FPB - Furniture Painting Basics - Prep

Posted by Cindy Dachuk on


In the world of furniture refinishing Prep-work represents the boring stuff that takes place before painting can even begin.  It’s not particularly fun, it’s often dirty and messy and it goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated by a paying client.

However, it is an essential step if you hope to create a finish that will last.

There are a lot of paint companies that claim there is no prep needed when using their paint.  This is completely… false!  There may be a reduced amount of prep required but no paint, let me repeat… NO paint… is prep free.  Let’s take a quick look at the potential steps needed to prepare a piece of furniture for painting and I’ll openly share what I do, or don’t do, to the pieces I refinish.

First Step…  Clean!

Rubber gloves save!

This step is a must!  Every piece, no matter where it came from… a shed, a barn, a garage, a basement or someone’s living room…  must be thoroughly cleaned before painting.  Any dust, dirt, oil or grease has to be removed if you want your paint to adhere properly.  You can get specialty cleaners to help you with this but, because I am largely refinishing in my home, I prefer to use products with as few chemicals as possible.  Therefore, I will usually clean my pieces with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar with a teaspoon or so of the blue Dawn dishwashing liquid to help cut through any grease.

I will wash the piece down with the mixture until my cloth (and the liquid) is coming away clear.  This might require wiping it down a couple of times.  Once I seem to have gotten the dirt and grime off I will then wipe the piece down with straight water to clean off any soap residue.

It’s not glamorous but it is a truly important step and one I take on every piece, every time, no exceptions!. 

Step Two… Repairs

If the piece has holes that need filling, veneer repaired etc. this is when to do it.  You want the piece to be clean first so that any wood glue or wood filler you use will adhere to the surface.  Once the repairs are completed (that’s a different article!) you may need to wipe the piece down again to remove any dust from sanding etc. A tack cloth is great to use for this.

It likely goes without saying but I do the functional repairs that are needed, as needed. Small dents, scrapes and dings I typically leave because they go along with the story of the piece. I have wrinkles, they have dings – it’s all part of ‘who’ we are and the story we tell.

Step 3…  Sanding

Restoration, removing paint from antique chair with sandpaper

Now, here’s where it starts to get interesting.  I don’t sand every piece.  Most of the paints I use don’t require it.  However, there are a couple of situations in which I will most definitely want to sand the piece – or use an alternative product.

  • If the piece I am going to be refinishing has a rough, damaged, chipped finish, or if the original paint is flaking or peeling off, I will definitely sand the piece (using an orbital sander and a medium grit sand paper like 120)
  • If I have a piece with a high-gloss finish or a very slick surface I will choose to lightly scuff the slick surface to ‘rough’ it up a bit and enable the paint to stick better. 

There are times though when sanding is perhaps not really practical, especially if you are refinishing a piece in the middle of your living room (like I usual am), or if the piece has a lot of details you would be hard pressed to sand down into.  Instead, you might want to consider a de-glossing product, which you wipe on/wipe off or paint on a product (such as Fusion Mineral Paint’s Ultra Grip or Slick Stick from Dixie Belle) that is designed to stick to slick surfaces while providing a roughened base for paints to adhere to better. 

Note that these products are only designed to help the first layer of paint adhere to the surface of your piece better, they do not act as a primer. 

As already stated, I don’t sand every piece. I make a determination, before painting, whether I feel the piece needs sanding or not. If I’m going to be leaving sections of the piece the natural wood I definitely sand those sections so they will take the oil, wax or stain better, creating a smoother look. If I am not leaving any wood bare and do not need to smooth out a rough section, smooth out wood filler or deal with flaking paint then I don’t sand. Period. If the surface is slick and I’m concerned my paint might not adhere well, then I will apply a product like Ultra Grip.

Step 4… Priming

A primer is designed to be painted onto your surface and act as a barrier between your surface material and your paint.  This helps to prevent what is called ‘bleed through’, which is what occurs when oils and tannins in your wood ‘bleed through’ your layers of paint and create unsightly blotches and discoloured segments.  You must use a primer with a shellac in it to prevent bleed through.  Not every product labelled ‘primer’ works.  You could certainly choose to shellac the piece – that would serve to provide the barrier you’re after – but a white primer with shellac would also provide a layer of colour, which helps if you are taking a dark coloured wood to a light painted finish.  Why paint more layers than you have to?

When I use a primer my go-to’s are Kilz or Zinnser water-based primers – with shellac!

What then are the ideal times to use a primer?

  • When painting over a dark surface with a light colour, a primer can reduce the number of coats you need to apply of the more expensive paint colour, while blocking any potential bleed through.
  • When painting over stain or wood that had red undertones (like Mahogany or perhaps Cherry) I would prime every time – you are almost guaranteed to get bleed through otherwise.
  • When painting over raw wood.  Certainly because there may be natural oils in the wood that may rise to the surface of your paint otherwise but also because raw wood is ‘thirsty’.  A primer can serve to significantly reduce the number of coats of your paint colour that you need for a smooth finish.

Bleed through ‘fix’ – if you chose not to prime your piece but experience some bleed through ‘after’ painting has begun you still have a couple of options.  You could simply paint the whole piece in shellac (if the bleed through is particularly bad) or use shellac over the areas where the bleed through occurred (there is even some great spray shellac you can use to deal with this quickly!)

I will not use a primer for every piece. I do when the look of the wood has me concerned that bleed through is likely, or when I am shifting a dark piece to a lighter finish. In that case I’m being cautious about possible bleed through but also looking to being the ‘lightening’ process with a product that is less expensive than the finishing paint!

Step 5… Paint!

I’ll save the discussion of the merits of the different types of paint for another day.  Suffice it to say that the above steps will ensure that you have a surface that will support and accept the paint of your choice, providing a solid base for your paint to adhere and cure to. 

After all…  if you’re investing the time to update a piece, creating a new look, you want to ensure that your finish will last a long time!


Disclaimer – I have provided links to some of the products I mention only to help you in sourcing them. It costs you nothing more to use them but I might make a few cents in the process!


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