How to Paint Furniture in 3 Easy Steps

Feb 14, 2021 | Chalk Paint, Furniture FAQs and Tips | 2 comments

Painting furniture doesn’t have to be complicated! Regardless of what type of paint you use, or your experience level, the furniture painting process can be broken down into 3 easy-to-remember steps:

Prep | Paint | Protect

Step 1 – Prep Your Furniture

This step is the MOST important, which is why it’s first! It should never be skipped, regardless of what your can of paint says. Most of the projects we want to paint have already been used before. Whether it’s a thrift store find, a piece we’ve had in our home for years or a roadside find, there are surface contaminants that need to be cleaned and removed.

Washstand in Layla's Mint Milk Paint

The most common surface contaminants are oils from people’s hands, dirt, dust, pet hair, grease, oil and silicone (read more about silicone here). All of these unseen contaminants can cause your paint finish to fail, which is why they need to be removed.

When I first started painting furniture, I used a paint that promoted a “no prep” policy. It didn’t even say you needed to clean the piece first! As I painted more and more pieces, I ran into issues more frequently. Once I educated myself and implemented the prep process laid out below, my issues became more infrequent.

If you want to forgo the prep process, that’s up to you. Take it from someone who has painted HUNDREDS of pieces of furniture and who wants you to succeed – not prepping will eventually cause you to backtrack and troubleshoot. This may cost you hours of more work, which could have been prevented with basic prep procedures.

Prep work can be broken down into 2 main steps (and a potential 3rd if it’s needed).

A. Cleaning

You should ALWAYS clean your piece of furniture before you paint it – even if it doesn’t look dirty! At the very least, there’s dust that needs to be vacuumed out from inside the drawers.

Cleaning Really Dirty Pieces

Sometimes pieces come to you and they’re filthy. I’m talking just-got-pulled-out-of-a-barn-and-smells-like-death kind of filthy. Start cleaning these pieces with a healthy scrubbing of blue Dawn dish detergent, a green Scotch Brite Pad (so it won’t scratch your surface too much) and warm water.

Blue Dawn dish detergent

Scrub the dickens out of every nook and cranny, inside the drawers, underneath and on the back. You’ll have to change your water a few times.

Then, let the piece fully and completely dry, then follow the steps below.

Cleaning “Normal” Pieces

Spray a 50/50 mix of Denatured Alcohol and Water over your piece and scrub with a green Scotch Brite Pad. Allow to dry. You can check out why I recommend Denatured Alcohol as opposed to Mineral Spirits or TSP here.

If your piece still smells, try placing a bowl of charcoal briquettes inside and tenting it with a tarp. The charcoal will absorb some of the odors. You can also try Ozium Smoke & Odor Eliminating Gels (affiliate link).

B. Sanding

After your piece has been cleaned thoroughly, use a piece of 400 grit sandpaper to gently scuff sand your piece. Some paints will say you don’t have to do this step, but every piece can benefit from a gentle scuff sand. Not only does it further clean the piece, but it breaks the seal of the existing finish, allowing your new paint finish to adhere better.

Jenn Baker, Eight Hundred Furniture, Prep Sanding, Washstand

It seriously takes like 5 minutes and can only benefit you!

Vacuum the dust.

C. Priming (If Needed)

Priming is necessary when using any shade of white or light colored paint (like yellow). When you prime, you are laying down a chemical barrier that will prevent wood tannins (wood oils like sap) and stains to wiggle through your paint and come out on the surface. This is also referred to as “bleed-through”.

You can see what I’m talking about in the picture below.

Bleed through on Annie Sloan's Chalk Paint

This happened when I was painting the interior of this hoosier with a chalk style paint that promotes a “no prep, no priming” policy.

Vintage Hoosier Cabinet

When it comes to primers, I only use and recommend General Finishes Stain Blocker and BIN Shellac-Based Primer. Both of these are FANTASTIC and provide consistent results. You can read more about these primers in my series on painting furniture white.

Step 2 – Paint Your Furniture

This is the REALLY fun part, and the step everyone wants to jump into first. Be patient and never skip prep work.

Never skip prep work

Imagine you were building a house. Would you skip digging out and laying a foundation? Of course not! A firm foundation is essential for the rest of the build. Prep work is your foundation for a fabulous finish that will stand the test of time.

You can follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how to apply your paint of choice. I sell two fabulous types of Milk Paint here at Eight Hundred Furniture – Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint and General Finishes Milk Paint.

General Finishes Milk Paint, Miss Mustard Seed's Milk Paint, Eight Hundred Furniture, Jenn Baker

You can read all about the similarities and differences in this blog post.

The only paint I DO NOT RECOMMEND using on furniture is any sort of wall paint i.e. latex. Latex wall paint has lots of fillers in it and is specifically formulated for walls. It’s not meant for use on furniture, and I suggest you opt for a paint that is designed for your project.

After you’ve finished painting, you can distress if you wish. Distressing is the step where you intentionally remove paint from the edges and high points of a piece to simulate age and character. This is totally optional!

Distressing, Smooth Sanding, 220 grit sandpaper

Step 3 – Protect Your Furniture

Once your paint is dry and you’ve distressed (if desired), it’s time to protect that beautiful finish! There are several topcoat options on the paint market today, and they fall into 3 basic categories:

A. Wax Topcoats – Colored and clear

B. Water-Based Topcoats – Interior and Exterior Polyurethanes

C. Oil Topcoats – Hemp Oil, Tung Oil, Danish Wood Oil, Oil-Based Polyurethanes, etc.

You can read your paint manufacturer’s recommendations on the use and application of the finish of your choice.

Some paints do not require protective topcoats, like General Finishes Milk Paint. Once cured, it’s durable to hold up to every day use. I always apply a topcoat though!

I know these 3 steps will help you with your next furniture refinishing project!

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I'm Jenn Baker - Milk Paint lover, photographer, blogger, and QVC Guest Host. Click below to learn more about me and my creative business.  LEARN MORE ABOUT JENN

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