The UpcycledHOME: How to Start Painting Furniture as a Beginner

by | Apr 13, 2022 | UpcycledHOME Magazine

So, you want to start painting furniture! That is FANTASTIC! I am so excited that you are ready to jump on the furniture painting bandwagon and take on this rewarding form of art and expression!

But, before you pick up a brush and start slapping on the paint, there are a few things you should know to help ensure that your first piece remains beautiful and durable for a very long time. Many of these tips are ones that I learned the hard way, as I tend to be the type of person that once a DIY idea pops into my head, I jump into it feet first and ask questions later!  I typically like to plan things out in most areas of my life, but when it comes to anything creative, the ideas flow faster within my head than the pencil can keep up with on a piece of paper, so I often end up learning by doing rather than learning through proper research first.

I want to help you get started with furniture painting while also helping you avoid many of the common mistakes that first-time furniture upcyclers often make.

1. Clean and Degrease your Furniture Piece

There is nothing worse than finishing a piece, standing back to admire it, only to have it begin to peel days later.  This happened to me with one of the very first shelving units I ever painted.  It was one of those old 80’s style mahogany veneer units, where you could adjust the height of the shelves. I literally took that tall monstrosity outside into my carport, laid a tarp underneath it, grabbed a can of old latex paint and applied 3 thick layers of paint on it. Then I painted the shelves, ensuring that I also painted the sides and bottoms.

I gave it plenty of drying time in between coats and after the final coat had dried for 24 hours, I carted that huge shelf back into my house and began assembling the shelves back into it.

That’s when it happened!

Even with gentle movements, the paint literally lifted and peeled right off!

Frustrated, but refusing to be defeated, I touched up the spots where the paint peeled. Then I began adding books and decor to the shelf.

*Gasp* But dang it, the same thing happened!

Everywhere I slid a book in, a huge chunk of paint peeled right off!

It took me a while to figure it all out, but ultimately, the first of several mistakes I made with that first piece, was that I failed to clean and degrease it properly! Sure, I dusted it off –  but I did it with a rag and a can of Pledge! Oops!

Upcyclers, my number one advice to you is Prep, Prep, and then Prep again! Prep work is a four-letter word to many a “paint slapper” but you, my friend, are not a “paint slapper”! You are a furniture artist! A professional Upcycler! And “prep” is now your favourite word (although it may not necessarily be your favourite part of the process)!

Typically, before you start this first step, remove all the hardware and hinges, and if you are planning on putting them back on the piece after, rather than replacing them, set them aside to clean later. Then you need to thoroughly clean and degrease your furniture piece. Years of grime, oils from fingers, coffee stains, and who knows what else has built up on your piece, including the chemicals and oils in furniture polish and any previously used wax polish.

In order to prepare the surface of your furniture piece, you will want to ensure that it is first wiped down with a damp cloth to remove dust, cobwebs and visible stains. Then clean with some type of furniture degreaser. (We will get into specific cleaners next month when we talk in more detail about cleaning. If your piece has a lot of engraved or raised detail, don’t be afraid to get in there with an old toothbrush to get as much dust and grime out as possible.

2. Repair any Damage to Your Furniture Piece

Give your furniture piece a thorough look over and fill any deep dents, scratches and small areas with missing veneer with wood filler or putty. Ensure that drawer bottoms and corners are not loose. Tighten any screws that might need to be tightened.

Check the veneer and apply epoxy glue to any areas where the veneer may be lifting.

Remove any smoke or animals odours from the wood. Often a good old bottle of Dawn Dish Soap is just what the furniture doctor ordered! We will touch more on removing specific smells from furniture pieces in a future blog next month.

3. Sand Your Furniture Piece

Once you have made your repairs, you will want to sand your furniture piece down.

Now, unless you are planning on restaining all or a portion of the piece, you do not have to sand the piece down to the bare wood!

All you really need is to take some sandpaper and a sanding block or you can opt to use an orbital sander and give the piece a light sanding all over.  I typically use an 80 or 120 grit and spend no more than 10 minutes sanding the entire piece.

The basic idea here is to provide something for the paint to adhere to.  This will also remove any glossy finish that could potentially become a skating rink for your paint to peel right off of.

4. Wipe Your Furniture Piece Clean

Yep, more cleaning. But now that you have sanded the piece, you are going to have sawdust everywhere, and likely you are covered in it too!

Use a damp tack cloth and give your furniture piece one last wipe down. Be sure that you clean inside all the corners, nooks and crannies that the sawdust may have found. If you need to, use a toothbrush again to get inside any details that may have sawdust in them.

5. Prime Your Furniture Piece

Now, this is often a topic of debate. To prime or not to prime. Some specialty furniture paints will even tell you that you don’t need to prime before painting.

This is entirely up to you, but if you wish to ensure that your piece remains durable for many years to come and holds up to any number of possible unknown wear and tear that your clients may inflict on it, I suggest not skipping this step.

Priming your piece not only provides yet another surface for your final paint to adhere to but also prevents bleed-through, especially if you are painting directly on any form of dark wood.

6. Apply 2-3 coats of Paint to Your Furniture Piece

Now the fun part finally begins!

There is a certain kind of satisfaction as you begin to apply your first coat of paint. The vision in your mind begins to come to life!

Apply a thin layer of your furniture paint to your piece. Work quickly, but don’t apply too much paint at once. Keep in mind that the first layer rarely looks great; it will look much better if you apply 2-3 light, thin coats rather than one thick coat.

While the paint is still wet, go over the areas with long, even strokes. Ensuring your brush is being held at a 45-degree angle and using the lightest pressure, will help eliminate any brush strokes that might show.

I suggest using the highest quality brush you are able to afford for this step. Cheap brushes often lose their bristles during the painting process and you will end up having bristles left behind.

7. Apply Top Coat, if needed, to Your Furniture Piece

This final step is optional and will depend on the piece itself and ultimately, how much use it is going to endure on a daily basis. The heavier the “traffic”, the more likely it will stand up to that traffic if 2-3 coats are applied. Naturally, if you are finishing a dining table, you are going to want to apply several layers of high-quality polyurethane to prevent stains and make the surface cleanable.

Applying the polyurethane with a brush, was one of the many mistakes I made when I first started out.  Unlike applying paint, it is extremely difficult to avoid brush strokes when applying polyurethane with a brush.

The easiest trick I have found to give my pieces a flawless look when applying polyurethane is using a sponge inside of a nylon stocking.

Make sure to follow the directions regarding drying time if you are planning to apply more than one coat.

For some of my pieces, I have applied a stain and finishing oil, while others receive a wax finish. These choices are entirely up to you and will give your piece different characteristics.

And, now your piece is done! Once everything has dried, put your hardware back on, then step back and enjoy your work of art!

What are some common mistakes you made when first starting out? Or, if you haven’t started, what are some fears that are holding you back?

1 Comment

  1. Danny

    Great tips! I cannot wait to apply these on next DIY projects ?


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