Tuesday, November 29, 2016

How to Paint Furniture

Well, here it is. I've made you wait a long long time for it, a couple of months if I'm recalling correctly, but here's my step by step guide to painting furniture.

        Before you begin any prep work, the first step to painting furniture is to decide if you even *should* paint said piece of furniture. People can get pretty hotheaded about slapping paint on a piece of mahogany, which is both hilarious and sad, so don't let the wood preservation brigade bully you out of reinventing a piece if you're sick of it. 99% of the furniture on the market is perfectly fine to paint or refinish. It's either not that old (I try not to refinish anything dating to before 1850), not that rare (I mean, if you're painting a George Nakashima table or a Roycroft desk you're an ass), or not in good enough condition to be of any value other than what you could squeeze out of it with a cunning upcycle. For an entire treatise on my stance on painting furniture- click on over to this blog post I wrote about a year ago. Also- in this post I'll only be talking about painting techniques. If you want to learn how to refinish a wood top, check out my how-to blog post on that here!

          Quick and dirty, here are my general rules for when to paint and when not to paint:

1. Is the piece in perfect condition?
-If it is I tend to demur unless it's custom for a client. There's plenty of busted beauties out there that are more worthy and more satisfying to save.

2. Was it made before 1850?
-Now, I hear you shouting "How the hell will I be able to tell that?!". I can because I've been working with early antiques for a decade, maybe you can't, but I am a generous soul, at least when it comes to antique furniture. If you want to paint something and you ever feel it may be an early or valuable antique, you are entirely welcome to email me at KateAveryDesign@yahoo.com with pictures and I will tell you if you're committing mortal sin by painting it.

3. Is this a rare or historically important object that is worth more in its current condition?
- Most stuff isn't, but an 18th century bowback Windsor chair in its original worn green paint, for example, certainly is. Never paint what you can sell for more as is.
A c.1930s mahogany highboy I painted last year. It's a mass produced piece of furniture whose value has always, and will always be purely decorative. Perfectly fine to paint.
A magnificent cherry highboy made by a master craftsman of the Middletown, CT area around 1765. If you paint this or one like it, I will personally hunt you down and slap you silly.


          At this point I should mention this is going to be a gloves off write up on painting furniture. I'm in no one's pocket. I have no sponsors, much to my perpetual irritation- so you can trust that this advice is true, real, and hard won from years of work and somewhere around five thousand pieces of furniture that have migrated through my painty paws.

1. Prep matters MUCH, paint matters little- You have to, HAVE TO properly prep your surfaces. I don't care what any of the $45 a quart chalk paint brands tell you, if you want your paint to stick, coat evenly, and look lovely, you gotta fix your surface first. You need to do most repair work first. I have nothing but side eye for anyone who does not repair chips, gouges, or missing veneer. You're painting this piece of furniture, you have an obligation to make it whole and better. For patches and repairs I use either Bondo (for big jobs) or wood putty (for teensy scrapes and nicks).

2. Every single surface is different. You always need to remove goop and grime, and you will need to sand about 82% of surfaces. If it's slick, the paint won't stick. When in doubt, apply a test patch of your paint, maybe about the size of your palm. Let it dry and then see if you can remove it with your fingernail. If you can then you're gonna need to sand that sucker pretty well to get good adhesion.
a 1960s rock maple hutch with slick surface that I've "roughed up" with 80 grit sandpaper to prep for paint
3. If you're swapping out your hardware now is the time you need to fill your old post holes ( I swear by bondo for this task), and sand them flat. Depending on the hardware I'm putting on down the road, I may even drill my new hardware holes. The old holes can help as a guide to ensure your newly drilled ones are nicely spaced.


Good gravy, the way people ask for my secret paint mixture you'd think I'd brewed up the elixir of life! For the most part, paint is paint is paint. I use latex that I mix some chalk paint additive into. My base entirely depends on what hardware store I've recently visited. I use Valspar and Behr, Clark and Kensington, and Benjamin Moore, usually eggshell or flat- I've not yet decided which finish I prefer more. But in terms of paint manufacturer, I can't tell the difference, and if I can't, you can't either. I've used all the fancy paints on the market, and they're fine, but you only accidentally kick a $45 quart of paint over once before you find yourself a more economical option. I like to mix my own colors, but that's just cause I'm a weirdo. Any one of those manufacturers has about ten million colors from which you can choose.

Some advice on color- Don't agonize over which of thirty different shades of white you might select for your sideboard. They'll all look the same once they're on there. And yellows and lime-y greens will always coat maddeningly thin. Most pieces take 2-3 coats. A white might take four, a yellow can take upwards of 75,000. I love painting furniture yellow, but I swear it's sluicing years of my life.

Here's the tools of the trade:

The chalk paint additive is made of calcium carbonate and something else I can't remember. I buy it by the pound off amazon here. It looks hilariously like suspicious drugs when it arrives. I mix about three healthy tablespoons with an equal part water until it has a soupy consistency, and then stir it into my already mixed paint. I save every possible household vessel I can to use as a paint container- hence the coffee thingy. The paint brush is a $3.99 one from Ace Hardware. It's the only type I'll use. They're magnificent, and I can usually get five to six piece of furniture out of each if I wash them thoroughly between colors. No, I don't use Purdy brushes, they're pretentious. 

Paint like a Pro

             So you've sanded your surface nice and coarse, you've got your paint mixed, now it's time for the fun part. It's very zen to paint. And I'd say there's no right or wrong way to apply paint, except with a sprayer- using a sprayer or a roller is the wrong way AND the lazy way. Paint is meant to be applied with a brush, so that you can see all the wonderful details as you work. Mind not to leave drips as you go, work from the top down. A chalk paint mix dry time is heavily dependent on the humidity level, but is generally 1-4 hours. Never paint in temperatures under 50 degrees (why would you?! brrrrr!). 

Problems You'll Encounter

                 Yesterday I got up having just had the best dream about Eddie Redmayne. The dogs needed to be let out, and I grabbed an almost full mug of last night's hot cocoa to bring down to the sink to wash up. I also decided I should bring my laptop, phone, and a sweater down in the same trip- I'd also been awake for a solid 33 seconds and was generally musing over Eddie's freckles. 
         I tried to open the door, lost hold of EVERYTHING I was attempting to trundle, made the split second decision to save the electronics, and thusly catapulted the mug of cocoa in an elegant eight foot arc that splattered half the bedroom, the hall, the antique dresser by the door, the antique dresser seven feet away (?!), and my startled and affronted border collie (who then took off down the hallway leaving a trail of cocoa splotches behind him). Shards of glass and chocolatey muck were everywhere. I thought I'd gotten it all and then about a half hour ago I was rummaging for my boots in the closet and found the handle of the mug. It was an epic start to the work week.
               Which is to say in an entirely non paint related way, shit happens. You my furniture painting friend, are going to encounter problems on your upcycling journey. Here are some of the most common, and some handy solutions:

1. OH NO the sticky original cherry stain is bleeding through my paint! 
     - Any oil based anything works as an excellent bleed stop. I'll sometimes apply a thin coat of oil based poly to any trouble spots, or a slick of furniture wax, or in a pinch, a bit of spray paint on the bleed to heal it up. Let whatever you apply dry fully fuuuuuullly fully before you apply your next coat of paint. 

2. CRAP- there's all these dings and gouges I couldn't see before, but now with the first coat on they're bashing me in the face with their apparentness! 
      - You can fill holes any ole time during the painting process. In fact, this happens to me so often, I'll often just address the largest issues in my prep stage and then come back with my little container of wood putty after the first coat to fill all the weensy imperfections. Just let it dry, gently sand it off, and carry on!

3. I HATE the color!
        - Well clearly you have decision making issues. I prescribe a glass of wine and a night's sleep before you rethink yourself. Sometimes what looked sickly in 7pm light looks spectacular by the fresh blush of morning. Or if you truly hate it, you can just paint over it. If you're distressing that first shade might peek through at the edges ever so slightly (sometimes I do this intentionally for that very effect!), but odds are excellent you can paint right over dreaded color #1 and it'll be a distant memory by the time you're done.


           You're covered with paint, and so, hopefully, is your piece of furniture. Now it's time to finish the job. A chalk paint mixture is very rough and yucky feeling when dry, like a kitten's tongue, or my legs in winter (don't you judge me). To make it satin smooth you need to sand your surface by hand with 220 grit sand paper. 

          Once you've sanded the entire piece down with 220 grit til it's smooth as Eddie Redmayne's British accent, you have a decision to make. To distress or not to distress. I could honestly write an entire book on distressing methods and techniques. Some people like the look, others loathe it. I prefer it on about 90% of the pieces I do. There's the built in benefit that it's a great opportunity to remove any errant and accidental paint drips, and to use the contrast of the original surface to bring out the architecture of the piece. Also, no matter what paint you use, unless you live in a soulless vacuum of a home, painted furniture is rarely entirely infallible, best to distress it now before life does. 

            With distressing, the goal is to mimic natural patterns of age and wear, to make the surface feel one with the furniture, not stark, intrusive, and brand new. Take some time and consider where your current furniture shows its age and use, OR if you bought a fresh house full of ikea last week and have no physical reference point at hand, I always recommend perusing a good online auction house's catalogs. These days you can zoom waaaaaaay up to the pieces to see the detail. Garth's is my personal favorite, they always have the most brilliant 18th and 19th century painted furniture. 

           Here's a wonderful mid 19th century stepback cupboard Garth's sold last weekend. with excellent original wear to its 175 year old surface. Note the dings up the sides from bumps and scuffs, the soft wear on the tops of the door fronts from many many hands opening and closing them, also the wear around the pulls and top lip of the base. Finally, the flat paneled surfaces of the lower doors has the least amount of wear, as they have been only rarely touched in the past two centuries. 

And here's a 20th century pine stepback cupboard I painted this past summer. Note how I've created the same wear patterns along the door, the raised surfaces, the edges, angles, and feet.
 And yea, I'm with you, it's doesn't make my knees nearly as weak as the 19th century mustard one above, but I didn't get $33,000 for it either so...

Finally, here's one I've seen on craigslist for several weeks now. Please please don't do this to furniture, it's bizarre, and not in some post modern apocalyptic exciting way-


                The finish line is in sight!! You've either distressed or not, but you've definitely sanded that coarse paint nice and smooth. The final step is to seal your paint so it's washable, durable, and pretty. I always use wax. No one should ever use water based poly, also known as polyacrylic, as it is the most wretched furniture poison on earth. It's a devil to apply, will give you an uneven finish with yellowy streaks, and will discolor overtime. Trust me on this one.

           I always seal my furniture with wax. Hands down the best furniture wax is S.C. Johnson clear paste furniture wax. I'd buy the cute yellow tins by the baker's dozen if I could. You can find them in the cleaning aisle at home depot. It's wonderfully malleable, and thus perfect to work into the surface. I mix mine into a dark wax by chopping the wax up a bit with a paint stirrer, then pouring in minwax dark walnut stain, and then mixing until it's evenly distributed. It's suuuuuper gross and messy and I've not managed to mix up a batch once yet without splattering the stain all over my hands (and once my face!). But my god, it's worth it. It's the best stuff on Earth, that dark wax. It warms the color, creates depth and age, and seals it to all but paranormal and extraterrestrial harassment. 
            When I apply my wax I work in small sections as it dries fast. Rub the wax on, wipe the wax off. It's that easy.
hahaha. gross. 

The top section has been dark waxed, the bottom has not. Look at the difference in depth! 
There's quite a few bits more, but I feel like I've wrung out my painterly soul for this post, so if you have questions feel free to comment below, email me, or find me on one of my social medias!


  1. What is your experience repainting wood/veneer furniture? I have a table with 2 hidden leaves and a large base but it's got that cheap finish. The table is sturdy and I want to refinish/paint it. Same process?

    1. A veneer surface is the same as a wood surface in terms of painting. Laminates are hit or miss.

  2. Nicely done. Feeling a wee bit sorry for you I chose yellow.

    1. hahaha. No worries, a creamy color like that will be fine. It's the really bold saturated yellows that are thin!

  3. Thanks for all your great info, I will try Pacosol instead of Plaster of Paris. How do you put on the wax, cloth or wax brush? Thanks again! Carolyn

    1. Hi Carolyn. I'm a simple gal, I use paper towels to apply my wax.

  4. Nice piece of writing, easy to follow, fun and informative, thanks for sharing!! Hope you get that Sponsor, HGTV perhaps?

  5. Mary Beth McDonald11/30/2016

    Thank you for all of this great informative info. I love how you made it so enjoyable (I mean funny in parts) to read. I will absorb this & think about painting the dresser that I have been putting off tackling.

  6. Great techniques..like this post a lot

  7. Thanks so much for this post. You answered lots of questions I've had about painting furniture start to finish. Love your blog!

  8. Love this blog post! I tend to be fairly whimsical, don't care for measuring, use what I have on hand, and generally just go for it. This was helpful and not too prescriptive!

  9. Thank you for sharing. Its informative and full of information.

  10. Hello,
    I am painting chairs that go with a pedestal stable,not antique but want to repaint them. Can I use regular latex paint and then the wax as you say in article on chairs?

  11. I greatly appreciate this information! I'm working on a secretary, drop down desk piece. I've used poly before and I hate it but, that's all I really know so I'm happy to hear of the wax you use. So you're telling me I should embrace brush strokes ;) Out of curiosity, do you ever paint the outer sides or the insides of drawers? Thanks!