Why Paint Store “Sample Cans” Are Probably Messing You Up

Paint can be one of the trickiest things around. Color, type, finish, brand…there are a ton of things to consider.

I’ve always preached a little system I created, years ago, for a fool proof way of selecting your paint. But…I have realized there’s a flaw! Ahh!

Step #6 called for you to go buy a few little sample cans of your favorite two or three colors and put them up. Well, there’s a serious problem with that, I realized when selecting  paint for my new personal home. (If you’re interested in which paint colors these are, I have them listed at the bottom)

Let’s run through it.

The Original System

So, let’s look at the original system:

  1. Find your inspiration
  2.  Research that inspiration online
  3.  Narrow it down to a handful of colors
  4.  Grab a few paint squares from the paint store
  5.  Narrow it down to your favorites
  6.  Buy sample cans of your favorites and put them up on the wall
  7.  Narrow it down to 2 or 3 and paint a larger area
  8.  Make your choice and never look back

So, there I was, following my own system to select my interior paint color. Let’s take a look…

I already had my inspiration, so these were a few of the colors I was considering.

Instead of small paint chips from the paint store, in my practice I use large foam boards. I put them in the room to look at, then switched up their order.

Then, I narrowed down my choices, bought some little sample paint cans from my local store and put them up on the wall.

Then, I put them on an adjacent wall to see the light changed them.

Then, I realized I got it in my hair…

Ok, so now I step back and evaluate where I’m at. I like a few and want to dive into those further. I run back to the paint store and buy actual quart samples of the 2 colors, so I can paint a really large sample and get a good feel of how it will look. I come back and put them up on a wall.

The Problem

Now, I notice the problem. This look a little darker than I expected. Not a bad thing, but it’s definitely darker. I confirm it’s the same color, but what I realize is…it’s not the same finish! It looks totally different.

I take my new quart sample FLAT finish paint that I’ve just painted an entire wall of, and swipe it next to the original samples.

But wait, THIS IS THE SAME COLOR…made by the same paint store on the same day.

The difference is the FINISH. Typically, the cute little paint sample cans you buy for $6.95 are in a satin finish. But, you aren’t necessarily going to USE a Satin finish. I like flat paint, so my larger, quart sample was, in fact, flat.

The smaller, darker, sample to the left is the same exact color in a Flat finish. They both look great, but very different. Imagine you go through this whole process of sampling your paint colors, narrowing down and finally decide on the perfect color. Then you order your paint in a flat finish. You would be very surprised to see this go up. It’s totally different!


The NEW System

So, how do you avoid this problem? I think you have to be very aware that that the little sample cans are likely NOT what you are going to be painting in. It’s totally worth it to go ahead and buy a quart or even gallon of the EXACT paint you plan to choose, before you decide on the final color. Most people do not use Satin for walls, so you will likely need to do this.

My NEW paint selecting system looks like this:

  1. Find your inspiration
  2.  Research that inspiration online
  3.  Narrow it down to a handful of colors
  4.  Grab a few paint squares
  5.  Narrow it down to your favorites
  6.  Buy sample cans of your favorites and put them up on the wall(s)
  7.  Narrow it down to 2 or 3 and paint a large area IN THE FINISH YOU PLAN TO USE
  8.  Make your choice and never look back


Now that we’re talking about finish…what exactly are the finishes available? I stick with FLAT personally, but there are several to choose from.

Flat (Matte): No shine at all. Perfect for for low traffic areas like living rooms and bedrooms, as well as ceilings. It’s my go to every time.

Eggshell: Has a tiny bit of shine and is a good choice for moderate traffic areas such as living rooms.

Satin: Has a bit more shine and works well in high traffic areas. It is also super wipeable which is why it is perfect for kids, kitchens and bathrooms.

Semi-Gloss: Shiny but not glass-like. This is what you should use on cabinets and trim.

Hi-Gloss:  Shiny! This gives an almost glass-like finish and is perfect for high use surfaces or furniture.


So, to recap, invest in the exact paint you plan to use, in the smallest size they offer. There’s a noticeable difference in color with the different finishes. The only way to know what you’ll be getting is to use the exact paint in the exact finish. I’m so glad I did!

Paint Colors

The paint colors used in this article are the following, starting from top left to right, then bottom left to right

  • Natural Choice SW7011 by Sherwin Williams
  • Shoji White SW7042 by Sherwin Williams
  • Classic Gray OC-23 by Benjamin Moore
  • Oyster White SW7637 by Sherwin Williams
  • Heron’s Plume SW6070 by Sherwin Williams
  • Ivory Lace SW7013 by Sherwin Williams

So…what do you think? Will you give this a try? Have you ever had a paint sample nightmare? We’d love to hear it!



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