Skip to Content

How to Prep Furniture for Painting: Essential Steps

Let’s say you spy the perfect piece of furniture at a yard sale or flea market, or maybe even in your home, that would be perfect for your kitchen, bedroom, family room, or wherever — if only it could be painted to match or complement your existing decor.

Read on for some tips on how to get started on that tempting home improvement project. Learn what materials you’ll need and what steps you’ll need to take in prepping furniture for painting.

Prepping Furniture for Painting an old Sideboard

Materials for Prepping Furniture for Painting

Without proper prep work, there’s a good chance that the paint you apply to your furniture will either peel or chip. So as a first step, let’s take a look at the materials you’ll need to prep furniture for painting.

Lead Testing Kit

Because lead-based paint, which can present a number of health hazards, may be found on older pieces of furniture, you’ll need a lead testing kit.

If you are removing lead-based paint from your furniture piece, make sure to use proper personal protective gear. You’ll need to use a paint stripper in a well-ventilated area to take it off.


You’ll need a properly sized screwdriver to remove any hardware — drawer pulls, etc. — from the piece of furniture.

Pry Bar or Chisel

For hardware and other items that may be attached to your furniture with nails, a pry bar can be used for removal. If you have hardware that has been painted in place, a chisel is also a good option to help gently pry it up.

Wood Filler

Filling holes in wood furniture

You’ll want to repair any gouges, hardware holes, or other imperfections with wood filler.


For smaller pieces of furniture or furniture without layers of varnish or lacquer, an assortment of sandpaper may be all you need to prepare for painting.

Electric Sander

For larger pieces of furniture, an electric sander may be needed to prepare surfaces for painting.


Denatured alcohol or mineral spirits can be used for final cleaning and degreasing after you’ve gone over the furniture with warm water and detergent. Some people prefer trisodium phosphate to denatured alcohol or mineral spirits, but keep in mind that it is toxic.

Remove Hardware From the Furniture

As a first step in getting your piece of furniture ready for painting, you’ll need to remove any mirrors or hardware — drawer pulls, handles, knobs, or what have you — from the piece.

antique chest of drawers with hardware

That may be as simple as using a properly sized screwdriver. However, for pieces painted in place or attached with nails, you may need to work a pry bar or chisel between the wood and the hardware and gently pry the hardware from the furniture.

Once the hardware is removed, you can freshen up and repair the surface with some sandpaper and wood putty. If you plan to reuse the hardware, you can restore it by boiling it in a pan of water and then scrubbing it with a cleaner like Bar Keepers Friend.

Cleaning is Key to Prep Furniture for Painting

Prepping furniture for painting begins with a thorough cleaning of the piece to prevent problems as you get deeper into the process of transforming it for new life.

While your targeted piece of furniture may look clean, it has nonetheless, over time, become a repository for oils from touches by human hands, other oils from cooking that have spread in the house, and even oily residue from polishing products.

Just as you removed the hardware from your targeted piece, prepping furniture for painting requires that you disassemble it — taking out drawers, removing decorative items, etc. — so that you can fully clean and eventually paint all of its nooks and crannies.

Washing Your Furniture

As a first step in prepping furniture for painting, mix a bit of liquid detergent with warm water and apply it to the piece with a sponge or cloth, being careful to do a complete job.

Bucket of soapy water

After cleaning, rinse your furniture with lukewarm water applied with a rag, and then let it dry completely. To speed up the process, you can place the furniture in front of a fan, but be sure it is completely dry before proceeding.

More Steps in Cleaning Your Furniture for Painting

Washing and rinsing is just the first step in cleaning as you’re prepping furniture for painting. You’ll need to further clean the piece, a process for which you’ll need denatured alcohol, mineral spirits, or trisodium phosphate.

Denatured alcohol works well if you’re going to paint your furniture with water-based paint. Some people prefer to dilute denatured alcohol with water before use. However, if you plan to use oil-based paint, don’t dilute the denatured alcohol.

Using mineral spirits will work whether you eventually use either water-based or oil-based paint on your furniture piece.

If you use TSP, you should be aware of the need to be particularly careful because it is a powerful chemical that can damage your skin and irritate your eyes. Be sure to wipe your furniture down afterward with water or denatured alcohol.

Don’t Skip Sanding

You don’t absolutely have to sand your furniture as you prepare it for painting, but you’ll avoid the potential for future issues with paint coming off of the furniture if you do take the time to sand it. Sanding will help the paint better adhere to the furniture.

If you’re working with a small piece of furniture, you can do the job by hand using a 180-grit to 220-grit sandpaper wrapped around a sanding sponge. If your piece of furniture has a particularly glossy or deep finish, you’ll need to use rougher, lower-grit sandpaper.

An electric sander will make quick work of larger pieces.

sanding an antique chair by hand

Whether you do the job manually or with an electric sander, you need not worry about sanding your piece of furniture down to the bare wood.

Just Scuff the Surface

Instead of completely removing every trace of paint when prepping furniture, you may simply need to scuff up the surface to give the paint something on which to adhere.

Whether you choose to remove all of the paint, or just scuff the surface, be careful to not dig deeply into the wood. In fact, gouging the wood too deeply could create crevices and other surface irregularities that will become visible when the piece is painted.

Applying Primer Ensures a Quality Paint Job

Just like sanding, applying primer as a step in prepping furniture for painting will ensure that the paint will adhere to the furniture over the long term. In addition, the primer will provide an evenly colored surface to ensure your paint will also be even across the furniture piece.

A critical step in the process of applying primer as part of prepping furniture for painting is to sand it after it dries. A good choice for this step is 220-grit sandpaper. For an even better surface for painting, you can follow that with 400-grit sandpaper.

A Brief Word on Painting and Finishing

Once you’ve finished prepping furniture for painting with primer and sandpaper, you’ll be ready to paint and finish your piece.

For ideas on which paintbrush is the best choice for your job, check out our list of the best paintbrushes for furniture painting. If you plan on applying more than one coat of paint, be sure to apply light coats and allow time for the paint to dry between coats.

Spraying a coat of polyurethane on a black chest

After you’ve painted your furniture, you should spray on a clear coat of polyurethane, which will both harden the paint and protect it from damage. Plan on applying two coats of polyurethane, lightly sanding between the first and second coat with 200-grit sandpaper.

Wrapping Up Prepping Furniture for Painting

We hope this post has provided you with the guidance you need for prepping furniture for painting to bring new touches to your home decor. If you’re still trying to decide what type of paint would look best for your newly prepped piece, check out our paint reviews page for ideas.

Cara M Johnson

Sunday 5th of April 2020

What is your best product suggestion for stripping paint? I'm currently working on a piece with a lot of trim that I want to stain. Sander wont work.

Thea Osborne

Thursday 9th of April 2020

Klean Strip Premuium Stripper works REALLY well BUT PLEASE protect yourself and use outdoors!


Thursday 27th of February 2020

As for using primer, what if you plan to distress the furniture after and you end up seeing the primer in addition to the wood below?

Thea Osborne

Thursday 27th of February 2020

This is why we note the clear/white primers. :-)

Examples of Stain Blocking Primers Shellac (Not water based) Comes in clear and white Wise Owl Primer comes in Clear and White Dixie Belle BOSS comes in clear and white

Examples of Adhesion Encouraging Primers Wise Owl Primer comes in Clear and White Dixie Belle Slick Stick white only XIM (not water based) white only

You can also read more about this and ways to go about it in Painting White Furniture where I discuss safe methods

Susan Matchett

Thursday 3rd of October 2019

Thank you for the amazing article on furniture prep! I've learned the hard way about bleed through. You rock!!!

Thea Osborne

Tuesday 8th of October 2019

ahhh! doesn't that stink?? But yay for finding out there is a better way!


Wednesday 13th of March 2019

Would it be OK to use Kilz primer? I have a whole gallon on hand that I’ve used for prefab doors before I chalk painted but I’ve never used it on pre-sanded wood furniture. Thanks so much!

Thea Osborne

Monday 18th of March 2019

Hey Leslie! It just depends on the type. Look to see if its water based, if so it may not be your best bet! It doesn't seal everything off the say shellac and oil based do.


Tuesday 12th of March 2019

Do you, have a sign in box for your blog ??? To, receive updates ??? On, projects & products...

Lynn Kelch

Monday 18th of March 2019

Thanks so much for this information Thea. These are areas where I have found to be confusing. This is so helpful.i wish I could take painting lessons from you but I live in Milford, Ohio. I'm very much enjoying your group.

Thea Osborne

Wednesday 13th of March 2019

Haha you're taken care of now right?