before and after

Painting Wooden Furniture: A “How-To” Guide

Being the furniture lovers that we are, and having struggled with painting our wooden furniture ourselves in the past, we have decided to put together the ultimate how-to guide on painting wooden furniture. The process below is what ultimately gave us the best results.

before and after

Interested in restoring that old piece of wooden furniture that holds so much emotional value? Or perhaps you built a new piece of furniture from scratch that you have yet to finish? Putting on a lick of paint on it is a great way to make it look like new and you can even customize the colors to complement the theme in your household.

The feeling of accomplishment is great when you transform an old, beat up and weathered piece of furniture and customize it to completely to match your taste — and at very little cost. Nothing can beat that feeling! It can even have a positive impact on the overall value of your home both from a livability standpoint, but also from a financial standpoint.

On the image above, we actually ended up for opting to put on a gel wood stain, but the process that you’ll follow for painting will be the same. A gel wood stain sits on top of the surface of the furniture (as opposed to penetrating it like other types of stains) like paint does, so the process is more or less the same.

Before you start the process it’s important that you do some preparation beforehand to make sure that you have all the right supplies and tools at home. Also evaluating whether you need to remove the prior layer of finish that is currently on your furniture will be time well spent.

Do I Need to Remove Old Paint?

The first question you need to ask yourself before starting is, if there is existing paint, should you remove it or not? The answer to this is: it depends.

If the current paint is adhering to the furniture and it isn’t peeling, it will most likely be fine to paint over it. As such, you can leave the current paint on, as this will save you a lot of time.

If the paint has started to crack and peel, it’s probably a good idea to remove it (we will cover how to do this in detail in a future blog post, but in the meantime you can find a decent guide here on removing existing paint on your furniture). It can potentially be a lot of extra work to remove the paint, but at the end of the day, it may be well worth the hassle as it will give your furniture that smooth and professional finish. The last thing you want is to have gone through all the hard work of painting your wooden furniture only to find out that it’s uneven or starts to chip.

Painting Wooden Furniture – What Do I Need?

  1. Paintbrush – the paintbrush to get depends on the type of paint you will be using. It’s recommended that if you’re using a water-based paint to get a brush with synthetic bristles, because those with natural bristles will get floppy once they absorb the water which will make painting rather difficult. If you’re using an oil-based paint, you can use either a brush with natural or synthetic bristles. Also, make sure you don’t skimp too much on the paintbrush because the very cheap ones are likely to leave brush marks all over your furniture.
  2. Small Foam Roller – When painting wooden furniture, the advantage of using a foam roller is that it saves time on the even parts and flat parts, and it can also eliminate brush marks and streaking. Most likely, you’ll want to get one that isn’t too large as it will leave you only with a limited ability to use it.
  3. Primer – primer allows the paint to adhere to the wood evenly after you’ve applied it and ensure that it won’t peel or crack after it dries. Unless you are going for a weathered or distressed look, it sincerely recommended to apply it prior to putting your coating of paint on the furniture. I wouldn’t go too much into the detail around the type of primer to buy, any standard wood primer should do the trick that you can pick up in your local DIY store. I personally recommend use a brush-on versus a spray-based primer, because I find it easier to get coverage of all the furniture that way.
  4. Paint / Gel Stain – this is where the options are endless and this is worthy of another article on it’s own. The paint choice is really up to you. Acrylic and water-based paints are generally more friendly for the environment than their synthetic cousins, so that’s generally what I tend to go with. On the piece covered in this article, I actually used the Java gel stain from General Finishes, which is much easier to apply that traditional liquid stains as it doesn’t penetrate the wood as much, but sits on top, leaving less scope for error.
  5. Sealer / Top Coat – if you have used an acrylic paint, I would recommend against using a sealer like an oil-based polyurethane, there is a risk of peeling when it’s used to cover a “weaker coating” like acrylic paint. Also, when using light colored paint (such as white), there’s also a chance that it will produce a yellow-like tint on the furniture. Polycrylic will generally give the best results in my opinion, but I have also heard that people have had good results using furniture wax.
  6. Microfiber Cloth / Old Sock – this will help you in applying primer, and if you’re using a gel stain instead of paint, is a great tool to help you really work the stain into the wood. If you’re planning to apply stain instead of paint, I recommend turning an old sock inside out and using that to work the gel into the wood. It may not be pretty, but it works wonders!
  7. Orbital Sander or Sandpaper – You’ll need to some sandpaper for to rough up the wood a little in advance of applying your primer and paint, and to smooth it out after you’ve applied your top coat. I recommend getting coarse (80 grit), medium (150 grit), and fine grit (150 grit or higher) sandpaper, that is what I used on this particular project.
  8. Tack Cloth – to wipe off any dust or particles after you have finished sanding your furniture and as you prepare to applier your layer of primer and paint
  9. Gloves – make sure you get some gloves in advance. You’ll thank me for it after you finish when you don’t have to wait 2 weeks for that last bit of paint to disappear from under your finger nails.
  10. Screwdriver – in advance of painting wooden furniture, you will need to unscrew the hardware and dismantle the furniture for which you will need a screwdriver
  11. Wood filler – to fill any imperfections in advance painting your wooden furniture. You’ll want to have that smooth factory look to it by the time you’re done, so filling in any imperfections or scratched prior to applying paint is critical.
  12. Anti-Dust Mask – when you’re sanding, I’d sincerely recommend wearing an anti-dust mask so that you don’t inhale all the particles that are released.
  13. Drop Cloth – if you value your carpet (or any floor for that matter), it’s probably a good idea to put down a drop cloth prior to starting your project. The bigger the better! You’re bound to spill some paint, and you’ll be surprised how far those droplets travel sometimes! I’m speaking from personal experience.
  14. Wood Conditioner (Optional) – adding a bit of wood conditioner to your paint slows its drying time, and therefore gives you more time to apply the paint more evenly. If the paint dries too quickly, you run the risk of putting on multiple layers in certain areas, which will result in an uneven finish.
  15. Camera (Optional) – for taking before and after pictures of your work that you can show off to all your friends.
  16. Vacuum Cleaner (Optional) – to help clear your furniture of dust and particles after you have finished sanding.

Step 1 – Preparation

When you decide to paint furniture, it’s a wise idea to do some preparation beforehand. This was generally the part that I skipped all too frequently, and I would end up having to pay for it at a later date with stains on my carpet and ruined clothes.

The best is to move the piece of furniture outside, so that you don’t risk dirtying up your home. If that isn’t an option, make sure that you buy and put down a large drop cloth and open all the windows for ventilation. The last thing you want is for your house to smell like paint for days afterwards. Also sure that you wear some old clothes that you don’t mind throwing away after since you’re bound to get them dirty, and wear a good pair of gloves to protect your hands from getting paint on them. It can be a pain to try and clean afterwards.

Also, make sure you take some before pictures to show your friends later – that’s definitely something I wish I had done more often. You’ll be surprised what a lick of paint will do to your furniture and it’s fun to see the before and after pictures.

Step 2 – Dismantle Furniture

The next step in order to paint wooden furniture is to dismantle it. This means removing the drawers (if you are working on a closet), and taking your screwdriver removing the hardware (pulls, knobs, hinges, etc..) so that when you start sanding, none of these are in the way. Trust me, it makes the rest of the process a lot easier, and removes the risk of you accidentally painting over any of the hardware (if you intend to keep them).

Tip: Use a pencil and number the drawers on the inside as you remove them. Sometimes they’re slightly different sizes, and putting a number on them will let you quickly put them back in the right place after you have finished your painting.

Step 3 – Apply Wood Filler

Quickly examine your furniture and determine if there are any imperfections such as dents and scratches that you would like to cover up. Apply a little wood filler to these areas to cover up these imperfections.

Don’t worry too much if you’ve applied a little excess, since you can remove this as you sand down the furniture in the next step of the process. This will make for a smooth finish after you have applied your paint.

Step 4 – Sanding

The step that we all dislike (to put it mildly) with a passion is sanding. Many will try and skip this step, but generally you’ll end up paying for it later by ending up with a piece of furniture that has an uneven finish, and with paint that starts peeling.

The goal of the sanding here is not to remove the existing layer of paint (in case the quality was good enough to keep it on) that is on there, but it’s simply to rough up the surface so that the primer we will put on can adhere to the surface. If the surface is too smooth, the primer won’t stick.

Move in circular motion when sanding, while pressing firmly and covering all of the furniture with your coarse grit (80 or 100 grit) sandpaper the first time, and covering everything once more with your medium grit (150 grit) sandpaper. Then fold and bend your sandpaper to reach those awkward corners, and give them a good sanding as well. This should do the trick as far as the sanding is concerned.

Wipe off any excess dust and particles with your tack cloth. This will make sure that it doesn’t get in the way for when you start applying your primer. After you’re done sanding, it should look similar to the below if you also had to remove the prior layer of paint. If you didn’t have to, it’s acceptable to have the prior layer of paint still showing.

Tip: After wiping off excess dust with your tack cloth, you can even use your vacuum cleaner to suck dust out of those tough to reach areas to ensure that your furniture is completely dust free

Step 5 – Applying Primer

The main purpose of applying primer is to ensure that the coat of paint you will apply later adheres evenly to the wood. It will ensure that the paint will last for years and years to come and doesn’t start chipping and peeling. You don’t have to do this if you are using General Finishes Gel Stain as it is thicker than your average paint and adheres better than paint. If you are painting, however, it’s highly recommended to apply primer in advance.

You can use your roller to apply the primer to the more even and flat areas, and use your paintbrush to get into those tougher to reach areas. Don’t worry too much about getting it applied evenly throughout, since as long as it coats what you’re going to paint, you should be fine. When you’re happy that you’ve covered all areas, wait for the primer to dry, which can generally take up to 6 hours.

If there are particular spots and areas on your furniture that will be used frequently, you may want to add an extra layer or two. This will give additional protection to these parts of the furniture, and ensures that the paint will last.

Tip: Painting wooden furniture without applying primer in advance, will give it that distressed and weathered look, which is also an option. In that case, you can skip this step.

Step 6 – Gently Sand the Primed Furniture

After the primer has fully dried, the next step is to gently sand it with fine grit sandpaper (150 grit or higher) just as we did prior to applying the primer. Slowly move in a circular motion as you cover the entire surface of the furniture, and fold a piece of sandpaper to gently cover those hard-to-reach corners. Sanding the primer will allow the layer of paint to adhere even better to the surface of the furniture that it already does with the primer on it.

Make sure you remove any excess dust and particles with a tack cloth like we did in step two to make sure they don’t get in the way, and under the layer of paint you will start applying next.

Step 7 – Paint or Stain

This is where the fun begins and you can finally start applying your paint. When painting wooden furniture, I prefer to start off with the paintbrush to get into those hard-to-reach corners and edges. Once that is done, it’s real easy to grab the small foam roller, and finish of the more even surfaces while evening out any of the brushmarks you may have left behind when using your brush. This tends to give you the most professional finish.

You want to try to avoid going over any area more than once to give it the most even finish possible. Use the foam roller with long and firm brush strokes in the same direction, and work in a systematic fashion (ie. Working from one side to the other) so that you cover the entire area and are able to apply an even coat.

Tip: You may want to use some wood conditioner to make the process easier since it slows the drying time of the paint, and therefore gives you a smaller chance of putting on multiple layers of paint in certain areas resulting in an uneven finish.

If you are using gel stain, you can apply some stain to the microfibre cloth, and firmly work the stain into the wood by using long strokes going with the grain. If you have an old sock that you no longer intend to use, you can also turn that inside out and use that to apply the stain. This works wonders and is what we ended up doing. Just make sure that you wear a glove underneath the sock, as the stain tends to penetrate through the sock when you are applying the stain.

This is how your furniture will look after one thin layer of paint or gel stain.

painting wooden furniture

When painting wooden furniture, you generally want to put on at least two coats for the best finish. If you are painting a darker piece of furniture, you may need more to avoid the prior color coming through. The best is to let it dry overnight every time you apply a new layer to ensure that the previous coat has dried completely.

When applying stain you can put on as many layers as you like. The more layers, the less of the wood will come through, and the darker the piece will be. I personally ended up putting on three layers before moving to the next step, and was very happy with the outcome!

Step 8 – Seal and Protect

Once the paint is dry, you’ll want to protect all that hard work that you have done and apply a sealer or top coat.  This will protect the paint from any scratches and nicks as its being used.

As I discussed above, I sincerely recommend using a polycrylic. You can apply the polycrylic with your brush, but I prefer to use a microfiber cloth as this minimizes the amount brush marks. Apply a generous amount to your cloth, and gently rub it onto the surface of the furniture until you have covered all areas. You can use your brush to get to those hard to reach places.

Let it dry for around 3-4 hours and sand it with very fine sandpaper (220 grit) to apply a second coat, and repeat when you apply your third and final coat. Let your furniture dry for another 24 hours, and you’re almost ready to start using it again!

painting wooden furniture


Step 9 – Put it all back together

Last, but certainly not least, it’s time to put it all back together and find a home for that piece of wooden furniture that you have brought back to life. Make sure you share it with all your friends as well and make them jealous!


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