What Kind of Paint Do I Use on Wood Furniture?

The best paint for wood furniture depends on how the furniture is used and the type of finish or style you want to achieve. Proper preparation before painting is critical to providing the most attractive and durable finish. Once you know the look you want, choose oil-based paint or water-based latex, milk or chalk paint to create it.

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A man priming a wooden cabinet.

Unfinished Wood

Carpenter Using An Electric Planer In Workshop
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An artisan sanding a piece of wood in a shop.

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 and then wipe down with a damp or tack cloth to remove all sanding debris.

Add stain blocking primer to raw, unfinished wood, dark wood and knotty pine or oak wood. This prevents tannin bleeding, which occurs when the oils in the wood bleed through the paint. If you plan on distressing -- and don't want primer showing through -- cover just the knots and don't distress over them.

For furniture that is handled often, water-based latex paint with a gloss or semi-gloss sheen provides a surface that is easy to keep clean. For purely decorative furniture, opt for latex paint with a flat finish.

Finished Wood

Painting wooden door
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A person painting a wooden door with a brush.

When working with previously stained or painted furniture, clean the surface with a degreaser to remove dirt and oils. Sand and prime the surface using the same method as unfinished wood to ensure a smooth, even finish.

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

But oil-based paint takes much longer to dry and cure than water based paint. Oil based paint is also more complicated to work with, as chemical solvents such as mineral spirits or turpentine must be used 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.

Pressed Wood

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A man rolling black paint over a primed piece of furniture.

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. Use care when sanding laminate surfaces so as not to expose the material beneath, as 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 that to which paint adheres. Allow the primer to dry thoroughly according to the manufacturer's instructions, usually several hours or overnight. Sand the primed surface lightly before applying the paint. Latex paint can be used over an oil-based primer.

Antique or Distressed Finishes

Metal teapot and newspaper on a wooden table, Thailand.
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A tea pot on a distressed painted table.

Use milk paint and chalk paint to give furniture an antique look. They represent the preferred choice for distressed or shabby-chic finishes.

You can apply both paints without the use of a primer, but sand glossy surfaces before application. Chalk paint has very good adhesion and can be applied directly over most painted or stained surfaces. Milk paint requires a bonding agent added after mixing the paint with water, unless you desire a chipped, timeworn look. Although the formulas are different, milk paint and chalk paint both result in a soft, matte finish.

Applying the Paint

Paint-roller on wooden table
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An overhead view of a clean paint roller on a wooden table.

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

Begin by painting large flat surfaces, brushing or rolling in the same direction as the wood grain. Start near a corner but not at the very edge and work your way outward. Do not overload the brush or roller with too much paint. Finish with edges and trim. Smooth out any excess drips with a paintbrush.

Apply thin, even coats of paint until you are satisfied with the look, allowing each coat dry before applying the next.

Add a polycrylic topcoat to latex, chalk or milk painted furniture that will receive heavy use. Polycrylic is water-based, making clean-up easy; it dries to a clear finish, unlike polyurethane which yellows over time. Brush on polycrylic in one direction to eliminate brush strokes. Apply two to three coats, sanding lightly between each coat.