DIY Painting & Finishing

Paint Makeovers: An Expert Tells All

Painting furniture: A "make-over" artist shares her tips on turning old into new with little more than a fresh coat of paint.

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As a decorator and “junker,” I’ve discovered plenty of beauty and utility in stuff others have kicked to the curb. And there are fewer ways easier and less costly to update your street find than with a paint makeover. Whether you’re painting one color, or attempting a fancier treatment, good prep is the key to knowing how to paint furniture.

Related: 5 Easy Steps to a Successful Paint Makeover

Regardless of what you choose for a paint makeover—a kitchen cabinet, dresser or chair—you’ll want to start by wiping it down with lightly soapy water to remove dust and dirt.  Once dry, make a fair assessment of the piece.  Is the color so strong or the finish so uneven that it will require a primer? Are there rough spots, flaking paint or gouges that need sanding or wood putty? Has the finish been sealed in any way? You’ll want to do everything possible to make the surface ready when painting furniture.

Here are the professional tips that I live by for successful paint makeovers (and you can bet that I learned a few of them the hard way!):

You can paint metal
You can do a paint makeover on metal but the surface should be primed. You’ll find plenty of options at the hardware store. Pieces with lots of curves lend themselves to a spray-on primer that comes in a can. Kilz makes a good one. Tired of a brass lamp base? This can help you change it to the color of your dreams.

Primer is not always needed
Depending on the condition of the piece you’re working on, and how you plan to finish it, you may not have to apply a primer when painting furniture. Sanding or deglossing could be all that’s required. For the uninitiated, a paint deglosser is a liquid you apply by hand to strip off the sealed finish. If a piece has been finished with wax, apply naphtha (also available at the hardware store) to remove the wax and to prep the surface. Don’t forget to wear gloves.  The key to a successful paint makeover is to make sure the paint adheres to the surface.

Get to know your sander
Some people prefer to sand by hand, but I love using a small, iron-shaped hand sander that can easily get in to corners. The more you sand, the more you’ll pick up a technique. You don’t want to sand so deeply that you go beyond the top layer of wood. Learning how your sander handles will also help you when you “distress” painted objects.

Be thorough
Don’t try shortcuts when painting furniture. If a piece has hardware or drawers, remove them entirely for prep and painting. Because these areas get a lot of use, they are ripe for eventual paint flaking. Sand drawer edges carefully so the old paint is gone before applying new. Two coats of sealer should give the drawers “armor” for future use.

Choose the right paint
Expensive does not necessarily mean better, so buyer beware. When you find a paint you like, you can always have it matched to whatever color you choose. I’ve had great luck with Benjamin Moore’s waterborne Satin Impervo. It’s a scrubbable latex enamel (cleans up with water) that can handle a lot of traffic. It paints like a dream. Because many flat or matte paints today are available with scrubbable finishes, you can get that look without sacrificing utility. I cruise the “mistint” piles at the local hardware stores—paint custom mixed and then left. Someone else’s “mistake” paint may be just right for you, at a vastly reduced price.

Use a decent brush
This sounds like basic advice and it is. You don’t want to be fishing stray brush hairs out of your paint finish. Quality brushes will last for years if you clean them well (and promptly) after using.

Be patient
When painting furniture, allow adequate dry time between coats. The standard is 24 hours, but honestly, more is better with many paints, especially if there is humidity. The same goes for sealer. Don’t brush on or hand-apply without at least 24 hours of lag time since the last coat dried. If the paint is not totally dry, it will start to come off once you add the polyurethane finish. I like a poly finish rather than varnish, but you might prefer varnish for a more traditional look. Poly comes in flat and glossy finishes so you can choose whatever fits with the look you desire.

Dont’ be afraid
The learning curve is always in play, so don’t be afraid to try new ways of adding to and removing color from your pieces. Some paint makeover trials will naturally work better than others, but even mistakes can lead to unexpected “works of art.”  The important thing is to have fun.

Ready to give it a try?  See my “5 Easy Steps to a Successful Paint Makeover” slideshow.

Author’s note: Kim Yeager is founder and principal of Lark Nest Design where she refurbishes decor and furniture for clients.