Have you ever looked at a piece of furniture and wondered how it was able to be painted so perfectly? Or maybe you have a piece of furniture you would love to paint but are hesitant because you don’t want it to look like a craft project? Today I’m going to tell you how to paint like a pro and give you the low down on painting furniture.
First off, some raw truth… The flawless finish in my dresser above was done with a HVLP Sprayer and it was done in less then a few hours. Most professional furniture painters have an arsenal of spay guns in their tool box.
For me, using a sprayer is the difference between riding a bike or driving a car to get to your destination. They both will get you there but one is fast and the other makes you sweat.
But don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a spray gun because you can paint furniture without a sprayer.
I come from a family of craftsmen and artists and my grandfather (who was an amazing furniture restorer) didn’t use a fancy spray gun. It can be done and we’ll talk about that process.
To keep this post from becoming unusually long and going into information overload I’m going to try to stick to the basics.
Painting Furniture: The Basic The Process
• PREP & PRIME
• CLEAR COAT
1. Selection: When to Paint and When to Pass
I love free and cheap furniture. Heck most of the furniture in my house was someone else’s discard (and I love that). But even though I’m a firm believer in seeing the beauty in the broken and discarded, I’ve learned the hard way that some furniture pieces are bad choices. I will spare you my horror stories of grey hairs and endless hours fixing a junky piece that should have been passed on but trust me some problems are not worth it.
Regardless of where the furniture piece comes from, take the time to examine it carefully and assess it for potential problems.
A few of the issues I avoid are…
• Furniture made of cheap materials like junk wood.
• Badly warped, water damaged furniture.
• Furniture missing critical pieces to its function.
I like to look for furniture that is ugly on the outside but solid and structurally sound.
2. Furniture Repairs
A professional finish starts with a clean canvas. It’s important to take the time to examine the piece and make any needed repairs before the paint goes on. Now is the time to glue loose joints, fill deep scratches and patch and glue loose veneer. There is nothing like wet paint to make loose veneer bubble up and stand out like a sore thumb.
It’s always tempting to skip minor repairs and get right to the fun stuff but in the long run you will have wished you had taken the time to patch that missing peice. Your future self will thank you.
3. Pre-Paint Prep
I confess, I’ve taken lots of short cuts. I don’t always prime. Heck sometimes I barely sand. Many times it has worked out just fine. But it’s risky. When it goes wrong it’s hours and hours of work to undo the mistake. Trust me on this one too, regardless of magic bullet paint claims like “with this paint there is no sanding and priming needed”, it’s not worth skipping a couple of hours on prep only to find yourself spending 3 days undoing a problem. Been there, done that more times than I care to admit. It’s not worth comprising the end result.
My basic routine entails…
• Clear cob webs and wipe down the surface with mild soap and water to get rid of surface dirt and grime.
• Remove drawers, doors and hardware.
• If the furniture is in great shape and has a smooth surface. I lightly sand with a medium grit sand paper and finish with a fine grit sand paper or fine steel wool. Lightly sanding evens out the surface, removes fine scratches and any wax or dirt left on the surface. It also opens the wood grain which will help the paint bond to the surface. Remember to always sand with the grain of the wood.
• If more than a light sanding is needed I use an orbital sander. But a word of caution, heavy sanding with an electric sander can gouge the wood, so go easy.
• If the surface is rough because of a bad paint job or an old cracking finish I find it easier to forgo the hours of sanding and instead strip the bad finish off with stripper and start fresh.
• Use a tack cloth to wipe the sanding dust. Tack cloths are indispensable.
• Avoid the temptations of taking short cuts in prep work, they have a way of turning into painful long cuts.
Many people think you use a primer just to help the paint stick better the surface but that is not true. Priming plays a critical role to seal and smooth the surface of the furniture and create a flat base. A flawless finish starts with priming. There are several types of primers available. The two I use most often are latex and shellac based.
• Latex primers are good all-around primers and sand well but for problems with stain bleeding through choose a Shellac based primer.
• Shellac primers are great for adhering to challenging surfaces.
• It’s best to use a primer close to the color of your top coat. You can ask your paint store clerk to tint it for you.
• My primer of choice is Zinsser BIN shellac based primer. I’ve also been happy with Glidden gripper primer as a general latex primer.
• Don’t forget to sand in-between coats.
A shellac primer played a huge role in the Art desk below because of stain bleeding through. This old art desk started out in bad shape but after gluing, repairing and the help of BIN primer it became a the perfect canvas for a flawless paint job.
5. Paint Choices
YAY! You made it to the painting part. In recent years there has been a wave of internet love over products like Chalk and Milk paint. I love those products too. But sometimes the excitement has lent itself to big claims and misinformation. I’m going to be real honest here. I’ve not found one paint product superior over the other. It often comes down to personal preference and desired look. They are all suitable for furniture. And that goes for latex paint!
Latex paint is my personal choice. It’s cheap and readily available. When selecting a latex paint a general rule of thumb for a durable hard finish is to choose an acrylic enamel. But to be honest I often use regular wall paint. The key is to check the ingredients.
You want to use latex paint that says Acrylic Polymer or Acrylic resin in the ingredient list. Stay away from paint that that contains a Vinyl binder in the ingredients.
Keep in mind that while latex paint dries quick it can take up to a month to fully cure into a hard durable finish.
As for sheen I prefer a flat or a satin. If I want a high gloss look I add the gloss finish at the end with a clear finish coat.
6. Final Clear Coat
Adding a final clear finish will provide that needed protection to keep the paint job looking brand new. It comes in all sheens including matte. The key to a flawless top coat is thin layers. Always sand in-between with very fine sandpaper or steel wool and use a tack cloth to make sure your surface is dust free before adding the next coat. I often spray on my clear coat too. It’s a big time saver
For lighter color paint jobs choose a waterbased formula like a polycrylic. Oil based formulas tend to yellow but they are easier to apply . Wipe on poly is my favorite but I found that the oil based formula works better than the water based. The water based wipe on dries quick and I found myself using a brush anyway.
Paint Brush Method
Buying a sprayer may not be in the budget. The best way to get a smooth finish without brush strokes is to apply several thin coats and sand in-between each and EVERY coat. It’s going to take several coats. Use a quality paint and brush to help make this job go smoother.
Paint Sprayers (Let the fun begin)
As you can see I’m pro paint sprayer. The best type of spray gun for jobs like painting furniture are HVLP sprayers. HVLP stand for High Volume Low Pressure. One of the advantages of a HVLP gun is it doesn’t produce as much over spray. You know like the dust cloud you get when you use a can of spray paint.
There are two types of systems, spray guns that use an air compressor and spray guns that use a turbine. My Fuji Spray gun pictured above uses a turbine driven air source. You can also get a HVLP gun that connects to an air compressor. If you already own a air compressor that may be a far less expensive route to go. You should be able to get a nice HVLP gun for around $100 but do your research because quality and function varies. Turbine driven systems range in price for around a $100 to up to over a $1000.
I’ve been very happy with the Fuji brand and they come in a wide price range.
If you’re are looking for a cheap quick fix and have an air compressor, I recommend the Critter. The critter is not an HVLP and you will get some overspray but for 40 bucks it works well. Obviously it doesn’t have the features and versatility of my high end Fuji. And you won’t get the super fine spray like a higher end spray gun but does a decent job. I use mine for quick small jobs because its handy and easy to clean.
I hope this gives you a start and helps you to create professional looking paint jobs.
All the pictures of the furniture in this post are from my last two room projects. The grey dresser at the top of this post is from my older son’s bedroom make over. You can see that here.