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The Language of Paint Finishes

There's an old story about an immigrant who comes to America with poor English skills. He and his wife were staying in a hotel and the only thing they knew to order when they went out for meals was "apple pie and coffee." They quickly tired of this, so a friend taught the husband a new phrase. For their next meal, the immigrant eagerly ordered, "Ham and Swiss on rye."

The waitress said, "mayo or mustard?" The immigrant looked at her blankly then answered, "apple pie and coffee."

I think of that story every time we start talking paint with a client. It's not unusual for people to take home dozens of paint samples, check them under various lighting conditions, and finally choose The Perfect Color - only to visibly deflate when asked, "What finish?"

For many, paint finishes are a different language.

Simply put, paint finishes are what the surface of the paint looks like. The paint's finish (also known as gloss or sheen), will determine how much light reflects off the surface. Paint finishes range from flat - with virtually no shine - to high-gloss paint with the maximum amount of shine.There are a range of levels in between, all with different uses and purposes.

Glossier paint finishes are more durable, while less glossy paints are more forgiving. Glossier paints reflect more light and generally look brighter, exposing any imperfections in the brush strokes or dings in the surface underneath. Flaws are less noticeable under a flat or matte paint but these paints are less durable. It can be a challenge to get a durable paint finish that’s flattering to the surface, which is why there are many different types of finishes.

To make things even more confusing, our experts here at Cityscape Painting don't agree with the general recommendations you'll find online for using paint finishes.

The problem is that glossy paints look really shiny under artificial light. Since we have about six months of winter here in Minnesota, that's a lot of time spent in your home looking at shiny paint. We generally recommend using a higher-quality paint with a lower sheen. We prefer matte over eggshell for most indoor paint work, and reserve the higher-sheen paints for accent jobs like wainscotting and trim.

Benjamin Moore has a great blog post explaining the different types of paint sheens, and which ones to use where. You can check it out here at Again, keep in mind that with 35 years' experience in Minnesota painting, we think their guidelines aren't quite right for our geographic location.

If you have questions about paint finishes, call your Cityscape Painting experts at (952) 469-5901 for advice and a free estimate.We'd love to sit down and discuss the language of paint over a slice of apple pie and coffee.

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