Ever wondered how to paint furniture like a pro? With the right tools and prep work, painting furniture with professional results is a breeze!
Have you ever looked at a piece of furniture you just love but doesn’t really fit your decor anymore and wondered, how do you paint furniture like a pro? Because when you do love that furniture piece the last thing you want to do is mess it up. And it’s super frustrating to spend money on materials and time on the labor to do something only to toss it in the giveaway pile. So today I’m going to talk about how to paint furniture with professional results.
Why Paint Furniture Instead of Replacing It?
Well, sustainability and all is a good start. But also, good furniture costs good money. If you have a piece with good bones and a classic design there’s no reason to replace it just because you’ve changed your color scheme. Painting furniture is inexpensive and yields fantastic results when done right.
And there’s something that is just plain rewarding about turning an old piece into something new. Take my old cabinet:
I got this cabinet when I lived deep in the South of Texas and at the time I loved it. It sat in the open living/kitchen/dining area and became a microwave stand in the living room area. It was awkward but there was no other place to put a darn microwave.
Moving it to the Houston area it got crazy dinged up. And it had a bunch of stains and whatnot because the person I lived with just doesn’t take care of things. Plus this red cabinet was this stand out piece in my home that reminded me of not so great times. But I still LOVED that cabinet but it made me sad to see it.
It was time for a furniture makeover…
And so even though my boxes aren’t even all unpacked, yet, I gave this sucker a fresh new look. Fresh, bold turquoise paint replaced the somewhat shabby red. The paper placed inside the glass to obscure the mess inside of the cabinet was swapped out with a simpler frosted privacy film. <— p.s. I’ll show you how to install this soon!
But definitely, the best of all, the small, round knobs were replaced with brass cicada knobs. In all honesty, I don’t really care for locusts the creatures. They’re awkward and fly into you at random. And their little feet stick inside your skin when they crawl around on you. Egads. But in a weird way, I love cicadas. The sound of them reminds me of sitting in my Mimmie and Poppa’s big tree in the backyard sleepy from a day of playing outside.
A few little changes = a whole new look.
All of the little changes on this little cabinet make a huge impact. It’s still the cabinet I’ve always loved but it’s changed enough that it doesn’t remind me of anything but good memories. And that’s a pretty amazing thing to achieve with a few supplies and a quart of paint.
And part of the reason I can enjoy this furniture makeover so much is because it looks so darn good. I know, I know… I’m tooting my own horn here but over the years I’ve really learned how to paint furniture like a pro. Do you want to see how I do it? Pluck that dusty old piece out of your collection or get after the thrift stores and let’s make that old piece gorgeously new!
Gather your supplies to paint furniture like a pro:
Here are all of the supplies we discuss in the post. You might already have some of these items on hand or you might not need some. For example, if your wood piece is free of any deep scratches and gouges, you won’t need wood putty or a putty knife… You’ll find all of the links conveniently located in the list here and throughout the post as mentioned in the post.
- Tack Cloth
- Drop Cloth
- Dust Mask
- Spray Polyurethane
- Wipe-on Polyurethane
- Wood Putty
- Putty Knife
- Small 4″ Foam Paint Roller
- Small Paint Roller Form and Tray
- Sanding Sponges
- Craft Knife
- Dusk Mask
- Mouse Sander
- Brass Cicada Knobs
Buy more paint than you think you will need.
Paint jumps up in amount and cost pretty quickly. You’ve got little sample pot sizes then you jump to a quart and after that a gallon which is basically FOUR quarts. And the price from one to the next can be drastically different. But I promise it will save you hassle in the long run if you purchase more paint for the project than you think you will need. For starters it always takes more coats than you think it will. And just ask any paint mixer… if you have a quart mixed up now and a quart mixed up a few days later, they might not perfectly match.
And it’s always good to hang on to some left over paint to use for touch ups. Inevitably there’s going to be a scratch or a chip that needs to be dealt with and having the paint on hand to fix it means you can keep it looking nice for years.
Don’t buy crappy paint.
Flat out crappy paint will give you crappy results when painting furniture. And while not difficult, painting furniture is time consuming. If you don’t want to waste your time and money, buy decent paint from the get go. You’ll need less coats meaning less work and less paint (so maybe even less money spent) used in the long run. It might seem like a good idea when you’re at the paint counter and feeling chintzy but just don’t do it. Don’t buy crappy paint.
Prepare your work space:
Make sure you have enough space cleared to work in.
Painting furniture isn’t hard but it can get overwhelming when you realize you haven’t cleared enough space to do the job. Before you begin, lay out all of your pieces like the piece itself and any drawers/doors/etc. Do you have enough room to paint everything and maneuver around each? Will you be able to leave the pieces here for long enough to dry (which can take a few days)? If not you might have to paint your project in shifts, the base first and then the drawers after, etc.
Work in a well ventilated area.
My favorite place to paint furniture is in the garage where I can have a large space to work in with a large door to open for ventilation. But if you don’t have a garage you can paint furniture on a porch, patio or balcony. Just make sure that should it rain your furniture won’t get wet. If you don’t have a good outdoor space, you can work in a room with windows open. If you don’t have many windows or can’t get a cross-breeze, place a fan in the window to help draw the fumes out and away from you.
Outside also works well as long as you don’t have wind strong enough to blow junk on your wet paint.
Protect your working surfaces with drop cloths.
It never fails… some way, some how paint will eventually fall and make a mess. Be sure to protect your work surfaces so you aren’t cleaning up paint later on. There are 3 different kinds of drop cloths I regularly use including, canvas, plastic, and coated paper.
Canvas is good because it’s easy to fold and put away to reuse over and over. But canvas is a bit porous and if you have a big spill of paint it might seep through the weave to your surface below. Plastic is good because it’s cheap and non-porous but it’s also slippery and isn’t easily folded to store and therefore reuse. Coated paper is my favorite because the top is porous and sucks up spills well but the coating underneath prevents it from seeping to your work space below and it folds well for reuse. The downside to a coated paper drop cloth is that if the painted surface touches and dries on the drop cloth, it’s going to pull away paper with it when you pick it up. But that’s where painter’s pyramids come in.
Painter’s Pyramids keep your furniture away from the work surface.
These handy dandy little pieces of plastic called painter’s pyramids are one of those things I never wanted to spend the money on but wish I had sooner. These little plastic pieces can be placed beneath cabinet doors or under the legs of furniture to keep them off of your drop cloth. They come in sets of 10 and you’ll need 4 for a cabinet door (one for each corner) and one for underneath each leg of a furniture piece. Be careful to allow your paint to dry well before placing painter’s pyramid on newly painted surfaces or they’ll stick and remove chunks of your paint.
Preparing your furniture for the best results:
Take the time to tape off your project the right way.
So maybe this goes without saying but I have a bad habit of not always taping off everything I don’t want painted. For example, when I was working on this cabinet I figured I’d just not paint the inside because nobody but me ever sees it anyway. But then I accidentally dropped a glob of paint on a shelf and then there was no turning back from there. If I had taped it off (at least the first few inches of each shelf) it wouldn’t have landed on wood and I would have finished this project up much more quickly.
When taping off big things, like the face of a mirror or the back side of a cabinet door, use pieces of paper to cover the bulk of the area. Use tape where needed to hold the paper in place to the surface and cover/protect it. You can even typically slide the edge of the paper beneath a mirror frame for a nice, clean edge. Typically I’ll use trash paper from my office so that it gets a second use.
When applying tape to odd shapes, like the glass panes on my cabinet doors, a quick cut with a craft knife will ensure your tape covers every nook and cranny. Just be sure you switch to a new, sharp blade whenever your tape starts to trim away ragged rather than nice and clean through.
Remove the hardware.
Taping off hardware like knobs and hinges might seem like a good idea at the time but it never ends up working all that well. You never get a super clean, crisp edge and it takes a lot of time to tape off finicky things. Remove hinges and knobs and keep together with the screws. Once your piece is dry pop them back on.
Get rid of imperfections in wood furniture:
Most imperfections in a wooden piece can be sanded away, which we will cover in a minute but sometimes you have a little more damage than that…
Say goodbye to deep scratches and gouges with wood putty.
Wood putty is inexpensive, easy to use and makes a beaten up wood furniture piece nice and smooth again. When painting furniture, any wood putty will do but when staining a piece, you’ll need to make sure you use a stainable putty.
To use wood putty simply scrape the putty across any areas that need to be filled making the swipe across the area as smooth as possible using a putty knife. I prefer a plastic putty knife over a metal putty knife because it’s more flexible and easier to use. Don’t worry if you get it all on the first pass, especially for big areas that need patching. You can go over with putty several times and it’s better to use several thin applications than one thick application that won’t dry well. Don’t worry about getting the putty to be perfectly smooth, once dry sand the putty down for a perfectly smooth surface.
Guide to sanding furniture the right way:
Use the right grit of sandpaper.
Sandpaper comes in different grits from very fine to very coarse with the larger the number the finer the grit. A more coarse sandpaper (like a 60 grit) will take away a lot of your surface and paint more quickly than a smoother one and is good for an initial stripping of old paint. A finer grit of sandpaper (like a 180 grit) will be more gentle sand and is better suited for smoothing and perfecting your surface.
Use the right tool to sand furniture.
Mouse Sander: There are quite a few sanding tools available to work with. My favorite is a small and easy to hold powered mouse sander. The pointy end helps you sand in tight spaces, like corners, and being powered means you sand much more quickly than you will with any manual method. If you purchase one with a dust collector you’ll have far less dust to clean up afterwards. Being powered, you have to be careful to not let the sander get away from you. If it shimmies across the wood unguided it might mess up your surface.
Sanding Block: Sand paper is cut into strips and wrapped around the block and held into place beneath rubber flaps onto sharp metal prongs. A sanding block is nice because sandpaper itself is inexpensive and you can go from one grit to another easily. It also is more comfortable than sanding with paper alone because it keeps the friction causes heat away from your skin which can quickly become uncomfortable. Sanding blocks, however, don’t work in all situations. Around fancy woodwork or in tight spaces a sanding block can be difficult or impossible to use.
Belt Sander: Belt sanders are super powered and make quick work of flat wood surface. But, unfortunately, that also means you can quickly sand too far down and if the sander gets away from you and skitters across the surface, it’s pretty much a nightmare. You’ll need to be strong to hold onto a belt sander and guide it with the grain but if you can manage one well, you can get business sanded FAST. I have a belt sander in my garage and I’ve used it exactly once and never, ever will again :) My best advice is, if you’re going to give it a go, rent one and then use with caution :)
Sanding Sponge: I absolutely love using a sanding sponge for things like table legs (see below) because it’s squishy, like a sponge and can be molded to fit a lot of awkward spaces. Being manual it might take some time when using it but it’s not going to get away from you and mess anything up. The sharp, straight edges are also perfect to sand inside of corners and straight edges of things like molding. They don’t last forever and do need to be replaced fairly often.
Always sand with the grain.
For the smoothest piece in the end, always do your best to sand with the grain. In some areas this might prove impossible so don’t sweat that, but do your best to go with the grain if you can.
Sand different parts of a wood piece of furniture differently.
Different parts of a furniture piece require different methods of sanding. For example, a belt sander might make quick work on a flat tabletop but it’s going to mess up your table’s legs. For areas that aren’t flat, like on a table’s legs, I like to use the sanding sponge like in the picture above.
When needing to sand in really tight places like the creases of ornate woodwork, a piece of sand paper can be folded and threaded through the area.
Oh, and it’s a good idea to sand furniture with a mask.
When you sand furniture you get a heavy dust made of the old paint and some of the wood beneath. It can make the floor around you slippery, so take care. It’s also super easy to inhale which is a bad idea. It is advisable to wear a dust mask to protect yourself. Currently with the Caronavirus dust masks might be difficult to find so I just used a strip of jersey cloth from an old tee shirt and tied it around my face. I wasn’t about to win any beauty contests but it was better than nothing :)
Ever heard of tack cloth? It makes all of the difference in the world after you’ve sanded…
Cleaning up a sanded piece of furniture to be painted with a cloth (or in this case Viva paper towel) doesn’t get all of the dust off of the surface.
In comes a tack cloth, an ingenious tool when painting furniture and ensures a nice, smooth surface. Tack cloth is basically a sticky piece of cheesecloth that pulls away all of the dust and particles that occur after sanding.
First go over the piece with your cloth to remove the bulk of the dust. Next grab your tack cloth and gently swipe it across the surface. It will pick up an astonishing amount of dust and paint particles. Unwrap the tack cloth as you go and fully remove the dust from your entire piece.
To prime or not to prime?
When painting furniture with chalk paint there is no need to prime it, which is a big draw for chalk paint, if you ask me. But chalk paint only comes in so many colors so you’re stuck to a palette of what’s available. Sure there are tintable chalk paints available at some hardware stores, but I’ve never had results with it I’ve been happy with. I’ve just found that they don’t cover as well as “the good stuff”.
So if you’re wanting a special custom color to paint your furniture you’re going to need to prime it. My favorite primer is a water based made by Kilz. <— I specifically like this Kilz with the gold label because it’s easier to clean up than oil-based and is not nearly as sticky and stinky.
White primer or gray?
Did you know that the effect of paint is compoundable? That’s to say that the color beneath a different color or paint is going to impact how that top coat looks. When you’re going for a lighter or brighter color, go for white primer. If you want to achieve a rich, deep color, however, have a primer tinted gray at the paint section of your hardware store. When I’ve wanted a super deep color in the end, I’ve even used black chalk paint as my primer (under a gorgeously deep purple shade).Using black as a primer won’t be a very common choice but is also an option if you’re not getting the results you had hoped for with gray.
How to paint furniture.
A foam roller makes for gorgeously smooth flat surfaces.
A long time ago I totally impressed my dad with my DIY painted kitchen cabinets and the only thing I did was use a small 4″ foam paint roller rather than a bristled brush. To get a smooth surface that rivals that of a spray on coat of paint a foam roller glides across a flat surface leaving only the tiniest amount of texture behind that will smooth out as the paint sits and dries.
Bristles will almost always leave lines behind in your painted work so reserve the use of a brush for edges, corners and any place a roller won’t work. The surface of the cabinet door in the photo above was painted with a brush. See how there are visible streaks left behind in the dried paint? Running your finger across the wood you also have a textured feel, too, where the paint isn’t smooth. Layer upon layer of brushed on primer and paint can leave behind a very textured surface so definitely go foam!
Allow plenty of time for primer and paint to dry between coats.
Applying a new coat over paint or primer that hasn’t completely dried will result in a gummy texture of the paint that never really hardens right. If you find that you need to sand an area to correct a mistake, the paint won’t sand away, but will sort of gum up and stick into the sandpaper. You’ll also notice that places where the paint eventually touches, like cabinet doors to the cabinet base, for example, will stick and eventually leave a bare spot where the paint pulls away over time.
When painting legs, turn the piece over.
This is something it took my years to figure out! When painting furniture the legs can be a bit of a nightmare. You’re laying on your stomach brushing paint beneath a piece trying to get everything. On your next pass you might notice you missed an area all together or that you’ve got unsightly paint drips. The answer to this is to flip your piece upside down and paint the legs while they’re sticking up in the air!
Carefully remove masking tape, using a craft knife in tight corners or crannies for a straight painted edge.
One of the worst things when finishing a project is pulling away a taped line and not getting a nice, smooth edge. Sometimes the tape tears away awkwardly and then you’ve got to try to figure out how to remove a sliver of painted tape. Take it from me, it’s a nightmare. In places that are inset, like these taped off glass window panes, swipe a craft knife with a sharp blade along the edges to peel the tape up cleanly.
On glass you might find that you need to remove a small amount of bleeding left behind. A razor bladed glass scraper will make quick work of that!
Seal your work to protect the surface.
Sealing your painted furniture gives it a protective coat that will help keep it nice for many years. Always use sealant in a well ventilated space.
Brush on polyurethane gives you the most bang for your buck. You’ll need to purchase a decent quality paintbrush that won’t shed a lot of bristles while being used. FYI, washing sealant out of a paintbrush is an irritating and time consuming process. Alternatively you can use inexpensive foam brushes that you toss when done. Apply brush on poly in strokes that run along the grain of the wood. I find that brush on poly yields the strongest finish that stands up to the most abuse in the end.
Spray on polyurethane is the most expensive but easiest option without any additional tools, like a brush, needed. You will, however, need lots of well ventilated space to use spray. And be sure to tarp off or protect anything nearby that might catch over spray. To use, simply spray on several very thin coats and allow to dry a few hours between each. I feel like spray definitely the most convenient method of sealing as long as you have the space to do it. The end result is a very thin layer of protection, however, that might not stand up as well to a lot of use/abuse.
Wipe on poly is definitely my favorite method of sealing painted furniture like a pro. Using a lint free rag (a cut up old tee shirt is inexpensive and works incredibly well) to wipe the poly onto the wood’s surface. Swipe your poly-ed up rag along the grain of the surface for best results. The end finish is somewhere between brush on and spray on poly, not incredibly thick or thin and good for a piece that will see average use.
Sand between coats of sealant if left to dry more than a few hours (unless directions state otherwise).
Most often it’s best to lightly sand with a very fine grit sandpaper in between coats of polyurethane if you allow it to dry more than a few hours. Be sure to sand with a gentle touch by hand. I’ve found that too much pressure (like with a powered mouse sander) or too high a grit can make your finished surface have a cloudy look.
Glossy finishes make imperfections more visible.
When painting furniture I either use a matte paint mixed up at a hardware store or chalk paint. Then I seal my work with satin polyurethane or chalk wax. I never, ever use glossy paint or polyurethane because it makes imperfections so much more visible. That means when prepping you have to get every nick and scratch perfectly smooth which is something I’ve never been able to accomplish well enough to be happy with the finished piece.
A few final tips if you want to paint furniture like a pro…
Can you paint furniture when it is raining?
Yes you can paint when it’s raining. Keep in mind, though, you’re going to have a longer wait for each coat to dry. This means significantly more time your piece will need to sit around drying between coats. Painting is always quickest when done on less humid days.
Give the painted furniture plenty of time to cure before using.
You can put your furniture back in place pretty quickly but surfaces can sometimes cause problems. For instance, I was so keen to get finished photos of this cabinet that I only waited 2 days for it to dry. And did I mention it was raining? Moving the piece around was a piece of cake, no problems there. And opening and closing the doors was fine, also.
But it’s the horizontal surfaces where you might place things that are going to cause the problem. I don’t know why or how but the weight of items kind of sinks it down into the freshly laid paint. And if you’re super unlucky, when you pick up a particularly heavy item (for me it was a potted plant) some of the paint beneath might tear away when the item is moved. I literally cursed like the dickens because I didn’t think my pot was on the cabinet long enough to cause any kind of damage, but obviously I was wrong. Typically I’d always let a painted surface (like a tabletop or a shelf) dry 7 days so that the paint and polyurethane really has time to cure and create a hard surface.
If you’re impatient it can be difficult to wait. Trust me, I get it. But if you want your painted furniture to last for years, you’ve gotta hold on at least a few days, but at best a week before setting anything on the surface.
Reserve leftover paint for touch ups over the years.
It bears repeating that you should definitely keep at least a little bit of paint on hand. You just can’t prevent the occasional scratch or accident that might happen over the years. If your piece is in a high traffic area or will be used often saving touch up paint is especially important.
Fancy new hardware can make a surprising difference.
And last, but not least, interesting hardware can turn a nicely painted piece into a something more. The addition of these fun and funky brass cicada knobs gave my cabinet a statement piece. Often times going off the beaten path of plain old hardware will be more of an expense. In in the end the interest you can add is almost always worth the cost!
A few small changes for a huge new look…
All in all repainting this cabinet took me a little bit of time each day over 4 days. I really prefer to space out a kind of big project like this out over as many days as a week. If I just keep going on something like this and push through until I get it done I can get a bit bored with it and then a bit sloppy. And the end result suffers for it.
If you’re the kind of DIY-er that can bust a big project out quickly, this project can easily be done in 2 days allowing for average drying time.
But no matter if you work quickly or if you work slowly, redoing a piece of furniture is a highly rewarding experience. And now that you know how to paint like a pro, I’m hoping its easier than ever!