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How To Paint Wood Paneling Walls

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, wood paneling was considered a great looking and easy to maintain wall covering. Today, not so much.

The biggest problem with wood paneling is that it is dark and doesn’t reflect light well. This causes the rooms that have wood paneling in them to feel dark and less happy than a brightly lit room. Add to this that wood paneling was more often placed in basements that had very little natural light to begin with and the effect was double.

Painted Wood Panels
Bedroom interior with comfortable queen size bed

But don’t fear if your home suffers from wood paneling, painting over it is easy and durable with these simple steps

What You Will Need For This Project:

  1. Medium Grit Sanding Sponges
  2. Radius 360 Sanding Tools & Sanding Discs
  3. 4′ x 12′ Canvas Drop Cloth
  4. 3M Painters Tape
  5. 5-in-1 Painters Tool
  6. Cleaner / Degreaser / De-glosser
  7. Spackling Paste
  8. Killz Primer Max
  9. 1/2″ Nap Roller Cover
  10. 2.5″ Brush
  11. Wooster 9″ Roller Frame
  12. Handy Paint Tray
  13. 2′ – 4′ Extension Pole

Step 1: Prepare Your Workspace

The first thing you need to do when starting any DIY painting project is to prepare your workspace. Remove any furniture and other items from the room that you can. If you cannot remove them, place them in the middle of the room at least 4 feet from the walls.

Arrange all of your tools and paints on a 4′ x 5′ drop cloth in your working area so that you know what you have, where it is and if you need anything else for this project.

Step 2: Prep The Trim & Floors

Before diving into the meat and potatoes of this project, you’ll want to get any trim prepped off. I like to quickly vacuum any dust off the trim and wipe it down with a wet rag before taping. Once the trim has dried, take your time and tape off the trim with your painters tape and press it firmly with your 5-in-1 tool to create a good seal. Here’s a guide on How To Tape Trim Like A Pro for those of you who could use a bit of help in this area.

To protect my floors, I like to use multiple 4′ x 12′ canvas drop cloths. By using more than one, I don’t have to drag them around the room while I paint. Since the drop cloths will be catching drips, by not having to drag them around I reduce my chances of getting paint on the carpet from these drips on the drop cloths.

Step 3: Clean & De-Gloss The Wood Paneling

Before you can start priming your wood paneling you need to thoroughly clean it and de-gloss it.

The cleaning will depend on how dirty the paneling is. If it is filthy I like to use Krud Kutters Pre-Paint Cleaner or TSP (phosphate free). The Krud Kutter works similar to TSP in that it is a cleaner and de-greaser as well as a de-glosser. The added bonus is that the Krud Kutter is water based and non-toxic, which is always a plus.

After you have cleaned your wood paneling, I recommend sanding the surface to really get rid of any gloss and etch the surface for painting. If your wood paneling isn’t properly cleaned and de-glossed, you could have easily be dealing with peeling paint coming off your wood paneling in the future, and that is no fun.

You can easily sand your wood paneling with either a 3M Medium Grit sanding sponge or what I prefer is to use a Radius 360 Sanding Disc. The Radius is a round sanding disc that you attach to the end of you extension pole. It sands great, takes less work and saves your back!

Step 4: Fill Any Knots and/or Grooves

If you have a knotty wood paneling or you really hate the grooves in between the panels, now is the time you can fill these. Personally, I like to fill the knots but not the grooves. Filling the grooves is a lot of work and these grooves can crack in time if your wood panels move or shift. 

For filling, I like to use Crack Shot’s Spackling Paste. It goes on smooth, sands easily and paints great. A 3″ spackle knife is perfect for this.

Step 5: Prime Wood Paneling With Killz

You absolutely must prime your wood paneling before painting. There are a few reasons for this. First, the primer will stop any wood stains from coming through your final paint, which will happen if you don’t prime. Second, primers are designed to adhere to surfaces better than paint. By priming, you will increase adhesion as well as block any wood stains.

Personally, I prefer to use Killz oil based primer if possible because it has better stain blocking properties than the water based Killz. If you don’t want to work with the smelly oil, or can’t, than Killz Water Based Primer Max is a great alternative.

Step 6: Pole/Hand Sand Primer Before Painting

After your primer coat has had plenty of time to dry, you’ll want to sand it smooth before painting. Just like in step 3, you can use either hand sanding sponges or the Radius 360 pole sander for sanding.

A quick sand over all of your primer is all that is needed. This will give you the smoothest surface possible so that your final coat looks great. Do not sand through your primer, if you do, re-prime where necessary.

Step 7: Brush & Roll Your First Coat of Paint

After all that prep work, you are finally ready for paint. For a rundown of proper wall painting techniques, check out our guide on wall painting here.

For painting, you’ll want to get out your 9″ roller frame, your 9″ roller cover, paint try and 2.5″ angled brush. Start by carefully cutting in your ceilings and trim with your brush and then move onto rolling the walls in between.

Step 8: Brush & Roll Your Second Coat of Paint

After your first coat has thoroughly dried you can sand the wall a final time with either a hand sanding sponge or your Radius sanding disc if you want the smoothest walls possible. Sanding in between coats eliminates pesky chunks and roller fibers that can sometimes end up in your paint.

Paint on your second and final coat and you’re just about done!

Step 9: De-prep & Enjoy

After your final coat has been painted you’re ready to de-prep and enjoy.

If you find that your paint is peeling up from the wood paneling as you pull your tape off your trim, this most likely means that the surface was still a bit glossy around your trim. Don’t worry, this happens since it is hard to sand and de-gloss right next to the trim. When I run into this, I give the paint an extra day or two to bond to the surface and then try removing the tape again. This usually solves the problem.