We get a lot of questions from people new to chalk paint who want to know if it truly is a no-prep paint. And the answer is yes and no. Chalk paint adheres to furniture beautifully without the use of primer and (usually) no sanding. A quick cleaning is typically all you need. With that being said, there’s very rarely a piece of furniture that goes through our shop that doesn’t need some type of prep work before paint. Because when you’re working with used furniture, it’s typically been loved on for quite a few years. It’s scratched and peeling and dirty, and if you just whip out a brush and start painting, you probably won’t end up with the best results. So we decided to put together a list of things to look for before you start painting furniture pieces and how to fix them.
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A Rough Surface
The first is the most obvious. When your piece has deep scratches, gouges or an uneven finish, it needs to be filled and/or sanded. Chalk paint is a thicker paint and can cover minor unevenness in the finish, but for the most part if you start with a rough surface, you’re still going to have a rough surface after paint.
Fill deep scratches with wood filler. Elmer’s Color Change Wood Filler is our favorite. It has a smooth consistency, is easy to work with and dries quickly. It also goes on purple and dries light tan or white so it’s easy to see when it’s dry. Sand it smooth when dry and you’re ready to go.
If a large portion of the surface is rough, flaky, or it has a sloppy existing paint job with lots of drip marks, we’ll smooth it out with our favorite sander. We have three different power sanders and this one is by far my favorite. I rarely get the other two off the shelf. Trust me on this one. Best. Sander. Ever.
Loose Or Peeling Veneer
If your piece has veneer, carefully check to make sure none of the veneer is loose or peeling. Any loose veneer needs to be fixed or removed prior to painting.
We wrote a step by step tutorial for filling missing veneer with Bondo here. In addition to that technique, you can also use regular wood filler to fill small missing sections.
If the veneer is too far gone to try repairing it, your best bet it to completely remove it. Most pieces have solid wood under the veneer so you can just remove it and paint the wood underneath without replacing the veneer. To remove the veneer pull off the loose sections. Then place a damp towel over the remaining sections. Let it hang out for a bit and it will help loosen the glue. If it’s really stubborn, you can use a hot iron over the damp towel to steam it and loosen the glue.
Wood Tannins Bleeding Through The Paint
Certain types of wood and some water stains will bleed through paint.
If there’s just a small spot or two that’s bleeding, an easy fix it to spray it with a couple coats of Zinsser Bulls Eye Shellac. We love this stuff and always have it on hand. If it’s more than just a spot or two, or if I have a hunch before I get started that it’s going to bleed, I prime the entire piece with a paint-on primer like Zinsser Bulls Eye 123.
Sometimes you don’t realize it’s going to be a bleeder until you already have a coat of paint on it and can see the stain seeping through. Not to worry, you can prime right over your existing coat of paint (both paint on and spray primers), then keep painting when your primer is dry. I typically do two coats of primer on bleeders, but every once in a while you’ll have a piece that needs more.
If your piece has an oily finish, has been repeatedly cleaned with Pledge, or just has a super slick and shiny surface, your paint may not stick well.
There’s a few to choose from. If the surface is oily or has a lot of residue, try wiping it down with Odorless Mineral Spirits. For slick/shiny surfaces, clean it first then give it a couple coats of primer. Or if it’s a real problem piece, you might have to sand it down to the raw wood.
I recently painted the table in the photo above with chalk paint and the paint literally peeled off with my fingernails. This has never happened to me before and I have no clue what was on the surface. I ended up sanding it down to raw wood then gave it two coats of shellac before repainting it. I had no problems the second time around but I was kicking myself for not prepping properly and the wasted time and paint used.
Sometimes the existing hardware leaves an indentation in the wood. If you’re planning to change out the hardware, you’ll want to smooth out those indentations so they’re not visible around the new hardware.
If you’re reusing the same hardware, or if the new hardware is large enough to cover the indentations, you don’t have to do anything. If you do need to fix it, sometimes a light sanding will even it out, or you can use wood filler.
One more word about hardware changes… if you’re just changing out a knob with a single screw, you’re fine. But if you’re replacing handles with two screws on the back, keep in mind that the distance between the screws is different on a lot of hardware, and your new hardware will probably not fit in the existing holes. I recommend trying to find your new handles before you start painting. If they happen to fit in the existing holes, you’re good. If not, you can fill them in with wood filler before you start painting. If you don’t have your new hardware yet, I would consider just filling the holes before you start painting. There is nothing worse than finishing a gorgeous paint job only to find out your new hardware doesn’t fit in the existing holes and now you have to fill, sand, and repaint the old holes. I’ve been known to drag a whole drawer into Hobby Lobby to choose new hardware. We have a huge list of places to find furniture hardware here.
Some used furniture pieces smell really musty or like cigarette smoke. The best remedy I’ve found for stinky furniture is a thorough cleaning and some time to bake in the sun. If that doesn’t work and you’re having trouble ridding the odor, try just going ahead and priming and painting the whole piece, inside and out. Often times a good primer will seal in the odors. Zinsser BIN is supposed to be better at sealing in odors than Zinsser 123. They’re both paint-on primers, but BIN is shellac based and 123 is water based. I will say that BIN is not my favorite primer to work with because it’s super thin and runny, and because it’s not water based so not as easy to cleanup. But, since we’re talking about stink-blocking factor, I thought I should mention it.
Moral of the story: We love chalk paint. It’s a fantastic product, but your finished piece will only be as good as the base you started with. Taking a little extra time at the beginning will ensure your finished piece will look beautiful and professional.
Have a question about prepping for chalk paint that we didn’t cover? Leave a comment or feel free to email us with your questions.
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