Every now and then it’s nice to take a walk down memory lane. I remember way back when we first moved to Grand Rapids. We came out here with our two cars, our clothes, and our puppy, and lived in a Red Roof Inn for a week until we found an apartment to rent. When we moved in, we had no furniture except for our bed and a couch that we had just bought.
Thriftiness has always been in my soul. As a teenager I used to buy t-shirts from the Salvation Army because I thought it was hilarious and ironic to wear shirts with random sayings on them, or even strangers’ last names. I was a weird kid…
But I also liked the fact that I could buy a shirt for $2!
So when we found our apartment here in Grand Rapids, and it happened to be right down the street from a huge Salvation Army, it was time for my thrifting adventures to start back up once again.
The first piece of furniture I bought and made over was a nightstand-turned-coffee-table. I searched and searched and read and watched video tutorials and gathered as much information as I could about how to paint furniture with chalk paint. I remember being so overwhelmed by the amount of information out there, and this was back in early 2015, before the internet had completed exploded with DIY stuff.
I painted my little nightstand white, waxed it, and replaced the drawer pulls with some cute gold knobs.
It looked cute for about two weeks.
Even with all the research I did, I still had a really hard time finding a good, definitive guide to painting furniture. There was just so much information out there, and everyone had their own thoughts and opinions. And still, I made mistakes on this first project that I totally could have prevented.
A lot of time has passed since then, and I’ve painted a lot of furniture in the meantime. I always tell people how easy it is to paint furniture, but I forget that there’s a lot I’ve learned over time and I take that for granted.
So with that being said, I’ve gathered all of my tips here in one place. Below you’ll find everything you need to know to start your first project, hopefully in a simple, clear, and easy-to-follow format. I didn’t get into any crazy finishes or painting effects because I’m saving that for another day. For now, let’s focus on the basics, shall we?
Furniture Painting for Beginners – How to Paint Furniture with Chalk Paint
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- Primer (optional, see below)
- Chalk paint
- Top coat – polycrylic or wax
- Paint brush
- Small plastic container
- Rags or paper towel
- Household cleaner – I usually use a vinegar/water mix
1. Prep your piece and work area
Chalk paint is basically a no-prep type of paint, but you should still do a bit of prep if you want a nice, long-lasting finish. If your piece is extra smooth or shiny, like laminate, give the whole thing a quick sanding, just to rough it up a bit. On a wood piece, you can go over it quickly with sandpaper just to smooth it out, but you really don’t need to. If you have any surface scratches, do try to smooth those out. If you have any deep scratches or gouges, you can fill them in with wood filler (follow the instructions on the label) and let that dry completely before moving on.
Once you’re done sanding (again, you don’t need to sand it down to bare wood – you just want to scuff up the surface a bit), clean the piece. I like to vacuum it using the brush extension on the vacuum and then wipe with a damp rag. If it’s really grimy you can use a spray cleaner – I usually just use vinegar water in a spray bottle.
To prep your work area, lay down a drop cloth in a clean, open area. Do this after the sanding and cleaning so that you don’t end up with sanding dust all over your drop cloth! Arrange your pieces so that you’ll be able to have easy access without moving them during the process. I usually prop up big pieces on a couple of 2x4s so that they’re not resting directly on the ground. This makes painting the bottoms much easier. You should also remove the drawers and lay them down on their backs, so that the drawer faces are pointing up (“looking at the ceiling”) and are horizontal. I am notoriously lazy and always want to leave the drawers in, yet I always end up regretting it…
Remove the drawer knobs or any other hardware.
2. Prime if necessary
If you’re planning to paint a wood piece white, you need to be careful that you won’t have any bleed-through from the wood underneath. This can happen where there are knots in the wood and is the worst after you’ve spent so much time and energy painting something a beautiful bright white, just to be ruined by reddish brown wood streaks leaking through from underneath.
To prevent bleed-through, you simply have to prime it using a shellac-based primer. I haven’t personally tried it, but I’ve read about people using BIN Zinsser Primer, which can be found at Lowe’s or Home Depot.
You should also use a primer if you’re painting laminate furniture. This will help the chalk paint to adhere better and you’ll end up needing fewer coats of paint.
Apply a thin coat of primer with your paint brush and let dry completely. One coat should be just fine.
Once you’ve done all the prep, you can move on to the fun part!
I’ve tried a few different brands of furniture paint but the one I always come back to is FolkArt Home Décor Chalk Paint. It is super affordable, easily available at JoAnn’s, and I find it very easy to work with. It’s unfussy and pretty beginner-proof if you ask me. It comes in a good variety of colors, but I often like to mix a couple of colors together to create my own, like I did for this dark navy hutch cabinet. Just mix together in a small container (I like to use an old plastic food storage container or reuse an old tin can) and add a tiny bit of water to help it blend.
I recommend putting your paint into a separate container for three reasons. One, you probably won’t be able to fit your brush into the container that it comes in. Two, this way if you end up with any debris or dust on your brush you are not infecting the rest of the paint! And three, the rest of the paint won’t dry out while you are working with it. If using FolkArt paint, give the bottle a good shake or stir (I find that a plastic knife works well) and pour your paint into the container. Now you’re ready to paint!
To apply the paint, dip your brush into the paint and let any excess drop off. This paint is quite thick, so you’ll find that most of it will just stay on the brush. I usually take my brush and wipe it against the inside of the container a bit. You’ll want your brush to be filled with paint, but not dripping. Just make sure it’s not too dry.
Apply your first coat! You don’t want to apply the paint too thick, or you’ll end up with brush strokes. It’s better to apply several thin coats. As I mentioned, this paint is very forgiving, so you can kind of just “glob it on” and work it right into the piece, especially on the first coat. In subsequent coats you’ll be able to smooth it all out, but that first coat almost feels like you’re “pushing it in” to the piece.
I don’t know if this is what the pros would tell you, but when painting a large piece like a dresser, I generally start with the front, go down the legs, then do each of the sides and the backs, and their legs. Then the drawer fronts if you removed them (otherwise I do the drawer fronts as I’m doing the rest of the front of the piece). Always save the top for last so that you can put your hand on it if needed while you’re painting the rest of the piece.
Apply one thin coat! Then wait for it to dry. With FolkArt chalk paint, I usually let it dry for an hour or two before going back to do more coats. But like I said, it’s so forgiving that if after the first coat is done, you find little spots here and there that look like they need a little more, go ahead and apply a little bit more!
Multiple thin coats will always beat out one thick coat. Especially if you’re painting it white or a light color, you will need at least two, maybe even three thin coats.
If you want to do any distressing, now is the time. You can gently scuff up the corners, edges, and outsides of drawers with fine sandpaper. Make sure you clean off any dust afterwards.
If you want to experiment with other finishes, such as whitewashing, now would be the time as well. I have a whole separate tutorial on whitewashing furniture with chalk paint if you are interested!
Please do not skip this step!
Chalk paint must be sealed. It just must. You can use a wax or polycrylic sealer as a top coat. Without it, the paint will not be water resistant and will easily chip right off of the piece, and nobody wants that! So even though you’ve just put in all this work and you’re probably ready to be done, now is not the time to cut corners! Finish that piece! You can do it!
I may or may not have a few projects sitting around my house that are painted and just waiting for wax… It’s like a whole extra thing, I know, trust me. But it must be done.
The top coat you choose is up to you. Here are a few of the main differences:
- Gives a nice, light sheen
- Can be used to achieve cool finishes (like this gray dresser, or this charcoal mirror which I finished with white wax!)
- Can be a pain to work with and difficult to master
- Not very durable, may need to be redone after some time (though I have never actually re-waxed a piece that I have done)
The wax that I’ve been using the most lately is Valspar Sealing Wax from their chalk paint line. Its consistency is quite thin, so I like it because you can easily mix it with paint to create a white or antique wax. I also like that I can buy it right at Lowe’s.
- Very durable, won’t ever have to be redone if done properly
- Can also be a pain to work with, difficult to get a smooth finish with no brush strokes
- Takes multiple coats and a lot of patience
- Can sometimes have a shiny/plastic-y appearance
If you choose to go with poly, make sure you are using polycrylic and NOT polyurethane. Polyurethane will yellow over time. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way.
Lately I have been using Fusion Tough Coat Matte Wipe-On Poly, and I really like it so far. You apply it with a cloth instead of a brush, so it wipes on smooth and gives a nice finish with no brush marks. It will take multiple coats to build a good, durable finish, but that is the case with any poly.
I switch back and forth between wax and poly depending on the project. For any sort of table top or surface that will get a lot of use, I use poly. For most chairs and decorative items, I use wax.
You are not supposed to be able to use poly over wax, but honestly, I’ve done this on a couple of pieces and it’s turned out just fine. However, these were pieces where I used a very little bit of wax to achieve a cool finish, and then I went over it with poly for added protection. I imagine that if I had a full, solid coat of wax, the poly might not adhere properly over the top.
Once you’ve sealed your painted piece, replace the hardware, and that’s it! Piece of cake, right?
I know it can be a lot of work and can seem a bit daunting when you’re just getting started. Hopefully this will help to summarize the main, important ideas and make it seem a little less intimidating. Please feel free to ask me any questions or point out anything that I left out! And if you want a Cliffnotes version of this guide, you can subscribe to my email list below to receive a free printable checklist!
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If you think you’re ready to move on to something a little more complicated, check out some of these other cool techniques you can achieve:
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