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Prep: Everything You Need To Know!

When it comes to painting furniture, prep can tend to be a “four letter word” within the world of furniture painters. Many brands tout the promise of using their products while tossing the need of prepping furniture for paint away. Who REALLY wants to spend the day sanding away the old finish, cleaning all the gunk and grime away, and priming with some gross oil based gooky (yes that’s a word) primer that is stinky and difficult to use? When it comes to prep I hate to tell you but most of us have so much of it all wrong! So,. how about we break down the steps and really take a look at what it really means to prep your piece of furniture and make it paint ready, as well as what can happen if we don’t!

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Evaluate Your Piece of Furniture

The first thing we have to do is really evaluate our piece of furniture and decide how much prep it really requires! For me the simplest way to attack that is by CLEANING it! By cleaning the piece of furniture you are given the opportunity to really inspect each part of it! This shows you where there is missing veneer, or cracks, or holes to address. Many will say, “…but this brand says no prep is required!” Its a gimmick. Seriously guys we have to get to the point that we realize its the paint brands business to sell paint, its our business to know how to use it!

Respect them enough to realize thats honestly their end goal and realize too that we want to be able to trust our work and know we have done everything we know to do to ensure our paint finish will last! So while products may come with promises and such-its up to us to know how to use the products in the best way to produce a finish we love and can trust. By giving your furniture a good clean to start off, you are given the opportunity to really look at all the joints, veneer, hinged areas, etc where you may need to make a repair. Sometimes you can even use those quirks as opportunities to create cool effects like I did in my Wash Stand Makeover.

What do I use to clean furniture before I paint?

If you ask painted what they use you will get just as many answers as people you ask. Everyone has their preferred method and none of the necessarily wrong! However, some cleaning methods come with their share of cautions. Personally as you will find in my Basic Refinishing Guide, my go to cleaner is a simple mix of half and half water to vinegar, with just a touch of dish soap added. This is stored in a spray bottle although sometimes I just make up a bowl of it when I need it. Many people will recommend cleaners such as Krud Kutter and TSP, or a surface Cleaner/Deglosser.

Links to Cleaner Options
Krud Cutter
Dixie Belle White Lightening

These guys work GREAT! ….however, each of them MUST BE RINSED OFF! They leave a residue behind that will want to resist your paint. You will have to actually clean your cleaner! Many swear by this, and I actually did this for years myself. Again this is not wrong, but you have to know how to use the products you are putting trust into! Another type of cleaner, that was really formulated for furniture painters is Dixie Belle’s White Lightening.

Formulated to do that job but be a little less harsh, once again you will want to rinse this away. You can see my first time using this in my Wash Stand Makeover It didn’t seem super volatile, as most TSP products have seemed, and was easy to clean away!

Do I need to sand furniture before I paint?

The next thing to discuss is sanding. Do we really need to sand before we paint? “That lady said it was no prep paint!” Here is the thing, modern day paint is made to stick. No questions asked, chemists have placed a large amount of research into making sure their paint sticks! So because of this paint is largely assumed to require less prep than years back. However we have clients, customers, and more that are depending on that lovely finish lasting virtually f.o.r.e.v.e.r….. Also there are so many surfaces now MADE so that virtually nothing sticks to them! Why? This prevents staining and promotes easy clean up! All of this tells us,.. we have to use our noodle. The purpose of sanding is to provide tooth for the new product to cling to. This is far different than many think of sanding.

Wash Stand Makeover

The purpose here is NOT to sand to bare wood and remove all existing finish. (Doing that can actually cause you nightmares in the form of BLEED and an uneven finish!) Often just a good scuff with around 80-120 grit (or close) sandpaper is sufficient and you simply want to get rid of the “sheen”. Notice as you sand the glare or shine will begin to diminish. This is exactly what you want! Once again you will want to remove anything left behind with a slightly damp rag or tack cloth. (If your paint is sticking to that dust, then it’s not sticking to your surface!) To sand you can use any number of options! Above you will see my yellow Dewalt Orbital Sander.. I love it for large surfaces! Below is a Ryobi Mouse Sander which is amazing for tighter areas and getting into corners. Below in the center is Flexible Sand paper,.. I LOVE these for so many things! Spindles and rounded areas especially. Then last is a sanding sponge. Again for large flat areas, or nooks and crannies,.. you can really manipulate it by hand for what ever you need! I love them especially for slightly dimensional areas like panels and doors.

Links to Sanding Options
Orbital Sander
Mouse Sander
Flexible Sandpaper
Sanding Sponges
Dixie Belle Sanding Sponges

Now remember, if there is no shine due to wear on the finish, you may not have to sand at all. You don’t want to remove every bit of sealer or current protection. You want to lift and remove anything loose, or add grip to anything that is securely attached!

Do I need to prime my furniture before I paint?

“But they said it’s no prep paint!” Yes, I know I know! BUT again we want to do what will give us a finish we can trust to stay intact for ages! But,.. how do we prime? What do we use to prime? Why do we really prime furniture before we paint?

  • You need an even surface. Remember when I talked about not sanding the entire finish completely off? One of the reasons is you want to seal everything to be sure you have an even surface. If you don’t you can find the paint will end up soaking into the areas with no sealer, and sit on top of areas that do. This will alter the sheen once it dries as well as cause a difference in how the paint moves over the surface such as streaking instead of full coverage. This can also give you different results in the end ESPECIALLY if you seal with oils or waxes. The oil or wax will not be able to penetrate the already sealed areas, while in other areas it will penetrate as deep as into the wood!
  • Bleed happens. Have you ever heard artists talk about bleed through? Ok, often what you will see is someone is almost finished with their piece then they move on to adding a top coat,.. or sometimes even before the top coat is added, their white or light colored piece turns YELLOW! (or brown or pink or orange). One of the reasons this can happen is because the furniture wasn’t sealed up before they painted! (It can also happen when you paint over yucky stuff-this is why we clean it!) Wood contains all sorts of colorants. Stains from previous finishes, tannins that are naturally occurring, oil that can be natural or not,.. etc. When we put anything wet over that those matters will “wick up” into the wet product! It’s similar to taking a white flower and setting the stem down into colored water. The petals change color. So, by priming properly, we create a barrier to prevent this from happening! Not all primers will be effective and specifically many retail stores water-based primers will not be. Shellac, while very dangerous for your health, is very good for this purpose, oil based primers are good for this, but… they are oil. Some new water based primers have hit the market targeted to be used by those of us painting in our homes or garages! I will list them with clickable links in a minute but two I trust are Wise Owls stain blocking primer, and Dixie Belles BOSS.
  • We want the paint to STICK. Yes. Really. When I paint something blue I want that blue paint to hang out for a while! I don’t want it (typically) to chip or peel away! Sometimes we are dealing with unforgiving surfaces though! Laminate, melamine, high gloss lacquers, plastic, metal,.. non-porous surfaces can prove difficult! “…but the lady said it would stick to anything!” …yes I know, no prep. Again though-limitations happen. When dealing with an unforgiving surface that frankly doesn’t WANT to be painted, an adhesion encouraging primer is useful! Again they will be linked below but Wise Owls stain blocking primer is great for this, as well as Dixie Belles “BOSS” and their primer Made specifically for those slick surfaces “Slick Stick”. Of Course you will find others on the market but sometimes its nice to have the peace of mind that comes with using products MADE FOR US! For instance XIM is amazing for this however, use caution! Also, keep in mind we often want that primer to pull double duty. Stain Block AND encourage adhesion-so be careful about what you grab!
Examples of Stain Blocking PrimersExamples of Adhesion Encouraging Primers
Shellac (Not water based) Comes in clear and whiteWise Owl Primer comes in Clear and White
Wise Owl Primer comes in Clear and WhiteDixie Belle Slick Stick white only
Dixie Belle BOSS comes in clear and whiteXIM (not water based) white only

So, there you go. Some of the basics of why we prep furniture and how to prep furniture and what to use to prep your furniture! Have any questions about prep? Comment below!! Your question may lead to another segment on the page! I look forward to hearing from you!

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Pat R

Friday 11th of June 2021

Thank you for all the information. I have a question on the steps for paining a white matte or satin finish over a black high glass. I am painting the spindle legs of a kitchen table that I had previously spray painted in a high gloss. I prefer not to sand if there is an alternative. I appreciate any assistance you can provide !!! Best regards, Pat R [email protected]


Friday 16th of October 2020

I’m currently pregnant and am transforming an old dresser into a changing table. What primer and paint would you recommend that won’t harm me or my baby?


Friday 25th of September 2020

Hi Thea, I’m currently working on some cabinets I did sand them to the bare wood because my sheen was so uneven all over them. They were bathroom cabinets and water weathered. I did that to get them all the same finish before I started. How would you recommend doing kitchen cabinets after a good clean? I have the same problem and uneven surface of the sheen. Should I sand them all the way down or just do the light sand. I’m using wise owl OHE and would you use their primer too?? Thank you!


Friday 4th of September 2020

I am getting ready to paint fuel fireplace it is a mahogany piece what do I use after I cleaned? Slick stick then the boss. I want to paint it buttercream. thank you.

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!

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