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In this post: Learn how to paint furniture, why refinishing is a budget-friendly decor option, how to prep pieces & tips for using the right brushes and paint.
Painting furniture with latex paint (or chalky, mineral, or other paint) 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!
Table of Contents
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. This is why refinishing solid wood furniture is a really great option, especially when a piece functions well and you just want a new look.
And painting furniture with latex paint is one of my favorite DIY projects.
What Kind of Furniture is Best to Paint?
Choose furniture a sturdy piece of furniture with good bones and a good silhouette. Solid wood furniture is the best type of furniture to paint because it will have the best result for your efforts.
This is especially true when painting furniture with latex paint, because it’s more likely to hold onto a new finish (if prepped well) than say a laminate or fibreboard 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.
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 simply 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 on 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:
- Sand the piece thoroughly using medium grit sandpaper, until there is no glossy finish remaining.
- 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 to 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! And you paint with the direction of the grain.
(That or, you buy and get the hang of spray painting with a paint sprayer!)
What Kind of Paint Brushes Work Best?
The type of brushes that you use, depending 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 are made from nylon or a nylon-polyester blend.
- You could also use a foam roller for flat surfaces. Just watch for tiny bubbles in your finish.
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:
- Annie Sloan chalk paint or other chalky paint
- milk paint
- mineral paint
- quality latex paint
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.
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 topcoat on it. Then it’s just fine!
- Flat or matte is okay for furniture as well, but most definitely needs a protective topcoat 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. Prepare the Surfaces for Painting
Remove the doors, drawers, and hardware.
Using prep instructions above (lead test if needed, clean, de-gloss, and wipe down), get your furniture ready to paint.
Using fine-grit sandpaper. This will help you achieve that professional, smooth finish you want.
You can use an orbital sander, belt sander, or sandpaper block. But be careful to not scratch or otherwise damage the surface by using sandpaper that is too coarse.
Then wipe down with a tack cloth to remove the sanding debris.
If you’re not sure what sandpaper to use, read our sandpaper guide.
*Some people use a deglosser instead of sanding, with great results. But I’ve never done it.
Fill in any flaws with wood filler. Sand repaired patches smooth.
Apply a good 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). But you could use a quality spray primer – just be sure to mask off the area if you’re going to use spray primer or paint.
Follow the package instructions for application and dry time.
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 a fine-grit sandpaper.
Apply paint carefully with a good quality brush or mini roller. Let dry.
6. Repeat Steps 3 and 5
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.
Depending on the paint you choose, apply a protective finish like wax or sealer. I don’t recommend shellac.
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 topcoat like a polycrylic.
Keep in mind that polyurethane or varnish may yellow your finish, especially white finishes. It’s better to use clear wax or polycrylic over white and light colors especially.
Painting Furniture Tips
- I used a good quality paint from a line called Duration at Sherwin Williams – it’s wipeable and durable.
- Use FLAT paint for a nice finish.
- Be sure to test “paint and primer in ones”. A lot of them are more like thick, gloppy paint. Which means they won’t go on well and won’t go as far.
- Use clear wax/paste first and then use the darker was/paste on top. If you end up with a look that’s too dark add some more clear wax and buff off some of the darkness.
5 Things No One Tells You About Painting Furniture
- There will be dust. Sanding is almost always necessary if you want a good finish.
- It’s worth it to take things apart. It may seem like it’s time-consuming to remove drawers, knobs, and pulls. But you will have a much easier time sanding, priming, and painting if you do.
- You could use sample cans. Most furniture projects can be completed with a sample can of paint.
- You can color match anything. If you love a color that’s in a rug, wallpaper, or throw pillow, you can totally pull that color out and have it color matched for your painted furniture.
- You might choose the wrong color—and have to start over. But that’s okay. It’s much better to get a finished piece you’ll love than live with one you don’t.
Our Painted Furniture Projects
It’s fairly easy to give a vintage dresser a makeover, even if you’re only a beginner DIYer. Especially when you have easy-to-use paint like Rust-Oleum’s Chalked. Chalked Ultra Matte paint is an easy-to-use paint that dries to a velvety smooth matte finish. It brings new life to tired and worn pieces in timeless colors. Chalked paint can be distressed to achieve a vintage look that will last.
At our last house, we needed a hutch on a tight budget. So I found a cheap one on Facebook Marketplace. I loved the shape and size of the hutch, but I was honestly a little nervous once we brought it into the dining room.
It was SO shiny! And not entirely solid wood. Not melamine though, more like stained pressboard. Eek!
But in the end, it all worked out and that hutch took the latex paint like a champ!
The paint color of the outside of the hutch is CIL Grey Tweed and the inside is CIL Stratosphere.
More Paint Tutorials + Tips
- Whitewash Stain
- How to Stain Wood
- Get the Lime Wash/White Washed Wood Finish
- How to Protect a Restoration Hardware Dining Table
- Get the Grey Distressed Look on Your Own Furniture
- sander and sandpaper
- lint-free rag/tack cloth
- flat paint (I used the Duration line by Sherwin Williams)
- quality brush (like Purdy)
- furniture beeswax (I used Miss Mustard Seed beeswax I had on hand) or finishing paste (like Minwax)
- clean cloth
- painter's tape is optional (I used FrogTape on the glass)
- Remove doors, drawers, and hardware.
- Sand well. You don't have to sand down to bare wood or anything. Just get the shine off.
- Wipe off dust with a lint-free cloth. Get rid of all the dust you just sanded off.
- Prime with a quality primer.
- Paint a base coat with a quality brush and quality paint in the direction of the wood grain. Let dry.
- Sand with fine-grit sandpaper and paint a topcoat.
- Optional: Distress edges if desired using sandpaper.
- Wax or finish with a protective coating and a clean cloth. I used Miss Mustard Seed's Furniture Wax and Antiquing Wax because I really like it and had some on hand. But you could (and I have) use Mixwax's Finishing Paste in Regular and Dark, which are fabulous too.
- I used a good quality paint from a line called Duration at Sherwin Williams - it's wipeable and durable.
- Use FLAT paint for a nice finish.
- Be sure to test “paint and primer in ones”. A lot of them are more like thick, gloppy paint. Which means they won't go on well and won't go as far.
- Use clear wax/paste first and then use the darker was/paste on top. If you end up with a look that's too dark add some more clear wax and buff off some of the darkness.