Getting Paint to Stick to Finished Furniture

Getting paint to properly adhere to furniture can be difficult. Most furniture is stained and clear-coated (finished), and clear coat will not allow paint to stick without preparation. Sometimes, if the old finish can be roughed up by sanding, to give it “tooth” – a word meaning something for the new paint to hold on to, you won’t need to get create the mess and clean-up associated with stripping the furniture to the original raw wood or metal. Try rough sanding with 60 grit, followed by a finer grit of 100 and you may have a smooth enough surface to paint.


The first thing to do before painting old furniture is to try and establish exactly what it is made of. A lot of really old furniture will be made of deal/oak/rosewood or may contain pieces of all of these types of timber. Most antique furniture will have the same timber throughout. Some reproduction pieces however can be made up of many different types of wood.

While many items purchased from 1980s onward may contain no wood at all, should this be the case then a proprietary oil stripper is what is required first. Having taken off all residual oil and grease it is desirable to scuff or ‘key’ the surface of the furniture by the application of soft emery paper.

Doing this by hand will ensure that not too much pressure is applied resulting in an even level of surface to accept any paint you wish to apply, in most cases it is also advisable to use an undercoating paint which due to its processing will grip and attach itself to the surface creating an immovable invisible bond hence preventing chipping later when the top/gloss or matte finish paint is applied.

If it is established that the furniture is made of wood you can begin alternative preparation.


If your furniture piece is clear-coated, you must either sand or strip the surface. Sanding is a temporary solution – it will create profile (roughness) which promotes paint adhesion, but you cannot expect the paint to last for its recommended lifespan. If you plan on sanding, use rough sandpaper (80-100 grit). To strip the surface, use a stripping agent (my favorite is Strypeeze) or sand the clear coat completely off.

Stripping the surface using chemical or physical stripping methods will ensure the best paint adhesion.

Chemical strippers are easy to use – simply apply the stripper with an old natural bristle brush, allow it to penetrate for the recommended amount of time, and scrape the weakened finish being careful to avoid gouging the wood. To neutralize the stripping agent, just wash the surface very well with warm water and allow it to dry.

The little hard to reach areas can be difficult, so use a bottle/can opener to scrape the corners and seams. Coarse steel wool the areas while still damp with the stripper to remove all the residue and rinse well. Allow it to dry and then sand all the surfaces well.


You now have to glue any loose joints and make any necessary repairs. I now use gorilla glue which is much better than wood glue but more difficult to use. It foams out of the joints and is very hard to sand down, so I wipe it constantly until it is set, but it is then permanent.


After sanding or removing the old finish, use carpenter’s putty to fill nicks and gouges in the wood. Allow the putty to dry the recommended time. Next, primer should be applied. If you sanded finished wood for profile, but did not complete strip, you will need a strong primer like “bonding primer”.

Priming can be done with basic turpentine whilst the type of wood will determine the finish. If you have a pine unit or chair then I would recommend a simple stain varnish(most are available in pine colors as well as darker choices).

You can find bonding primer at Sherwin Williams and other retailers. If the surface has been completely stripped, a good wood primer will work.

Directly before applying primer, use a tackcloth to thoroughly remove dust particles from the surfaces. Apply the primer per the instructions.To get the smoothest results, use a foam roller to apply the primer and paint. Foam rollers are intended for doors and trim which require very smooth finishes, and will leave beautiful results on furniture.


When choosing paint, remember that alkyd (oil-based) paints will be the most durable, but good waterborne paints exist. Alkyd paints form very rigid, chip-resistant coats which are necessary on furniture. Inform the paint store clerk that you are painting furniture, and they will recommend the correct product.


You now have to decide if you want to paint or stain the wood. If it’s beautiful wood, I suggest staining, but painting can make a beautiful piece, also. For many years, the only acceptable paint for good furniture was oil-base enamel, but there are now water base enamels that are very good, and easier to handle and clean. Use a tack cloth to remove any dust after the sanding process.

If using alkyd paint, light sanding may be necessary between coats to remove dust particles which have settled in the wet paint. Use very fine (220 grit) sandpaper to lightly even the paint surface between coats. After sanding, use a tackcloth to remove dust particles before reapplying paint.

If you want an economical way to keep brushes supple while you are doing other things then simply immerse them fully in a pot with water and a touch of white spirit there really is no need to use gallons of spirit especially if you intend to use the same colors or varnish again.


One final note – do not return furniture pieces to use until the paint has thoroughly dried. This is especially important for furniture with friction surfaces such as tables and chairs. Check the paint instructions for recommended curing time.