Because You Keep Asking...

An Annoyingly Detailed Guide to Furniture Painting

If you’re anything like me, you drive around town with one eye on the road, one eye on whatever distraction is in the car with you, and some mysterious, scientifically baffling third eye trained on the curb. You know, the curb. Where one woman’s trash has the endless potential to become another’s treasure?


Every week, it seems, I get messages from friends and acquaintances who have plucked a promising-looking piece of discarded furniture from the curb. They have all these big, starry-eyed dreams of slapping “a fresh coat of paint” on it and having an instantly beautiful, almost free (!!) upgrade to their home decor.

And the question they always ask is, “How do I paint a piece of furniture?”

For starters, one does not simply paint a piece of furniture. There are a whole lot of steps in between the fun of finding your diamond in the rough and the fun of posting the finished product on Facebook for all your friends to ooh and ahhh over. And most of those steps aren’t nearly as fun as you might think.

No, one does not simply paint a piece of furniture. More often than not, the furniture paints you.

If you’re still unfazed and determined to live your HGTV fever dream right here, right now, then these directions are for you. Follow them, and you might end up feeling only moderately homicidal instead of all-consumingly, murderously insane.

Step 1: Make sure your furniture is made of wood.

Not particle board. Not laminated plywood. Not cardboard. Not plastic. WOOD. Like…from a tree. If you put some sandpaper to your curbside find and it doesn’t result in sawdust, you can rest assured you don’t have wood, but rather some faux wood travesty. Put it back on the curb where you found it, but for heaven’s sake, don’t burn it. You’ll die from the polyvinylplastifakewhatthehellisthisstuff fumes, and no one wants things to end that way.

Step 2: Gather your supplies.

Much like that “free” puppy you found on Craigslist that ended up needing emergency surgery to the tune of $4,000 after it ate the buckle off your $200 Italian leather boots, there is no such thing as a “free” piece of furniture. You can’t just grab a random can of leftover paint from the garage and slather it on your salvage coffee table. You’re gonna have to spend some cash - and some time - to pull this off in a way that will give you a lasting, durable finish.

Here’s what you need:

TSP cleaner and rags

TSP is a powdered cleaner that you mix with water. It’s preferred by painters - well, good painters - because it cuts through most grease, grime, and other grunge. This can mean the difference between a paint job that fails and one that lasts years.


60 or 80 grit is good for the initial “roughing up.” Look for something around 240 for your finer, finish sanding.

Tack cloth

This is a sticky cloth that comes in a plastic package. You use it to wipe your wood down after sanding and before painting. It removes all the debris that can interfere with a smooth, clean paint job.

GOOD paint brushes

You will need one that’s recommended for oil-based paints, and, if you’re top coating with latex, one rated for latex paints. Yes, there are different brushes for different types of coatings. Pick a size that works best for whatever it is you’re painting, and go for something of higher quality. If you paid $1 for your brush, then all you’re going to end up with is a bunch of shed bristles stuck to your piece of furniture. Don’t do that. Besides, a good paintbrush will last you a long time if you take proper care of it, and I know you’ll want to do many, many more projects after finishing this one! Maybe.

Slow-drying oil primer

Oh, you hate the smell of oil paint? You hate the clean-up? You hate how long it takes to dry? Too Bad. It doesn’t matter whether or not the furniture you’re working on was previously stained or already painted, you must prime it. And using a good quality oil primer will take care of a lot of issues such as adhesion problems, funky smells, and tannins that might otherwise bleed through and make your chest of drawers look like it has a strange infection.

Last time I checked, big box home improvement stores don’t carry slow drying oil primer, because no one likes to do anything slowly anymore, so you’ll probably have to go to an actual paint store. Look for a primer that takes around 3 hours to dry to the touch. A quart is enough for most projects.

Sorry to break it to you, but there’s no way you’re finishing this project in 5 easy hours. Pro tip: If you’re wanting to paint your furniture a dramatic color such as red, navy blue, hot pink, orange, or something that’s equally vibrant or highly saturated, have the folks at the paint store tint your primer gray. It will make the rest of your life so much easier. Trust me.

A high quality, durable latex enamel

Again, a quart should do it. Look for a paint that’s indicated for trim and doors, floors, or something called an All Surface Enamel. Choose a satin or semi-gloss finish. Remember: you get what you pay for.

Paint thinner/mineral spirits

This is for cleaning your brush, hands, hair, shoes, cat, etc. after you are finished with the oil primer. Yes, you need it. No, you can’t use it to clean up latex paint. Yes, you will lose brain cells if you inhale too much of it.

Disposable cups to pour your paint into

This is pretty self-explanatory. I like to save my to-go coffee cups for this purpose. Just please, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, don’t dip your paintbrush directly into the can of paint. It may seem like a good idea now, but later on, when you can’t get the lid back on the paint can because you’ve dribbled paint all down in the groove and now it’s all gummed up and there’s paint slopped down the side of the can, you will be filled with woe and regret.

Drop cloths

A good, heavy canvas drop cloth should work fine. A butyl rubber-backed drop cloth will work even better. Go ahead, ask me about the time I spilled bubblegum pink paint on a client’s white carpet because I didn’t have enough drop cloths laid down.

A climate-controlled space where you can leave your project undisturbed for 24-48 hours.

You can’t apply paint successfully in temperatures under 45 or over 80. Oil primer, especially, will take 690 years to dry if the temps are below 65ish, usually. On the other hand, if it’s too hot, your latex paint will dry before you even get a chance to smooth out your brush strokes. As with everything else temperature-related, 70 is a pretty good sweet spot. And make sure to start your project in the same place you plan on finishing it. You won’t be able to move it around during this time without screwing up your paint job.

If you’ve finally gathered all your materials and secured a good work space, it’s time to actually work on your project.

For starters, if you’re painting something that has drawers, you will want to paint the drawers separately from the main body of the piece. If you’re painting a glass-top coffee table, remove the glass first. If you’re painting wooden chairs with fabric covered seats, remove the seats first. And always, always remove your hardware before getting started on your furniture project.

There’s nothing that says, “I’m really lazy and sloppy and hate beautiful things” than someone who slops paint all over their hardware because they couldn’t be bothered to turn a screwdriver. Basically use your noggin to make this experience as painless as possible.

Start by giving your furniture a good wipe down with a solution of water and TSP. Even if it looks clean, remember, you got this thing off the curb, and who knows what horrors befell it before it ended up in the trash. So give it a good scrub and let it dry completely before proceeding to the next step.

Now, you’re going to do some sanding. The idea is not to completely remove the previous finish - whatever it might be - but to de-gloss, or rough up, what is already there. If it’s a lacquered piece, you want to knock a lot of that “shine” off. If it’s already painted, you want to dull the finish without gouging into it. Use your 60 or 80 grit paper for this, and make sure to get into all the nooks and crannies. Once you’re done roughing it up, you can actually stop sanding for a bit. Your finish sanding won’t happen until after you’ve primed. Crazy, I know.

But before you prime, what do you have to do?

That’s right, kids, you gotta clean up all that dust you just raised. You can make an initial pass with a slightly damp rag, if you want, but I usually just go straight for the tack cloth. Tack cloth is designed to be turned every which way, so as you’re wiping down your furniture, keep checking the cloth. If it’s looking clogged and dirty, fold or unfold it to find a new, clean area of cloth. Tack the entire piece three or four times to really get it ready for priming.

Nows the moment I know you’re been eagerly anticipating: the oil primer. Shake the can really well before dispensing any primer into your cup. Keep a rag with some paint thinner on it nearby to clean up any unwanted messes. As you’re priming, keep three things in mind:

  1. The idea of primer is not to completely cover whatever is underneath it. A thinner, more translucent coat is better than a globby, thick one.
  2. Always follow the grain of the wood, using long, smooth strokes instead of short, choppy ones.
  3. Check for drips. Constantly. Drips are especially prevalent when you’re painting something spindly or knobby like a table leg. Check, check, check, and check again

Once your piece is primed, you’re going to be done for a while. It’s best to let the primer dry and cure for at least a day at room temperature. Don’t be fooled by the fact that your primer will be “dry to touch” in around 3 hours. It’s still going to be sticky and tacky if you try to do anything other than lightly touch it with a fingertip. Be patient and wait the full 24 hours. Go binge-watch something on Netflix. The time will fly by before you know it.

Now that your primer is dry, it’s time to do a finish sanding with your 240+ sandpaper. Use a light touch and just very gently go over the whole piece to knock down any “fuzzies” or “danglies” (professional terminology). The beauty of this is that the primer stiffens those fuzzier and danglies, so they’re really easy to get rid of.

And what do we do after sanding? That’s right. MORE TACK CLOTH.

Once your surface is primed, sanded, and cleaned again, it’s time (finally) for your topcoats of paint. The same rules apply here as apply when you primed. Multiple thin coats are better than a syrupy, globbed-on mess. Always, always follow the grain of the wood. And, as ever, check for drips and then check for drips again.

You will need at least 2 coats of paint, no matter how well it seemed to have covered on the first pass. Three is even better. Let each coat dry for around 2 hours before applying another coat. Continue binge watching Netflix. You know you want to.

At last! Your amazing, totally-not-free curbside furniture masterpiece is complete. But, this doesn’t mean you should immediately sit down to dinner at your freshly painted kitchen table, prop your feet up on your shiny new coffee table, or start loading up your dresser with sweaters. Why? Because your paint needs to cure for a while.

Again, “dry to the touch” does not mean, “ready for the kids to play Jenga on.” The longer you can let your painted furniture cure, the better off you’ll be. Definitely don’t set anything on top of your creation - especially hot or cold things - for a while. I found that out the hard way when I painted a dining room table and set a coffee cup on it a few days afterward. The coffee cup stuck to the table top. The ring is still there.

A week at room temperature should suffice for most projects, but for something like a dresser where painted parts are going to come in contact with other parts, you may want to leave the drawers slightly ajar for two or three weeks, lest they stick.

I know I made this entire process of orphan furniture rescue and beautification sound way more involved than it looks on television, and that’s because it is way more involved than it looks on television. But whether you end up loving the experience or figuring out that you never, ever want to do it again, the end result will at least be something you can enjoy, use, and brag about for years to come.