The Agony and the Ecstasy of Painting Furniture - A Pro's How To Guide

An old wooden dresser & mirror get a new lease on life with a beachwood painted finish.

An old wooden dresser & mirror get a new lease on life with a beachwood painted finish.

To paint or not to paint?

Often I am asked to paint a piece of furniture for a client. Perhaps the piece has great lines but its finish is outdated. Or it belonged to grandma and so it has sentimental value. I ask clients what the reason is because painting furniture is an involved process and if not done correctly can create a world of headache down the road!

Painting furniture can be such a polarizing topic.  It has even spawned articles wondering "It is a mortal sin to paint wooden furniture?" I'm often team PAINT, but I ask myself three important questions before I delve in:

  1. Why does the client want to update the piece?

  2. What kind of finish was originally used?

  3. What material is the piece made of?

Before:   Second-hand 1990’s dark wood armoire

Before: Second-hand 1990’s dark wood armoire

Before:   Wooden dresser & mirror previously owned by our client’s grandmother

Before: Wooden dresser & mirror previously owned by our client’s grandmother

Furniture=Feelings

Recently I had a client come to me with a dresser, mirror, and an armoire that were being used in her daughter's bedroom. The dresser and mirror were especially sentimental because they used to belong to her grandmother and still carried her scent inside the drawers.  The piece was in great condition and very well-made, but the finish was outdated. 

The armoire was something she found at a second hand shop and had great lines but was stuck in the 1990’s with its dark finish. The client wanted to unify the two pieces and update them to be lighter to compliment the new decor. Because of these reasons, we decided that painting them rather than buying new would be the best course to take.

Getting to know the finish and material of the piece

When I paint furniture, I have to figure out what kind of finish was used and what material the piece is made of in order to determine the best way to paint it. Not all pieces are the same. For instance, you could have a 1940’s mahogany armoire bleed tannins through to the final coat of varnish because the incorrect primer was used. What a headache to fix!  

Some pieces I get are made over seas and are finished with who-knows-what and the paint will literally peel right off. I’ll usually do a small test patch with some different primers to see how the piece reacts. And sometimes I find that some pieces just can’t be painted. 

THIS   is why you must first get to know the finish of a piece! Here, Bronwyn is fixing a piece that was previously finished by another artist - the paint scraped off with a fingernail. Turns out there was a wax finish beneath that needed to be scraped off and wiped down completely with xylol to get the wax off.

THIS is why you must first get to know the finish of a piece! Here, Bronwyn is fixing a piece that was previously finished by another artist - the paint scraped off with a fingernail. Turns out there was a wax finish beneath that needed to be scraped off and wiped down completely with xylol to get the wax off.

Don't believe everything you see on HGTV

Once I know the best way to go, the not-so-fun part begins- prep! 

Now you’re probably thinking, “Wait, can’t she just use that no prep paint that has the word “chalk” in its name?” Great question! The Chalk Paint™ craze really set off a firestorm of DIY painters, and HGTV would have us think that a piece could be redone in a half an hour (and the misconception that furniture painting should be inexpensive)! I have used this type of paint before with success, but it’s not the best paint for every project.

My #1 Pro-tip for Painting Furniture

My pro tip of the day is preparation. Any good project starts with proper preparation because the last thing you want after you’ve done all that work is for the finish to fail. If that happens, I hope you have your favorite adult beverage handy because you’re going to need it! 

Let’s. Do. This.

Let’s. Do. This.

Let's do this!  A Step-By-Step Guide to Painting Furniture

  • Clean + Sand - I always clean the piece thoroughly in order to remove any residue or oils that could repel the paint. I’ll then sand it to create a “tooth” for the primer to adhere well. Using 220 grit gets the job done. At this point, if the client wants to change out the type of hardware (ex- knobs to pulls) I’ll fill the holes and drill new ones. 

  • Prime - wipe down the piece to remove the dust and you’re ready to prime! Depending on the piece, you may use a shellac based primer, oil based, or acrylic. They all have their merits but choosing the correct one is crucial. You can brush or roll the primer on, but I like to spray. It creates a smooth, flawless look. 

  • Base coat - Once the primer is dry, then you can begin the fun part of painting on the color. Again, sometimes I’ll use oil, other times acrylic, and sometimes even lacquer.

  • Glazing or decorative details - After the paint is dried for at least 24 hours, I will glaze the piece or do some hand painted details depending on the look the client is going for. Glazing can be tricky because it’s difficult to get an even look while chasing the glaze before it dries on you. Using the right glaze can save you a lot of stress. With these pieces, I did two layers of glaze to create the look of driftwood. Make sure to allow enough dry time before the final step. 

  • Top Coat - The final step is to apply a durable clear top coat like a polyurethane to protect the finish from normal wear and tear. Keep in mind though, any painted finish is susceptible to dings and scratches. Wax, though a beautiful look, is not very durable and remains soft and isn’t stain proof. I would avoid using wax on any surface that’s going to get a lot of wear. If you have used water based paints and glazes, use a water based topcoat. If you worked with oils, stay with an oil based topcoat. It minimizes the chance of failure. 

After:   An amazing painted transformation of the 1990’s dark wood armoire above

After: An amazing painted transformation of the 1990’s dark wood armoire above

After:   We painted the client’s dresser & mirror that she had gotten from her grandmother. We also updated the hardware to give the piece a more modern look.

After: We painted the client’s dresser & mirror that she had gotten from her grandmother. We also updated the hardware to give the piece a more modern look.

The emotional + ecological benefits of painting furniture

When I complete a piece, it’s such a thrill. I get to stand back and bask in the glow of all that hard work. It’s even better when the client is amazed by the transformation. Painting furniture can be beneficial for many reasons; it transforms a piece you already own, it keeps it out of the landfill, and its completely customized for your decor! 

Considering a furniture makeover?

Do you have a piece of furniture that you love but its just looking a little tired? Send us an email with photos and we can see if its a good candidate for a makeover!