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):


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.


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

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.


  1. Christina says

    This is SO helpful- thanks so much! I have definately found a lot in thrift stores that I want to repaint but haven’t found such nice clear directions anywhere on the web- until now! Do you think I could follow these same steps for a wicker chair that needs repainting? (it has flaky white paint on it now) Thanks again!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Christina,

      I think due to the nooks and crannies found in a wicker chair, your best bet is to lightly sand all the cracked paint away with 100 grit sandpaper and then use spray primer and spray paint to refinish it (which will go on lighter than with with a roller or paintbrush). You can then follow with a coat or two of spray poly if you’d like even more durability. Just remember to spray using long even strokes and don’t get too close to the chair when you’re applying the primer, paint and poly since you don’t want drips and pools of paint between the woven wicker material. Hope it helps!


  2. elizabeth says

    Thanks Sherry! I think we may need to do a bit of sanding on our bathroom trim before repainting, but we definitely won’t be going down to the wood.

  3. says

    Makes me wonder if it would be best to spray prime and spray paint the roll top portion of my desk- to avoid gooping up in the crevices? Wonder if I can get that roll top out of the track to do that though….

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Amanda,

      You could also just use plastic bags (or a big plastic tarp from Lowe’s for like $2) to shield any parts of the desk that you don’t want to spray and keep the roll top of the desk exposed. The only issue I see with spraying part of the desk and painting another part is that you’d want your spray paint and your paint to match perfectly so it doesn’t look mismatched. This usually means you have to get someone like Benjamin Moore to pour some paint into a spray can for ya so you can use the same paint for both areas of the desk. I also think that a paint brush would work just fine on the roll top so if the whole custom spray paint thing sounds too complicated just stick with a paintbrush (since the bristles can easily get into those crevices, as long as you keep from applying too much paint you’ll be just fine). Wicker and anything meshy us usually hard to do with a brush, but regular grooves and crannies in wooden pieces are still easy enough to navigate with a brush most of the time. Hope it helps!


  4. says

    Oh yes, didn’t think about the color difference between the rest of the desk and the top- I should have considering how long I pondered the “many facets of black” last night in the paint aisle at Home Depot- sheesh! I just wanted normal black and there’s about 10 variations, I swear!

    I’ll give it a go at getting the old stuff out of the crevices and using a brush… sounds like a good method to attempt first.


  5. Tiffany says

    Great tutorial! And I must say, PERFECT timing! I just bought a dresser on craigslist that is painted an ungodly black/red/gold glitter color (for only $15!!) that I can’t wait to paint a crisp white. It’s going to look great thanks to your advice! LOVE LOVE LOVE your website!

  6. Lindsay says

    Interesting, I’ve painted quite a few things, but always used the water-based primers (thinking, apparently incorrectly(!), that was the only option unless you wanted to paint with oil-based paint as well). I wonder if the oil-based stuff would “stick” better? I’ve painted a couple pieces of that cheapo veneered MDF type furniture, and after a while the paint starts to chip off when I prime with water-based stuff. I’ll definitely keep this in mind to try out next time. Thanks for the tip!! :)

  7. jane says

    I was inspired this morning by this post so I went out and bought supplies and I just finished painting our computer cabinet black. I followed your instructions and used an oil based primer and two coats of semi-gloss latex paint. Here’s the problem…. While painting with a foam roller, the paint rolled on with thousand of little bubbles. Now it feels quite rough and you can see all the brush stokes. Any suggestions on what to do now? I’m really frustrated!

    Also, the color I went with (BM Black) has strange gray/blue undertone. I’m hoping it will look better in the morning. Any tips for picking out a pure black color?

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Jane,

      Eeeks! It was the foam roller. I’ve actually never used those things but I called my Benjamin Moore buddy and got her take on it and she definitely thinks foam rollers create those bubbles while brushes and regular rollers ensure a more even coat (she again reiterated that it had nothing to do with latex paint over oli-based primer). I’ll have to add the no foam roller disclaimer to my painting tutorial! So sorry for your frustrating bubble fight. We actually used a brush for all the furniture that we’ve painted thus far (the table above, the other white pedestal table in the den, the light green bookcase) so if you’re looking for the most foolproof method I’d definitely go with a brush. And the only caution would be that you should use a brand new brush to apply the latex paint (using an old brush for the primer is ok, but you want the paint to go on smooth and clean). You also want to allow each coat of primer and paint to thoroughly dry before going on to the next coat- which will really do wonders when it comes to making any brush strokes less visible.

      As for the bubble situation you’re currently dealing with, my BM buddy suggested waiting for the last coat of latex that you applied to dry completely and lightly sanding the surface to smooth the bubbled texture. Then try using a brush to add one more coat of black paint which should go on as smooth as a baby’s butt (you might need a second coat depending on how deep you sand, but it should look great when you’re done). But please know that I’m frustrated for you, and I’m crossing my fingers that you end up with a fabulous piece that works perfectly in your space. Even we have paint snafus (like the aforementioned time we primed, painted and polyurethaned just to have stains come through since we didn’t use an oil-based primer so we actually had to start over from square one. I totally feel your pain! And at least you’re just redoing the last step and no going back to that nasty sticky primer! Good luck…


  8. says

    My $0.02 – I never seem to have problems using a roller when painting furniture, but I only do it if I’m using flat paint, not any kind of enamel or gloss.

    We painted a ping-pong table with flat paint as well as washed a dresser with it. Of course, otherwise I don’t know why anyone would use flat on furniture. :)

    • Todd says

      I’ve actually used foam rollers with a lot of success and no bubbles! I refinished or repainted the kitchen cabinets in my former house, a 1940’s bungalow. The cabinets were built specifically for the home, but were in rough shape. We had originally thought about ripping them out and installing new cabinets, but our friends would always comment how much they loved them. I sanded them to make a nice, smooth surface, primed any needed areas, and painted them a crisp and glossy white. I did not want any brush strokes or roller marks on them. I wanted a smooth and glossy finish. I bought high quality brushes and also high quality foam rollers. I used the brush when needed, but used the roller for all of the large surfaces. To ensure I didn’t get any bubbles or brush strokes, I thinned down the latex paint. Since I did not know how much to thin it down, I thinned it down, little by little, until I got the desired consistency. Thinning down the paint increased the drying time but allowed the paint to even itself out. As Sherry mentioned, I applied numerous THIN coats of paint. I took down the cabinet doors, laid them down flat and painted them, which helped with making sure the paint dried evenly. It took longer, but cabinets looked smooth as a sheet of glass when it was all done, with no bubbles. In retrospect, I am very glad we redid the cabinets, instead of replacing them with new ones. It gave the kitchen an updated with a clean look, but retained the original charm. Everybody marveled how wonderful the kitchen looked.

  9. Sadie says

    this is timely…. thanks! I just picked up a free solid wood stand alone jelly cupboard for my kitchen and am looking to paint it white to match – I do love the deals I find on, and this will help me do the trick!

  10. Eve says

    Thank you so much for this! I’m getting a coffee table back from a friend (long story) and there’s some chips in the smooth melamine paint on the top (I think it’s melamine – it’s very thick). I was wondering how exactly to go about it due to my furniture painting debacles in the past – I will certainly have this handy when I go to do it!

  11. Kelly says

    This is such perfect timing. My sister-in-law gave us her old (like 25 years old) dresser and nightstand. It is in perfect condition, but the finish – orange 1980’s knotty pine – leaves little to be desired. I have the nightstand hardware off, and downstairs just waiting for me to go to Home Depot for supplies. I will be starting on Monday – will definitely send you some before and after shots.

    One question though…I had planned on getting a piece of glass cut for the top of both pieces (which someone else also mentioned above) – any reason to polly? Also, what is best – flat, semi, etc…

    Thanks so much!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Kelly,

      The paint finish is up to you although we prefer semi-gloss for more wipe-able protection and a crisp, sleek shine. As for whether you should also poly if you’re using a piece of glass on the top of the table, it’s totally your call. It’s an optional step to give your piece a bit more of that spill-proof shine and added durability so if you think the top is the only part of the piece that will get wear and tear, you might not need it. But if it’s in a place where you’ll lean shoes, bags, and other items against it, you might want the added poly protection. Happy painting!


  12. Becky says

    This is a great step-by-step tutorial. I’ve painted a lot of furniture recently but I’ve used a paint sprayer (like the kind you’d use to paint your house, but littler). As long as I don’t get too close, it seems to create a super-smooth, factory-like sheen on all of my pieces and it’s a lot quicker!

    One question though, can I use an oil-based primer with a paint sprayer and then clean it out and use the same sprayer for the latex paint?

    I’ve been mostly painting white stuff white but I am hoping to paint a coffee and end table set that are currently a rusty orangey brown color. I plan to lightly sand first but am not sure whether to use my sprayer this time or not. What do you think? Any experience using sprayers with oil and then latex paint?

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Becky,

      I think the safest way to go is to use a brush to apply a thin coat of the oil-based primer and then use the sprayer to apply the latex paint in thin even layers. That way you won’t have to worry about the oil-based paint in the sprayer reacting with the latex paint afterwords, and you’ll still get that factory-like, super-smooth sheen. Happy painting! And feel free to send us before and after pics!


  13. says

    I recently acquired an old hutch and followed ALL of your instructions to the T. I painted it white. Now, after applying my water-based poly, there is a significant yellow tinge and my bright white summer hutch now looks dirty. I am concerned. Is there anything I can do to fix it? And if not, how can I avoid this is the future?


  14. YoungHouseLove says

    Hey Rebecca,

    I have three thoughts about the yellow tinge:

    1. You’re sure it was water-based poly and not oil-based, right? Oil-based has quite a yellow tinge while most water-based versions are clear and untinted- like thick water.

    2. Perhaps the brand or quality of the oil-based poly makes a difference and since I always use the same kind I haven’t experienced the tinting you describe? I swear by Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish in “Clear Gloss” so perhaps you picked up one that wasn’t “clear” and had more of an “antique glaze” finish?

    3. Thickness is key for polyurethane application. Two very thin coats help to add shine without changing the color of the paint at all, so anything that was applied too thickly would muddy up the finish and diminish that super sleek white tone.

    Is there any possibility that the three things I outlined above could be the culprit? As for fixing the painted piece, one thin coat of primer and another two coats of paint will get you back to glossy white. I know it’s a lot of work to essentially start over, but we had to do it once when we skipped the oil-based primer step (since we experienced some annoying stain-bleeding without it) so although it’s a pain, the perfect glossy white finish is worth the trouble.

    If you’d like to skip the poly step (it is optional), you can always just use white semi-gloss or gloss latex paint and just let that dry a few days and you’re good to go. If you’d still like the protection of poly, grabbing the one I recommend (Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish in “Clear Gloss”) and applying two thin even coats (I use a brush for super thin application as opposed to a goopier roller) should certainly do the trick. Hope it helps!


  15. Heidi williams says

    Thank you for your info, I just made a cool retro boomerang table out of MDF. I did use a water primer then a Latex paint (2 coats). I want to top it off with minwax polycrylic clear gloss. I was worried of this last step because I put so much work into this….Thanks again!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Heidi,

      As long as you use two thin coats of Polycrylic applied with a paint bursh (avoid a bubble-inducing foam roller at all costs!) you should be left with a smooth and unfirm finish that lasts and lasts!


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