Choosing Paint for Wooden Furniture

Painting furniture can be a fickle process: chipping, bubbling, brush marks and uneven coverage are just a few of the problems that can affect the quality of your paint job. Ensure that you're using the best paint for your project by factoring in the material you plan to paint, the look you want to achieve, and how often and for what purpose the furniture is used.

Priming Before Painting

Using primer on your furniture projects helps the paint stick better and allows for better coverage. Primer is available in both latex and oil-based varieties. The type of furniture and how it's used helps you decide which type of primer to use.

When painting finished wood furniture, an oil-based primer is the best option. Oil primers also work better than latex primers when your wood is weathered or distressed or when the existing paint is cracking or chipping. In both instances, you need to prepare the furniture for priming by sanding the surfaces evenly with sandpaper. Clean the sanded surface with a cloth to remove any dust or dirt.

Unfinished wood surfaces can be primed without being sanded first. Just wipe the surfaces clean with a cloth. While either oil or latex can be used on unfinished woods, oil is the best choice for a smooth and even foundation. The exception is furniture made of softwood, which is best suited for latex primer.

A synthetic bristled paintbrush works for either type of primer. Let the first coat dry completely. Most primers dry within a few hours, but you can check your product label for a specific time frame. Once dry, lightly sand and wipe the surface clean. Repeat the process with a second coat of primer.

Working With Water-Based Paints

Latex and acrylic are the main types of water-based paints, and both can be used on furniture. These paints work well on slightly porous surfaces like wood, stone and wicker and hold up through light to moderate use. Water-based paints normally require a primer coat and tend to show brush marks more readily.

Latex paint is available in a wide range of colors. It comes in different finishes, such as flat, satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss. Flat paint is an option for furniture if you want a matte effect, but satin and semi-gloss are more common. High-gloss offers the most durability and is the easiest finish to clean. Choose your finish based on the desired look and how much use the furniture gets. Acrylic paint, unlike latex, is most often sold in small containers for craft use, making it ideal for small details and accents.

Water-based paints usually feel dry to the touch in a few hours but can take up to 30 days to cure completely. Handle the piece with care during that extended curing time. Expect to apply between two and four coats of latex or acrylic paint to get full coverage.

Choosing Oil-Based Paint

Oil-based, or alkyd paints, are an extremely durable option. They provide a rich, glossy, lacquer-like finish. Oil-based paints stick to most surfaces well, making them suitable for virtually any material. Oil-based paints are the way to go for furniture that gets lots of use or gets washed frequently. They're available in the same range of finishes as latex: flat, satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss. As with the latex finishes, high-gloss is the strongest and easiest to wash.

Apply oil-based paints with a brush that has natural bristles, and expect to wait up to 48 hours for the piece to dry completely. These types of paints are more noxious than their water-based counterparts, and inhaling their fumes can be dangerous. Use them outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Avoid contact with your eyes and skin, as it can cause irritation.

Spray on the Paint

Spray paint offers an alternative to brushes and rollers. This method eliminates brush marks that can be problematic with other methods. Spray paint also works well when you need to paint something with a lot of small detailing, curved or rounded areas, or spindles.

Disposable spray paint cans are suitable for most small and medium projects, but they are relatively inefficient in coverage. Spray paint also comes in a limited range of color options, which can stifle your creativity.

An alternative is to use a paint sprayer tool with your choice of paint. Airless paint sprayers work well with all paint, even thicker types. The machine uses high pressure to send droplets of paint onto the surface. Compressed air sprayers work with an air compressor to create a smooth, even coat of paint. This type of sprayer tends to use more paint and causes more overspray than other types. A high volume low pressure sprayer gives you a smooth surface because of the slower speed of the paint. Thicker paints don't work as well in the HVLP sprayers.

Regardless of the method used, a certain amount of stray paint is inevitable when spraying, so be sure to cover the surrounding area with a tarp. Spray paint, like oil-based paint, should be used outside or in a well-ventilated area. Wear a face mask at all times to avoid inhalation of harmful fumes. If painting outside, avoid doing so on a windy day. The wind can make it very difficult to control the direction of your spray.

Special Effects

If you're trying to achieve a specific style with your furniture project, specialty paints can help. Chalk paint is latex paint with a matte finish and strong adhesion and coverage. Its chalky quality lends a worn vintage effect that's perfect for a shabby-chic distressed look. Crackle paint also works well with that style by creating layers of peeling paint for an antiqued appearance. Glazes are tinted transparent finishes that create depth and richness when applied over another paint color.

What Kind of Paint Do I Use on Wood Furniture?

A fresh coat of paint gives wood furniture a brand new look, but the type of paint you choose can make or break the project. The best paint depends on how you use the furniture and the type of finish or style you want to achieve. Proper preparation is also important in getting an attractive and durable finish.

Unfinished Wood

Water-based latex paint with a gloss or semi-gloss sheen works best for furniture that gets a lot of use. It creates an easy-to-clean surface that holds up well. For purely decorative furniture, opt for latex paint with a flat finish.

Prepare unfinished or bare wood for paint by sanding with 60- or 80-grit sandpaper, following the direction of the wood grain. Vacuum the surface with a bristle brush attachment before wiping it down with a damp cloth or tack cloth to remove all sanding debris.

A stain-blocking primer on raw, unfinished wood, dark wood, knotty pine or oak wood gives you a good base for the paint. If you plan on distressing and don't want primer showing through, cover just the knots with the primer. Then, avoid distressing over those areas.

Finished Wood

Woodworkers and professional painters often recommend an oil-based paint for heavily used furniture because of its long-lasting durability. One advantage of using oil-based paint on finished wood is that it sticks well to previously painted surfaces without primer. It even works on shellac.

But oil-based paint takes a lot longer to dry and cure than water-based paint. Oil-based paint is also more complicated to use. You need chemical solvents such as mineral spirits or turpentine to clean brushes, tools and surfaces. When using oil-based paints, work in a well-ventilated area, and wear a face mask for the fumes it emits.

A degreaser helps to remove dirt and oils on furniture that is already stained or painted. Sand and prime the surface using the same method as unfinished wood to ensure a smooth, even finish.

Pressed Wood

Furniture made from engineered pressed wood such as plywood and medium density fiberboard, known as MDF, is covered by thin wood veneers, plastic or paper laminates designed to look like wood. Sand laminate surfaces carefully to avoid exposing the material beneath. Veneers are very thin, sometimes as much as 1/16 of an inch or smaller.

The key to painting laminate furniture is to use an oil-based primer first. This type of primer bonds well to glossy surfaces and provides a foundation for the paint. Let the primer dry thoroughly according to the manufacturer's instructions, usually several hours or overnight. Sand the primed surface lightly before painting. Latex paint can be used over an oil-based primer.

Antique or Distressed Finishes

Milk paint and chalk paint give furniture an antique look to get distressed or shabby-chic finishes. You can apply both paints without primer, but it's a good idea to sand glossy surfaces first. Chalk paint sticks well and works directly on most painted or stained surfaces.

Milk paint takes a little more work. You need to add a bonding agent after mixing the paint with water unless you're going for a chipped, timeworn look. Although the formulas are different, milk paint and chalk paint both create a soft, matte finish.

Add a polycrylic topcoat to latex, chalk or milk painted furniture that receives heavy use. Polycrylic is water-based, making clean-up easy. It dries to a clear finish, unlike polyurethane which yellows over time.

Applying the Paint

Use high-quality paintbrushes when painting furniture to avoid brushstrokes or shedding. When working with latex paint, use a nylon or polyester angled bristle brush. Use a natural bristle brush with oil paint. A foam roller with rounded ends works best to cover large areas.

Always brush or roll with the wood grain to get the best results. Start with thin layers of paint. It's better to do several thin layers than just a few thick layers. The painted surfaces come out smooth and professional-looking.