The Importance of Prep Work

Mar 2, 2018 | Furniture FAQs and Tips | 2 comments

For the purposes of this blog post, I want to emphasize the importance of prepping a piece before it receives a new finish.  This is often the step that is skipped, overlooked, and even scorned in the paint world.  People don’t want to hear about prep work and they cringe when you mention the “s” word – sanding!

Can I simply take a minute and say that prep work is the key to a quality finish and there are numerous benefits to prep work that far outweigh the perceived “inconvenience” of it all?  A world of hurt can be avoided if you take a few minutes to properly prep your piece.  That’s really all it takes…just a few minutes.  It’s really not as big of an imposition as you may think.  And, if you take the time to do prep work, you may wind up saving time because you won’t have to backtrack and fix problems. 

Prep work is basically your insurance policy for getting a good finish.  If you want a beautiful and professional looking piece of painted furniture, it all begins with prep.

There are two phases or stages of preparation – cleaning and sanding.


Most furniture pieces that people want to paint are not brand new.  They’ve had previous owners or have been used (and potentially abused) over the years.  Imagine the buildup of oils from hands, grime, dust, dirt and other contaminants that accumulate on the surface of a piece of furniture before it gets to you. Think of the layers of furniture polish that have been applied week after week with a soft cloth. Each piece has a history and a story that it brings to the table, and some pieces have more baggage than others.  That’s why the first step is to thoroughly clean the piece.

The prep work described below is what’s advocated on General Finishes‘ website.  (You could follow the same steps to paint a piece with Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint, but you may need to scuff the surface with a more aggressive sandpaper like 150 or 120 if the existing finish is particularly smooth or glossy.)

1. Use a 50/50 mix of Denatured Alcohol and water with a Scotch Brite pad to scrub the surface.

Denatured alcohol contains good solvents that will remove dirt and grime.  It does not contain phosphates, is inexpensive, readily available in the paint aisle of any hardware store and does not require rinsing (like TSP, bleach, or vinegar).  If the surface has a lot of buildup, then use Spic and Span.  Rinse it and then follow up with the 50/50 mix of water and alcohol.  Pay special attention to the heavily used areas such as around handles and knobs. 

2. Let the piece dry thoroughly.


1. Use 400 grit sandpaper or 220 grit sanding pad to scuff the surface.  Take note that there is a difference between sandpaper and sanding pads.  This information is new to me too, so if you’ve learned something then you’re in good company!

Sanding pads are softer with a less aggressive scratch pattern.  As you use it more and more, a 220 pad will quickly soften to the equivalent of 400 grit sandpaper.  The pads last a long time, can be rinsed to remove sanding residue and have the benefit of being flexible, making corners and edges much easier to sand.  This is what sanding pads look like:

Sandpaper is thinner and is literally like a piece of paper with grit on one side.

4. Wipe the dust off with either an oil free tack cloth or a dampened paper towel.  Now you’re ready to paint! 

If you’re a visual learner, here is that same process shown in this video via General Finishes.

If you have a piece that has experienced heavier use or are getting ready to paint your kitchen cabinets, a more thorough “power cleaning” is recommended.

A few minutes of proper preparation techniques will go a long way in ensuring your finish will be durable for years to come. And I promise it’s not as painful as you think!

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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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