After more than 30 hours of research, talking to eight professional painters across the country with a combined 152 years of experience, and considering over 55 interior paints, we would choose Benjamin Moore Regal Select for our own interior painting needs. Half of the painters we spoke to named Regal Select specifically as the high-quality paint of choice that they use and would recommend to their friends and family. Given that there are nearly 60 interior latex paints available from the major brands, this kind of consensus is impressive.
Our painters like Regal Select for its coverage, durability, cleanability, and color selection. Unlike some other popular paints, Regal Select is only available at dedicated paint retailers and smaller hardware stores, where our painters feel more comfortable with the expertise behind the counter. This is particularly important if you’re looking to match an existing color or to get specific painting advice. At almost $50 a gallon at the time of writing, Regal Select isn’t cheap, but, like other high-end paints, it applies in fewer coats, looks better, and lasts longer than its cheaper competitors. The one thing we heard over and over from nearly every painter we spoke to was that “you get what you pay for.”
Regal Select is also an easy paint to work with, making it ideal for the non-pro. As part of this guide, we painted two rooms with it and were surprised at how easy it was to brush and roll. Because it’s a nice thick paint, it isn’t likely to run or splatter, and the end result was an even sheen with hardly any brushstrokes, far better than any low- to mid-level paint we’ve used.
If Regal Select isn’t available or is inconvenient to purchase, we also like Sherwin-Williams’s Cashmere. Two painters highly recommended it by name. Other painters who picked Regal Select as their first choice also spoke highly of Cashmere. According to the painters, it has many of the same strong characteristics as Regal Select. As one painter summed up, “it covers well and goes on easy.”
Paint is a long-term project by nature, and every room presents its own challenges, so we felt we’d get the best information possible by relying on the experience and expertise of professional painters rather than our own (or anyone else’s) short-term testing. Pro painters use paint on a daily basis and stake their reputations (and ability to make a living) on the paints that they use. The painters we spoke to all have at least a decade of experience under their belts and are well-reviewed locally; many of them are constantly testing out and trying new products. We could do all the lab testing in the world, but we’d never match these guys’ combined 152 years of painting experience.
Through our initial research, we found that without a thorough, inside-the-lab understanding of each paint’s specific recipe, comparing paints can only get you so far, because there is very little useful information provided by the manufacturers that can be used to differentiate between products. This problem is compounded by the sheer number of paints available. Just looking at offerings by Benjamin Moore, Behr, Sherwin Williams, and Valspar (the four biggies), there are at least 28 different interior latex paints currently available.
In the end we spoke to eight painters from around the country. They were:
We also interviewed Rick Watson, director of product information and technical services at Sherwin-Williams.
Lastly, I’m no stranger to paint. I spent ten years in high-end residential construction, often working closely with painting contractors. I also recently wrapped up my own four-year full gut and remodel of a 100-year-old farmhouse, a process that had me single-handedly painting or staining 100 percent of the interior (walls, ceiling, floors, and trim).
Lower-quality paints may seem good at the checkout lane, but over time, they’re just not worth it. As DuPont said, “paying a bit more for high-quality paint will go a long way in terms of less material usage, less labor and greater durability.” We would add that better paints are much easier to use, especially for the non-pro. Young’s advice is to use “the best quality paint available.” As he explained, “if we spend an extra $200 for paint, but the job lasts two or three years longer, you’re amortizing that $200 over several years and saving thousands by not having to repaint that much sooner.” Campbell made a similar remark: “better-quality paint will outlast the cheaper stuff by years, so you will not have to repaint as often.”
The economic benefits of high-quality paint can be seen up front as well. If you’re purchasing paint for a painter to use, the color blocking ability of a quality paint will be better, leading to fewer coats, less material to buy, and lower labor costs. As Campbell said, “spending that extra bit for a better grade will save you time in only having to apply one or two coats versus three or four.” Young told us that “[cheap paint] is much more water-like and covers poorly.” If you’re doing the painting yourself, a paint with better coverage leads to less time painting.
One thing we need to stress is that high-quality paint doesn’t take any kind of pro-level skill to use. In fact, it’s much easier to work with than budget paints, making it ideal for the inexperienced painter. Because good paints are generally thicker, they’re less likely to drip while brushing or splatter while rolling. In addition, high-quality paint dries a little slower, which is important because it gives the paint time to “level,” meaning that brush strokes are less visible with the finished product. Barter told us that the quick drying nature of cheaper paints, “leav[es] a poor transition between the brushstroke of the cut and the roll of the wall.” Young also said “[cheaper paints] tend to have poor workability; they can drag or stick while you’re applying them and they can sometimes easily run.”
The paints we researched ranged in price from $20 a gallon all the way up to $70 a gallon. Young explained that “$50 to $60 for a good paint is worth the investment in terms of longevity, quality of finish, and ease of workmanship.” Apparently, many other painters agree with this, as three others we spoke to chose Benjamin Moore’s Regal Select (typically just under $50 per gallon) as their paint of choice. Our runner-up paint, Sherwin-Williams’s Cashmere, was also mentioned by a number of painters, though it costs slightly more than Regal Select.
There’s no question that this is a decent chunk of change, but our painters told us that there are ways to potentially lessen the costs. Campbell’s advice is to “search for coupons before purchasing the paint. Many times you can get it at a discounted price.”1 He also said that, “if you’re part of a homeowner’s association, just ask the clerk if there is a discount for this and sometimes you will be able to get the paint at 15 to 20 percent off list price.” Young also recommends looking out for sales and mentioned that “sometimes you can find ‘paint mistakes’ at your retailer. The color wasn’t done right, so you can usually buy them for half price.” Obviously, this may not work for a living room where a specific color is needed, but it might be an inexpensive way to paint a garage or some other utility space.
Through our discussions with the eight painters and our additional research, we found that a good paint has a 100-percent acrylic binder and a high-percent volume of solids. Our painters were also nearly unanimous in recommending that paint be purchased at a specialty paint retailer or a smaller hardware store due to the level of employee expertise and the consistency of the service.
The easiest thing to look for in a paint (and the only useful information found on the can) is that it has a 100-percent acrylic binder. The binder is the ingredient that holds everything together, and a high-quality one will provide better adhesion, resistance to cleaners, and overall durability. Family Handyman even refers to a 100-percent acrylic binder as “the most important thing to know” when buying paint. Young told us that “anything less [than 100-percent acrylic] means inferior quality.” Campbell said that he looks for paints “with good coverage and good hiding ability, which are typically your 100-percent acrylic paints.” Binders to avoid include vinyl acrylic and vinyl copolymer.
A second important aspect to note is called the percent volume solids. This is the percentage that each can has of solids, meaning the non-solvent portion—the part that’s left on the wall once the paint dries.2 Through our interviews and research, we found that most consistent paints measure in the high-30-percent to high-40-percent range.3 As a Family Handyman article on high-quality paint points out, “a higher percentage of solids means a thicker paint film, better hiding and greater durability.“ (The highest volume solids we found is in Benjamin Moore’s ultra-premium Aura line (matte finish) at 47.5 percent, but as outlined below (see “The Competition“) it’s often not worth the premium price of about $70 a gallon.4)
The overwhelming opinion that we heard from our painters is that buying paint from a paint store or a smaller hardware store is the way to go. We were told that not only is the level of service more consistent and knowledgeable than at a box store, but that specialty stores typically keep a record of your purchases and specific colors, so if a color match is needed in the future, it should be on file. As Young told us, “working with your local retailer offers you consistent service and the ability to easily obtain more if you run out.” Barter pointed out that at a box store “you never know who you’re going to get from one day to the next.”
DuPont explained another reason to use a paint store is for the color matching. For pre-mixed colors, it doesn’t make a difference—“the computer makes the formula”—but matching an existing color is a different story. As he told us, “you want someone who is experienced when it comes to color-matching. That skill takes years to be good at.” In fact, Barter said that even at his specialty paint store, he has preferences among the employees as to who does his color matching.
Many people have heard that they should buy low- or zero-VOC paint, due to concerns over off-gassing during the drying process. We’ve learned, however, that a “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC” label on a paint can doesn’t tell you anything about offgassing.
VOCs, or “volatile organic compounds,” are materials with a high vapor pressure (they evaporate easily at room temperature) and low water solubility. Many are manmade, and they are common in the manufacturing of paint, among other things. According to the EPA, VOCs “include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects.” We discovered the reality is that a paint’s “low-” or “zero-” VOC designation actually has nothing to do with indoor air quality. According to an article by USG (a producer and distributor of construction materials) called the VOC Emissions Certificate of Compliance, the test used to determine paint VOCs (EPA’s Method 24) only applies to the manufacturing process and the paint while it’s in its liquid state and thus has no relationship to the outgassing that occurs while the paint is drying. The article states that “many products that have low content (emissions during manufacturing) have high VOC emissions during installation and application life.”
Echoing this is a UL white paper entitled, “Paint Volatile Organic Compound Emissions and Volatile Organic Compound Content Comparison Study” (.pdf) which states “that paint VOC content should not be used as a proxy for paint VOC emissions into indoor air, as there is no correlation between the two measures.” In addition, the UL paper notes that the EPA’s VOC test is centered around outdoor air quality and only VOCs that create ozone. It is “not designed to address the impact on the indoor environment and do not address the emissions of specific compounds with known health impacts.” In fact, the EPA has no authority to regulate indoor air quality at all.
We did find that at least two major brands, Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams, send many of their paints through additional independent testing to ensure lowered emissions during the drying stage. Still, it makes sense, even if for odor alone, to paint in a well-ventilated room.
After talking to eight pro painters and analyzing the stats of over 55 different interior latex paints, we recommend the 100-percent acrylic Benjamin Moore Regal Select for interior paint needs. Half the professional painters mentioned it by name as their top choice (and the one they would recommend to their own family and friends). Given that the four major paint brands (Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams, Behr, and Valspar) have at least 28 different interior latex paints, this level of consensus is impressive. According to our painters, Regal Select flows well, has an even sheen, and is widely available at quality paint retailers and hardware stores. As Barter told us, “I’ve gone through a wide range of products and I’m down to Benjamin Moore.”
The one element of Regal Select that the painters consistently called out is how easy it is to work with. Davis told us that “it handles well and covers really well.” Barter echoed this, saying that Regal Select “flows nicely and leaves a nice even sheen.” According to DuPont, “we’ve used some Valspar and Behr over the years and it doesn’t seem to have the same flow as Benjamin Moore.” Speaking of Benjamin Moore paints in general, DuPont told us that “their paint seems to brush smoother than most and splatters less when we roll it,” he continued, “[Regal Select] is ground finer, brushes better and has less drag than other paints we have used.”
Young, who also recommended Regal Select to us, said the interior designers that he works with “love Benjamin Moore because of the big palette.” On the jobs where he works hand in hand with designers, he said that “80 percent of the time, it’s Benjamin Moore.” The rest, he said, are various boutique paints. We asked Benjamin Moore about Regal Select’s color palette and they told us that “the paint is available in thousands of colors which include all Benjamin Moore’s color collections except Color Stories, which is only available in Aura [their ultra-premium paint].” This includes many historical colors as well as more contemporary ones (and nearly everything in between).
Regal Select is available in flat, matte, eggshell, pearl, and semi-gloss. Davis said that his standard is to use pearl for trim and matte for walls. DuPont told us his go-to is Regal Select Eggshell.
Once our painters made their selections, I painted two rooms with Regal Select and, as someone who has spent a lot of time using low and mid-level paints, was stunned at how easy Regal Select was to work with and how nice the results came out. The paint didn’t drip at all, which was something I was constantly chasing with the lower-quality paints that I’ve used. There was also no splattering on the baseboard, chair rail or floor, a constant frustration with other paints. Regal Select was thick enough that it gave me plenty of time to catch any blobs or streaks, and it rolled on much smoother than other paints I’ve used. The end result was fantastic. It was clearly the best paint job I’ve ever done—and the one that took the least amount of effort.
Regal Select is listed as a “zero-VOC” paint, which, as noted above, only has to do with the paint manufacturing in its liquid state and has nothing to do with the paint’s actual emissions. To address this point, Regal Select is part of Benjamin Moore’s Green Promise program, an internal testing system that “incorporates the most comprehensive environmental testing standards in the industry.” This includes tests that cover VOC emissions (indoor offgassing), general prohibition of air pollutants, general prohibition of confirmed carcinogens, and general prohibition of suspected carcinogens, among a number of other tests.
We also found Benjamin Moore’s website to be helpful with color selection. A number of resources are provided, including a phone app that will match the color of anything that you photograph, so if you see a flower with just the right yellow, you should be able to get a color match. There is also a Personal Color Viewer that lets you upload a picture of a room and “paint” it online to see how it looks in different colors.
From our research, we got the sense that Benjamin Moore’s “ben” line of paint can be looked at as Regal Select’s little brother. It’s less expensive, but Barter tells us that Regal Select offers better coverage. This isn’t surprising, as the volume solids of ben are in the 30s, while Regal Select’s are in the low 40s.
At about $47 a gallon, Regal Select may not be the most expensive paint around, but it’s firmly in the upper tier of pricing. It’s more expensive than the high-end Behr paint (the $42 Marquee) and all other Benjamin Moore paints except for Aura, which sells for about $70 per gallon. Sherwin-Williams has a number of paints that typically sell in the $50 to $70 range. There’s no question that Regal Select is an investment.
According to Benjamin Moore, a gallon offers about 400-450 square feet of one-coat coverage. For one room in my own project, I painted 286 square feet with two coats and have just under half of a can left. If painting a 12 by 12 room with eight-foot ceilings (with no doors or windows), you’ll cover a total of 384 square feet. For two coats, that would be under two gallons.
But, as we explained above, we feel that it’s an investment worth making. Regal Select is a 100-percent acrylic paint with high solids, and a large number of polled professional painters stand behind it and let it represent them and their companies. The pitfalls of choosing an inexpensive paint are numerous and all end poorly: the paint starts peeling, it doesn’t adequately block the previous wall color, it leaves big drips, or it takes four coats instead of two. The sticker shock may be there, but as our experts were nearly unanimous in telling us, in the long run, a more expensive paint will be worth it.
If Regal Select isn’t readily available in your area, we also like Sherwin-Williams Cashmere. This was the second-most-mentioned paint from our survey of painters, with two of them recommending it above all others. Also, a number of the painters who chose Regal Select mentioned Cashmere as another paint they like and trust. At about $52 per gallon at the time of writing, it’s a little pricier than Regal Select, but Campbell told us “it’s a top-end paint, so it’s a little more costly, but it’s worth it.”
From what our painters told us, Cashmere shares many of the same characteristics as Regal Select. Berry, who called it an “amazing” paint, said that “the sheen is awesome, it levels out amazing and is good on splattering.” Young, who also likes it, called it an “excellent-quality paint that covers well and goes on easy.” Campbell also told us it “has a washable finish, which is great for wiping down fingerprints or even crayon marks.”
Although we didn’t use it ourselves, we feel it’s likely to have the same easy workability as Regal Select. In their write-up, Sherwin-Williams refers to it as “our most forgiving paint,” which “offers outstanding coverage and is perfect for painters with limited experience.”
The volume solids statistics of Cashmere and Regal Select are very similar. Cashmere’s range from 38 percent to 41 percent (depending on sheen) and Regal Select’s from 40 percent to 43 percent.
Like the Benjamin Moore website, the Sherwin-Williams one is loaded with color selection tools and some other helpful design tips. We also noticed that they have coupons as well. During writing, one existed for 30 percent off all paints and stains.
Sherwin-Williams paints are sold at Sherwin-Williams specialty retail outlets, where there is likely to be a knowledgeable expert behind the counter. I’ve used Sherwin-Williams paints in the past and was very impressed with the customer service.
Benjamin Moore Aura is highly regarded and very expensive, closing in at around $70 a gallon. This price likely has to do with the high amount of solids, ranging from 40 percent to almost 48 percent (depending on sheen), more than any other paint we looked at. As Davis told us, “Aura is an amazing paint, and it better be for that kind of money.” Barter told us that “the coverage is the best I’ve ever seen.” They agreed, though, that at such a high cost, Aura is not the best choice for many applications. Dupont told us, “for neutral colors, a mid-level paint is fine. If you want bright accent colors, that is where Aura is the best bang for your buck.” The coverage does appear to be exceptional, as this video shows. In it, a painter takes a wall from canary yellow to deep purple in about 90 seconds. In that regard, it looks like an excellent paint, but we also heard from a few painters that it does take some getting used to, due to its thickness.
We heard a wide variety of opinions on Behr, Home Depot’s in-house paint. One of the painters we spoke to (Savino) recommended it—specifically the Marquee line—while another said that it’s “terrible.” We didn’t get the feeling of any consensus like we did with Benjamin Moore or Sherwin-Williams. Savino even made a video showing Behr Marquee’s excellent coverage when compared to Sherwin-Williams Emerald.5 It does have a high percent volume of solids, depending on sheen, ranging from 41 percent to almost 46 percent. Behr is available only at Home Depot, and not specialty paint stores or smaller retailers, where the majority of our experts recommended purchasing paint.
We heard similar sentiments about Valspar, available primarily at Lowe’s. Some of the painters we spoke with hadn’t used Valspar in a while, but the advice again was to stick with paint specialty stores for advice and color matching.6
Both Davis and Young like C-2 Paint, but, as Davis said, the availability is more limited than Benjamin Moore.
Young is also a fan of California paints, but, again, availability is more limited.
Other paints simply weren’t mentioned by the painters we spoke to. These include Clark + Kensington, Glidden, Dutch Boy, Pratt & Lambert, Olympic, Colorhouse and Ralph Lauren. This also includes any number of small boutique paints like Farrow & Ball and Donald Kaufman.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)
Originally published: April 13, 2016