All About Exterior Paint
Expert advice on choosing the best formulations for your siding type, selecting the most eye-catching colors, and getting long-lasting results
We ask a lot from house paint. It's not only expected to give our home a new look but also to withstand freezing winters, blistering summers, soaking rains, and a daily bombardment of UV radiation without cracking, fading, or peeling.
Such miracles don't come without expense and effort. For the best results, you need an exterior paint that's packed with high-quality resins, pigments, and additives, as well as a clean, smooth surface for the new finish to stick to. Making this investment in material and labor will virtually guarantee that you won't have to drag out the ladders again anytime soon.
Modern advances in paint technology—specifically the arrival of all-acrylic formulations—have made the task of finding a top-shelf product fairly simple. Just look for "100 percent acrylic latex" on the label. You'll be getting a paint that remains flexible, breathable, and colorfast far longer than paints made with vinyl resins or acrylic blends. And because it adheres tenaciously to most surfaces, you can use it with confidence on wood, vinyl, metal, and masonry.
What's it cost? A gallon can range from $17 to more than $100. Higher-cost paints have better-quality ingredients, which help ensure long-term durability.
Hire a pro or DIY? Anyone can brush on paint. But doing an entire house is a big job. If you don't have patience for prep or a yen to climb ladders, hire it out.
How much care? When siding and trim look dingy, a wash with detergent, a scrub brush, and a garden hose can restore a paint job's good looks.
When to paint? The best time is when temperatures remain between 50 and 90 degrees and the humidity is low. In these conditions, paint should brush out and dry properly.
How long will it last? That depends on the paint and what it's applied to. Two coats of top-quality paint over primed wood might last 10 to 15 years. Two coats on stucco can hold up significantly longer.
Proportions vary, but the basic ingredients that go into most exterior paints remain the same.
Solvents: Quick-to-evaporate liquids keep binders and pigments in suspension.
Pigments: Powdered minerals and man-made colors give paint its hue and opacity.
Additives: They control dry time, leveling, and mildew, among other things.
Binders: These resins coalesce to form the paint film after the solvents evaporate.
Paints made with 100 percent acrylic resins rank as the best all around, but, as these three Benjamin Moore products show, the proportions of ingredients, coverage rates, and dry-film thicknesses can vary significantly. This information is found on technical data sheets (TDS), which all manufacturers provide at no cost online.
Decoding the Lingo:
Solids: All the resins and pigments left behind after the solvents evaporate. A higher solids ratio may indicate a good paint if its resins and pigments are of high quality.
Dry-film thickness: Each paint is formulated to attain a certain thickness, measured in mils, when brushed or rolled out. One mil is one-thousandth of an inch, about one-quarter the thickness of human hair.
Coverage: This number goes up as the film thickness goes down. Use it to calculate how much paint you need to buy.
VOCs: The abbreviation stands for volatile organic compounds—solvents that adversely affect our lungs and air quality. Federal regulations limit the amount of VOCs to 250 grams per liter in exterior flats and 380 in glossier coatings.
Shown: Exterior-grade acrylic paints have outstanding durability, whether applied to siding or trim. Similar to shown: Guacamole (siding) and Delicate White (trim) in Olympic Premium Exterior with DirtGuard Technology, about $20 per gallon; Olympic Paints & Stains
Type: 100 percent acrylic
Solids (by volume): 34.5 percent
Dry-film thickness: 1.3 mils
Coverage per gallon: 350 to 475 square feet
VOCs: 44 grams per liter
Price: about $40 per gallon
Type: 100 percent acrylic
Solids (by volume): 42 percent
Dry-film thickness: 1.9 mils
Coverage per gallon: 300 to 400 square feet
VOCs: 47 grams per liter
Price: about $40 per gallon
Type: 100 percent acrylic
Solids (by volume): 46 percent
Dry-film thickness: 2.1 to 2.9 mils
Coverage per gallon: 250 to 350 square feet
VOCs: 45 grams per liter
Price: about $65 per gallon
With the advent of easy-to-use water-based paints in the 1950s and greater restrictions on high-VOC solvents, the use of oil-based paints in the U.S. has been steadily shrinking. Even so, oils have a gloss, smoothness, dirt resistance, and hardness that no latex can match. So it still makes sense to use them in certain outdoor applications: doors, wrought iron, and trim, as well as details that will be touched, closely examined, or that deserve a standout shine. Oil's toughness also makes it ideal for porch floors.
Shown: Dusky Blue in Porch and Floor Enamel, about $65 per gallon; Benjamin Moore
Here are some specialty coatings to consider, and a few that deserve some extra caution.
No-fade paint: NeverFade (shown here, about $90 per gallon; NeverFade) contains Kynar Aquatec, a water-based resin guaranteed to resist UV degradation for 15 years. Must be applied by a company-certified contractor.
Natural paint: Linseed Paint (about $160 per 0.85 gallon; Solvent Free Paint) has no solvents, petroleum, VOCs, or toxic ingredients. Three coats should last 50 years. Made from an age-old recipe using only boiled linseed oil and ground-up minerals.
Waterborne oil: Eco (about $50 per liter; Fine Paints of Europe) is an oil paint you clean up with soap and water. More flexible and fade resistant than regular oils but not as smooth. Not for use on porch floors.
Gelled oil: In the can, Trim & Door (about $20 per quart; Glidden) has the consistency of mousse, so it won't drip, yet it levels out to a beautiful, even shine.
Self-priming paint: It's sold as a step-saver, but then it might take more coats to get the right opacity and sheen. About $25 per gallon from various manufacturers.
Liquid-vinyl siding: This thick coating, sprayed on by a pro, is warranted for 25 years or more, depending on the franchise that applies it. At $3.50 to $5 per square foot, it's double the cost of a professional paint job.
Solid-color stain: Sold widely as an easy-to-apply coating with a perfectly flat sheen. Forms a thin film that allows underlying texture to show through, but it's not as durable as paint. About $30 per gallon from various manufacturers.
Any coating that goes over brick, stone, or stucco has to allow water vapor to pass through it. That's why oil-based finishes must be avoided; they trap moisture, wreak havoc on mortar, and quickly fail. Choose one of these three options instead.
Acrylic: High-end house paints (above, over brick) do allow moisture to escape but need an alkali-resistant primer to protect them from cement's high pH. Similar to shown: Stellar 249 in C5200, about $60 per gallon; C2 Paint.
Lime: An ancient coating formula of slaked quicklime and mineral pigments gives masonry a rich, old-world look. Its velvety finish wears off easily and needs to be reapplied about every five years. Products such as Pit Lime Paint (starting at about $50 per gallon; Unearthed Paints) can be ordered online.
Mineral: Instead of resins and solvents, mineral paints, such as Quartz Guard (about $90 per gallon; LimeWorks.us), use silicates, which chemically bond to masonry to form a completely breathable, extremely durable skin. Two coats should last 50 years.
A paint's gloss, or lack of it, is not just about aesthetics. It also affects how a paint performs and, therefore, where it's applied.
1. Satin/eggshell: Best for siding because it's a low-reflective finish that's good at hiding surface imperfections. It has a slight gloss, so it stays cleaner, is more easily washed, and stands up to abrasion better than flat or matte paints.
2. Semigloss: This shinier sheen is easier to clean, more durable, and more moisture resistant than a satin or eggshell paint. Best for trim, particularly on windowsills, which take the brunt of the weather.
3. High gloss: This resin-rich formula is resilient and dirt-repellent, and adds richness and depth to colors. It also magnifies surface imperfections and requires skillful application. Use it sparingly; best for shutters, doors, and surfaces you touch or come in close proximity to.
Similar to shown: Serious Gray (siding), Extra White (trim), and Wild Current (shutters) in Duration, about $70 per gallon; Sherwin-Williams
To calculate how many gallons you need for siding, measure and add up each wall's total square footage, including windows and doors, and divide by 90 percent of the coverage rate printed on the can. For trim paint, use the equation at left.
Peeling or flaking paint must be removed. On houses built after 1978, you can attack it with sanders, scrapers, or chemicals, as well as with heat, using a device like the Speedheater Infrared Paint Remover (about $600, Eco Strip), shown.
But on a pre-1978 house, the paint could contain lead, and heedlessly assaulting it will be harmful to you, your family, and your property.
When in doubt, test the paint, either with LeadCheck swabs, available at home centers, or by sending a sample to a lab, such as PRO-LAB.
If the results are positive, your safest option is to hire a contractor who is trained and EPA certified in proper paint-removal procedures. (To find a pro in your area, go to U.S. EPA.)
Taking care of lead paint on a house is a pricey process, but there are no shortcuts when dealing with this toxin.
Paint adheres best to clean, dry, sound surfaces. First, wash siding and trim to remove dirt and mildew, then scrape and sand loose paint down to the substrate or a smooth base layer. (Warning: If you suspect lead paint, see "Safe stripping," previous.) Replace or repair rotted or broken siding or trim. Fill holes or divots, and caulk open joints.
Primer grips the surface and gives it a uniform porosity. Use primer over unpainted wood siding or a chalky surface. It's not needed over sound paint. For best results, stick with primers labeled "exterior" or "interior/exterior." All oil-based primers and some water-based ones stop "bleeding" of red cedar and redwood. Coat knots with a pigmented shellac, such as BIN.
Stay in the shade as much as possible. Start at the top and work down. Do the siding before tackling the trim. But if a wall is mostly trim, as shown at right, paint that first. Keep a wet edge as you work to avoid leaving lap marks. Postpone painting if heavy rain is likely within 6 to 8 hours after paint is applied.
Pro Advice: "If spray painting, always back-brush or roll the wet paint immediately after it's applied. By doing this, you'll ensure that the paint is the correct thickness and is worked into every corner, nook, and cranny." —Rich O'Neil, Masterwork Painting & Restoration
Use your house and its surroundings as your guide.
House: Pick complements to colors that already exist on your home, such as a honey hue on a cedar-shingle roof, red on a brick foundation, or gray on a stone stoop.
Neighborhood: Survey your block. Painting your house a tropical turquoise among a sea of gray and beige will make it stand out—in a bad way. A muted blue or green would be a better fit but still distinguish it.
Landscape: Play off nature. A light green, for instance, might be just the ticket for a property thick with trees and sun-dappled shade, while a dusky ocher would complement the sun-scorched deserts of the southwest.
Weather: The farther south you go, the more intense the sun. So use bright, saturated colors that won't appear washed out in the harsh light. In wintry northern climates, where the landscape is leafless and the sky is gray for much of the year, cooler hues prevail.
Use a varied palette to call out your home's best assets or to help create interest on otherwise plain facades. Here's how:
Consider the components. Think of your home as the sum of three parts: the body (siding), the trim (window and door casings, fascias), and the movable elements (windows, doors, and shutters). Give each part its own color. Entry doors in a separate accent color add drama to the facade.
Highlight levels and textures. A change in siding from clapboards on the first floor to shingles on the second or in the gables, for instance, is an invitation to introduce another body color. Accent colors can also play up banding, half-timbering, and other decorative trim, such as the turnings on the eaves brackets seen above.
Make good use of darks and lights. Dark colors are perceived as weighty, so they work well on a foundation or a lower story to anchor a house to the ground. Lighter hues on an upper story draw the eye up and set off the roof and its shaded eaves.
Go online. Using paint-company color selectors, upload a shot of your house, then drag and drop swatches to create a desirable scheme. But before you invest in gallons, brush sample colors on primed 2-by-2-foot medium-density fiberboard panels and view them against each side of the house to make sure you're happy with the hues.
This exuberant late-19th-century style made full use of the earthy color choices newly available in mass-produced paints.
Shown: Georgian Brick (second-floor siding), Monterey White (third-floor siding and porch trim), and Fairview Taupe (window and rake trim) in Aura Waterborne Exterior, about $65 per gallon; Benjamin Moore
This distinctly Southern architectural style favors fancy trim and colors such as tan, gray, and white, set off by dark shutters.
Shown: Spun Gold (siding), Cinema Screen (trim), LaFonda Geranium Red (shutters), and Surf Spray (porch ceiling) in Duramax Exterior, about $40 per gallon; Valspar
This simple house style from the first third of the 20th century is characterized by bold trim and architectural details, such as eaves brackets. At the time, body colors tended to be muted autumnal shades of brown, green, and gray.
Similar to shown: Thomas Point Light (siding), Antique White (trim), and Peach Clay (windows and brackets) in Glidden Exterior; about $20–$40 per gallon; Glidden
Pastel siding with light trim predominates, in keeping with the serene demeanor of this restrained, classically influenced style.
Similar to shown: Calla (siding), Ultra Pure White (trim), and Congo (shutters) in Behr Premium Plus Ultra, about $33–$36 per gallon; BEHR
This offshoot of Colonial-style architecture from the 18th century is often painted with bold reds, oranges, and yellows, not just white.
Similar to shown: Redrock Canyon (siding), Post War White (trim), and Winter Balsam (shutters) in Fresh-Coat Exterior, about $40 per gallon; California Paints