How to Paint Furniture Like a Pro
Several years ago, I discovered the beauty of painted furniture. DIYer that I am, I rolled up my sleeves and immediately got to work painting some old cast-off furniture pieces. Looking at those first pieces now, I can see that I had no idea what I was doing. They weren’t terrible and they look great from a distance…but up close, not so good
Since then, I have painted lots of furniture pieces both for my home and to sell to others. In the process I’ve learned how to get really beautiful results that last. These are my top ten tips for painting furniture that looks beautiful and stands the test of time.
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10 Tips for Painting Furniture Like a Pro
1. Before you begin, decide what look you are going for – smooth and flawless? Worn and distressed? This decision will lay the foundation for every other decision about your piece. If you know you want an aged, distressed finish, choose a more matte finish paint – chalk paint, milk paint, or latex paint in flat or eggshell finish. As you are painting, you won’t need to worry so much about leaving brush strokes or getting a perfectly even finish. If you are going for a smooth flawless finish, you may want to choose a paint with a glossier finish and be much more careful about keeping your brushstrokes smooth and even.
2. It really is important to properly prepare your furniture piece first. If you are going for a smooth finish, it is a good idea to lightly sand the entire piece to smooth any flaws. On the other hand, you can probably skip the sanding if you are going for a distressed finish or painting a piece that was in fairly good condition. Regardless of the look you are going with, if your piece has a super shiny or a flaky finish, you should always start by sanding it.
3. Use high quality paint brushes. I am a major cheapskate and I used to buy the cheapest paintbrushes I could. Big mistake. Bristles were constantly shedding onto my projects and they left horrible brush marks. I have since become a huge fan of Purdy paintbrushes. They are a little more expensive up front, but they last much longer so it evens out in the end. And they give a much smoother finish.
4. Small foam rollers are perfect for painting large smooth surfaces. The paint goes on much faster and leaves a very smooth finish. Be sure to get the ones specifically made for smooth surfaces – they often say they are for doors and trim.
5. Use the right primer. I have become a huge fan of using oil based primer when painting furniture. (Yes, you can paint latex paint over oil primer. However, you cannot paint anything oil-based over latex) My favorite primer is Zinsser cover stain oil-based primer. It will stick to almost any surface and is fantastic at sealing in the old finish.
I used to use latex primer because clean up is easier. But I often had the old reddish wood finish seep through and discolor the paint. This has not happened once since I started using oil based primer. One word of caution though – this primer goes on with a lot of texture so you may need to lightly sand your piece again before painting.
6. For a smooth flawless paint job, add Floetrol to your latex paint or Penetrol to your oil based paint. These are additives which thin the paint and help eliminate brush strokes. Just follow the directions on the package.
7. You don’t have to clean your brushes and rollers everyday. Most furniture pieces require more than one coat of paint and more than one day of work. Washing your brush/roller after each coat of paint can be a huge pain. Instead I put my brushes and rollers in a large ziplock bag or wrap them in foil and stick them in the fridge. You can leave them in the fridge for a few days without them drying out.
8. When you are going for a distressed look, keep the distressing natural. Start with 150 grit sandpaper and then if that doesn’t cut it, try 100 grit. Whether you distress a little or a lot, focus on the parts that would naturally receive a lot of wear and tear: edges, corners, drawer fronts, raised decorations. Nothing looks more fake than random little circles sanded into the front of a piece of furniture.
9. Protect any table tops or other surfaces that will have objects on them with a quality sealer. If it is a stained surface, a wipe-on polyurethane works great. It it is a painted surface, a polycrylic sealer is better to prevent yellowing. This will protect your finish from wear and tear.
You may want to consider sealing other furniture pieces like chairs and dressers as well if you are not going for the distressed look. If you are doing a distressed paint finish, it won’t matter if it gets a few nicks and dings in the finish – they will just add to the beauty. (That is one of the many reasons I love a distressed finish – much more child-friendly).
10. Allow your paint to fully harden before using the piece. I used to think that if paint was dry, then it was good to go. It turns out that isn’t true at all. Drying is only the first step. Latex paint doesn’t fully harden, or ‘cure’, for up to thirty days. If you subject your painted furniture to everyday use before that, there is a good chance you will end up with scratched and dinged paint. This might not matter if you are going for the aged, distressed look, but if you want a smooth finish definitely treat you furniture with care the first few weeks.
Update: Bonus tip
11. Since writing this post, so many new amazing paints created specifically for painting furniture have hit the market. I certainly haven’t tried all of them, but I have used quite a few. There are two paints that really stand out to me. Americana Decor has put out a line of chalky finish paints that are great for furniture painting. They are similar to other chalk paints but are much less expensive. The range of colors is limited but there are some awesome options to choose from.
I also really love General Finishes milk paint. This is not like other milk paints you may have heard of that give a very chippy, aged look. General Finishes milk paint is actually an acrylic paint and it is my preference for pieces with a smooth paint finish.
Both of these paints give a fantastic finish and can also be used without primer as long as your piece is in good condition. You can, of course, still use latex paint for painting furniture as well. You will just need to be extra careful with sanding and priming your piece properly.
Of course, there is so much more that could be said about painting furniture, but this will definitely get you started!