbs and the absence of any protective layer.

Painting Brick With Flat Paint

The one area where we’ve had great results with matte exterior paint is on brick. We love the look of painting red brick white and generally always go with a flat paint. The bricks naturally have a flat surface and we want to mimic the look. I’ve seen people paint exterior brick with a glossier white and I can’t say that I like it. The looks not terrible but I think flat works better here.

With a flat paint all the sharp edges of the bricks don’t catch or reflect light. And that’s how they should look. When you use a higher gloss on brick it creates a lot of shine in places there shouldn’t be any. It just looks too unnatural to me.

Painting Fiber Cement With Flat Paint

Another place we use flat exterior paint is on fiber cement siding. It’s a siding that’s actually a masonry product. Some of the cedar shake styles we use a semi gloss on but the more modern stuff like horizontal lap or large flat panels I like to go with a matte sheen. Flat is a more modern look and works well with the design. This isn’t for your traditional home but if you have something Transitional, Contemporary or Modern then it’s worth considering.

Of course all the downfalls of exterior flat paints are still there. It is a little harder to clean and fades/wears faster than glossier paints but the look is really cool if you’ve got the right house for it.

Beautiful Colonial style home painted with an eggshell sheen. semi gloss black shutters.

Beautiful Colonial style home painted with an eggshell sheen and black semi gloss shutters.

Satin/Eggshell Exterior Paint

Eggshell or satin is by far the most popular exterior sheen. If you buy a factory finished fiber cement or cedar shake siding panel then it’s most likely painted with satin. You get just a tiny amount of shine which provides some protection against the sun and is easier to clean but it’s not glossy. Satin is easy on the eyes and we’re all used to it since over 90% of home exteriors and interior walls are painted with it. Even vinyl products have a slight satin sheen when new.

A satin or eggshell finish makes the color appear a bit richer when compared with a flat finish. If your selecting an exterior paint color make sure you get a sample with the sheen you plan on using or the color could look a bit off.

Keep in mind that shinier finishes will show more imperfections because light catches small edges and draws the eye. It’s not a huge issue with satin because the sheen is so faint and the siding is generally textured but it’s still worth noting. Satin finishes are relatively low in reflection, which means that they do a decent job of hiding bumps and imperfections.

To the touch, satin has a similar textured feel to flat but is a little more smooth and waxy.

Satin/eggshell finishes can be wiped down or hosed with water. Because of the hint of shine and a slightly richer color, satin paints have a more luxurious appearance than flat.

It’s important to mix your paint really well before you start working to make sure the resins and pigment are all mixed evenly. We recommend mixing it at the store and then stirring right before you paint. You don’t want to end up with an uneven sheen.

Because of the slightly shinier layer, satin paints last a bit longer. Some light and therefore heat is reflected which helps and it’s a little easier to wash. Both of these factors add to the paints longevity.

Semi Gloss Exterior Paint

Semi-gloss and gloss paints are very shiny. Especially full gloss. Occasionally we use a semi gloss on a few exterior things like the front door, a trim piece or shutters but it’s rare. And we never use high gloss.

In our design work we stay away from anything too glossy inside the home and out. It’s just too shiny.

If you do want to use some gloss on the outside of your home then only limit it for trim and doors. Surfaces that get a lot of wear or may need to be frequently washed. Higher gloss paints are more durable so they hold up well on surfaces that are more exposed to weather.

Gloss is smoother than semi gloss to the touch and reflects lots of light. Any surface imperfections will stand out with a gloss finish.

Gloss and semi-gloss paints produce the richest color so make sure to get color samples that also have a gloss finish. If you select a color you liked based on a flat sample then you may be surprised how different it appears in gloss.

Don’t use gloss exterior paints on main walls or large areas. And never on the siding.

Which Paint Sheen To Use & The Exceptions

If there was a single universal exterior paint sheen that works best it would be eggshell/satin. The small amount of shine provides just the right amount of added durability, adds a richness to the color, and is by far the most popular choice.

Pretty much every factory finished siding product ranging from painted fiber cement and cedar shake to vinyl and even metal is sold with a satin finish. And so is decking, railings, Azek, fascia, and gutters. Even most factory finished wood comes with a satin varnish.

In general we recommend using an eggshell sheen for everything on the exterior of your home. Bu there are a few exceptions to every rule.

Flat exterior paint sheen works great on masonry or painted brick.

Modern home painted with a flat sheen.

Modern

If your going for a modern look on either fiber cement or masonry then a flat paint sheen works great. Modern homes use a lot of natural materials which don’t have a sheen so using matte paint maintains the look.

Classic red brick home painted white with flat sheen paint.

Classic red brick home painted white with flat sheen paint.

Brick

Exterior paint with a flat sheen works great on masonry or painted brick. Bricks naturally have no sheen so using a flat paint maintains the look. White brightens the bricks up enough without needing anything further.

Because brick is textured and porous the paint seeps into all the little cracks and holes. The coverage is much more thorough than painting a flat wall so it lasts. I’ve never heard of anyone having any issues at all with painted white brick using a matte sheen.

Lakefront countryside Modern home with cedar shake siding painted matte black.

Lakefront countryside Modern home with cedar shake siding painted matte black.

Matte Black

Another exception to the eggshell rule is black. It’s not the most popular color but it’s actually being used more and more each year. Every black home we’ve seen has used a matte sheen no matter what the siding material. We’ve seen fiber cement, brick, metal and wood and they’ve all been painted with a flat black sheen.

With a flat black paint you’ll be absorbing a lot of sunlight and therefore heat which means re-painting will be required. But if you like the Modern look then it’s just something you’ll have to live with.

Conclusion: Exterior Paint Sheen

Whenever you paint anything on the inside or outside of the home you not only have to pick the right color, but also the sheen. It’s just as important in many ways as the color and you should give it some serious thought. So which exterior paint sheen is best for your home?

A paint’s sheen is the amount of shine or gloss it has. The higher the gloss level the shinier it looks. The different levels of sheen are flat/matte, eggshell/satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. Flat having no shine at all and gloss being the shiniest. Which exterior paint sheen is best for your house is a complex questions because different areas of the home look better with a different sheen. For example the walls are typically painted with an eggshell, but we use a flat paint on columns and railings. Accent pieces like shutters have slightly more gloss than eggshell because we want them to stand out but we never go high gloss on anything except occasionally the front door. And different sheen levels can make the color look slightly different because it reflects light in different ways.

Exterior paint comes in a wide range of sheens. Glossy and flat paint are on totally different ends of the shine spectrum and look different in the light. The finish you choose will be based on the type of surface you’re painting and the look you want to achieve.

I hope this article helps you pick the right exterior paint sheen for your next project and if you have any questions or comments e-mail us any time. We’d love to hear from you.

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