Painting Furniture: What? Why? How?

Do you have an outdated piece of furniture, or simply a piece that no longer fits your decor? You may be tempted to replace the item; however, painting furniture is an easy (and inexpensive) way to give your pieces new life. Painted furniture can add a pop of color to a room – like a red lamp base or chair in an otherwise neutral color palette.  Painted furniture can also help everything blend in: for example, a new white headboard and white nightstands to fit a white bedroom.

There are some considerations to keep in mind when painting your furniture — when done poorly, painted furniture risks looking tacky or amateurish. In the worst case scenario, painted furniture begins chipping and peeling shortly after the project is completed. So, why are some projects successful, while others are a disaster? We asked Selena Rivas-Alexander, a designer at K.R.E. Group in San Antonio, TX, to explain the what, why and how of painting furniture. 

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Can you/should you paint furniture?

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. According to Rivas-Alexander, it’s not a simple yes/no question. Every time you think about painting a piece of furniture, you need to consider several factors. Will the paint enhance the style of the furniture or distract from it? Will a coat of paint make the item look worse? Out of place?

“If you decide to paint a piece of furniture, it must be done correctly,” Rivas-Alexander says. “If you can’t bring yourself to do it because of guilt, you can also strip it and re-stain and bring it back to its original beauty.”

She adds: “On the other hand, if a piece of furniture has been damaged and is in need of an aesthetic or structural repair, painting may be the best option.” Even in these situations, however, you should exercise care. “Although paint can be stripped off wood and metal, the time and cost can be astronomical.” There’s also a chance that you could be ruining something that is really valuable.



What type of furniture should you paint?

You can paint a variety of furniture, including headboards, desks, dressers, mirror frames, cabinets, nightstands and shelves. Wood and metal furniture are the most frequently painted, but you can paint plastic and wicker as well. Rivas-Alexander says you can even paint fabric chairs.

If you stick with traditional wood furniture, choosing the right type of wood will help you achieve a smooth finish. Rivas-Alexander recommends maple and poplar, which are hardwood and won’t shrink or warp.

How do you prep furniture?

“Before you paint a piece of furniture, give it a good cleaning, remove the hardware and try Murphy’s Oil Soap – it works great and is safe for furniture,” Rivas-Alexander says.  “Next, sand your furniture to remove the glossy finish and your paint will have a better surface to hold onto.” She recommends 80 or 100 grit sandpaper. If there are any holes in the furniture, you’ll need to fill them with compound.

A second sanding, with fine-grit sandpaper, creates a smooth surface. “Then remove the dust – a wet cloth rag with rubbing alcohol will work just fine,” Rivas-Alexander says. “Prime your wood; it will give the paint an even surface to bond to.”  These steps ensure that your paint job doesn’t chip or peel.

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What type of paint should you use?

Once your furniture is prepped, Rivas-Alexander recommends using a satin or semi-gloss finish in either a latex- or oil-based paint. Latex dries faster but is best for furniture that will not be used on a routine basis. If you want your furniture to have a distressed appearance, use milk paint (a water-based paint), since it will crack and look aged. MudPaint and chalk paint are gaining popularity as two types of paint that also produce a distressed look — and chalk paint doesn’t require primer.

For plastic and wicker, spray paint is best; that said, be sure to select a spray that is specifically designed for interior or exterior furniture. You can get a super glossy look if you use a clear topcoat.

Painting furniture, when done with care and intention, can transform not only the piece itself, but the entire room it’s in. These tips should get you started as you make the leap. Are you planning on painting furniture in your home? We’d love to hear about it below.