While acoustic panels are a useful addition for sound management in a home theater, they’re often not the nicest things to look at. I’ve often been asked, “Can you paint acoustic panels?” for just this reason. I’ve looked into this in detail to get the best information for you.
So, can you paint acoustic panels? While it’s entirely possible to paint acoustic panels, it’s best not to because the paint can greatly affect the acoustic panel’s performance. Paint can easily block up the open-celled structure, which impacts sound absorption levels.
Painting acoustic panels might seem like the best way to cover the often-unattractive design, but it’s definitely not worth it. In this article I look at why you shouldn’t paint acoustic panels, how it affects their performance, and what you can do instead.
Painting acoustic panels
Acoustic panels are very useful in any acoustic environment because they help to manage sound in the space. Acoustic panels are essentially acoustic foam in a frame with some fabric over the top, although some brands are simply just foam in a frame.
It’s important to remember that acoustic panels don’t soundproof; they manage acoustics. In short, they help to reduce the level of echo and reverberation experienced in a space, which is particularly common in large rooms with flat surfaces.
Although there are easily as many designs of acoustic panels as companies that sell them, they all work on the same basic structure. They’re particularly useful in home theaters because it’s likely you’ve got plenty of speakers, which can produce muddy sound if the acoustics aren’t managed properly.
Acoustic Panels vs Foam
Acoustic foam and acoustic panels work with the same technology. They’re made from foam with an open-celled structure that traps sound waves and dissipates their energy into heat. This prevents the sound waves from bouncing around the room and crossing over, which is what produces unclear sound.
The biggest different between the 2 products is that acoustic foam is often produced in a hill and valley structure, which is very effective for trapping sound waves, whereas acoustic panels usually use flat pieces of foam behind fabric. Acoustic panels are often used in commercial settings, such as restaurants, and so are more “designer.”
The main issue with acoustic panels though is that they’re not particularly attractive. Some companies produce them with different color fabrics or textures, but these are much more expensive than the basic models.
So, should you paint them?
If your budget doesn’t stretch to expensive acoustic panels (and realistically, why should it?), then you’re probably entertaining other ideas for how to make them look nicer or how to fit them into your room’s design. In this situation painting might seem like the most obvious choice.
However, this is potentially the worst way to improve the design of an acoustic panel, simply because of what the paint will do to the surface. That said, there are plenty of other options, which I’ll look at later.
Will painting acoustic panels affect their performance?
So I’ve said that painting acoustic panels is probably the worst idea, but why? The simple answer is that painting acoustic panels will drastically reduce their performance. It’s worth explaining this in a bit more detail to understand why.
Without getting into too much detail, the purpose of paint is to cover a surface. To do this, the paint has to create an opaque layer of color over the surface on which it’s painted. Although probably not the paint you’d use, this is best explained with acrylic paint.
Acrylic paint is made from pigment and an acrylic polymer, or plastic in English. Acrylic paints are praised for their waterproof properties, and for the ability to paint one color over another without too much mixing.
This is possible because the paint essentially produces a “film” of color over the surface, which by extension then keeps out water. The same principle applies to oil- and water-based paints, although these obviously aren’t waterproof.
What you really need to know for the purposes of this article is that the paint will form a layer over the surface on which it’s painted in order to produce a flat layer of color.
The reason this is so damaging to acoustic panels is because they rely on the open-celled structure to trap sound waves. Regardless of whether you apply the paint to fabric or directly to the foam, it’ll seep into the pores and block them up, which will negatively affect the panel’s performance.
Which paint is better?
Some guides will tell you that some types of paint will be better than others, and while this is true, it’s still varying levels of bad. Spray paint will arguably be the “best” paint for the job, as it can be applied from a distance and will only take on the properties of liquid paint if sprayed too thick.
However, spray paint will still block pores in the acoustic panel, even if you’re proficient with a spray gun. Latex and water-based paints are both a definite no because you won’t be able to get a thin enough layer.
The reasons you shouldn’t paint acoustic panels can be boiled down into a few simple statements:
- Acoustic panels rely on the open-celled structure of the foam to perform well.
- Paint creates a thin yet opaque layer of color over the surface upon which it’s painted.
- Therefore, paint will seep into the pores of the acoustic panel, reducing its effectiveness in absorbing sound waves.
- This is true for any type of paint, but latex and acrylics will be the worst, while spray paint will probably be the best.
How to change the color of acoustic panels
If you’re wanting to integrate acoustic panels into your home theater, but don’t want them to be an eyesore, there are still options available to you. In the rest of this article I look at the different ways you can color acoustic panels that won’t impact their performance.
1. Buy colored acoustic panels
Unsurprisingly there’s a big market for colored acoustic panels, particularly as they’re used in places like restaurants and lecture halls. Finding somewhere that sells colored acoustic panels really isn’t difficult. In fact, websites like this one have an extensive list of acoustic panels designed for commercial settings.
The main benefit to buying them ready-made is that you simply need to fix them to the wall, as all of the construction work is done for you. Similarly, there are so many designs to choose from that you can turn them into a feature rather than doing your best to hide them.
Designer acoustic panels like these won’t be any less effective than plain ones, although there might be a small level of difference in some of the smaller ones. There are also plenty of options in terms of size, so you’ll easily find a brand that works well for you.
The obvious downside is that they’re more expensive than standard acoustic panels, and few people will probably blow a large portion of their home theater budget on designer acoustic panels. We can all agree that that money would be better spent on some high-end equipment.
2. Build your own acoustic panels
My best suggestion for getting around this problem is to build your own acoustic panels. I won’t go into too much detail about the method behind building your own, as it’s a topic covered quite extensively on YouTube, such as in this video.
Alternatively, there are plenty of written guides that cover the steps in detail. It’s worth noting that you’ll need some level of DIY ability, although the process isn’t really that complicated. Just bear in mind that they might look a bit homemade if your DIY skills aren’t up to scratch.
The biggest benefit to building your own acoustic panels is that they’re fully customizable. Not only can you make them the size you need and use the brand of acoustic foam that’s best for you, but you can also use any fabric you want to cover them.
Doing so means you can make them look however you want, providing you have the right fabric. Similarly, building them yourself is fairly inexpensive; one guide states that you can build them for about $20 each, which is far less than you’d pay for a ready-made one.
The only real downside to building your own is that they’ll only look as good as you can make them. However, the process really isn’t that difficult, so hopefully after a practice or two you’ll be able to make some professional looking panels.
3. Buy flocked foam panels
One popular way of changing the color of acoustic foam post-production is to flock the surface. Flocking is a popular textile technique that uses tiny fibers to coat the surface of a product, and results in a suede-like finish.
Flocking isn’t really something you can do at home unless you have a way of statically charging the acoustic foam. However, some companies flock their acoustic panels in a range of colors, and they’re not much more expensive than standard acoustic foam.
The benefit of this method is that you don’t have to buy fabric-coated panels, or attempt to paint the surface, which we’ve established will affect performance.
Surprisingly, flocking has no impact on the foam’s performance, mainly because it doesn’t penetrate the structure like paint does. A spray adhesive is used on the surface, and then static electricity attracts the flock to this surface.
The only real downside to this option is that there aren’t loads of companies that produce flocked acoustic foam. However, it’ll be worth researching in a bit more detail because there might be a company that can ship them to you.
4. Dye the fabric
A better option for changing the color of the fabric on your acoustic panels is to dye them rather than painting. Dye is better because it permeates the fibers of the fabric rather than sitting as a layer on the surface. Also, dying gives you quite a high level of flexibility.
The easiest option would be to take the panels apart and dye the fabric on its own, but you could try just dying the whole panel. The dye probably won’t take to the foam as it’s made from synthetic materials, which don’t hold dye as well as natural ones.
The main benefit here is that you can be as creative as you want with the dyes, and could even create patterns on the surface using watered down bleach. Dyes won’t affect the performance of acoustic foam, but be sure to water bleach down so it’s not too corrosive.
However, the biggest downside to this option is that it can look a bit tacky if not done well. If you’ve never hand-dyed anything before then I’d definitely recommend practicing on some scrap fabric first. It can take some time to become familiar with how dye holds and how long to leave it for.
Some final tips
My favorite option for creating fairly attractive acoustic panels is to just build my own. I’ve done it plenty of times and once you’ve become familiar with how to build them, there’s very little stopping you from creating some unique pieces of art. Consider the following tips for making your own:
- Get the best acoustic insulation material you can find. Acoustic foam might be the obvious choice, but something like Rockwool will be much more effective.
- Use a printed fabric to create some really interesting pieces of functional art. You’d be surprised how many restaurants disguise their acoustic panels as wall hangings or pictures.
- If a guide suggests using spray adhesive then be sparing with how much you apply. Spray adhesive will effectively do the same thing as paint in terms of blocking pores.
Although it’s strongly recommended to not paint acoustic panels because of how it affects performance, there are still plenty of options available to you.
The most budget-friendly is building your own, but by all means buy colored acoustic panels if you can afford them.