How to Paint Wood Paneling Without Sanding

Wood paneling can look dark, dated, and dingy. But a fresh coat of paint will brighten the entire room and have your home feeling fresh and new. 

You might think painting wood paneling would require hours of hard work sanding the surface. Good news: you can paint wood paneling without sanding!

Wood paneling trends come and go—shiplap, beadboard, tongue, and groove, and other types have enjoyed their moments. However, the undisputed golden age of wood paneling was the 1970s. For some reason, nearly every starter home from that time required a living room or den with glossy, fake wood paneling covering the walls. 

These instructions will work for any type of wood paneling, but they’re written with that thin, shiny 1970s wood paneling in mind. Get ready to love your walls!

High gloss finishes need high paint adhesion. So before you go this route, make sure you know the risks. Skipping the sanding might mean your walls can’t stand up to scuffing as well as they could if you spent hours sanding them. However, in our opinion, the rewards of this method usually outweigh the risks, especially if you use a flat or eggshell paint for your topcoat, which makes touchup work easy and practical.

Want to give it a try? This is the way to do it right.

As with any painting job, you’ll begin with a few prep steps:
  • Remove any nails, screws, or wall plates
  • Use spackling or putty to fill holes. No need to fill the lines between the wood panels—you might be surprised how nice they’ll look once they’re painted
  • Use painter’s tape to mask the borders of the area you plan to paint
  • Lay a drop cloth on the floor against the wall you plan to paint
Now let’s get to the fun stuff!

Step 1: Clean the Surface with TSP Solution

Walls collect dirt and oil that can be hard to see. Yuck! If the paint is going to stick to that glossy wood paneling, we need to make sure it’s clean.
  1. Use a Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) solution to clean the wood paneling. Mix the TSP in a bowl according to the directions on the label, then use a sponge to gently scrub the walls
  2. Dampen a sponge or rag with clean water, then wipe the walls clean
  3. Allow the surface to dry completely. Be sure those porous cracks between the wood panels have plenty of time to dry! This could take 12 hours or even longer if humidity is high and air circulation is low

Step 2: Apply Oil-Based Stain-Blocking Primer to the Paneling

Water-based primer will not work for wood paneling! We recommend oil-based primer. Remember, you can’t clean oil-based paint and primer with water—you have to use mineral spirits to clean the brushes, rollers, paint drips, and especially your hands. We recommend dampening the corner of a rag with mineral spirits and keeping it nearby in case you drip the oil-based primer somewhere it doesn’t belong.

Warning: Oil-based primer fumes are dangerous! Make sure your room is well ventilated!
  1. Prime the lines. Roll the primer onto the wall using a roller pad with a ½ inch to ¾ inch nap. The heavier roller pad will make it easy to get primer down into the cracks between wood panels. If your roller won’t get the primer into the cracks, use a brush to dab paint into them, then lightly brush or roll over the surface to remove any drips
  2. Once the primer has covered the lines well, use the same roller to cover the entire wall with primer. If you notice drip lines forming on the wall or in the cracks, lightly roll over them until the primer has covered the entire wall with a smooth coat. Don’t skimp on the primer...cover those walls with a nice thick coat. Let the first coat dry and, if necessary, give it another coat

Step 3: Apply Paint to the Paneling

Finally, you’re ready for the most satisfying step: applying paint! Remember, oil-based primer can take just about any type of topcoat. We recommend latex paint with a flat or eggshell finish.
  1. Make sure the primer coat is dry and is completely covering the paneling. The light color of the primer may reveal nail holes you missed the first time. Fill them with a paintable wood fill or spackling
  2. Apply latex paint to the wall. Latex paint is easy to clean with water. We recommend an eggshell or flat finish so you can come back and touch up scuffs without repainting the entire wall

Step 4: Enjoy!

Remove the masking tape, replace the outlet covers, and enjoy your painted wood paneling! You’ll feel even better knowing you didn’t spend hours sanding!

Repainting your wood paneling is a DIY job that gives a high return on investment. This weekend you can take your dark, dated wood paneling from blah to ahh. But, if you live in our area, we’d be happy to give a free, zero-obligation estimate. Whether you’re short on time or motivation, you can reach out, and we’ll give your wood paneling the professional treatment while you relax!

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