How To Paint Wooden Furniture (Photos and Detailed Instructions)

Here’s where being fussy and persnickety pays off!

You’ve just spent a long day searching the town for that just right piece of garage-sale furniture. And you finally found it! Unfortunately, it looks like the last time your treasured find saw the light of day was when poodle skirts and sock hops were the rage.

So does that mean you should leave without it? No way! If the piece of furniture is solidly constructed and not in need of a lot of repairs, you can give it new life by doing just one thing — painting it.

But before you run down to your local paint store, you must know that if you want to paint furniture and get good results, you have to be very fussy. Rushing the job, skipping steps and general sloppiness won’t cut it.

Time and Money

Painting furniture doesn’t take hours of continuous work. It does take up one or two short blocks of time each day for about four days. This project was completed over four days, despite working in high humidity, which increases the drying time of most paints.

You’ll spend around $80 for paint, tools, and supplies. And that includes buying a dust mask and a breathing device if you’re sensitive to paint fumes. You can read more about this in the section “Tips for Safety and Success”.

Also, plan on buying new knobs and hinges. The old ones will look out of place.

If it’s wood, paint it

If what you want to paint is a good, old-fashioned piece of wooden furniture, go ahead and follow these steps, regardless of the existing finish.

But if the furniture has a newer high-gloss, plastic laminate surface, you’re out of luck. It can’t be painted successfully.

Getting started

Before you can do anything, you need to clean the project’s surface.

Get rid of the dust and dirt, especially any greasy residue. The best way to clean it is to wipe it with a rag and some mineral spirits (Photo 1). The mineral spirits will easily cut through greasy dirt. Remember to wipe the sides too.

Clean all of the surfaces Io be painted. If the furniture is dirty or grimy, use mineral spirits to cut through the really bad stuff. Remember to clean the sides too — they do get dirty.

You need to “dull” the entire surface so the new paint will adhere. If you don’t, your project will peel and chip easily. Before you start dulling the surface, remove the existing hardware. Now sand all the areas to be painted to dull the surface (Photo 2).

Sand the entire piece, including the drawer fronts, to remove the shine so that the new paint will adhere. A medium (100-grit) sandpaper works well. If necessary, use a fine (220-grit) sandpaper after the medium sandpaper.

A word of caution: If the old surface was painted before the 1980s, the paint probably contains lead. So instead of sanding, dull it with a liquid deglosser — that’s what it’s called and it’s sold at paint stores.

If the old surface is stained and varnished, go ahead and sand it. Sanding is the recommended method for dulling surfaces. Sand only enough to eliminate the shine on the surface. If some of the finish is peeling, sand those areas until you remove the peeling finish and there’s a smooth tapered edge between the peeling area and the rest of the surface

Medium (100-grit) sandpaper will do the trick. It removes enough of the old finish to ensure good adhesion of the new paint, without making the surface too rough. If the surface seems a little rough after sanding with 100-grit, go over it again with 220-grit.

Use a sanding block and sandpaper for the large, flat surfaces, but small surfaces are easier to sand with the sandpaper only. If the furniture has intricately carved areas, you may need to use a sanding sponge, sanding tape or sanding string. These products are available at well-stocked paint stores or at woodworking stores.

Fixing the eyesores

Your piece of furniture will most likely have a few nicks and dings. But you can easily fill these with any brand-name wood filler that’s sold at the paint store.

Apply the wood filler with a putty knife (Photo 3). If the gouge is fairly deep, more than 12 in., fill it in two layers, letting each coat dry completely to get a solid repair.

Once the filler has dried (check the container for drying time), you can sand it smooth, usually with fine sandpaper. Make sure the edge between the filled area and the wood is smooth.

Fill all nicks and gauges with wood filler. Apply the wood filler with a putty knife, wait for it to dry and then sand it smooth. Any brand-name wood filler will work. Read the container label for drying times.


Before you apply the primer, you need to clean off all of the sanding dust and residue. The best way to do this is to wipe the entire project with a tack cloth (Photo 4).

A tack cloth is a piece of cheesecloth that has been coated with a waxy residue — it’s available at paint stores for about $2.

Wipe all of the sanded surfaces with a tack cloth. The sticky coating on the tack cloth picks up the sanding residue. Remember to turn the tack cloth periodically to maximize its cleaning ability.

If you own a shop vacuum, you may want to use it to vacuum up the heavy sanding residue before wiping with the tack cloth.

Now apply an oil-based primer (Photo 5). This goes on easily and provides the best surface for applying the top coats, regardless of the type of paint (oil or latex) that you use for the top coat.

Prime the surfaces with a good oil-based primer. Oil-based primers brush an easily, dry quickly and provide the best surface for paint adhesion.

Any top-quality, brand-name oil-based primer will work. Most paint companies recommend using their own brand of primer. I used two different brands of primer and paint, though, and still had great results.

Most primers dry quickly, often in under 30 minutes. And with many brands, you can apply the paint as soon as the primer is dry.

Choosing your paint

The type of top coat paint you choose depends on the finished look you want. To get a bright, wet look, go with a high-gloss alkyd, or oil-based enamel like in Photo 6. If you’re looking for a softer finish, use a latex enamel. Either one will give you a tough finish.

Paint the primed surfaces with an alkyd or latex enamel. Alkyd enamels will have a wet look when dry; latex enamels have a smoother, satin look when dry. Multiple coats are necessary for a good, tough finish.

Plan on applying at least two coats of enamel. I applied three coats to get a durable, bright, shiny finish.

Don’t rush your painting. Wait until the previous coat is completely dry — with no tackiness at all — before recoating. If you don’t wait long enough, you could end up having to strip off the new paint and start over.

Finally, some paints recommend, or require, sanding between coats — follow the directions on the can. But whether you sand between coats or not, wipe the surface with the tack cloth between coats. You’ll be amazed at how much dust the tack cloth will remove.

Tips for safety and success

Here are a few things to remember so that your project is a success and you work safely:

  • There's no need to completely sand off the old finish to get ready for painting. You’re trying to get rid of the shine, not the old color.
  • Wear a dust mask when sanding. These masks are inexpensive, and they help protect your lungs from dust particles.
  • Work in a well-ventilated area. If you’re sensitive to paint fumes, wear a breathing protection device (respirator) designed for filtering out paint fumes — a paper dust mask does not protect you from paint fumes.
  • Use a paint brush designed for the type of paint you’re using. A high-quality brush will have a protective sleeve that describes the type of paint the brush is best suited for. The instructions on the can of alkyd enamel I used recommended using a natural-bristle brush. It wasn’t cheap ($20 for a 3-in. wide brush), but it allowed the paint to go on smoothly and evenly.
  • Don’t try to save time by skipping steps — especially priming. An unprimed surface requires more coats of paint, and the paint won’t cover as evenly or go as far.
  • When you prime and paint drawers, do only the drawer fronts and their edges. Paint on the sides or edges of the drawers will make them stick.
  • The surfaces must be clean or every imperfection will show. Wipe the surfaces again with the tack cloth.
  • Make sure the room you’re working in is as dust-free as possible. The dust in the air will settle on the wet, painted surfaces, so vacuum the room before painting.
  • Rags with oily dirt residue or those saturated with cleaning solvents, such as mineral spirits, should be dried outside in the sun. Then they can be safely thrown in the trash.