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"Do it right, the first time."

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Guide to Furniture Painting Prep Work

I don’t know about you, but I strongly dislike having to do things twice. When I first started to paint furniture I couldn’t find a hard and fast list detailing how to properly prep pieces so that I could feel confident in my finish. If you’ve ever seen an advertisement for one of the many furniture paints out there all you read about is “no prep, no sanding, no cleaning products needed besides soap”… and whatever else they can think of.

I’m here to tell you that none of that is true if you want a quality finish that will last a long time.

Now you are welcome to ignore all of these steps and ‘slap some paint on your piece’ but if you get tannin bleed through, or the paint has adverse reactions that you don’t like… well you’ll find yourself having to do the piece over. Who has time for that? So, if you’re like me and want to do it right, the first time, then read on.

The way I share how to prep will work on any wood surface, whether it’s solid wood, wood veneer, or even a photo printed veneer (which is what most new furniture is made with), and even some slicker surfaces like Formica. I’ve once seen an MDF wood vintage dresser with a Formica top… it happens, unique combinations are out there.

These steps are tried and true, I followed them to take a former cherry wood dining table to a creamy white finish with dark wax--zero cherry wood bleed through! The process works!

**Oh, and before you begin any new project, make sure you wear your personal protective equipment--eye protection, gloves, and respirator.**

First, the cleaning. No, we aren’t going to just use a dish detergent and warm water, that’s not good enough. Krud Kutter is an amazing cleaner but your elbow grease is required. (You can find Krud Kutter at Home Depot, and I use the one with the red label-- the ‘Concentrated Cleaner/Degreaser Stain Remover’.)

To start, don’t spray the entire piece down with Krud Kutter, work in small areas and move around the entire piece one small area at a time. Spray the Krud Kutter on the section you’re working, scrub it with a sponge, shop towel, or whatever you may have and don’t stop cleaning your piece until it’s clean. Meaning, you keep spraying Krud Kutter on the piece and scrubbing clean until there’s zero dirt on your rag/spongue. (It may be beneficial to use the blue shop towels to tell when it’s clean.)

After you’re done scrubbing your piece with Krud Kutter, you get to clean the entire piece again! But this time is with distilled water. Using a spray bottle, spritz small areas at a time and scrub that clean. You want to make sure there is zero Krud Kutter residue left behind.

Some people may be saying, “well I heard TSP is a really great cleaner”. It is! It’s also toxic and doesn’t play well with the best primer shellac to use so I no longer use TSP.

Second, the sanding. You may have heard the phrase ‘give the piece some teeth’. It’s important to do some scuff sanding. Sandpaper comes in a variety of coarseness known as grits. Grits become less coarse the higher the number. For example 80 grit sandpaper is going to leave marks because it’s so coarse and yet a 400 is going to be too smooth. I’ve found anywhere from 180-220 grit is good to give your piece ‘teeth’. Always sand in the direction of the grain. Always. Whether you’re going straight to paint or are going to be thorough with the primer shellac, giving it teeth is important. Remove the dust from sanding with an air compressor, rags, mineral spirits (wear protective gear), or gentle brush.

Third, primer shellac. I love spraying Zinssner B-I-N Primer Shellac (the red label) on all of my pieces (where appropriate) to give myself a blank canvas. The primer shellac gives me a nice platform to paint on and I feel good knowing it seals in any issues that may compromise my finish. After you’ve sprayed all of your pieces with the primer shellac, wait the appropriate time for re-coats, or if you don’t need to re-coat wait the appropriate cure time before… you guessed it… sanding again. Use a 220 grit paper on this part and clean off the dust with air or a brush, don’t use mineral spirits on this.

Fourth, now it’s time to paint! You’ve properly prepped your piece, so now it's ready for a beautiful and long lasting finish. Do whatever you like now and enjoy the creative process! Happy painting!


Please comment with your experience and include photos if you'd you like! If you found this post helpful, please share with others. Thanks!

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