Painting Furniture White – Part 1

Jan 18, 2021 | Brushable White Enamel, Furniture FAQs and Tips, General Finishes, Stain Blocker | 4 comments

Painting furniture white is the safest choice whether you’re a DIY’er or a furniture refinisher. White goes with everything!

Pair of Cherry Wood End Tables

Did you know that white is also the trickiest paint color to use?

Want to know how to paint furniture white and have it stand the test of time? Read on and get my tips, product recommendations and see beautiful examples of white painted furniture.

Why is White Paint So Tricky to Use?

White Paint Has Little to No Pigment

White paint has very little pigment (or coloring). Because of that, white paint has low hiding properties, and often requires multiple coats for full opacity. It’s one of the most transparent colors to use.

Front shot of baby jacobean buffet
Baby Jacobean Buffet in General Finishes Antique White Milk Paint

It’s prone to bleed-through over dark wood surfaces, wood grains with high concentrations of tannins (wood oils) and furniture from the 1920’s – 1940’s.

Depression-era furniture (like this mahogany dresser) has a dye that is reddish-brown. It’s notorious for causing tons of bleed through over light colors of paint, including white.

Depression era mahogany dresser

White Paint is Prone to Yellowing

White paint can also yellow over time when a water-based topcoat is applied. The topcoat can pull out substances from the wood below, causing yellowing. Due to the way light reflects off white surfaces can also cause the appearance of yellowing. This happens most often in corners and crevices.

Scroll work on baby jacobean buffet

Porous White Paints Have Lots of Fillers

The type of paint you use has a huge role in your white finish standing the test of time. Porous paints (like chalk style paint) are more likely to yellow. I can personally attest to this fact, because I have had several white pieces that were painted in chalk style paint yellow on me! The large hutch with the yellow back in the photo below is one of them.

Antique Market in Lebanon Pennsylvania

Chalk type paints have a lot of fillers in them. It’s what gives them their chalky texture. There is a lot of space in between the paint particles because of those fillers. Water based topcoats can wiggle through that space to easily cause bleed through and yellowing.

So what’s a furniture refinisher to do?

Use a High Quality Primer

Priming your surface is an essential step when using white paint. I know some paint companies promote their products as a “no prep, no priming” system, but this is very misleading. You should never skip prep work because you typically don’t know the origin and history of your furniture piece. Who knows what lies on the surface, unseen to the human eye?

When you prime, you are laying down a chemical barrier that separates your surface from your paint. Think of primer like a bodyguard, preventing any stains from wiggling through to your white paint. The “beefier” your primer, the better the odds that your finish will last!

BIN shellac based primer

I have refinished hundreds of pieces in my career, and I have used lots of priming products on the market. Here are those that I personally recommend. These provide consistent beautiful results.

General Finishes Stain Blocker

General Finishes Stain Blocker is a water-based primer for interior projects.

General Finishes Stain Blocker Quart Open

It has a sophisticated resin system and atypical formulation. Stain Blocker is a high solids content primer, which means that it lays down lots of stain-blocking chemicals with every brushstroke.

It is low odor, VOC compliant and can be cleaned up with water and Dawn dish detergent.

Blue Dawn dish detergent

General Finishes Stain Blocker is designed for effectiveness, not price point, so it’s not the cheapest primer on the market. That being said, it works time and time again and provides consistent reliable results. It’s the primer that I use 99% of the time when I’m painting with white.

One coat of General Finishes Stain Blocker on antique oak buffet

I proudly sell General Finishes Stain Blocker in my online shop. It’s available in quarts, gallons and 5 gallon pails.

Gallon of General Finishes Stain Blocker

Here’s a great overview of Stain Blocker white primer by General Finishes:

Here is another great video that gives you more tidbits about priming and why it’s so important. This was a live broadcast from General Finishes’ Facebook page. Fast forward to minute 7:05 when they start discussing priming.

Skip to Minute 7:05 to Hear More About Priming

Zinsser’s B-I-N Shellac-Based White Tinted Primer

Zinsser’s B-I-N Shellac Based White Tinted Primer is the only other primer I recommend. As opposed to General Finishes Stain Blocker, BIN is shellac-based. While the can says it’s low odor, I do not find that to be true. In my opinion, it has a very strong chemical odor and should be used in an area with excellent ventilation. It dries quickly and provides a durable barrier that protects against bleed-through.

B-I-N Shellac Based Primer by Zinsser

BIN is less expensive than General Finishes Stain Blocker and comes in quarts, gallons and 5 gallon pails.

Keep in mind that BIN is flammable and should be stored in a climate-controlled environment. It is cleaned up with ammonia and cannot be simply thrown away in the trash. You need to check with your local township or county to see their hazardous material disposal procedures.

I find that the inconvenience of cleanup, the strong chemical odor and the need for proper disposal make BIN a product that I don’t use very often. However, if I’m out of Stain Blocker, I’ll pop open a can.

Primers I DON’T Recommend

My list of no-no primers to use on furniture are listed below.

  • Bullseye 123
  • Kilz
  • Clear Shellac

These are on my “naughty” list because I’ve had them fail on me often enough that I can’t trust their reliability. They don’t provide consistent results for me or my customers. Here at Eight Hundred Furniture, I only recommend products and procedures that I know (by experience) will give you consistent, durable and beautiful results.

The Proper Way to Prime Furniture

Apply 2 Coats of Primer

Priming is a 2 coat process. The first coat’s job is to draw out stains and tannins from the surface and lock them in place. Your first coat of primer often looks a bit scary!

One coat of General Finishes Stain Blocker on antique oak buffet

The second coat’s job is to cover all of the stains that were drawn out by the first coat, and seal them with a chemical barrier.

It’s important to allow each coat of primer to dry thoroughly, so you don’t trap moisture in between each layer.

Aim for Full Coverage

Each time you apply a coat of primer, your goal should be to get the best coverage you possibly can. Use a heavier hand and load your brush up with more product than normal. Now you don’t want primer to be dripping all over the place, but remember, your goal for applying primer is to COVER UP your surface. Don’t be stingy with the product!

Another tip I have for you is to flow the product off your brush and onto your surface, as opposed to brushing it to death. Try to minimize your passes over the primer and only use a stroke to distribute the primer. Over-brushing primer will lead to thinner coats, brush strokes and more transparency.

Priming Over Filled Areas

Oftentimes, furniture will have damage that needs to be repaired before primer is applied. Damaged veneer is the most common problem I find on my pieces.

When you patch damaged areas on your furniture, understand that you may need to apply a bit more primer in those areas to get full coverage. (You can read my post on how to repair damaged veneer here.)

On this oak buffet, I sanded these Bondo’d areas smooth, and applied 3 full coats of Stain Blocker to get an opaque white surface.

Bondo on right side of buffet at bottom

Part 2 – Painting With White Paint

In part 2 of this series, I’ll teach you about General Finishes Brushable White Enamel, and why it’s my go-to white paint product!

Brushable White Enamel Flat Quart General Finishes
How to paint furniture white

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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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