White furniture is always a crowd pleaser. It’s clean, crisp and goes with practically every type of home decor!
But did you know that white is easily the hardest paint color to use on furniture?
Yep. That clean color that everyone loves is the most temperamental and vulnerable you can choose.
But have no fear! I have lots of tips to share with you in this series that will help make your white furniture finishes stand the test of time.
This series is going to revolve around a pair of Pennsylvania House cherry stained end tables.
These were given to me by a customer who wanted the bases painted in General Finishes Snow White, which is a bright white paint color. It’s actually the brightest white that exists in the General Finishes Milk Paint line. (The tops will be stripped, sanded and refinished, but that’s a different series!)
Work began by taking the tables apart, separating the tops from the bases and removing all of the hardware. The tops were set aside to be refinished separately.
Once everything was disassembled, I started the prep stage.
Preparation is the key to any finish that will last and stand the test of time. It should never be skipped and is essential for creating a foundation for the subsequent layers that will be applied on your surface.
I started by cleaning the tables with a 50/50 mix of Denatured Alcohol and water. I mix mine in a spray bottle, and I used a green Scotch Brite pad to gently scrub the surface down.
Why Denatured Alcohol?
This cleaner is inexpensive, readily available and does not require rinsing once it’s applied. It removes grease, oils, dust and dirt from the surface of your furniture – all of which can cause issues with adhesion.
After I was finished cleaning, I let the piece dry for about 10 minutes and then gently scuffed the piece with 400 grit sandpaper.
Ugh! You mean I have to sand? Why? And why 400 grit?
Sanding has become a word of dread in the painting world. For some reason, no one wants to sand anymore. No one wants to prep. When I talk with customers about their projects, they physically cringe when I use the “s” word. The truth is, prep sanding takes less time than you think and the results go a long way. Plus, it’s essential so it should never be skipped.
The reason why you need to sand your piece before your piece is NOT for improving adhesion (believe it or not). General Finishes Milk Paint has excellent adhesive properties and doesn’t need any extra help to stick. That’s what makes it very different from a true powder casein-based milk paint product, such as Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint.
The sanding step when you’re using GF products is to further clean the surface of contaminants. It also helps to smooth out the surface, giving you a foundation for a super smooth finish. You’d be amazed what you find embedded in the existing finish of furniture! I’ve found hair, bugs and paint brush bristles.
The reason why you use 400 grit sandpaper in particular is because it’s an extra fine grit. It’s very soft and doesn’t have an aggressive scratch pattern. Because you’re “clean” sanding and not “adhesion improving” sanding, you don’t need to go crazy and take the finish down to the raw wood. Again, GF products have excellent adhesive properties, so you don’t have to worry about them sticking!
If you look closely at one of the end tables below, you can see an hour glass shape on the side. That’s where the original stain was sprayed on and created a cluster of bumps and unevenness. If you ran your hand over it, it felt like sandpaper. A treatment of 400 grit sandpaper left those spots smooth as butter!
Here’s a video demonstrating that preparation process.
Priming is absolutely essential when painting with bright white paint. There are tons on the market to choose from, but the two that the folks at General Finishes (and countless professional furniture painters, cabinet refinishers and professional woodworkers) recommend are GF’s Stain Blocker and BIN Shellac Based White Tinted Primer.
Take note that the BIN product above is NOT shellac sealer. That’s the amber colored product that says “shellac” on the label. That will NOT prevent stains from bleeding through your finish. That product is a topcoat and is used to protect your finish as a final layer. It’s not a primer. If you visit Zinsser’s product page, it never mentions using this as an undercoat to prep for white paint.
That’s a really important thing to understand because many furniture painters will say that you can use shellac as a primer to prevent bleed through, but that’s not what the product is for. You need a white tinted shellac based primer, (like BIN) or a primer with a superior resin system, like GF’s Stain Blocker. (Folks use the term “shellac” loosely and it often causes confusion. So to be clear, I’m referring to a white tinted shellac-based primer.)
White paint is practically transparent. It hardly has any pigments in it, resulting in low hiding properties. In contrast, colors like black and navy have high hiding properties, making it unnecessary to use primer.
Because there are hardly any pigments in bright white paint, it’s susceptible to showing stains that may seep their way through the paint and onto the surface of your project. These stains could be oils, wood tannins, dyes and existing wood stains that are on your piece.
The lack of pigments in bright white paint also results in transparency. Have you ever noticed that when you paint a few coats of white paint on your piece, it looks like you can still see the original finish underneath? Like the white isn’t quite covering as well as you wanted? That’s because white doesn’t cover well. So having a layer of white primer underneath actually reduces the number of coats of white paint you’ll need to get the full coverage you’re looking for.
Here’s a great video demonstrating how well GF’s Stain Blocker works and why it’s needed. The Merlot dye stain they painted on as a base can represent the red dyes commonly found on 1920’s – 1940’s mahogany furniture!
For my cherry end tables, I went with GF’s Stain Blocker. I opened up my can and gave it a good stir. For my brushes, I used my F40 and P45 by ClingOn! (I sell these brushes in my retail spaces, so if you’d like one, let me know!)
The flat brush made short work of the sides.
And the bent angle of the P45 fit around the legs really well.
I took my time and applied the first coat of primer as smoothly as possible. As you can see, it was very streaky and uneven.
That is completely normal for the first coat! The job of the first coat is to provide a foundation and draw out stains. If you see anything bleeding through your first coat of primer, that means it’s working! The first coat’s job is to draw out stains. The second coat’s job is to cover them up. That’s why you always apply two coats total. One is not enough.
After my first coat dried for at least two hours, I applied a second. You could immediately see how much better the second coat covered.
The goal of primer is to be smooth. It can look streaky and uneven, but what matters is how it feels. Watch for drips and make sure you don’t miss any spots.
Proper preparation and priming are the foundation for a great paint job! Stay tuned for the next stage, which is painting. I have a great little tip for you to help “cheat” when it comes time for distressing too, so make sure you stay tuned for what comes next!