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Can You Paint Over Polyurethane: Your Polyurethane Questions Answered

Paint is a great way to give your furniture a fresh update. Lots of DIY painters love a good trash-to-treasure makeover. It’s amazing how paint can restore a piece to its former glory or give it a whole new look.

The first step for most painting projects is removing the old paint or finish. Stripping old paint is a messy job. Sometimes, it’s possible to start painting after quickly roughing up the old paint with some sandpaper.

But what if you’re working on a piece that’s been stained or varnished? Can you paint over polyurethane?

Painting directly over polyurethane is possible with the right products and techniques. Read on to find out our favorite tips and tricks!

Applying white paint over an old chair. Can 
you paint over polyurethane

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is essentially liquid plastic. It’s composed of polymers suspended in a water or oil base, making it easy to apply and hard to remove.

Water-based polyurethane is used to finish a piece while preserving the natural look of the wood. Oil-based polyurethane has a yellow cast, which can make wood look darker. Either can be applied over paint.

Polyurethane is often used to give a piece a more durable finish. The fact that it is so resistant to wear and tear explains why DIYers have trouble removing it!

Thankfully, you don’t have to remove polyurethane in order to refinish your piece. Not only can you paint over polyurethane, but there are also several reasons why you should.

Sanding off polyurethane releases tiny particles into the air. It takes a lot of work to properly ventilate and protect yourself from breathing in the dust.

Some vintage pieces might feature details that could be lost by aggressive sanding and stripping. Fine carvings and handmade trim add character to vintage furniture. Why risk damaging these one-of-a-kind details?

White side table with intricate details

If the piece you are painting has polyurethane over bare wood, you might not want to remove it. Certain woods, like oak, contain tannins. These natural oils in the wood are drawn out by water.

Applying water-based or latex paint over bare wood will lead to large, brownish stains on your finished piece. Leaving the polyurethane in place keeps the tannins sealed in the wood and prevents these bleed-throughs.

Whether trying to preserve details, minimize damage, or simply save time, you can paint over the existing finish. However, polyurethane creates a very hard, slick enamel.

How can you paint over polyurethane without your hard work sliding right off? Read on to learn all about the best products for this tough job.

How to Paint Over Polyurethane

There are two options for painting directly over polyurethane. You can use chalk paint or apply primer and then paint.

If you’re an experienced DIYer, you might have expected that primer would be involved in any painting project. Why can you paint over polyurethane with chalk paint without needing a primer?

Read on for all the details on both options.

Chalk Paint

The easiest way to paint over polyurethane is to use chalk paint. There’s no need to prime, prep, or even sand with this product.

How can you paint over polyurethane without the finish sliding or chipping right off? Chalk paint is a water-based paint with powdery talc added. The grittiness of the talc allows the paint to grip and stick to any surface. The powdery texture also gives the finished project an aged, vintage look with a very matte finish.

If this is the aesthetic you’re going for, using chalk paint is the easiest route by far. You won’t need to sand or prime over the polyurethane at all. However, you must seal the chalk paint with wax to preserve your hard work.

Find out more about the ins and outs of this medium here: Chalk Paint Pros and Cons: Should You Use it on Your Furniture?

Prime and Paint

Chalk paint is a terrific solution if you’re looking for an aged, time-worn look to your finished piece. But what if you had a glossy or colorful makeover in mind? Can you paint over polyurethane with latex or oil paint?

You can, but you’ll need to use a good primer first. Polyurethane creates a slick, plastic-like finish that most paints won’t adhere to. A bonding primer will stick to the polyurethane and create a surface that’s just textured enough to paint over easily.

Priming varnished wood bookcase before painting

Think of primer as a glue. To be effective, it will need to stick to both the old polyurethane finish and the new coat of paint. Oil-based primer is generally the best product for both jobs. Even if you believe your polyurethane is water-based, you can coat it with an oil-based primer.

Priming is especially important when you have chipped or damaged polyurethane over a wood surface. If the polyurethane no longer seals in the wood’s tannins, an oil-based primer will do the trick. This is a crucial step if you’re painting white or light colors over a dark wood surface.

Be sure all the tannins are sealed into the wood with primer. Only then can you paint over polyurethane that’s been damaged.

In general, chalk paint is the easiest option for painting directly over polyurethane. However, nearly any paint can be used as long as you apply a bonding primer first.

Can You Remove Polyurethane?

If you decide against using chalk paint or a bonding primer, you can still refinish and paint your project. Now, the question is no longer “Can you paint over polyurethane?” but “How can I safely remove this finish?”

It’s true that effectively stripping a polyurethane finish can be labor-intensive. However, it can be done safely and without damaging your piece.


Sometimes, taking a furniture piece down to bare wood is the best course. How can you paint over polyurethane that’s uneven or sloppy? You don’t want drips and bubbles to stick around. It’s best to make sure your surface is smooth and even before repainting.

Sanding will effectively remove polyurethane, but it does take time. Start with coarse grit sandpaper to rough up the surface and remove as much of the finish as possible. Then sand with progressively finer sandpaper to remove all the polyurethane.

Woman sanding polyurethane off an old wooden chair

Remember, with sandpaper, a small number, like 40 or 60, is coarse grit. The higher the number– from 240 to 800 and above–the finer the sandpaper and smoother the finish.

While sanding, wear a mask and take care to work in a ventilated area. You don’t want to breathe in the dust particles that result from sanding down polyurethane finish.

Wipe down the piece with a tack cloth when all the polyurethane has been removed. Now you’re ready to prime and paint!


Sanding can be tedious, especially if your piece has lots of detail. Sanding down a long, flat surface is one thing. Removing polyurethane from spindles or turned legs would take much longer and risk uneven results.

Your job is twice as hard if the original polyurethane dripped or covered any engravings. How can you paint over polyurethane drips or remove the finish while preserving the woodwork?

Before you hand-sand the intricate details of your piece, know there is another option. You can use a deglosser, also known as liquid sandpaper, to remove the polyurethane instead.

Commercial products like Citristrip are often used to remove polyurethane. Some DIYers have had success using oven cleaner as a deglosser.

Any product that can strip polyurethane is going to involve harsh chemicals, so follow the product instructions precisely—leaving a deglosser on too long risks damaging your piece. Removing it too soon, however, can leave a big, gloppy mess.

If you go this route, be sure to protect your eyes and hands from the chemicals. You’ll also need to thoroughly wash and rinse your piece before priming and painting.

You may notice that sanding and deglossing don’t remove all the polyurethane at once. Especially if you’re working around fine details, you’ll probably see some remains of the original finish.

Don’t worry, you can paint over polyurethane that’s only partially removed. Even roughing the surface with sandpaper or a deglosser will help your new paint adhere.

Pros and Cons of Painting Over Polyurethane

When can you paint over polyurethane without going into the trouble of stripping and sanding? And how can you paint over polyurethane that’s been chipped or damaged? The best course of action often depends on the condition of your piece and your vision for the finished project.

There are pros and cons to any painting strategy. Here’s our breakdown for painting directly over polyurethane.


  • Eliminating sanding and stripping saves time
  • Updates furniture pieces without sanding down one-of-a-kind details
  • Leaving polyurethane in place keeps tannins sealed into the wood


  • Peeling or damaged polyurethane should be sanded and sealed with primer
  • Chalk paint may not match the style you’re going for
  • Applying a bonding primer is time-consuming
Antique bed painted with white chalk paint on a green lawn with side table

How Can You Paint Over Polyurethane? Easily!

Painting directly over polyurethane is a quick, easy DIY project with the right products. If necessary, you can also remove the polyurethane before painting by sanding or applying a deglosser. However, using chalk paint or a bonding primer can save you from all that prep work.

Not only can you paint over polyurethane, but it can be a quick and satisfying DIY project! If you love using paint to redo old furniture, be sure to read our complete Painting Furniture Guide!