Painting wooden furniture

Upcycling is all the rage right now, and painting wooden furniture is a great way to give an old cabinet or other wooden piece a new lease of life.

Painting furniture can actually be great fun too, but it’s important to use the right method. If in doubt, start with a small piece of second hand furniture first, before moving on to the built in kitchen-cabinets!

Read on for our advice on selecting the right paint, preparation and achieving the perfect finish. If at all possible, enlist a tea maker too - painting is thirsty work.

1. Choose Your Paint

The type of paint you choose will depend on where the furniture will be located, and what sort of effect you want to create.

Here are your basic options for woodwork:

  • Oil-based paints. These are very hard wearing and may be useful for areas that require something a little tougher, like kitchens and bathrooms where steam tends to accumulate.

  • Water-based paints. These are less hard-wearing, but easier to apply than oil-based paints.

  • Gloss. This is easy to clean, but must be applied with a steady hand as the high shine will highlight any imperfections.

  • Satinwood / eggshell. This offers a medium shine and is less hardwearing than gloss but easier to apply.

  • Matte. This is the least hardwearing of the three, but if you’re looking for a shabby chic effect, then it’s the way to go. See below for more information on creating a shabby chic effect.

For more detailed information on a range of household paint types, check out this guide.

2. Gather Supplies

How to paint wooden cabinets

Photo by: Alan Cleaver

Here are the essentials you’ll need to get ready before you start:

  • Paintbrushes (Get a range of sizes, particularly if you have detail work to do.)

  • Roller (Useful if you have any large areas to cover, and it helps to create a smooth finish – plus, it uses less paint. A smallish version, like a radiator roller, may be best.)

  • Dust sheets

  • Clingfilm

  • Old mug

  • White spirit (if you’re using oil-based paint.)

  • Sandpaper and a sanding block or electric sander

  • Vacuum cleaner with soft bristle attachment

  • Work table (This can be a makeshift creation – it’s just to get the furniture to a height that is comfortable to work with)

  • Paint

  • Primer

  • Varnish or wax

  • Old cloths (useful in case of an emergency!)

  • Masking tape

3. Find a Suitable Workspace

If the weather is on your side, it’s best to work outdoors if you can. If not, find a well-ventilated space and open all the windows in the area. Not only will this keep you from fainting from the fumes, but your paint will dry more quickly if there is a breeze.

Also, try to find an area where it’s easy to cover up the surroundings with dust sheets. If possible, move all other furniture out of the way completely. Remember: you’ll need a space where the furniture can dry without being disturbed – a ‘keep out’ sign may come in handy!

4. Prepare the Area

Place dust sheets underneath where you will be working, as well as in the surrounding area, paying particular attention to any fixed objects that you don’t want to be splattered with paint.

5. Dismantle Your Furniture

It will be much easier to achieve an even finish on your furniture if it is in pieces, so dismantle it as much as you can. Keep the screws in a safe place – use envelopes and label them if you’re likely to forget which belongs to what.

Also, take off handles, hinges, and anything else that you don’t want to be painted. If there are any parts that don’t come off, particularly if the furniture is old, then try to cover these up with a piece of masking tape, or use a particularly fine brush to paint around them.

6. Clean Your Furniture

Any dust, grease, or dirt on your cabinets is going to make a beautiful paint finish impossible. Clean every nook and cranny, and dry off with a towel. Then, clean again for good measure.

7. Sand Your Furniture

If your cabinets already have a smooth, shiny surface – for instance, if they’re made from laminate – you can skip this step. But if the wood has some lumps and bumps or rough spots, a little sanding can make a huge difference.

An electric sanding machine can really help to save time here, but you can achieve the same effect with some sandpaper and a sanding block if you’re on a budget.

Remember to always sand in the direction of the grain, and maintain an even pressure to create a smooth finish. For a detailed guide on how to sand wood, take a look at this guide.

8. Vacuum Your Furniture

The easiest way to get rid of all of the sandpaper residue from your furniture is to use the soft brush nozzle on your vacuum cleaner. Then, wipe with a damp cloth to ensure every last speck is gone.

9. Prime Your Furniture

This step depends on which sort of paint you’re using, and the darkness of the original surface compared to the new paint colour – as well as whether or not you skipped the last step. Oil-based paints usually require a primer, whereas you can get away without using one with medium shine or matte finishes.

If the sanding has stripped the paint from your furniture altogether, you’ll probably need to use primer so the next layer of paint has something to grab onto. If you didn’t sand, you might not need primer. Test a small patch with paint to see how well it sticks and allow to dry.

One thin coat of primer should be enough, but use your judgement and apply another thin coat if in any doubt.

10. Wash Your Tools

For oil paints, fill your old mug with a mixture of white spirit and water (check the label for the correct ratio), and clean your brushes. Be patient – this may take a while.

For water-based paints, fill your old mug with water to clean your tools.

11. Enjoy a Tea Break

Wait for the primer to dry – the tin should offer some guidance as to how long this should take, but the temperature of the room can play a part. It could be anything from 30 minutes to a few hours.

12. Paint Your Furniture

Finally, we’re painting!

  • Give your paint a good stir before you begin.

  • Only apply a thin coat – don’t overload your brush in an effort to get the job done quickly, as this can lead to drips and blobs. Keep your strokes regulated and always paint in the same direction – an easy way to remember which way you’re painting is to use the wood grain as a guide.

  • If you do make any mistakes, don’t panic. Any drips or bubbles can be smoothed out when the coat is dry with a piece of sandpaper. Be particularly careful with any grooves or detail work, though, as mistakes here can be more difficult to rectify.

Seal your brushes tightly in some cling film so that they won’t dry out.

13. Allow Drying Time, and Repeat

If possible, leave your furniture overnight so it has a chance to set properly. Check to see if there are any areas that need to be smoothed out with sandpaper. Then, apply one or two more thin coats.

14. Apply a Protective Coat

Oil-based paints are usually hard-wearing enough, but water-based types can benefit from a coat of wax or varnish. Wax should be applied with a cloth in a circular motion, left for about half an hour, then buffed off. Varnish needs to be applied with a brush – as with the paint, only apply a little at a time, and regulate your brushstrokes.

BONUS! How to Paint Furniture with Chalk Paint on a Budget:

As chalk paint is so popular at the moment, we thought it deserved a special mention here.

For a shabby chic finish, chalk paint is great. Some people can be put off by the cost, but you can easily make your own paint in any colour you like, cheaply. Simply mix some white emulsion with a poster paint of your choice to achieve your desired hue, then add roughly one part talcum powder to three parts paint, and mix well.

Add the talcum powder slowly so that you can achieve the sort of texture you want. Play around with the ratios and try testing the paint on a scrap piece of wood until you get the desired effect. This may seem like a lot of work, but the paint shouldn’t take long to dry, and it will be worth it to achieve the finish you want.

Give your furniture two or three coats of paint depending on how dark the wood is underneath, and once it’s dry, use a piece of sandpaper to distress the areas that would receive a lot of ‘traffic’, such as the corners and around drawer handles. Then seal with some clear wax to protect it.

Happy painting!