How to Paint Wood Paneling

Wood paneling is easy to paint if you follow good surface preparation procedures. Removing the paneling can be a big job. The paneling may be glued to the drywall underneath it and the drywall underneath it may not be finished very well. The thought of just tearing out the paneling is enough to make many homeowners decide to simply leave it in place and paint over it. Paneling is painted over all the time and it looks good when painted, so if the thought of tearing out , patching the drywall and finishing it doesn’t appeal to you – there is nothing wrong with leaving it in place and painting it.

Surface preparation:

The universal rule of surface preparation is: “Clean – Dull – Dry”.

Lead paint note:

Do not sand or scour (with a scouring pad), or in any way abrade or disturb the paneling varnish or clear coat finish if your house was built prior to 1978. Lead was banned (in America) for use in residential paints and varnishes in 1978. Do not proceed any further if your house was built prior to 1978 – it would be best to let a trained and qualified professional do the work instead. To learn more about the hazards of lead in paints and coatings see EPA’s lead page:


Extremely important to the painting of paneling is the cleaning of it. There may be layers of “Pledge” and residues from various cleaning solutions, and perhaps a bit of “grime” and dirt from years of service.

A good cleaning solution for cleaning the paneling is called “Krud Kutter”. As the name implies, it is designed for cutting and removing all sorts of “krud”. I use the spray bottle version of this and spray it on and let it “dwell” on the surface for five minutes or so to give it a chance to work, then wipe it off with the “Shop Towel” type of heavy duty paper towels. I also use a scouring pad in conjunction with the Krud Kutter (on homes built after 1978 only). The procedure is as follows: Spray on the Krud Kutter, allow it to dwell five minutes or so, then scour the wet surface with the scouring pad, then wipe it off. I work in small 4′ x 4′ sections and work my way around the room this way. You will need to protect all electrical outlets and switches with duct tape to prevent them from the Krud Kutter ( You should also turn the electrical power off to the room while doing the cleaning to prevent accidental electrical shock ), Also cover up any light fixtures etc.. with plastic and duct tape to waterproof them.

Clean all the paneling as described above and when you are finished, go back and re-clean it a second time. Seriously, I always clean the paneling completely – twice, that way you know it is clean and you did not miss any spots. Cleaning is probably the most important step in preparing the paneling for painting.


After the cleaning is done, allow the paneling to dry out. Once dry, you may proceed to priming the paneling. Priming is important to ensure adhesion to the paneling and to block any staining that may occur. The best primer for paneling are the solvent types of universal stain blocking and bonding primers. You can either use shellac or oil (alkyd ) primer for this purpose – Zinsser’s BIN or Coverstain work well for priming paneling.

Test the adhesion first before priming the whole room

The purpose of testing first before priming all the paneling is to ensure that the paneling was cleaned well enough and that there will be no adhesion problems down the road – before proceeding any further.

How to test adhesion

The way to test adhesion is to do a cross cut tape test. You will want to check a variety of spots throughout the room with the tape test.

Apply the primer to the paneling in small 4″ square patches and allow them to dry and cure overnight. The next day you will come back and using a razor knife cut a “tick – tack – toe” cross hatch cut into the primer. After the primer is cross cut , apply a piece of masking tape (regular masking tape – not the easy release type) or duct tape over the cross cuts and rub it down. Then take the duct tape and pull it off sharply. If the paint pulls off – you will need to further clean and perhaps pole sand with fine (220 grit ) sandpaper to get the paneling ready for painting. Test all the spots the same way. If the adhesion passes ( I.e. the primer did not pull off with the tape ) then you are ready to proceed with total priming of the whole room.

Tinting the primer

You may tint the primer to approximate or match the finish paint color. Both BIN and Coverstain can be tinted with universal colorants ( up to 2 ounces per gallon) to come close or match the finish color. Tinting the primer acts as a first coat and makes finish painting easier to cover or hide the underlying paneling. Ask the paint store that you purchase the primer from about tinting it.


Once the paneling is cleaned and primed you may paint it in any latex (or oil if you wish) paint that you desire. The finish painting is the easy part. Use a ¾ inch roller nap to help with pushing the paint into the paneling grooves. The best way to do this is to roll the paint on and then with light pressure “lay it off” to smooth it out and minimize roller texture.