Plywood Walls – How to finish

Respirator and sanding block sitting on sheet of plywood.

Putting finish on plywood walls will require making the surface as smooth as possible using sandpaper, before adding a layer of paint or varnish. Depending on the grade of your plywood, you may need to fix any issues with the surface such as splits or voids.

Finishing off your plywood walls can be a daunting task, as making a mistake too far into the process can leave your final product in a disappointing state. Sheet Good is here to guide you in this process so that you can make the right choices for your wall.

How to Prepare to finish Plywood walls

Is there any damage?

If your plywood sheets show any signs of damage, you will need to fix these issues before continuing. Use putty or wood filler to fill in any gaps, and check for cracks and dents. The higher the grade of plywood you use, the less likely there will be damage. Check out our explanation of plywood grades here.

Is the surface clean?

Use a tack cloth to dust off the surface of your plywood as this will get rid of any stubborn particles. You will want to ensure the surface is as clean as possible to avoid any imperfections in the finished product.

Is sanding necessary?

In order to achieve a smooth and attractive finish, you will need to sand the face that will receive finish. Read the instructions on your finish products label for their best recommendation on the level of sanding required. A general rule is to use a medium (120 grit) sandpaper to prep the surface for your first coat of finish. To learn more about sanding have a look at our resource on how to sand plywood.

Choosing the Right Finish for plywood walls

There are a variety of different ways to finish your plywood walls. Below are some of the more popular options:

Oil Stain or Varnish

Staining plywood walls allows you to enhance the natural beauty of the wood while adding some color and depth. Stains come in various shades and can highlight the grain patterns of the plywood or even make a light wood like birch, look darker like walnut. However if you want the look of Walnut we recommend getting a plywood with a walnut veneer. Stains typically have a satin finish, but varnish, a type of stain, adds a glossy appearance. One disadvantage of oil based stains and varnish is they will yellow over time.


Painting plywood walls offers a wide range of color choices and allows you to achieve a consistent finish. Acrylic or latex paints are commonly used, but make sure to choose a paint that adheres well to wood surfaces.

Hard-wax oil

Using a hard-wax oil finish has become a popular way to finish plywood walls as it enriches the natural characteristics of the wood, without too much alteration in the color. Additionally many wax finishes like OSMO and Rubio Monocoat offer tints like whitewashing and other cool tints. Hard-wax oil does require maintenance, especially in areas that are high traffic.

Water-based Polyurethane

Is a strong durable product that really highlights the material it is applied too. This has gained a lot of traction in recent years because it is durable and does not yellow as much as oil based finishes. We recommend going for a water-based polyurethane that is described as one of the following: matte, raw, or flat. What this means is the finish is less reflective or glossy.

Applying Stain to plywood walls

Should I use water or oil-based stains?

Water-based stains will dry quicker and have an easier clean up – water and soap is enough to clean the brushes. In most cases Oil-based stains are more durable and long-lasting, but take longer to dry and require using paint thinner to clean the brushes. Also, oil-based stains are typically higher in Volatility Organic Compounds (VOC)

Should I use liquid or gel stains?

Liquid stains are great for beginners as they are easy to apply, but they provide less control over how the stain looks overall. Gel stains allow better control but are harder to keep consistent and should be used with caution.

Applying Paint to plywood walls

Should I use water or oil-based paints?

As with stains, water-based paints will have a quicker dry time, however they are less durable in the long term. Oil-based paints take longer to dry but are much more durable and they give a smoother and overall better looking finish.

How about enamel paint?

Enamel paint has become more popular in recent years due to its durable nature. This paint can take a good amount of abuse before showing signs of wear. Go for an oil-based enamel paint if you want your walls to be tough in all conditions. One downside to using enamels is they are typically high gloss, which is pretty uncommon to see on walls, but very common to see on kitchen cabinets.

Do I need to use a primer?

This is an essential step if you want your walls to look good in the coming years. Primers are used as an initial coat on the surface of the plywood, which acts as an adhesive that helps the actual paint to stick for a much longer time.

Spraying or rolling on plywood walls?

While spraying the finish onto your wall will save some time, and can create stunningly even finish if applied properly, it can be a difficult process which requires a lot of masking to prevent over-spraying onto floors, ceilings, and built in furniture. Using a roller is slower but gives more control and requires less masking, and tools. If you don’t already have the tools, and don’t plan to paint your walls every year, going with a roller is likely the best option.

Sealing and Protecting Plywood Walls

Do I Need a Sealer?

Sealing plywood walls helps protect against water damage, mold, and pests. Sealers maintain the wood’s natural look while providing a layer of defense against damaging factors. A sealer may be the defense your wall needs against rotting or being irreparably damaged.

What type of sealer should I use?

A liquid latex sealer is a great option when sealing a plywood wall. This will provide a plastic water-resistant covering. This will help protect your walls against water damage caused by burst pipes or excessive humidity and moisture.

Other Considerations for plywood walls

Maintenance and Care

Use a damp cloth or sponge to wipe off any dirt, and use a clean, dry cloth to wipe off any remaining moisture. For tougher stains, baking soda can be used. If possible avoid using harsh chemicals as this can affect the finish.

What if the wall is damaged?

For light abrasions, apply a scratch remover to the wall before retouching the finish. Larger abrasions will require some sanding and refinishing. A 120 grit sandpaper will remove most damage, however depending on the type of finish it may be best to lightly sand the surrounding areas with a finer grit like 220, and blend the area.

Finishing plywood walls requires careful planning and choice of materials, but with some effort the results will be worth the time spent. If DIY is not your thing their are professionals that specialize in applying all of these various finishes who can make your vision a reality.

Feature Image: Dave Young, CC BY 2.0