The Dos and Don’ts of Painting Furniture

Painting furniture can help transform the look of a space and give life to old pieces, but there are some tricks to getting it right.

painting furniture

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When it comes to painting furniture, it would be ideal for the finished project to be picture-perfect. However, if you take shortcuts, there’s the risk of it looking sloppy. The paint can look uneven or even start to peel or chip just days later.

It takes patience and a little bit of know-how when it comes to painting furniture the right way. To avoid any snafus, follow these expert furniture painting dos and don’ts.

Related: How To: Paint EVERYTHING

DON’T forget about ventilation.

Since paints contain chemicals that evaporate in the air, they can cause eye, throat, and lung irritation along with headaches, dizziness, and vision problems, so proper ventilation is key. However, since chemicals vary depending on the type of paint you choose, those with no volatile organic compounds (known as VOCs) may not have these effects.

When painting indoors, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends keeping windows wide-open, as weather permits, to avoid unwanted exposure to vapors. Also use window-mounted box fans to exhaust vapors from the work area and take frequent fresh air breaks while painting. An air purifier also may help to keep fumes at bay.

A paint respirator mask or N95 mask, both available at hardware and big box stores, also can help keep fumes from entering lungs. If you experience watering eyes, dizziness, headaches, or breathing difficulty, you should close the paint can and leave the painting area.

DO clean the surface of the furniture and prepare it for painting. 

Prepare furniture for painting by removing any drawers, cushions, hardware, knobs, or other removable pieces. This protects hardware from paint, eliminates the possibility of accidentally painting drawers shut, and reduces the chance of getting paint on fabric cushions. Removing these pieces may take a few extra minutes of prep time, but saves time spent fixing potential headaches down the road.

After the furniture is dismantled, remove any dirt and grime from the furniture’s surfaces to help the paint adhere to the surface. Using a gentle grease remover may be helpful. After all of the grime is gone, follow up with a rinse of fresh water on a damp sponge to make sure the furniture is clear of any remaining cleaner. Make sure everything is completely dry before moving on to the next step. This will help achieve a smooth coat of paint.

Woman is sanding wooden furniture.

Photo: istockphoto.com

DO sand the furniture before applying the paint.

Furniture comes in a variety of materials and nearly all will require some level of sanding to make sure paint adheres to the surface, since it removes any imperfections or dimples. Sanding also ensures an even, smooth finish that will make it less likely to chip or peel.

While hand-sanding takes lots of patience and muscle, it is an option. However, sanding is easier with an orbital sander or finishing sander. A belt sander may be better for large pieces. Start with 80- to 100-grit sandpaper, switch to 150-grit or higher sandpaper to remove any remaining finish, and then smooth out the surface. A sanding block or piece of sandpaper will help get to those hard-to-reach spots.

However, if you plan to use the same type of paint over an existing layer of paint on furniture, sanding could be skipped if the piece isn’t peeling or flaking and already has an even surface.

RELATED: Selecting the Right Sandpaper Grit and Type for Your DIY Job

DO remove dust with a tack cloth after sanding. 

Once sanding is finished, any dust will need to be removed. This will help the paint and primer stick to the surface, instead of the dust particles.

One of the easiest ways to remove dust is with a tack cloth. A tack cloth is like a large piece of loosely woven cheesecloth with beeswax. It can be cut into smaller pieces and is a magnet for collecting dust. Just run the tack cloth over the furniture, including crevices, to collect all dust.

If a tack cloth isn’t handy, just dampen a regular cloth and wipe down the furniture, even in all the crevices. Next, run a dry cloth over the piece to remove any leftover residue. Finally, use a shop vacuum and vacuum the piece and the surrounding work area to remove any other dust that remains.

DON’T start painting if you haven’t applied a primer.

Unless you’re using a paint-and-primer combo product, use a primer before applying the first coat of paint. A layer of primer will not only act as a base coat, but it will seal the surface and improve both the paint’s durability and adhesion to the furniture.

When applying, brush in the direction of the grain. Alternatively, use a spray primer which often gives a neater, thinner coat than a brush-on version. Use at least two thin coats of primer, whether you’re spraying or brushing it on. A general guideline is to let a primer dry for 10 minutes (be sure to check product labels) before applying another coat.

When it comes to primer colors, a gray primer is usually recommended if the furniture will have a darker paint color. White primer works better for lighter paint colors.

Focus on foreground of mature woman painting a chair with white paint while learning a new hobbie during lockdown days at home.

Photo: istockphoto.com

DON’T start painting before testing out the color. 

Before painting, test out the color. Since a piece of furniture is capable of changing the look of a room, check it to be sure it will be the desired color.

One way to check is to take cardboard (this is where those leftover delivery boxes become helpful) and prime and paint the color on an 8×10 piece. If choosing between more than one color, use one piece of cardboard for each color.

Once dry, place the painted cardboard samples in the room where the furniture will be placed. Check what it looks like against other colors in the room during various times of the day, with different lights turned on and alongside other furniture that will be placed in the room.

Alternatively, to test the color on the piece of furniture, paint an inconspicuous area of the furniture, such as the inside of a drawer or backside of the piece to check the color.

Related: 7 Painting Tools You Never Knew You Needed

DO apply multiple coats of paint.

After settling on the color, it’s time to paint.

Paint brush, sponge roller, paints, waxes and other painting or decorating supplies on white wooden planks, top view

Photo: istockphoto.com

First, be sure to mix the paint well using a paint stirrer or give the can a good shake. Next, brush on a thin first coat. Multiple, thin coats of paint help get a smooth, even finish. Note that several thin coats of paint is better than one thick coat of paint since a thick coat can look clumpy and uneven, plus it’s more likely to drip. In addition, longer strokes will help ensure a smooth finish.

Follow the paint manufacturer’s instructions for drying time and wait until the surface is dry before starting the next coat.

DON’T forget to apply a protective finish.

When it comes to painting furniture, a topcoat helps protect the furniture and makes it more durable.

There are a few different types of protective finishes to choose from, including varnish, shellac, polyurethane, lacquer, and water-based sealer. The piece of furniture and how it is used will determine what finish works best.

To apply a protective finish, use a brush and apply one to two coats. A mini-roller may work best for bigger pieces. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it comes to drying.

Related: Is Varnish or Polyurethane the Right Finish for You?

painter with paint roller

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FAQs About Painting Furniture

Painting furniture is not as easy as just slapping on a quick coat of paint and waiting for it to dry. Taking time during each step of the process helps ensure a picture-perfect piece worthy of showing off.

What kind of paint do you use on wood furniture?

For seldom-used pieces, try a latex-based paint with a flat to satin sheen which helps mask any surface flaws. For frequently used everyday pieces, try an alkyd-based paint since it dries to a hard layer and makes the pieces less susceptible to dents or scuff marks.

Do you have to sand furniture before painting?

Sanding isn’t always necessary. If you are painting over the same type of paint, sanding isn’t necessary if the furniture is in good condition (not peeling or chipping). However, be sure to wipe any dust or debris from the furniture before painting.

What kind of paint do you use on wood furniture without sanding?

Both chalk and milk paint have bonding agents that allow the paint to adhere to the surface without sanding.