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Painting Wood Paneling: A DIY Guide

Modern room with painted wood panels.
Aleksandra Zlatkovic / Getty Images

How to Paint Wood Paneling the Right Way

Painting wood paneling can be difficult, and if you’ve ever painted it before, you know how much of a job it can be. Do it wrong, and it’s very easy to have to repeat the work multiple times.

To ensure that you don’t waste your time and your weekend (or weekends), here’s how to paint wood paneling the right way.

How to paint paneling

  • Step 1: Clean the wall
  • Step 2: Sand the wall
  • Step 3: Protect your floor
  • Step 4: Paint two coats of primer
  • Step 5: Apply two coats of the final paint color

Painting over wood paneling, step by step

1. Clean the wall.

A lot of things can prevent paint from adhering to wood paneling. Whether it’s dust, dirt, or fingerprints, it doesn’t take much to make your paint job look sloppy, so you’ll need to clean the surface first. To do this, you should use a TSP solution (trisodium phosphate) first. Warning: TSP is strong, so you’ll want to dilute it in a bucket with plenty of water before using it. However, even diluted TSP can be slightly toxic and aggravating to the skin, so before you even begin to clean the wood paneling, put on protective gear. This includes wearing protective gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, safety goggles, and a breathing mask. Also, allow for plenty of airflow by opening up windows and doors. If that’s not possible, then plug in a fan.

To clean the wood paneling, lightly dampen a sponge with the TSP solution and softly wipe the wood paneling with it. The solution is strong, so you won’t need to scrub or press down heavily with your dampened sponge. Give it time to dry before moving on to step two.

2. Sand the wall.

Once the wood paneling has dried from the cleaning, you’ll need to sand it. This will allow the paint to create a good bond with the wood paneling.

Using circular motions, sand the wall lightly with 220 grit sandpaper. It’s unnecessary to spend a lot of time on this step. Just run over the wall with the sandpaper a few times and you should be good to go. This is an important step because sanding the wood paneling means that your paint won’t dry in streaks and that the paint job will last longer.

3. Protect your floor.

Using painter’s tape, apply a strip of tape to the part of your floor that is immediately adjacent to the wall you’ll be painting. Next, spread out a drop cloth and push it up to the wall so you have double protection. Without the tape, drop cloth may shift and move as you paint the wall, risking getting paint on your floors.

4. Paint two coats of primer.

What type of primer you use depends on the type of wood paneling you’re painting. If it’s solid wood, use a water-based primer. If it’s veneer, we recommend using a shellac-based primer.

If you want to save yourself time, you can get a primer that’s tinted to the shade that you plan on painting the wood paneling. Another thing you can do is use a stain-blocking primer. This will help your paint job last longer because it will keep the wood’s imperfections (such as knotholes) from popping up further down the road.

If the wood paneling has any grooves in it, first start painting them with a two-inch angle sash brush. Next, paint the larger areas with a paint roller.

Once the primer has dried, repeat step four one more time.

5. Apply two coats of final paint color.

Painting the grooves and angles with your 2-inch angle sash brush, begin the final phase of painting over your wood paneling. Once the grooves have been painted, use a large paint roller. Wash your brush and give the paint adequate time to dry. In between coats, lightly sand the walls again to help the next coat stick better.

Repeat this process as many times as needed.

What you’ll need for this project

  • TSP solution (trisodium phosphate): A cleaning solution for the wood paneling before painting it
  • Protective gloves: For use with the TSP solution — you don’t want your hands to have direct contact with the TSP solution
  • Long sleeve shirt: Extra clothing while using the TSP solution just in case it should splash
  • Breathing mask: In addition to ensuring adequate airflow with the TSP solution, a breathing mask is also recommended
  • Safety goggles: One final safeguard against the TSP solution
  • Large sponge: For use with the TSP solution to clean the wood paneling
  • Bucket: For diluting the TSP solution with water
  • 220 grit sandpaper: Lightly sand the wood paneling before priming and painting
  • Painter’s tape: For protecting the portion of your floor that is immediately adjacent to the wall
  • Drop cloth: For protecting the rest of your floor against drops of paint
  • Paint tray: For use with the paint roller
  • Paint roller: For painting large ungrooved areas of your wood paneling
  • Two-inch angle sash brush: For painting the grooved areas of your wood paneling
  • Primer: For prepping the wood paneling for the final paint color of your choice
  • Final paint color: Your chosen color to cover the wood paneling

The bottom line

It’s a real job painting paneling. Even if you do it right, painting wood paneling is going to take a bit of time. However, if you go through every step we discussed above, you’ll be able to complete the job like a pro.

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of paint do you use on wood paneling?

For your primer, use a water-based primer if you’re painting solid wood. If it’s a veneer you’re painting, use a shellac-based primer. For your final paint, use two coats of latex wall paint.

Do you have to sand wood paneling before painting?

You don’t, but it is highly recommended. Both the primer and your final paint will adhere to the wood paneling much better if you lightly sand it beforehand. You don’t have to spend a lot of time sanding, just lightly sanding once or twice should be enough.

How do you paint wood paneling with grooves?

You’ll want a two-inch angle sash brush as it will fit nicely into the grooves. Then, once you have your grooves painted, go over the larger areas with a simple paint roller.


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