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How to Paint Furniture for Beginners – Everything You Need to Know!

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In this post: Learn how to paint furniture and why refinishing wood pieces is a budget-friendly decor option. Plus, how to prep furniture & tips for using the right paint and brushes. 


Painting furniture can be a super economical way to give your home decor a new look. But it can be hard to know where to start when you’ve never done it before. Here’s my “how to paint furniture” beginner’s guide! 

sanded dresser and painted dresser with text overlay that says how to paint furniture

Painting Furniture is a Great Budget-Friendly Option

The cost of store-bought furniture kind of always boggles my mind.

I mean, I get it.

Raw materials can be pricey and big box stores often have to ship furniture long-distances after it’s made.

And smaller, local artists are generally one-man/woman shops, so it takes a lot of hours to make furniture. 

But, paint is a fairly economical product. And brushes aren’t so badly priced either. Which is why refinishing solid wood furniture is a really great option, especially when a piece functions well and you just want a new look. 

What Kind of Furniture is Best to Paint?

I hate to say it but, solid wood furniture is the best type of furniture to paint. 

It’s more likely to hold onto a new finish (if prepped well), than say a laminate or fibre board would. Although you can technically paint those too – you just will have to work a little harder to get a good finish. Like say try using a paint designed for outdoor plastic patio furniture on laminate.  

dresser sanded

How to Prep Furniture for Painting

Some paint companies will tell you that you don’t need to sand something old before applying their paint. My recommendation is to be careful with that recommendation.

Here’s why…You don’t know what oils are already on your piece of furniture.

As in, even if it has a fairly matte finish to begin with, there may still be spills or fingerprints that simple won’t take new paint if you leave it as is.

This could cause your new paint to peel and crack. And you really don’t want to waste time and money for a new finish that won’t last! 

I’ve never had good luck on pieces – even with those specialty paints – that I didn’t sand first! They all cracked, peeled or chipped off. 

To prep furniture for repainting: 

1. Do a lead test

Perform a lead test if the piece you want to paint is of an age that warrants it – if it was built before 1978 you should test it. 

I have not personally used lead tests as I haven’t painted anything of the age that would require it. But from what I understand 3M makes a lead test that’s inexpensive and reliable.

What to do if you find your furniture does have lead in it:

  • You can proceed very carefully with paint removal with a stripper, in a well-ventilated area and wearing ample protective gear (googles, paint mask, rubber gloves, old clothes that you can throw away).
  • Follow the instructions on the stripper, and make sure that you put ALL of the paint into a plastic bag for disposal.
  • Do NOT SAND sand lead paint! The sanding dust will get everywhere and be very easily breathed in, which would be toxic.
  • After you have safely removed the lead paint, you can follow the rest of the directions below.

2. Give it a thorough cleaning. 

Remove all hardware from your piece. Remove any drawers. Then give all the wood a good cleaning. Murphy’s Oil Soap and a rag is a good option for this. You could also just use dish soap and water, since dish soap is excellent at cutting grease. 

3. Remove any glossy finish. 

You don’t need to get right down to bare wood. You just need to remove the glossy finish. 

There are a couple of methods for doing this:

  1. Sand the piece thoroughly using a medium grit sandpaper, until there is no glossy finish remaining. 
  2. Use a wood furniture stripper and follow the package instructions.  

4. Remove any debris. 

If you’ve sanded your piece especially, you will need to use a tack cloth the remove any dust and debris. You don’t want any of that to end up in your paint finish!

How to Paint Furniture Professionally – Without Making it Look Cheap or Junky

The key to a good paint finish is to make sure there are no brush strokes, or other marks in your paint. A professional finish is a smooth finish. 

So, how do you do this?

You choose good quality paint and good quality brushes! 

(That or, you buy and get the hang of using a paint sprayer!)

What Kind of Brushes Work Best?

The type of brushes that you use, depend on the type of paint you’re going to use:

  • For oil-based paints, use natural bristle brushes. Those made with hog’s hair or ox hair. 
  • For acrylic/water-based paints, use synthetic brushes. Those made from nylon or a nylon-polyester blend. 

Hands down, my favorite brushes for all types of painting are Purdy brushes. They just seem to hold onto their bristles best and clean up really well after use (you know, when I remember to clean them and don’t leave them languishing in a ziploc for weeks!). 

What Kind of Paint Should You Use?

This is such a loaded question, honestly, because there are several options:

  • chalk paint
  • milk paint
  • mineral paint 

But truthfully, you can totally just use latex wall paint for painting furniture too!  

I’ve used all of the above types of paint for furniture and I find that latex works just fine. And since it’s more readily available, it can speed up your project and cut down on shipping costs too. 

Below is the before and after of a hutch that I painted at our old house with latex paint. 

grey dining room hutch

Choose the Right Paint Type – Paint Sheens

As for the sheen you choose if you want to go ahead and use latex paint there are a few options. And the same rules apply to painting furniture with latex paint, as they do to painting walls with latex paint:

In general, the higher the sheen the easier it is to keep clean. Unfortunately, the higher the sheen, the more it will show imperfections in a space. So, if you’re trying to hide any flaws in your walls, go with a lower sheen. 

  • Gloss will be highly wipeable and easiest to clean. Gloss is good for a highly polished look. Note: it is really hard to avoid brush strokes in glossy paint finishes.   
  • Semi-gloss will be almost as easily cleaned as gloss, with significantly less shine. Semi-gloss is great for cabinets and furniture that will go in high moisture areas, like bathrooms. 
  • Satin finish is also good for furniture and is easily wipeable.
  • Eggshell is only an okay option for furniture. Unless you put a great protective top coat on it. Then it’s just fine!
  • Flat or matte is okay for furniture as well, but most definitely needs a protective top coat if it’s going to get any sort of use at all. Otherwise, it will likely scuff very easily. 

Here’s how to paint your furniture:

1. Prep the piece

Using prep instructions above (lead test if needed, clean, degloss and wipe down), get your furniture ready to paint. 

2. Prime

Apply primer, especially if you’re drastically changing colors or finishes. I love to use Kilz Primers – either the BIN 2 (oil-based) or Bulls Eye 123 (water-based). 

Follow the package instructions for application and dry time.

3. Sand

Using fine grit sandpaper. This will help you achieve that professional, smooth finish you want. 

Then wipe down with a tack cloth to remove the sanding debris. 

If you’re going from a very dark finish to a lighter finish, like white, you may need to apply more than one coat of primer. Just be sure to sand between each coat with fine grit sandpaper. 

4. Paint

Apply paint carefully with a good quality brush or mini roller. Let dry.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4

Sand with fine grit sandpaper and wipe with a tack cloth again. Then apply another coat of paint. 

Repeat these steps as needed to achieve the desired coverage and color. 

6. Protect

Depending on the paint you choose, apply a protective finish like wax or sealer.

In general, waxes are okay for gently used pieces, like a side table. But if you’re repainting a dining room or coffee table, you may want a more durable top coat like a polycrylic. 

Keep in mind that a polyurethane or varnish may yellow your finish, especially white finishes. It’s better to use a clear wax or polycrylic over white and light colors especially. 

hello summer free printable art on dresser

12 Special Paint Techniques

Obviously before you can paint, you need to choose what you want your finished piece to look like. Do you want an aged look? Chalky-style paint? Maybe the weathered oak look? There are so many options!

Over the years, I’ve tried several different finishes. 

diy paint finishes cover mockup

To help you choose the one that works best, I’ve created a DIY Paint Finishes mini guide, which includes instructions and mixes for 12 of our most popular paint finishes and techniques all in one place! Filled with photos, supply lists and how to get the looks we feature on our blog Home Made Lovely all the time! 

DIY Paint Finishes and Techniques pages for blog

Get DIY Paint Finishes and Techniques as an easily downloadable PDF guide here for $7. 

Learn how to paint furniture and why refinishing wood pieces is a budget-friendly decor option. Plus, how to prep furniture & tips for using the right paint and brushes. 

Have you ever learned how to paint furniture? Have you painted any recently?

I'd love it if you'd share:

I'd love to chat with you in the comments!

Comments

  1. april ward says

    thank you for your 15 minute time set to do a project. during the rains i had two leaks, one in the wall and one in the ceiling, so after drywall and patching, they were coming in to paint two walls and my ceiling. i have a one bedroom loft, which i love, 740 square feet, and there is hardly a space that is not filled. i love art and my walls are full, no more room, so everything had to come off for the painters. minimum of 50, counting the photos on the secretary and another desk. it was, for me, an overwhelming task, and i would hyperventilate just thinking about it. SO! thanks to you i started the 15 minute timer about 2 weeks prior and, i got it done. no stress. such an easy fix, and i can’t thank you enough! now comes the task of reloading the walls and shelves with all those photos and prints. ill do your timer again and go back over your advice on placement. thank you thank you!!

  2. Lisa Anne says

    This really great thank you! With time at home now, I have no excuse for not starting on some furniture that has been sitting in my basement. Quick question. You mention to start with a lead test. First, can you recommend one. Second, if it tests positive, how does this change the methods and materials to be used. Thanks again!

    • Shannon Acheson says

      Hi Lisa Anne,

      I have not personally used lead tests as I haven’t painted anything of the age that would require it. But from what I understand 3M makes a lead test that’s inexpensive and reliable.

      If you find your furniture does have lead it it, you can proceed very carefully with paint removal with a stripper, in a well-ventilated area and wearing ample protective gear (googles, paint mask, rubber gloves, old clothes that you can throw away). Follow the instructions on the stripper, and make sure that you put ALL of the paint into a plastic bag for disposal.

      Do NOT SAND sand lead paint! The sanding dust will get everywhere and be very easily breathed in, which would be toxic.

      After you have safely removed the lead paint, you can follow the rest of the directions above.

  3. Ivory says

    I need this post, thank you for sharing. I will/plan to paint a few pieces of furnishing this summer, and your tips, I will be using.

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