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How To Clean Furniture Before Painting

Learning how to clean furniture before painting is about more than just wiping away the dust. In order to get furniture clean enough to paint over, you need to be ready for anything.

Cleaning dusty wood furniture with a yellow sponge.
Cleaning dusty wood furniture with a yellow sponge.

Whether you’re trying to flip some furniture or you just want to breathe new life into that old family chair, the first thing you should always do is to clean furniture before painting. 

Think of Your Furniture as a Canvas

As Furniture starts to age, whether it’s being used or in storage, it will pick up layers of dust, dirt, and grime. It might be tempting to just try and paint over your dirty piece of furniture, but getting the best results means starting with a clean canvas.

Just like Rembrandt or Van Gogh, you’ll be working on your latest masterpiece when you start painting your chair. Why not start with the best available canvas?

Here’s why you should clean furniture before painting it and how to get it done!

Why You Should Clean Furniture Before Painting 

We learn how to clean furniture before painting in order to get the best possible results on our finished project. 

Yes, those rustic and DIY looks are still in style, but in order to achieve them you do need to start with a clean piece of furniture. Even though they might look weather-worn and aged, you have to put in a lot of work to achieve those high aesthetic standards. The space between furniture that is still old and worn out and furniture that looks rustic and charming is often judged by how clean the furniture was when it was updated.

Find Your Furniture’s Character

Not only does cleaning the furniture before painting give you the best possible furniture to work with, it also helps you get to know the furniture you’ll be working with. Especially when it comes to vintage pieces, furniture has its own character and unique quality. Even two chairs from the same make and model might have completely different characters when it comes time to restore them.

If you take the time to clean furniture before painting, it allows you to locate any cracks or damage, and gives you a good idea of what this piece of furniture will need in order to be fully restored.

Before we start to clean furniture before painting, we need to know what supplies we are going to need. 

Your Furniture Cleaning Supplies

Variety of cleaning products and supplies to clean furniture before painting.
Variety of cleaning products and supplies to clean furniture before painting.

Before you run out and pick up the best paint for DIY furniture projects, you’re going to need some cleaning supplies. This is one of the biggest steps in learning how to clean furniture before painting.

The right cleaning products will help restore your furniture to its former glory while the wrong cleaning products can leave the wood more damaged than it was to begin with.  Make sure you are cleaning furniture before painting with the right stuff!

Cleaning Solutions Options

Using the right cleaning solutions is the key to successfully cleaning your furniture. The right Cleaning Solutions will restore your furniture and make it absolutely ready yet for the rest of your project while the wrong cleaning solutions can damage finishes and harm the wood itself.

Mild Cleaning with Water

The key to picking the right cleaning solutions is to figure out what you’re trying to remove and how hard you need to go to get it clean. If the piece of furniture in question just has some dirt and dust on it from years of storage, you can get away with using nothing more than a damp rag to clean furniture before painting. Green cleaning solutions are also typically less intense and offer a safer way to get old furniture clean.

Heavier Cleaning with Cleaning Products

If there is some serious grime on your old furniture, then you need something with a little bit more muscle. Cleaners like Goo Gone, denatured alcohol, and mineral spirits can all tackle much more serious buildup on old furniture.

Keep in mind that those cleaners might be harder on the wood than those in the first option. With that said, they should be perfectly safe for some light to moderate cleaning applications.

Now that we know what we’re cleaning with, we on track to having the right gear to start the job. 

Sponges, Scrubbing Pads, and Brushes

Cleaning solutions alone won’t get your old furniture ready for paint. You also need some more cleaning supplies to get the job done. You need something to scrub with to clean furniture before painting.

You should be able to get any furniture clean with a few sponges, a scrubbing pad, and an old rag or two. Try to avoid using cleaning supplies that are going to harm the wood. Unless you’re dealing with some really stubborn dirt and debris, you should probably avoid brillo pads or other metallic scraping tools.

Once you get your cleaning supplies and tools ready, we can start to clean furniture before painting the piece. 

How to Clean Furniture before painting

Now we can really get to cleaning our furniture before we paint it. Remember that this is all about getting the furniture to a place where you can apply your desired coat of paint. The goal here is to make sure that we have a nice clean canvas to paint on and the furniture will be good to go.

Think About Your Goals

What do you want to get out of your painted furniture? Are you looking for a sleek and modern design that’s ready to slide into today’s trendiest interior design plans or are you looking for that rustic farmhouse chic?

If you’re going for that barnyard style, it’s alright to leave your piece a little rough around the edges after your first pass of cleaning. Even though you want the most clean piece of furniture to deal with, leaving a little wear showing will only add to that salvaged look.

We mentioned at the top of this guide that you want the cleanest possible canvas to work from and that’s true whether you’re doing a modern look or a flaky milk paint style. However, if you want that real rustic-style you can always leave some of that second-hand find look intact.

Remember that cleaning your furniture is part of breathing new life into it. This is all about setting yourself up to win when you get ready to develop your finished style. 

Don’t Skip Hard-to-Reach Places

Some of the most important parts of our furniture to keep clean are also some of the hardest to reach. Make sure you don’t skip these spots when cleaning furniture before painting.

When you’re cleaning and getting ready for finishing touches it can be tempting to only clean the areas that you plan on painting. The inside of drawers, underside of the furniture, and other hard-to-reach places often get skipped when we’re doing this part of the cleaning. However, it’s important to clean these places before we get to work on the rest of the furniture and here is why.

No Suprises Please!

The first main reason is that you don’t want any surprises when you’re restoring furniture. You never know what kind of debris could be hiding on the underside of that drawer. The best time to find that is now when you’re doing the cleaning and not at the end when you’re trying to apply that final top coat. 

The next reason is that you want to be ahead of the ball when it comes to restoring furniture. More often than not, we find that those unexpected patches of mold, cracks, and other unpleasant surprises are hiding in the least visible places of the furniture. It’s better to handle these quick fixes before you start applying finishing touches rather than after.

Make Sure You End with a High Quality Product

Many of us also choose to flip the furniture we work on. After all, what’s wrong with getting a hard-earned dollar by taking yesteryear’s forgotten furniture and bringing it up to a modern style?

If you’re planning on trying to flip the furniture you’re working on, you want to make sure that you have a high-quality product ready for your clients. This means no hidden leaves underneath the bottom of the last drawer and certainly no remnant of years past lingering in those hidden areas of the furniture.

You Want to Paint Furniture at It’s Best

Cleaning the tough spots of the furniture gives you the best, cleanest piece of furniture to paint with. Getting all of the dirt and grime out of those nooks and crannies means that you’ll have a nice clean surface to paint on. Putting in a little bit of extra work now is worth its weight in gold later on. 

Work Through Built-up Grime

If you’re working on a piece of furniture that spent the last few years of its life in some long-lost resale shop, outside of a barn, or in your grandfather’s attic, you want to make sure that you take care of the potentially fragile wood you’ll be working with.

This is why it’s best to work through built-up grime in stages. Rather than going in full force right off the bat and attempting to get the furniture down to its cleanest state, you can go after this problem in steps.

Where to Start

Start by getting rid of the easy to clean off dirt. This will be the dust, the dirt, and all of those little cobwebs that are just hanging onto the surface of the furniture. After that’s done, you can start working away through progressively more stubborn patches of grease and grime.

This allows you to preserve the quality of the furniture while still making sure it’s nice and clean if your first coat of paint. 

Give Two Passes if Necessary 

Our guide on how to clean furniture before painting is all about ensuring your final paint job looks its best!

This is why it’s often necessary to clean in multiple passes. Giving some time in between the first and second cleaning allows you to look at the project with a fresh set of eyes. You’ll notice patches of grease and grime you missed the first time around that you might have blown the painting over if you are trying to get it all done in one quick swing. This tip is especially important if you’re new to renovating furniture, and you’re still working on building up your skills.

Way back in the day, furniture was built by hand. It took a good amount of time, craftsmanship, and work to create these pieces of furniture that we’re working on restoring today. It’s worth putting in that same level of skill and effort when we’re restoring the furniture. Taking two passes at cleaning is certainly no big cost for a fantastic final piece. 

Let Your Furniture Dry

After you’re done cleaning, you’re going to want to let your furniture dry. This feels like it goes without saying, but it is important to remember that we are working with wood here.

Wood is a porous material and likes to absorb a lot of liquid. If you’ve been cleaning an old piece of furniture, there’s a good chance that the wood has soaked up some of that cleaning solution that you’ve been using.

Giving the wood time to dry out means that you’re not going to have to deal with any awkward painting problems later on. Painting over wet wood can lead to bubbling, fisheye, and other painting problems. It’s better to wait and make sure the wood is dry then have to fix problems later on.

Break Out the Sander

Removing old paint from antique chair with sandpaper to clean furniture before painting.
Removing old paint from antique chair with sandpaper to clean furniture before painting.

The last trick for cleaning your furniture is also the first step in painting furniture.  Let’s say you got the world’s most stubborn patch of grime on your furniture and no amount of cleaning and scrubbing has done any good. What are we to do then?

Sometimes the only solution is to sand away the problem. Sanding is almost always the first step to take before painting a piece of wood. The good news is, you can also sand away stubborn patches of grime on old furniture.

This can work especially well for types of grime that are intensely difficult to remove with other methods. Things like melted wax, adhesives, or built-up areas of finishing, can best be removed by just sanding the area down.

If you’ve got those particularly challenging areas on your project, save them for the end and sand them down while you’re prepping the rest of the surface of the furniture.

Now Your Ready to Clean Furniture Before Painting

Painting furniture after it has been cleaned thoroughly.
Painting furniture after it has been cleaned thoroughly.

Now you’re ready to really get to work on your reclaimed furniture projects!  You’ve reached the end of our guide and now you know how to clean furniture before painting. 

Restoring and painting old furniture is a time-honored craft. While it might not feel like it, you are painting and working on creating a brand new piece of art. Cleaning your furniture before you paint it will ensure that you have a beautiful canvas to work with and your final piece will be cherished by friends and family for years to come.