How to Paint Furniture Like an Interior Designer

multi-colored, painted chairs
ACP /Trunk Archive

I’ll be honest, the only hand-painted furniture I’ve ever owned was given to me by a former roommate. I love the look bright paints give older, more rustic pieces, but I’m just not sure how to paint furniture myself. Chances are, I’m probably not the only person with that problem, so I decided to tap Portland, Oregon–based interior designer Max Humphrey for his professional advice on DIY furniture painting.

You see, Humphrey’s a big fan of buying or finding vintage furniture and then remaking it. For years, he’s been purchasing what he refers to as “beat up” pieces for his painting projects. He also sources vintage items for his design clients, although he often has those professionally remade so they’re perfect (we get it). “Paint is the easiest and cheapest way to fix something up, and if you don’t like the results, you can just do it again,” he says. What’s more, is that Humphrey appreciates the sustainable nature of it because you’re reusing something and turning it into a one-of-a-kind piece (another major perk). So, if you’re ready to spruce up your furniture, keep scrolling to learn the proper technique.

Step 1: Sand, Sand, Sand

If he’s looking to change up a piece that has existing paint with a sheen, Humphrey uses 80-grit sandpaper. “You don’t need to strip the old paint completely—you’re basically just roughing up the surface of the piece so it takes on the new paint,” he says. After that, switch to 150-grit paper for more smoothing. Since this could take a pretty long time to do by hand, it may be worth investing in an orbital sander (Humphrey likes this option from Home Depot). 

Step 2: Clean The Surface

Before you prime the piece, you need to make sure it’s clean. If you don’t, it will be like painting over grime. Humphrey says a damp cloth will do the trick to remove dust before starting your new paint job.

Step 3: Time to Prime

After prepping your furniture, start priming. Humphrey suggests a spray primer because it’s fast and goes on evenly—use a light primer for paler hues and black or gray primer if you’re going for a darker shade. Spray on a thin layer, let it dry for 10 to 15 minutes, add another coat, and repeat until fully covered. “Some people do another round of light sanding after the primer is on—it depends on the piece of furniture and how fancy you want it to look,” he says.

Step 4: Channel Your Inner Artist

Now’s the fun part: Choose your method, and get started. Spray paint works just like the primer process above, you can decide to hand-paint with a nice brush, try a fine foam roller, or invest in a handheld paint sprayer, which is great for large pieces (although it does require a little practice). Generally speaking, you’ll want a satin or semi-gloss finish so your furniture will have a hint of shine. Humphrey’s pro tip? “Regardless of the method, you’ll want to do more than one coat so you don’t see any brushmarks,” he says.

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