How to Paint Wood Furniture Like a Pro

Give old furniture a fresh look.

Woman is painting a chair at home
Photo: blackCAT/Getty Images

Seeing weathered furniture transform anew is richly satisfying—even more so when it's your hands that did all the work. Whether you're rescuing a disheveled dresser that's been relegated to a corner at the thrift store, salvaging a bedside table left on the curb, or breathing new life into a dining table you've owned for years, the painting process remains the same. Here's how to paint wood furniture step-by-step, including some tips and trusted advice from Anastasia Casey, an interior designer with a knack for DIY. Follow these painting instructions for a flawless finish, and check out the most common painting mistakes to know which pitfalls to avoid.

What You'll Need:

  • Screwdriver
  • Plastic bag
  • Drop cloth
  • Palm sander
  • Sandpaper (80-, 120-, and 220-grit)
  • Anti-vibration gloves
  • Tack cloth (or damp cloth)
  • Primer
  • Paint
  • Paintbrush (A high-quality 2-inch brush is an excellent default, but having a range of small, medium, and large brushes can come in handy)
  • Sealant

What's the Best Paint for Furniture?

The best paint for furniture ultimately depends on how you'll use the piece, as well as the aesthetic you want to achieve. Matte finishes are on-trend right now, and create a soft appearance. Meanwhile, eggshell and satin finishes lend a more polished and timeless look, notes Casey. "If your style tends to lean more eclectic or bohemian, a bright color with a high-gloss finish would be a great choice," she says. Also keep in mind that a satin finish will wipe clean more easily than a matte finish.

If your home decor aesthetic is more rustic or shabby-chic, consider chalk paint. As the name suggests, chalk paint lends a chalky, matte effect to painted furniture, and it can be distressed for a vintage look.

How to Paint Wood Furniture

Ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work? Here's a step-by-step guide for how to paint wood furniture.

1. Remove Hardware and Drawers

Remove all existing hardware (knobs, pulls, latches) and place the pieces in a plastic bag for safe keeping. You can also remove any drawers, since you'll want to paint each drawer front separately.

2. Put Down a Drop Cloth

Roll out the drop cloth cloth (aka the red carpet of the painting world) or a tarp and place your furniture and any drawers at the center. This will prevent paint splatter or drops from getting onto the ground.

3. Sand

Sanding is arguably the most tedious part of the furniture painting process. "Start with a low grit and work your way up. I typically use 80 grit, then 120 grit, and finish with 220 grit for a nice smooth finish," says Casey. (FYI: The lower the grit number, the rougher the texture.) Be sure to wear a dust mask while sanding to avoid breathing in the particles, and it's recommended to wear anti-vibration gloves to protect your hands.

The wood grain should be completely visible by the time you're done, and the furniture should feel and look soft and even. Depending on how large the piece is, this process can take several hours.

If the furniture is in good condition and you're repainting with the same type of paint, it probably isn't necessary to sand down to the wood grain—just lightly sand the piece so the smooth surface has some texture. This will help the paint adhere better.

If you're painting unfinished wood furniture that has never been painted, stained, or sealed before, lightly sand the piece. Don't skip priming unfinished wood furniture—it will help prevent the wood grain from showing through the paint.

4. Wipe Down

After sanding, wipe your furniture down with a damp cloth or a tack cloth. The latter is a special kind of cloth available at hardware stores, which grabs onto even the tiniest debris. You want an absolutely smooth, debris-free surface before moving on to the next step. If you do use a damp cloth, make sure to wait until the furniture is completely dry before moving on to the next step.

5. Prime

Casey recommends applying one to two coats of primer before painting.

"There are a lot of paints out there with a built-in primer, but with furniture, you want to prioritize durability and be as thorough as possible," she says. "Primer allows the paint to adhere to the furniture, and as a result, your piece will be more durable and last a lot longer."

If you're using two coats of primer, lightly sand with 220 grit once the second coat is dry. This will add some texture, helping the paint adhere. Be sure to clean away the dust before painting.

6. Paint

It took us some time to get here, but we've arrived! After mixing your paint, dip your brush into the paint, wipe off any excess, and apply a thin layer to your furniture. Follow the instructions on the paint can for how long to wait between coats, then lightly sand with 220-grit sandpaper, clean with a tack cloth, and apply a second coat.

"Every paint type is different, but you'll definitely want to wait until it's fully dry to apply the next coat. If you rush things, that could cause streaking, bubbling, or a gloppy paint situation," Casey warns. "Once the piece is fully dry, give it a very light sand if you notice any streaks or bumps in the paint."

If needed, repeat for a third coat.

7. Seal (Optional)

Be sure to choose the same finish type (wax, oil, or water) as your paint. "You really need a topcoat to ensure durability and to prevent any staining or water damage," says Casey. "I prefer a wax finish because it's easy to apply and is ready to use immediately after application. However, you will have to reapply it whenever you find the wax is wearing off."

Another popular option is polyurethane, an oil or water-based sealant that does an excellent job of protecting and waterproofing your furniture. Be sure to choose your preferred sheen, whether matte, satin, or semi-gloss, and work in a space with good ventilation.

8. Put It Back Together

Allow your furniture to fully dry, then replace the hardware and drawers. For a fresh spin, you can swap out your hardware for something new or give the hardware a really good clean.

Even once paint is dry to the touch, it still needs time to cure, or fully dry to a hard finish. Wait the recommended curing time on the paint can before placing items on top. This can take up to a week or two.

When to Paint Furniture

You can paint your furniture any time of the year so long as the space you're working in is dry and ventilated. The less humid the environment, the better, and it shouldn't be too hot or too cold. Most primers, paints, and sealants include instructions regarding ideal temperatures, so refer to the on-label guide. Some people do like to complete painting projects outdoors, which would make spring, summer, and fall ideal times to paint.

Mistakes to Avoid

Want to make sure you paint your wood furniture correctly the first time? Avoid these common mistakes:

  • Rushing the Process
    "The biggest mistake people make is rushing the process," says Casey. "If you're not waiting for coats to dry, it's really going to look like a DIY piece and lack that professional finish."
  • Applying Thick Coats of Paint
    If you're applying thick coats of paint, you're much more likely to see streaks and unevenness. Keep your paint coats thin, sand between coats, and you'll find that every layer is smooth and even.
  • Foregoing Primer and Sealant
    Priming and sealing your furniture will extend its life.

Read Next: 7 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Painting

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles