We are going to talk about what types of finishes are available in exterior paint, the differences between them, and which finish to use on which surfaces.
A paint finish or sheen refers to how shiny or not shiny a paint is, and typically speaking the finish has a lot to do with aesthetics as well as functionality both in interior and exterior applications. A shinier finish usually means more durability and washability. One of the trade-offs of picking a finish that is extremely shiny is they have a tendency to show imperfections a bit more, which is why people will often use a matte finish inside when they want their walls to have a nice soft velvety look.
Every paint company will have a slightly different selection of exterior finishes. But in general you’ll typically have flat or matte finishes, satin, and semi-gloss. The finishes you may not recognize if your coming from interior painting are low luster, soft gloss, gloss, and hi-gloss.
Low luster can usually be equated to an eggshell finish, but they’re not always identical. Depending on the company you might see more of a sheen in low luster than you would in eggshell. They do however function in a very similar way.
Similarly, soft gloss and semi-gloss are often interchangeable but not necessarily identical either. Some people will just use the term semi-gloss for their exterior products but Benjamin Moore for example sometimes uses the term soft gloss just to distinguish the exterior from the interior finish.
Gloss and hi gloss can sometimes be pretty similar but hi gloss is typically the shiniest finish you can get. You’ll get more durability and washability with a shinier finish. So why wouldn’t you use hi-gloss for everything outside? You could, but then it would look like you’re living in a giant plastic house. There is one finish that could be referred to as the swiss army knife finish for exterior purposes that you could technically use for most if not all applications. Before we do that, let’s break down each finish individually and it’s best use cases.
Starting with the lowest sheen level which is flat or matte finishes. Although technically the least durable one, it makes up for that with it’s aesthetic purposes. By being the least reflective sheen it does a great job at hiding flaws and imperfections on surfaces. It use to be quite popular for its look but unfortunately they are going to be the most susceptible to fading and moisture issues because flat finishes are quite porous in their texture. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, in fact, many professionals recommend a flat finish for anyone that’s painting an older home that has a lot of imperfections that are in need of disguising. It’s not a good choice for any surfaces that are going to be regularly touched, like frames, railings or doors. Also any surfaces that are horizontal rather than vertical probably not a good idea.
If you wanted a lower sheen finish but still wanted some extra durability then the natural step up would be a low luster finish. Low luster is the eggshell finish of the exterior world and just like eggshell inside your home, what you get is a nice compromise of aesthetics as well as added durability. Low luster is one of the more popular choices to use on the main body of a home. Whether it’s siding or stucco, the added shininess allows you to occasionally power wash your home if need be and it’ll withstand the elements a little more than flat would. This also means you won’t have to paint as often because you’ll have a more durable finish. As mentioned earlier, the shinier you get, the more durable the finish.
So satin is the next step up. It’s probably the lowest sheen a lot of professionals recommend for those areas that really need extra durability like railings, trims, doors and shutters. it’s the equivalent to a satin or a pearl finish inside. It’s our recommended choice for exterior trim if you’re going with a flat main body finish. Satin is also good for siding because if you’re someone who frequently cleans the side of your home it’ll stand the test of time a bit more than a low luster would and it’s not shiny enough it would look obnoxious on a large surface area.
For areas that require more frequent cleaning, that’s where soft gloss or semi-gloss comes in. This is a finish you really don’t have to worry about if you’re constantly finding yourself wiping down your front porch railings to ensure it’s always sparkling clean. There are many paint brands where semi-gloss is their highest available sheen and that’s because it has become a standard for trim, both inside and outside. It’s also the perfect trim companion finish if your using low luster everywhere else, mainly because of the one degree of finish separation from low luster to semi-gloss. That’s because your skipping that satin finish in between. A lot of professionals believe in the skip one finish rule for walls and trim. You can apply the same thing outside as well as as inside.
So where does that leave gloss and hi-gloss finishes? Even though the glossiest finish will be the most washable one, we like to use it for the aesthetic purpose. Any accents on your home that you really want to stand out and feature, that’s when it’s recommended going with a hi-gloss. There’s nothing nicer than a brand new front door with a bright hi-gloss finish on it because not only will it be extremely easy to clean but that reflective nature of it will make any color look that much more vibrant, deeper and attention grabbing. The big consideration for using hi-gloss finishes is any tiny flaw or dent will be extremely visible. So make sure that the necessary prep work is done prior to ensuring a uniform, beautiful end result.
So is there one finish to rule them all? If we had to pick one exterior finish to use on everything, don’t know when that would ever be the case, but probably the most versatile and flexible exterior paint finish option is the satin finish. Mainly because it’s durable enough for more high traffic or high handled surfaces but still has a nice soft look to it where it won’t be too much when used on the main body of a home. Just remember to always try to use whatever finish is the most appropriate for your purpose.