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How to paint paneling and avoid expensive renovations

If you’re living in a home with unsightly paneling on the walls, it’s time for a change. Depending on the material of the panels, this style can look dated and will often clash with your design style, creating a disjointed room that certainly won’t wow your guests. Instead of removing all that paneling in a full, extensive renovation, save some time and money with a quick and easy paint job.

white painted wood paneling on wall
poligonchik / Adobe Stock

Why not remove the paneling?

Removing your old paneling isn’t as easy as pulling apart the pieces to reveal a solid wall in prime condition. More often, the underlying wall will be unfinished, and removing the panels may create even more damage that requires a costly renovation to repair. Even if the wall behind the panels is in good condition, the process of removing the panels is time-consuming and labor-intensive, particularly if they’re glued to it. In this instance, you’ll need to use a heat gun to loosen the adhesive and gently pull off each panel individually. Then, you have to wash, sand, and lightly repair the wall with putty, patching, or new drywall. Only then can you prime and paint the walls.

Of course, if the paneling is extensively damaged, painting over it won’t do much good. In this case, a deeper renovation may be necessary.

Start by gathering a few tools of the trade

To paint your sad-looking panels, you’ll need a few tools. You can find these inexpensive items at most home improvement and hardware stores.

  • Clean cloth or rag
  • Fan(s)
  • Wood putty
  • Putty knife
  • Sandpaper (100-150 grit)
  • Caulk gun
  • Floor coverings and painter’s tape
  • Paint primer and paint
  • Paint rollers/brushes
  • Any tools required to remove and replace trim
Agnes Kantaruk / Shutterstock

How to paint paneling

Step 1: Clean paneling thoroughly

If the paneling looks fairly clean, use a damp cloth to clean the surface. Wipe away any dust, dirt, cobwebs, and any other grime, paying special attention to the creases and crevices. Be sure the paneling dries thoroughly before moving on to the next step. To help the drying process, increase airflow by opening the windows and setting up oscillating fans.

Step 2: Repair small damages

If your paneling is fairly old, there may be slight damage to the surface area. Grab some wood filler or putty and fill in any scratches, nicks, or nail holes with a putty knife. Try to make the surface of the filled area as flat and flush as possible with the rest of the surface. Let the putty dry thoroughly, then sand the filled area to make it completely smooth.

Step 3: Sand the paneling surface

Lightly sand the entire surface of the paneling, just enough to remove the top layer of sheen. Once sanded, give the paneling another wipe-down with a damp cloth and let it dry completely.

Step 4: Temporarily pull off the trim

If you want to paint the trim around your paneling, keep it where it is. However, to make the trim an accent color that’s different from the rest of the panels, pull it off temporarily to prevent any paint from dripping onto it. Place it on a tarp to paint separately.

Step 5: Use caulk on gaps and cracks

If your paneling is particularly old or cheap, you may notice spaces where it’s pulling away from the wall or trim. Use a caulk gun to fill in those gaps and cracks. If the gap is significant, consult an expert about reattaching it to the wall more securely.

Step 6: Put down protective sheets and tape

Prep your painting area by laying protective sheets or plastic on the ground and across any furniture, then apply painter’s tape to the edges of surfaces that you don’t intend to paint, like the baseboards. Then, set up a large workstation nearby to organize your paint and supplies.

Step 7: Apply primer

Using a paint roller and primer brush, apply a coat of primer to the entire surface and in between all the crevices. Take the brush and remove any drips or pooling in the cracks of the paneling so the surface is smooth and flawless. Let the first coat of paint dry completely before applying the second.

Step 8: Paint the paneling

Apply the first layer of paint using a roller and brush, starting at the highest point of the paneling and working your way down.

Step 9: Prepare, paint, and reinstall the trim

Repeat the process for the trim by cleaning, sanding, repairing, priming, and painting it. Allow it to dry completely before reinstalling it.

Just because your paneling is dated, scratched, or downright ugly, you don’t need to go through the hassle of removing it and renovating the wall behind it. Painting your wall’s paneling can give your room the breath of life it needs, all without the cost and effort of a full renovation.

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Veronica Sparks
Veronica Sparks is a writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who loves writing about gardening, home décor, and DIY life. She’s…
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