How-To: painting furniture 1 ~ prepping and priming

The first step is prepping your piece and it’s the most important and IMO the most boring! It’s why too many people skip it and go right to painting and then are disappointed with the final product. It’s important – don’t skip the prepping! and if need be take several days to do it or wait a day and go back to it.

What your piece is made out of and what type of coating it has determines how you will proceed:

1.) Bare Wood. If dealing with bare wood you may want to prep the surface with a sealer (i.e. shellac or “sanding sealer” found in the stain area of the hardware/paint store) to prevent bleed through from the knots. If you don’t want the knots to show through, after sealing use a primer (recommended is Zinsser’s B-I-N). Be sure to seal both sides of the board.

I find knots that bleed through are most commonly found in pine that hasn’t been cured or fresh cut pine lumber. You might also have an issue with knots that are dried out and thus are loose and may fall out. A great article on how to work with knots can be found at American Woodworker.

2.) Soft Woods, i.e. pines, grow fast so are often seen in today’s lumber store. Softwoods dent easily with the use of a hammer and when stripping I do not start with the coarsest sandpaper (i.e. try a 80 to 120 grit instead of 40 or 60 for the first sanding).

You may even want to use a sanding block instead of an electric sander if the wood is too fragile. Too much harsh sanding can actually remove the pine itself and with older or thinner pieces of furniture may leave you with little to work with.

obvious marks on softwood (pine)

A line of Basset furniture has predominate knots as part of the country look that was once popular. If you wish those knots to disappear, they too will need to be thoroughly primed with B-I-N before painting. It comes as a liquid or spray.

3.) Hard Woods, ( i.e. oak, walnut, pecan) are slower growth trees and have a harder surface. It can withstand harsher treatment when stripping. Some of these are also a great wood for doing liming and whitewash effects due to it’s grain.

Generally, I start with an 80 grit sandpaper using my electric hand sander (I use the Black and Decker Mouse Sander but there are other hand sanders that are just as effective). From 80 I go to 120 (by machine), then 180, and possibly 220 (by hand) depending on how smooth I want the surface. Make sure you wear protective eyewear and a paper nose mask to prevent dust in your nose or eyes.

If  you are stripping a piece of furniture only to paint it, then you are looking for a smooth enough finish where the initial protective surface (i.e. anything shiny, whether it’s a wax or poly finish) is removed. If that protective surface is not removed, paint will not adhere.

It’s not important that every bit of stain or previous color be removed from the piece. Depending on the end effect, you may not even want the piece entirely smooth in order to enhance the distressed, end appearance.

However, special attention should be given to any details you want to emerge. Grooves and designs are notorious for being filled up with previous layers of paint, destroying the lovely detail. Use steel brushes and other scraping tools to remove what you can. I’ve also found that a chemical stripper may be used to speed up the process in areas that are hard to sand.

leg of vanity table for powder room bath

Repairs at this point need to be made, this would include filling in holes, any edges or trim that might be missing, framing that needs to be strengthened with glue, and legs that need to be fixed.

repairing furniture with spare piece

The bathroom vanity is a project showing the process of stripping, sanding and priming.

4.) Veneers and laminate will be covered in a later post.

To prime or not to prime? I’ve found myself starting to prime more and more. It cuts down on the coats of color paint needed which costs more then primer. A tinted primer is cheaper then paint and goes much farther in the can then using spaypaint primer. JMO but I am not a fan of these new paints which include primer.

A priming coat also lets you see if there are blemishes or further repairs you need to make before putting on your colored coat. A gray or darker tinted primer will also help you go to a darker colored paint faster and achieve a richer end color. For example, if going from white to black, or white to red, you may want to apply a gray primer.

gray primed table for vanity in powder room bath

Once a piece has been sanded, repaired and primed, it is ready for your decorative paint.

FAQ’s on prepping… 

When painting, the surface needs to be clean, smooth and free of any glossy topcoat. It does not need to be sanded down to clean wood but surfaces should be smooth. If you want it smoother, fill in any defects, sand and then prime/paint.

If the original piece is stained, break the topcoat with a sanding, and clean out decorative moulding pieces. Sand smooth and then prime before painting. If the piece is being difficult to clean (or is pine and you worry about damage), go with a chemical stripper, scrub with wire brushes, and then clean the area with thinner to remove gunk left behind.

If the original piece is relatively smooth, in good condition, and does not have a topcoat, you can skip straight to priming (if going from light to dark) or painting (if color hue is relatively the same tone).

If the surface is plastic, ceramic, glass, or laminate, you will need to get a speciality primer for the job. Try looking at the spraypaint aisle at Westlake for a product that suits these surfaces. Be aware though that it will take at least two coats and lots of time to dry in-between. If you rush it, the surface will eventually scratch back or not hold future paint layers.

Before painting be sure to vacuum or use tacky clothes and have your piece completely dust free.