How To Paint Furniture

Whether you’re interested in painting a chair, a table, or any other wooden piece of furniture, the steps are pretty much the same. For example, take this table that we built and subsequently painted along with the accompanying white chairs (which used to be a golden blond wood tone):

tableduring

Sprucing things up with a fresh coat of white paint took them from thrift store (where we got the table base) to Pottery Barn (which sells a similar version of it for 500 beans) in just a few hours.

sunroomtable

But enough jibber-jabber. On with the how-to deets:

Step 1- Evaluate the surface of the piece that you’d like to paint. If it’s a sleek glossy surface (like varnished or sealed wood) you’ll want to gently sand the entire piece with 100 grit sandpaper). If it’s more of a dry chalky texture (like unfinished wood or flat paint) you can forgo the sandpaper and skip right to step two.

Step 2- Break out the oil-based primer to ensure that the paint sticks and no stains come through and ruin your finish (we’ve also used Zinsser Smart Prime with great success, which is a low-VOC stain-blocking primer that’s not oil-based – so it’s less stinky). Give the entire piece a good once over with a small foam roller or a paint brush. This coat of primer doesn’t have to be perfectly even in tone (it’ll probably look thinner in some areas since that’s how primer rolls) but as long as the entire piece is well covered – and it’s not too gloppy and thick – it’s ready for step three once it dries.

Step 3- Use a fresh small foam roller or paint brush to apply two thin and even coats of latex paint (a semi-gloss finish is usually best since it’s nice a wipe-able and durable choice). Many people mistakenly think that latex paint isn’t supposed to be applied over oil-based primer, but the real painting no-no is applying latex paint over oil-based paint, which is a guaranteed bubble-fest and should be avoided at all costs. And a word about small foam rollers vs. brushes: according to experts, all rollers – especially if used too quickly- may rile up the paint and lead to bubbles while paint brushes are the most bubble free application method known to man (although you might have brush stroke issues if the paint isn’t applied thinly enough or given ample drying time between coats).

We painted the table above with a paint brush, not a roller. But we have also used small foam rollers with great success, so those are actually our recommended choice for beginners since they cut down on brush strokes or drippy finishes and seem to be the most error proof. No matter what you use, be sure to wait until the first coat of paint is thoroughly dry before applying a second coat (each coat should be applied super lightly and evenly – aim for the thickness of an eggshell or a piece of paper). This thin application is the key to avoiding brush strokes or roller marks for a smooth, gorgeous finish. Repeat after me: three or even four super thin coats are far better than one or two thick and drippy ones!

Step 4- This step is optional, so think of it as extra credit. Brushing on two thin and even coats of water-based poly for wipe-able protection that really goes the extra mile (and provides a glossy oh-so-luxe sheen) can’t hurt if you pick the right stuff. The only two brands that we’ve ever used with unmatched success are these two, so they’re our strong recommendation (other types can yellow or crack over time):

  • Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish in “Clear Gloss” (found at any home improvement center)
  • Safecoat Acrylacq (which is a low-VOC, non-toxic alternative sold at eco boutiques or online at places like greendepot.com)

We went the extra mile and applied poly to our white table above for a bit of added protection, and we even thinly polyed the chairs since they need to be just as easy to wipe down due to their proximity to food whenever we dine in the sunroom. Thin is definitely the operative word, and again you’ll want to be sure to let the first coat thoroughly dry before going in for the second. Any time you go over semi-wet paint or poly to smooth things out you’ll get terrible drag marks, so work from one side to the other and never go back over things until they’re completely dry.

Step 5- Wait at least a full 72 hours to place objects on your newly painted piece to avoid dents or divots in your finish. If you really want to be on the safe side, we’d recommend waiting five full days. Sometimes factors like humidity and primer/paint/poly thickness can keep things from fully curing up, and you don’t want to get indents from using your newly painted piece too quickly. Waiting this long might take some willpower because you’re dying to sit on/eat on/enjoy your brand new piece, but it’s worth the wait. Promise.

Easy, right? Ok, those were a lot of words, so it might sound complicated. But just take things one step at a time. And remember to breathe. You can totally do it. There’s really no reason to live with wood furniture that’s not exactly the tone or the shade that you’d like. So from painting an old side table a handsome glossy black to giving a scratched up wooden chair a cheerful red tone, it’s definitely a project that you can confidently tackle in an afternoon. Go forth and paint something!

*Oh and it bears noting that if your furniture item is anything other than solid wood or veneered wood (like laminate, melamine, etc) you should visit your local hardware store and ask the paint pro there what they recommend for that surface. There are some great oil-based primers and enamel paints out there (which are changing all the time) so it might be possible to get a great result. The key is really roughing up the surface so it’s less glossy and then priming and painting with the best stuff they have (usually oil or enamel based).Good luck!

Psst- In the market for a quick cabinet painting tutorial? Look no further.

Psssst- Wondering how to paint a brick fireplace? Wonder no more.

Pssssssst- Itching to paint wood paneling? Try this.

Comments

    • Jordan says

      Hi – I didn’t mean to leave a ‘reply’ but it was the only way I figured out how to ask a question.

      I walked into Home Depot today with my YHL checklist in hand to paint my kitchen table. The guy was helpful, but now he confused me and I don’t know what to do.

      He suggested I try Behr’s paint and primer in one. He also told me NOT to do a poly over paint. I’m completely loyal to YHL and love you very much. However, this is my first DIY furniture paint project and now I’m worried/confused!

      Anyone have any experience with primer/paint in one?

    • says

      I’ve seen some folks use it with success and others with failure. The issue is that the primer in that is water based, so it won’t block bleed through and sometimes things remain tacky/don’t cure nearly as fast as when an oil-based primer is used. But it can work! You can also leave off the poly as it’s optional (although we use that specific brand of poly by name on lots of furniture in our house with success and it adds protection that paint alone can’t provide). Hope it helps!

      xo,
      s

    • Sean B. says

      I just painted furniture for the second time. Furniture I painted for my son’s nursery I just repainted for my daughter’s room. I did a lot of paint details on the top and bought polycrilic to finish the tops and protect the paint job. Is it really necessary to sand in between coats? I will probably try to skip this part because I don’t have any sandpaper and don’t feel like running back to the hardware store. I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks!

    • says

      Nah, I only sand when I have obvious drips or marks to be smoothed out – but it sounds like yours looks good so I’d keep going with super thin and even coats.

      xo,
      s

    • Colton says

      Hello,

      Great post. We just painted our table and chairs and did so when it was a little too warm. Although we did 3 light coats, it seems to have dried “rough”. We wanted a smooth finish and are not sure what to do in order to fix the obvious paint strokes. Sanding it didn’t seem to help much. What can we do?!

      Thanks,

    • says

      Anyone have tips for Colton? I would sand it smooth and then try one top coat after it has a smooth base. That should help! And using a small foam roller tends to cut down on brush strokes.

      xo
      s

  1. D-ra says

    any tips for selecting a poly? I used supposedly clear poly over a white bench on our porch and it left it with a slightly amber tinge. I’d like to find a truely clear poly to use over white paint, which looks like worked for you on your table and chairs.

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey D-ra,

      We have heard about the yellowing effect of certain polyurethanes, but the key is to go with a water-based one. Oil-based poly has a lot more of that yellow tinge (in fact, it’s nearly impossible to find a clear oil-based one due to the nature of what it does), but a water-based poly should be a lot less yellow in tone. Our table and chairs look 100% white (not an ounce of yellow to be seen) and we used Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish in “Clear Gloss.” Hope it helps!

      xo,
      Sherry

  2. Carmil says

    Im confused about the oil based primer….. Why didn’t you use a water based primer? I thought mixing oil based and water based would result in a “bubbling” of the paint. Obviously, I thought wrong, because your table looks fantastic!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Kristen- We don’t know of a poly that isn’t shiny, but for a matte look you can just skip this optional step and go with flat latex paint for a much less glossy finish. It will still be durable, it just won’t be as easy to wipe down with water and might absorb a bit more stains and spills than anything coated in poly would. It’s really a great option for any furniture not being used for eating like a bedroom night table or a desk chair, etc. Hope it helps!

      Carmil- In our experience, there’s a definite order to be considered when applying paint, primer and poly. As long as you go for the oil-based primer before the water-based latex paint and water-based poly, everything is hunky-dorey. Latex paint and water-based poly will absolutely adhere to oil-based primer with ease and look fantastic. And it gives you added protection against stains since water-based primer is not nearly as good at blocking seepage. You may have issues with bubbling if you follow a coat of water-based latex paint with oil-based polyurethane. It seems that oil-based primer can easily be followed with latex paint, but latex paint shouldn’t be followed by oil-based poly. Does that make sense? In many cases water-based primer will totally do the trick (and make for a much easier clean-up… that oil stuff is sticky) but we actually have used water-based primer for certain projects and the stains and wood sap still bleed through and ruin our finish (super annoying!) so we follow the whole it’s-better-to-be-safe-than-sorry philosophy. Hopefully that explains our method!

      xo,
      Sherry

    • Cari says

      There’s satin polyacrylic, it has much less shine. It isn’t matte but it isn’t nearly as shiny.

  3. says

    Perfect timing! On my way home yesterday someone had put a perfectly good end table out on the curb. I am not one to pass up a good piece of furniture, so I picked it up! I hope to paint it soon.

  4. says

    Love it! I just picked up supplies last night to paint the desk that’s on my blog. We discussed back and forth the need to prime and I didn’t end up buying any. The thought was that the desk is already painted white, I’m going to be doing minimal sanding in a few areas, so the priming could be skipped over direct to painting a satin black. What is your advice for priming when you’re painting over existing paint?

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Amanda,

      Whether a piece is painted or not, I would definitely still do a coat of primer. In fact, I think you’ll have more problems with paint adhesion and possible peeling than you would painting raw wood (which absorbs paint a lot better than an already painted surface). People look at it as an extra step, but it’s seriously a short cut when you think about how paint over an already painted surface can crack, chip, or peel a lot more easily. Primer is like a layer of sticky stuff to ensure proper adhesion for a paint job that lasts decades and not just a few months. And the step you could probably skip instead of the primer is the sanding since a white painted desk probably isn’t varnished or glossy so the primer should do the job better than sandpaper. Hope it helps! Happy painting!

      Oh and Kristin, a piece of glass or even plexiglass atop your desk will definitely nip those rubber feet marks in the bud. Great idea! A good way to avoid those marks in the future is to paint in very thin layers and be sure that each one dries thoroughly before moving on to the next coat. Hope it helps!

      xo,
      Sherry

  5. Kristen says

    hmmm…mine is my desk, which I painted black. The little rubber feet on my laptop leave marks on the painted surface. I may just try to find a glass top for it…

  6. Meg says

    I beleive that poly’s come in different finishes, gloss, matte, etc. At least the spray one’s I use when crafting do.

  7. sceniclady says

    Kristen- I usually use Modern Masters Dead Flat Varnish if a client wants no sheen, it is waterbased and does not yellow. It is kind of thick, so sometimes I thin it with a little bit of water (just a little though) and do maybe 3 coats instead of 2, I don’t like seeing those brush strokes. Although I prefer the Minwax Satin Polyacrylic, it really does have a pretty low sheen.

  8. says

    Sherry, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. My husband and I rehab houses for a living and the design process is my favorite part. And you guys do such great things!
    Love the table and chairs to death! And wish I had that little nook overlooking the yard. I’d never get out of the chair.

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Aw shucks, Bridgett. You’re making us blush. Thanks so much for the kind words! You may be envious of our little sunroom eating area, but we’re jealous that you rehab houses for a living. What fun! Feel free to send us any and all before and after pics. We eat that stuff for breakfast.

      xo,
      Sherry

  9. says

    Thanks so much for the tip! I’m going to sandpaper a bit, with a 100 grain, just becuase there are a few rough spots, but then I’ll definately be oil-based priming before painting. I appreciate your advice.

    Does anyone have any suggestions for this…

    The last person that painted the roll top let the paint glob into the crevices of the roll down door. So, there’s a bunch of “extra” paint sitting in those crevices and I’d like to get rid of that dry, old paint, before painting again. But, I don’t want to damage the wood by scraping or picking at it too much. Is there any suggestion? I don’t think I can fit sandpaper in the small crevices either…

    Everyone is so helpful! I’m learning lots from your questions and Sherry’s answers!

    • beth says

      try using a little stripper and then removing residue with an old toothbrush. If you have a access to a saw dust you can sprinkle this in the crevices and use the toothbrush to clean it up. I use saw dust to clean up after using stripper. Rubbing the saw dust over the left over residue helps get rid of the sticky gunky stuff sometimes left behind.
      Hope this helps.

  10. elizabeth says

    Do y’all think it is necessary to sand and apply primer before painting trim and moulding (if it has already been painted)?

    Thanks!!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Good question Elizabeth! We actually paint right over any painted molding, baseboards and window trim with white semi-gloss latex paint unless it’s super globby or peely in which case we sand it for a while and then prime and paint it (since sanding down to the original wood and just painting it would probably result in sap or stain bleeding through the paint). Most trim looks a lot fresher with a new coat of white semi-gloss, and since it’s not usually a place that gets high traffic (like the tops of a desk or the seat of a chair) it seems to do just fine without the the sanding and the primer in most instances. Hope it helps!

      xo,
      Sherry

  11. Diane says

    Learn something new every day… I had always thought that water-based latex paints could not be used over an oil-based primer.

    Clearly NOT the case, because look how sharp your table turned out!