How to Paint Any Wooden Surface and Achieve Smooth Results

vintage teal dresser with plant and small knick knacks sitting in top placed in corner

Afro Bohemian Living/Instagram

Paint can be an easy way to update or even rescue a piece of furniture. Whether you just want to refresh a beloved wooden table or totally rehab a flea market find, you'll the new paint job to look good.

From sanding to priming to that finishing coat, here are our tips for smooth, professional-looking paint on any wood surface.

Things You'll Need:

  • Sanding sponge or disc sander
  • Wood stripper
  • Painter's tape
  • Primer
  • Paint
  • Synthetic or natural bristle brush paint
  • Dropcloth or newspapers
Navy blue dresser vignette

Ashley Montgomery Design

Step 1: Prep the Surface

  • Start by removing any hardware or items you don't wait to paint. For a chest of drawers, that will likely mean removing the drawers to paint separately and removing metal knobs.
  • Lay your pieces on a drop cloth or old newspapers, or set them up at a workstation. Don't worry about blocking off parts of the furniture you can't remove, like a canned seat in a chair—you'll deal with that later.

Step 2: Sand Down the Surface

Most wood furniture will be in one of three states before painting: unfinished wood, finished or painted wood in good shape, or painted or finished wood that is chipping and peeling. No matter the state of the wood, most furniture will benefit from being sanded. This helps the new coat of paint and primer better adhere to the surface.

"If the old finish is in fairly good condition, it's enough to just roughen the surface," Mike Mundwiller, End-User Product Experience Manager at Benjamin Moore, says. He recommends using coarse-grade sandpaper, then moving down to a finer grade till you get a smooth finish.

If your finish or paint is in worse shape, you may want to peel it all off. For that, Mundwiller recommends an orbital sanding tool. If the old stain persists, you may also consider using a wood stain remover or stripper first.

When sanding the wood, work with the grain then wipe down with a tack cloth to remove all residue. If necessary, you can also block off areas you don't want to be painted, like hardware, pulls, or hinges.

Step 3: Prime the Wood for Paint

Priming is generally recommended. It helps the paint adhere to the wood, and can even help protect the older paint color from the newer one if you're not completely stripping it. The one exception would be if you don't want a full opaque effect, Mundwiller says.

  • Using a brush or roller and, moving with the grain, apply a thin layer of primer.
  • Allow it to dry completely (sometimes up to 24 hours) before applying the paint.
  • If any gaps remain, sand them and add a second cont of primer. Oil-based primers are good for sealing the porous surface of the wood.

Step 4: Get Painting

Like with primer, a thin coat is better: thick coats are more likely to show drips or pooling. Use a synthetic bristle brush for latex paint and a natural bristle brush for oil-based paints, Brian Levy, Store Manager of Lowe's in Troutman, N.C., says.

If you use a roller on some areas and a smaller brush on others, Levy also recommends checking on the paint surface with angled light to make sure it looks even.

"Brush back and forth only enough to spread the paint and always in the direction of the wood grain or along the length of a previously painted surface," Levy advises. Multiple coats likely arent necessary, unless you have drips and runs.

Tips for painting wood:

  • Be sure to let the paint dry thoroughly before painting a second coat.
  • If you are correcting drips or uneven paint, sand it off before applying the second coat.
  • If you start seeing paint, stop sanding, Levy says. That means your paint isn't thoroughly dried.
  • Once you are happy with your paint, allow the furniture to dry in a well-ventilated area (preferably outdoors or in a covered carport) until fully dried. Drying times vary, so be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Seal and store paint for touch-ups or safely dispose of it following local guidelines.
blue painted wood panel

Design: Blue Copper Design; Photo: Life Created

How to Choose the Best Paint for Your Project

Different paints are going to be suited to different purposes and woods. Consider where in your home the furniture will be (in or outdoors) as well as how it will be used. Primers are also designed to work best with certain types of paint, so make sure you are matching accordingly.

Levy recommends either latex furniture paint, which is durable but requires priming, or chalk paint, which is good for beginners. Chalk paint also immediately has a more rustic, DIY look since it typically is matte in appearance.

Another option is milk paint. Less well-known than other paints, it is actually one of the oldest forms of paint. Because it doesn't travel as easily as more modern paints, it fell out of use during industrialization. But passionate DIYers have embraced milk paint as another option for that instant antiqued look. It's also nontoxic and can even be poured down the drain safely.

Is Priming Necessary?

The short answer is yes. Priming can seem like a pain (and some primers require hours to dry) but an improperly primed piece of furniture might not look as good or may peel or fade quickly. Aso, some woods, like redwood and cedar, have tannins that can show through improperly primed paint, even years later, Mundwiller says.

Just make sure you are buying the right primer for your project. Painted wood, for example, is primed best with an oil-based primer. The exception would be if you wanted a semi-opaque or faded finish, or wanted some of the original wood or older paint to show through.

The Difference Between Painting and Staining Wood

"The main difference between paints and stains is that paint coats the top of the wood surface, while stain penetrates the wood and preserves the look and substance of the material," Levy says. While staining often lets the wood shine through, it's another option for rehabbing a piece of furniture. While staining may seem easier since the goal isn't a completely opaque paint job, it can actually take multiple coats and can be more time-consuming.

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