Your Complete Guide to Painting Wood Furniture—From Sanding to Sealing
Whether it's a dresser you've had for years or a unique chair you found in an antique shop, there are a handful of creative ways to breathe new life into worn-down furniture. One of the most common materials you'll run into when refreshing old pieces is wood, which can quickly be transformed into something beautiful with nothing more than a coat of paint.
"Painting or repainting your furniture isn't just a budget-friendly way to personalize your home, freshen up tired furniture, or disguise aesthetic damage," says Annie Sloan, paint and color expert, and creator of Chalk Paint Annie Sloan. "It's a way of life, rejecting the buy more, buy new, buy now culture, and embracing hands-on, do-it-yourself, creative expressionism."
The best part? The process of painting wood furniture looks the same across the board, meaning you can use the required materials for more than just one project—whether it's a desk, chair, dresser, or vanity, the same steps apply.
The Materials You'll Need
You'll need a few basic tools and materials in order to complete this project properly:
- Drop cloth
- Painter's tape
- 180- and 220-grit sanding sponges
- Damp cloth
- Paint brush
- Safety mask
Type of Primer
The type of wood you're working with will dictate what type of primer you use. Wood that isn't stained needs a high-quality latex or oil-based primer, while wood that is stained needs a stain blocking primer (as does redwood and cedar). Additionally, furniture that has exposed wood, chalking, or chipped paint needs an oil-based primer. Sloan also notes that you should use water-based primer if you're using water-based paints, and varnish-based products if you're using varnish-based paints.
Type of Paint
Experts recommend using chalk paint, which is also known as chalk-finish or chalking paint. It's an easy and stylish way to improve and transform your furniture, says Gary McCoy, Lowe's store manager serving the Charlotte, N.C. market. "Different from chalkboard paint, it's a latex paint that has a fine powder added to the mix to create a unique matte finish," he says. "The brushstroke and imperfections become part of the unique look."
Type of Paint Brush
The type of paint brush you use depends on the type of finish you want. "Smooth bristled flat brushes will even out paint as you apply and give a smooth, flat, modern finish," Sloan says. The variety of paint you use will also dictate the type of paint brush you reach for. "Use a synthetic-bristle brush for latex paint and a natural-bristle brush for oil-based paint," says McCoy.
How to Prepare Furniture for Painting
Before dipping your brush into paint, there are a few steps you need to take to ensure your wood furniture is ready for the job.
Remove Drawers and Hardware
First things first, start by removing drawers, loose shelves, and hardware from your furniture. If you want to paint the interior, this is also the time to remove the back of your piece, if possible. "If you see screws on the inside front of a drawer box, the drawer may have a removable front piece that'll be easier to paint than the entire drawer," says McCoy. "So remove the screws to see if the front can be lifted free. If you have more than one drawer with a detachable front, make sure to label the fronts and drawers to help with reassembly."
Sand Your Wood Furniture
Place the furniture over a tarp or drop cloth to catch debris and paint as you work. Now, it's time to sand. If you're working with a surface that has an existing finish that's already smooth, McCoy says to sand with a 220-grit sanding sponge, then to wipe clean with a moist cloth. For slightly rough surfaces, sand with 180-grit and 220-grit sanding sponges. "Always wipe down sanded furniture with a damp cloth to collect the dust," Sloan says. "Otherwise the particles will collect and show through the paint."
Once your piece is sanded and wiped clean, block off any areas you don't want painted with painter's tape—like hardware and hinges you can't easily remove. Next, put on a face mask to protect yourself from fumes and add your primer. "Whether or not you need to prime depends on the type and condition of the surface. Always prime and sand bare wood or damaged surfaces that have been patched," McCoy says.
To prime your furniture, brush in the direction of the grain and let it dry. "An angled sash brush is handy for reaching into corners," McCoy says. Once it has the first coat of primer, sand the surface with a 220-grit sanding sponge and wipe clean. Then apply a second coat of prime, if necessary, to ensure a smooth base for your paint.
How to Paint Wood Furniture
At this point, your piece should be sanded, primed, and laid over a drop cloth, which means you're finally ready to paint. Wait to take off your protective face mask until the project is complete.
Dip your paint brush into your paint and start by brushing back and forth, only enough to spread the paint and always in the direction of the wood grain or along the length of a previously painted surface. "Hold the brush loosely in your hand and move from your armpit rather than your wrist or elbow to allow for big broad strokes," Sloan says. "The number of coats required will depend on the surface you're painting, the thickness with which you apply the paint, and the color you've chosen."
Repair Any Flaws
After the first coat of paint is applied, McCoy says to check for drips and runs. "If you find one after the paint has dried thoroughly, be sure to carefully sand it off," he says. "If you see paint collect on your sandpaper, stop immediately to keep paint from scratching the surface." When the surface is dry and you've sanded off any flaws, add another thin coat to conceal the repairs. "A painted surface that feels dry to the touch may not be ready for sanding or recoating, so closely follow manufacturer recommendations for drying times," McCoy says.
Seal the Paint
Although adding sealant is an optional step, Sloan recommends sealing chalk paint once it's dry because it's a water-based product and could transfer if not protected. "Use clear chalk paint wax, matte, or gloss chalk paint lacquer, and apply over the entire painted surface," she says. Once dry, you can replace any removed drawers and hardware.