The 5 steps to getting a perfectly smooth paint finish
When we first started painting furniture, it was a constant struggle against brush strokes. The perfect paint finish seemed impossible. I’d be painting one side, thinking I’d done a great job. Stuart would be painting the other, thinking he’d done a good job. We’d finish up, go inspect the others work and out would come the rollers and brushes again.
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It took quite a bit of experimenting with different types of paint and applicators before we found a technique for achieving a smooth paint finish that we are happy with.
Here are our 5 steps for achieving a near perfect paint finish:
Step 1: clean and repair furniture
Most furniture you are looking to paint will have already lived a full life. Give the piece a good once (or twice) over so you know what you’re working with. Any scratches, nicks or other damage to the wood should be repaired before you begin. Wood putty is the easiest way to fill any small holes. Light surface scratches should sand out easily. If there are deeper gouges or missing pieces, you may need to fill with Bondo (you can read how to use Bondo here).
After you’ve made your repairs, CLEAN your piece! This may seem unnecessary, given that you are about to sand the whole thing, but you do not want to sand the dirt and oils into the wood grain because it will affect how well your paint adheres. You can use TSP or an alternative like this or even vinegar and water.
Step 2: sand furniture
We always recommend sanding first, even if the product you are using *ahem, chalk paint* says you don’t need to. When you sand a piece you’ll not only give the surface some tooth for the paint to stick to, but you’ll also notice any bumps or imperfections that may not have been visible on your once over.
You do not need to try and remove the previous surface coat. Just a good scuffing with a medium grit (180 grit) sand paper will do the trick. Stuart loves to use his palm sander but sanding manually works just as well.
We use a vacuum and damp cloth to remove most of the dust before going over the piece with tack cloth. Tack cloth is fantastic but it can get expensive if you’re using a new piece between each coat. Removing as much visible dust as you can before using the tack cloth will extend it’s life. We usually get by with once piece of tack cloth for the whole project. Use tack cloth to make sure all the remaining dust is removed before priming. We usually order our tack cloth in bulk from Amazon here.
Steps 3: prime furniture
A good quality primer is worth its weight in gold. Well not really, gold is expensive, but you get my point! A good primer will hide the previous color of the piece, block stains from the natural pigments of the wood, prepare the surface for paint to stick and not bead or soak in, fill in the wood grain and finally provide a more durable finished coat.
If you’re not sold yet, it gets better. Priming the piece will mean you need fewer coats of paint. Primer should be applied thinly and it’s perfectly fine to see the color of the piece through your brush or roller strokes.
Our primer of choice is usually Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3. Let your primer coat dry at least 24 hours and then give it a very light sand with a fine grit sandpaper (220 grit or above).
Now that we’ve got you convinced, we must confess we don’t ALWAYS prime. If we are using mineral paint in a pigment rich colour (like blue or black), we don’t bother priming because this paint covers and adhered so well.
Step 4: paint furniture
Now comes the fun part – paint! There are so many different paints out there: latex, chalk, mineral, milk…Every furniture painter has their favourite.
Types of furniture paint
If you are using latex, which is the most affordable choice, we find we get the smoothest finish using a paint conditioner such as Floetrol or Zinsser latex extender. You may not have heard of paint conditioner before but if you keep painting furniture with latex paint, it will be your new best friend.
Paint conditioner improves the flow of the paint. What does that mean? The paint doesn’t dry as quickly and smoothes out much better. It really helps to eliminate those unsightly brush strokes! It can sometimes be tricky to find but you can find it here on Amazon.
If you are using chalk, mineral or milk paint, you do not need to add a conditioner as each of these types of paint is formulated to go on a specific way. You can read about why we love mineral paint here.
Furniture painting technique
Apply the paint using a good quality paint brush and a foam roller on the flat parts. We have tried many different brands and we can assure you, quality DOES make a difference! We’re usually very happy with these Zibra brushes or these from Amazon.
Use long, even strokes to apply the paint without overloading your brush or roller. Don’t aim for full coverage on your first coat.
Make sure the first coat is dry before starting your second. Sometimes two coats plus touch ups will be enough but if you’re not quite there yet (the paint looks “shadowy” in places) go for a third. If you are using chalk paint, you can still use a paint conditioner but it really defeats the purpose since it basically thins out the chalk paint which is meant to be thick.
Step 5: top coat for painted furniture
If your refinished furniture is going to be somewhere with little traffic and likely won’t get used much, you CAN skip this step. However, if you anticipate using the piece regularly or have a house full of rowdy kids like we do, you’ll want to make sure you protect all your hard work.
Our preferred finishing method is a polycrylic spray such as those made by Minwax and Rustoleum. We should add as a warning that these products should be applied in an open space with lots of ventilation BUT as dust/dirt free as possible since the coats are very sticky as they dry.
You can also use wax, like this one from Miss Mustard Seed, which is great for durability and can create a more aged look. They also make top coats especially designed for chalk paint which we recommend if that’s the paint you’ve chosen. We found using our usually spray on chalk paint made it appear yellow and splotchy.
If you follow these 5 steps you will achieve the smooth paint finish on your wood furniture that you are after. If you’re nervous about working on a special piece for the first time, pick up an old piece from the curb or FaceBook Marketplace and practice first.
If you’ve followed these steps and they worked, or even if they didn’t work, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below!