Saturday, November 3, 2012

How I Paint Furniture

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I would be looking on the internet, see something I liked, wanted to do it myself, and had now idea how!  I wanted to learn a skill and then share it so others could do the same thing.  

SO, brave DIY'ers.  This is for all of you who have asked how I do what I do and how you can do it, too! :)  I've given a few tutorials and tips on how I paint, but I thought I would have it all in one place instead of here and there.  

This is for unpainted furniture.  Personally, I try not to deal with painted furniture because I'm very picky about my finish and stripping/sanding old paint is time consuming (making it not very "cost effective" for me).  If your piece is painted already you have two options.  If the paint is not peeling or flaking you can follow the steps and just paint over it (with the understanding that whatever kind of paint job it already has is still going to show, ie. brush marks, drips, etc.  However you can give it a good sanding and this should minimize previous brush marks.  Please understand that painting over paint does not "cover up" anything!).  If the paint is rough you will need to strip it or sand it down to the bare wood and then follow the steps.  

Step 1:  Picking Your Piece of Furniture

When I'm looking to redo a piece of furniture to sell, I look for pieces that are solid wood, have dove-tailed drawers, and are structurally sound.  I have purchased pieces that needed major work, but they were things I knew were fixable with wood glue and clamps.  It's easy to get caught up in the moment and to think "I can fix that."  Just make sure you really can. :)  

That being said, I have painted anything and everything and it's all turned out pretty well.  One of my first projects was my particle board computer desk from Walmart.  It's a piece of junk but it looks great and I've gotten a lot of compliments on it. :)  With a little more care you can paint particle board and laminate surfaces, and I will tell you how (watch for the *). 

Step 2:  Prepping 

If you are filling holes (including hardware holes), dents, or dings then do it first.  I've used bondo and an assortment of wood fillers.  Honestly, it's really a horse a piece for me.  I like Elmers products--they're cheap and easy to use.  With anything I've used I usually have to do it twice.  Fill once, wait for it to dry, sand smooth, look for air-holes (some say they don't shrink, but they do), and repeat.  

How much you sand depends on what you are starting with.  If the finish on the piece is in good condition (meaning it is not flaking or peeling) then simply scuff sanding is good enough.  Scuff sanding is using 180-220 grit sand paper (or a fine sanding block) and lightly "scuffing" the surface to remove any sheen from the finish.  You want it to be dull to insure your paint sticks.  Scuff sanding does not remove old stain or even the top coat on a piece.  It is simply dulling the surface.  

If the finish is peeling/flaking, or there are big gouges in the varnish and you want a smooth finish, then you want to sand as much of it off as possible.  This usually means sanding it down to the bare wood.  How thick the top coat is (sometimes the top coat will be thick and sometimes you will find it flakes right off) will determine what grit sand paper you will use.  The lower the number the more course the grit.  I have had pieces of furniture with a thick coat of varnish and used 60-80 grit.  This is very course.  If you use the lower grits you will want to sand it with 120 and then 220 after to remove the scratches in the wood (look close, you will see them and if you don't smooth them out you will be able to see them in your finish).  If the finish seems to be flaking off already then 120 grit will probably suffice.  120 can still leave fine scratches and you will probably want to go over it with 180-220 again.  

* Do not use more than 220 on particle board.  You do not want to expose the actual particle board.  Scuff sand really well (but gently), making sure to remove any sheen.  Same with laminate.  If you use more than 220 you will leave scratches that you won't be able to remove (because you can't sand them out like you can on wood).  Scuff sand well until it's not shiny any more.  

I use an orbital sander for sanding to the bare wood and a 3M sanding block or pad for scuff sanding.  I  get them when they're on sale (under $2).

There are deglossers (liquid sandpaper that can be used instead of sanding).  Using these products would be the same as scuff sanding.  If your piece needs a good sanding to remove deep scratches these products will not do that (if only it could be that easy!!). :)


Normally just wiping the piece down with a tack cloth is good enough but some people use TSP as a cleaner.  I never have and have never had a problem, but if your piece really needs a good cleaning it would be a good idea.   A tack cloth is slightly sticky and picks up more dust than just a dry/damp cloth.  I have also used a slightly damp microfiber cloth and that works well, too.

*It is absolutely imperative that laminate is completely clean before priming.

Step 3: Priming

I've used a lot of different primers.  You've probably seen me say it a thousand times, but Painters Touch by Rustoleum is an awesome primer in a spray can.  It's easy to use, comes out of the nozzle in a round fan (as opposed to Krylon's nozzle which is directional), and dries in a nice, powdery finish (and I don't have many problems with runs or drips).  If you're not comfortable with, or not able to use, a spray can then ask your local paint store which primer would be best for your project.  One coat will probably suffice, but if you notice any bleed through or need a little more coverage you might want to do two (I rarely do two coats of primer unless I'm doing white).  If you decide on two coats you'll want to sand with 220 between each coat.  I love a 2 1/2 inch angle brush.  It's worth it to invest a little more in your paint brush.  You will see a difference!  My Purdy brush was $13, but I love it. 

If your piece is old and has a reddish hue to the stain, or if it has staining you might want to consider starting with an oil base, stain blocking primer.  Kilz is very good.  It comes in a spray can or brush on.

* You'll want to use an good adhesion primer for laminate, especially if it's a high use piece of furniture.  This one from Sherwin Williams is great.

Step 4: Painting

I only use water based products (latex or acrylic) if I can help it.  They make low (or no) VOC paint now and clean up is a LOT easier!  Again, two coats with an angle brush, sanding with 220 between coats.  Don't overwork your paint (meaning brushing over and over it).   If you are working in a warm area your paint will dry fairly quickly. The longer paint takes to dry (I know--that means we have to be patient and wait! ) the better it looks because it has time to "flow out", which minimizes your brush marks.  You can buy a good paint or add a product like Floetrol 

 to lengthen the drying time.  Try to keep a "wet edge" (meaning you'll have to work fairly quickly). 

I love the ProClassic line from Sherwin Williams, but I also use their sample quarts if it's a color I won't be using very often (you'll want to use a clear coat if you use the color-to-go sample quarts, which is the last step).

tip:  Latex can go over latex or oil.  Oil can go over oil, but not over latex (it will peel). You can use an oil based stain over latex paint--just make sure your paint is completely dry and do not let the stain sit on the piece for very long (wipe quickly!). :)

Note:  Latex/acrylic paint can take up to a week to cure.  So, you'll want to be careful not to set anything heavy on your piece until then (you can peel or lift the paint--ugh!).

*Bleed Through:  There is absolutely nothing worse than getting a coat or two done on your piece and realizing you have bleed through!!  When I first started, bleed through would always freak me out because after two or three OR four coats of paint and that pesky stuff keeps showing through I didn't know what to do (and crying doesn't help, believe me! lol).  I thought my piece would be destined for the garbage!  Sorry, but sometimes Kilz just doesn't cut it either.

If you can notice, before you start, what kind of finish is most likely to give you bleed through you can nip it in the bud and save yourself some work.  Watch for pieces with a very reddish hue.  On antique pieces they will usually be cherry or mahogany pieces (you can tell because they will be red).  Older pieces where the finish is flaked off can give you trouble too.

I use this wonderful product from Zinsser.

You can spray it on before you start, or between coats of paint (sometimes you won't notice bleed through right away) and over latex poly.  Just give it an hour to dry before you apply the next coat.  

Step 5: Distressing

Linear Distressing
Linear distressing is just along the lines (edges) of the furniture.  This is usually very minimal.  If you're scared of distressing this is a good way to start.  Linear distressing is great for just breaking up the paint and bringing out the lines of a piece.   This is best done with a fine sanding block.  Just lightly run it, back and forth, along the edge until you get the desired result.  Again, if you're unsure, start slow.  You can always take more off, but it's a lot harder to put it back on! ;)

This buffet is a good example of linear distressing.  It's enough to break up all the white and define the edges, but it's not eye catching.  

Sand Through:
I'm not sure if this is just my term or not. :)  Sand through is when you layer two colors and sand through the top layer to reveal the first color underneath.  This is best done with 180-220 grit sand paper, starting out lightly and then increasing pressure as you move farther through the paint layer.  

This dresser is an example of a sand through with cream and gray.

Glazing is a great way to pop details without doing a lot (if any) actual distressing (removing the paint). I've used different glazing mediums and straight stain.  A glazing medium (ask your paint guy/girl) takes longer to dry and you can "mess" with it a little more (and you can have more color options).  Great if you are a little unsure about what you're doing.  You can also rewet it and remove most of it if you decide you don't like it.  I love using straight stain.  You simple brush it on and wipe it off--it's great for giving an aged look to new paint.  It also deepens the color and gives it some depth.  

This lowboy is an example of using a glazing medium (tinted black) over white paint to bring out the details of the piece.

Some people use vaseline under the paint (just smear it on in the spots you don't want the paint to stick) to achieve this look.  I like using a paint scraper.  It's less messy.  :)  I just run the flat edge across the surface a few times.  I'll admit, this is scary the first time you do it. :)  You'll want your paint to be completely dry to do this technique.  If you want a real chippy look, don't prime first. 

This buffet is an example of the "chippy" look.

There really is no right or wrong way to distress.  You'll quickly learn how much or how little you like. The worst thing that can happen is you have to sand your piece down and start over (you're not going to "ruin" your furniture--you'll just make a little more work for yourself if you don't like the end result).

Step 6:  Clear Coating

This is your last step and the step that will preserve your beautiful masterpiece for all time. ;)  There are a few ways to "finish" your piece.  

If you have heard me say "poly" this is what I am referring to.  You can get it in an oil or water based product.  Oil based will yellow over time--if you're doing white I don't recommend it.  They make very durable, water-based polyurethane and that is all I use.  I've used several different brands and haven't noticed much of a difference in any of them.  Right now I use Varathane.  It's for heavy use and has a very fast drying time.  

You know the drill:  Two coats, sanding with 220-320 between each coat, but not the final coat (or you will leave it dull).  It is very important not to overwork poly as you will see every brush stroke! 

If you don't want to brush it on they do make clear coats in a spray can or wipe-on polys.  I don't use the spray can polys for furniture (takes way too many coats), but have used the wipe-on and have been happy with it in the past.  Minwax makes a good one.

I don't do a lot of waxing (only because of personal preference).  There are a million different kinds of wax.  This is the only one I've used and I really like it.  You simply wipe on a thin layer, wait 10 minutes, and buff it off.  If your piece is large this can be a killer work-out!  Wax can take up to a month to fully harden.

I love wax for a softer look, but it's probably not ideal for the tops of high use furniture (such as a dining room table top). 

Step 7: Hardware

Hardware (knobs and pulls) is the "jewelry" on your furniture.  I honestly cannot tell you how many times I haven't really been thrilled with a piece of furniture until I've put the hardware on.  You can dress it up or play it down.  There are so many fun options!

If you are keeping the original hardware (I can't bring myself to get rid of French Provincial pulls) and want to update them you can simply use a spray paint and spray them.  I absolutely adore Oil Rubbed Bronze and Black (semi-gloss).  

I live in a small town, so the options are pretty limited at my local hardware store.  If I'm going for understated then I will use the inexpensive knobs and just paint them.  The cup pulls are more expensive (usually around $6 a piece), but I always have to consider driving time and gas if I'm considering doing a hardware run.  (It's worth it to buy a $6 dollar pull rather than drive 40 miles to buy a $3 pull.)  

I buy almost all of my hardware from Hobby Lobby, but have also purchased hardware online.  If you're patient and don't mind doing a little searching you can find some great deals!

Buying new hardware might mean you are filling holes in your piece.  I suggest planning ahead, so your filler has time to dry before you want to start painting.  

I know this seems like a LONG process, but your furniture is an investment.  If it's done right it can last a lifetime.  

If you have any other questions please feel free to email me or leave a comment below!  



  1. Thanks Lisa- I always wondered how you did what you did! I have a few pieces I have wanted to do, and now I think I will :)

  2. Thanks for all your painting tips. Your pieces come out beautiful!

  3. I'm so bookmarking this, and pinning, thanks!!

  4. Ditto...I am also bookmarking and pinning! Thanks Lisa, I just adore your pieces and have always had an interest in doing this but haven't known all the proper steps! I have a couple of old dressers and a desk I would love to try this on. Thanks for sharing!
    Crafty Hugs,

  5. Thanks Lisa for the great run down on products and uses. You have outlined several products which I am not currently using or familiar with and look forward to trying these out myself. I just joined your site and look forward to seeing your new creations.

    1. Thank you so much Elaine! And you're welcome--would love to know if you have a favorite product!

  6. I've bookmarked this and send many thanks to you for sharing your methods and products. I will have to take over a larger section of the workshop shelving to hold some of these new goodies! You are an inspiration.

  7. I would love to know how you do the french lettering on your pieces LOVE IT!!!! You do awesome work THANKS TY!

  8. Thank you for the fabulous step by step tutorial! I've painted two pieces of furniture in the past month for my living room, and I have two more to complete in the next month. Your pictures of the products you use and the in-depth instructions have gotten me through my moments of confusion. If this page was a real piece of paper, it would be well-worn with fold lines from my (many) trips to HD with it in my purse, a little tattered around the edges, and of course splattered in paint. :-) Thank you for the great resource!

  9. Thanks for clearing up a lot of confusion in the head of a new DIYer! Your instructions are clear and concise. I was particularly interested in the info you shared about the poly finish. I live in South Australia so might not be able to get the brands you use, so I feel a bit of research at the hardware shop (my new toy shop) coming on!

  10. Thank you for such a complete post on how you do it. I'm going to Pin this post for future reference.

  11. I have a question. I noticed you didn't address what type of paint finish you use. Are you using flat, eggshell, satin or gloss? I'm assuming it isn't gloss, but I can't really tell.

  12. Thank you for this. I'm painting furniture, but I love how you lay it all out with different options. Great post.

  13. You do such an awesome job refinishing furniture. Thanks for all the tips, very helpful!!!

  14. Great post! As I just finished a piece :)

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed your post on how you paint furniture. I had to share this with you. You mentioned that you use Elmer's wood fillers. Have you ever tried Durham's Rock Hard Water Putty? This stuff is freaking amazing!! It's a powder that you mix with water, to the consistency that you need for your project. I used it to repair a chair leg that a dog had chewed on. I looked for a product that might work for my repair and all of the epoxy products were so expensive.....this stuff was only a couple of bucks for a 16 ounce can, so I thought I'd give it a try. It's all I ever use now.....for anything from filling nail holes and gouges, to anything that needs to be molded. This is a photo that I took and posted to Pinterest: . I think I'm still on my original can, as a little goes a long only mix what you need for the project that you're working on. Here's their website that you can check out, too:

  16. Hands down, this is the best tutorial I've ever read! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  17. This is one of the great tutorial am come a cross.Love your work.
    I done a kitchen dresser in White recently, I didn't Priming , I didnt have any idea about that till I read your article.
    The dress looks good but I wanna better finish. Like shine white finish.
    Can I ask your idea.Is that work am doing Polyurethane?
    thanks again.and love your work.

  18. Great and easy to understand, thanks so much. I have a small dresser I'm considering painting. I bought it some years ago, got all the built up varnish off it - took days - stained it and put on a low sheen poly and have been really happy with it but I feel it needs attention to bring it back to life. I love the look of linear distressing to bring out the edges to make the piece just a little less plain. Thanks again.

  19. I was so happy to find your site. I'm getting ready to paint a buffet and I had no idea where to begin so finding your step by step instructions is so exciting! I would like to know how you accomplish the wood grain tops? I love this look and would like to use on my project. Any advise and guidance you can give would be greatly appreciated. Thank you! Tena

  20. This was so helpful, I was wondering what sites you use for hardware - I live in a small town too and I'm looking for more options!


  21. Thank you so much for your posts about painting furniture. I'm about to take on several furniture painting projects in my own home, and I wouldn't even know where to begin without your 'tutorials'. So THANK YOU! I hope they turn out as pretty as yours!

  22. Hi Lisa,
    Do you ever paint with chalk paint? Cuz I see you apply wax at the end.

  23. This was absolutely fantastic! We are ew to up cycling and are learning all the do's and don'ts associated with re styling furniture. I love your piece on the bleed haha - this happened to my first project and I didn't have a clue what was happening.

    Right - im off to the hardware store haha

  24. Hi Lisa,

    I found your lovely site via Pinterest. I'm getting ready to paint an old china hutch and was excited to find your detailed instructions for painting old furniture.

    When I neared the end of this page, I saw your photo and read that you're from Shawano! I just had to tell you this story:

    My second cousin and his wife, Dick and Betty Baker, had a lovely cottage on Shawano Lake (they also owned the big grocery store, liquor store and craft store in town) and were gracious enough to invite their not-so-wealthy city relatives (Dick and my Dad were first cousins) to their summer cottage for several summers in a row. Since my family of 6 (4 kids) lived in Chicago, spending a week at the cottage in the summer was a magical experience. Boating, fishing, swimming, and just enjoying the beautiful lake was a tremendous treat for us city kids. The last time I was there was when I was 13 years old, 50 years ago. But the summers I spent there in my childhood remain precious memories.

    Yes, Shawano is a small town but it has a very big heart, and sweet, helpful residents like you!

    Thanks so much for your tutorial on painting furniture and for the sweet trip down memory lane.

    Dori Johns

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