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5 Tips for Painting Wood Paneling Like a Pro

Wood paneling can make a space feel dark, cramped and dated. Painting wood paneling is an easy DIY project that can brighten up a room instantly! Here are my tips for tackling this home improvement project like a pro!

painted wood paneling with before image and text overlay

Rustic wood paneling is all the rage in home decor lately, but this trend is nothing new. The 70's were filled with wood covered walls that we now see as dated and dull. Today, I'm sharing my tips for painting wood paneling to brighten up a space and make it feel more modern!

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My workshop was previously a garage, and the walls are covered with dark tongue-and-groove wood paneling. Over the years, I've tried covering up as much of it as I could.

I created a whiteboard wall behind the lumber rack on one side . . .

wood paneled wall covered with white board on half

I hung the "white tarp of doom and mystery" from the ceiling joists on the other side to protect stored items from getting covered with sawdust. It also covers up the unfinished exterior wall.

white tarp covering part of a room

I even slapped some extra OSB onto the exposed studs when I installed my new wall mount dust collector in the corner.

wall mount dust collector hanging on wall from z bracket

But the back wall is covered with various ducts and pipes, making it impossible to cover up with boards or tarps. This end of the workshop houses my miter saw stand and a few shelves, which get covered in sawdust despite the miter saw dust hood I made.

wood paneling before painting

I wanted to give this area an overhaul and add some cabinet storage instead of open shelves. But while I had all the shelves down and the miter saw stand pulled away from the wall, I figured it was time to brighten it up! Here are my tips for painting wood paneling like a pro!

Materials Needed for Painting Wood Paneling

How to Paint Wood Paneling

Sand and Patch Holes

I hate sanding as much as anyone, but it really does make a huge difference! If your wood paneling was stained and finished with a protective top coat, paint won't stick to it properly. You can read more about my tips for painting over polyurethane or varnish here. Giving the wood paneling a quick sanding will rough up the smooth surface.

My workshop used to be a garage, and I'm pretty sure the tongue and groove boards are original to the 1946 house. It was beat up, and had exhaust stains on the lower boards from decades of parked cars.

dark wood paneling

I used a corner cat sander to sand off all the soot and bring back the natural wood. The triangular shape makes it easier to get into the grooves.

sanding wood paneling for painting

For the less damaged areas, I used a soft sanding sponge with an angled edge. Just a few quick passes with the corner in the groove cleaned them right up!

sanding wood paneling with angled edge of a sanding sponge

If your paneling is a thin veneer instead of solid wood, you may want to try deglosser rather than sanding. Sanding too aggressively may result in bare spots where the wood no longer exists! I used deglosser before painting my melamine kitchen cabinets, and it helped the paint stick onto the slick surface.

After sanding, apply wood filler or spackle to any nail holes or scratches. The more meticulous you are about filling in imperfections now, the better your final result will be!

filling nail holes in wood paneling before painting

Clean the Walls

All that sanding will create a thin haze of sawdust on the walls. Use your vacuum or shop vac to loosen up the hidden dust and suck it all away!

vacuum attachment sucking dust off of wood paneling

If your walls are particularly dirty, like mine, you'll want to give them a quick wipe down as well. I mixed up a batch of TSP solution in a bucket and used a sponge mitt to clean every crack and crevice. It was amazing how much grime came off in just a few swipes!

cleaning wood paneling with TSP

I've used TSP for cleaning everything from a tile floor before painting to our aluminum siding. I'm always amazed at how well this powerful cleaner works! Make sure you wear gloves, because the degreasing agents will suck all the oils right out of your hands!

Let the wood paneling dry completely before breaking out the paint brush. I pointed a high powered fan at it for a few hours and it was good to go.

Apply a Shellac Based Primer

Trust me, not just any old primer will hide away this dark wood paneling! Tannins will bleed through any water-based primer and turn your white walls orange in no time!

While any oil-based primer can stop tannin bleedthrough, it can take for-e-ver to dry. I like using a shellac based primer like Zinsser B-I-N instead because it dries fast and hides stains and dark colors easily!

You'll want to use both a brush and a roller for the best coverage. I used the HANDy Paint Tray with a disposable liner to make it easier to switch between tools. Start by pouring the primer into the tray.

pouring primer into HANDy paint tray

Use a brush to get the primer into the grooves between the boards. Work in small sections, because this stuff dries fast! I would use the brush on two or three boards at a time.

applying shellac-based primer to wood paneling with a paint brush

The magnet on the end of the HANDy Paint Tray holds a paint brush at just the right height to let excess primer drip back into the tray while you switch to the roller.

HANDy Paint tray holding white paint and paint brush

I chose a smaller 4" roller that is the same width as the flat part of the boards. If your paneling is made of thinner boards, a wider 9" roller will help cover more surface area while minimizing drips along the edges.

HANDy Paint Tray used for painting wood paneling

This wall paneling was so dry, it sucked up the first coat of primer instantly! You could literally see it disappear into the wood. It took two coats to get decent coverage.

rolling primer onto wood paneling

Caulk any Gaps

Some people prefer to caulk before paint or primer, but I like to wait until the last coat of primer is dry. It makes it much easier to see the gaps and cracks, because they stick out like a sore thumb with all that white!

Caulk will help to seal any gaps or cracks between the boards while still allowing for seasonal wood movement. When the air is dry, paneling contracts slightly. Then when the humidity rises, the boards can expand and reveal the original colored wood in the cracks. We're in our dry summer period right now, and I don't want to see stripes of dark brown when the rain starts up again!

Cut the tip off a tube of paintable caulk, then place it in a caulk gun. Run a thin bead along each seam. You can learn more about how to use a caulk gun here.

caulking gap in wood paneling before painting

I like to use a wet shop towel (they have less lint than regular paper towels) to smooth out the line with my fingertip. 

smoothing caulk line between boards of wood paneling before painting

Apply Two Coats of Paint

The last step of painting wood paneling is the latex paint. I had an older gallon of white paint that I wanted to use up (am I the only one who hates storing half empty paint cans?)

I still had the primer sitting in the HANDy Paint Tray from yesterday, and it had dried rock hard. Luckily, I used one of the disposable liners, so all I had to do was lift it up and throw it away! Cleaning up is the worst part of painting (in my opinion), and I forget to do it all.the.time. Anything that saves me that step is a winner in my book!

removing paint tray liner for easy clean up after painting wood paneling

Repeat the same technique as the priming step. Use the paint brush to get into the cracks and gaps, then roll on the flat surfaces. Keep the brush handy to catch any drips!

rolling on the last coat of paint on the wood paneling

I did two coats to ensure no dark wood color ever saw the light of day again. 🙂 It's amazing how painting over wood paneling instantly makes it feel more modern without hiding the character!

white painted wood paneling

Check out these other painting tips!

5 Tips for Painting Wood Paneling like a Pro