Are you thinking about painting a piece of furniture with chalk paint? This tutorial explains how to prep furniture for chalk paint, including how to remove odors from drawers, how to get rid of woodworm, and how to tell if you need to sand or prime your furniture piece before painting.
I created this ultimate guide to prepping furniture for chalk paint so that even beginner chalk painters can achieve the best results possible.
My love of chalk painting furniture began a long time ago with this solid wood chalk-painted coffee table project. Many a furniture project has come my way since then. Whether it's a small or large piece of furniture, all of them have one thing in common, they are all painted with chalk paint.
Is chalk paint right for your project?
Some say they prefer to use latex paint to paint furniture because it's more robust, particularly for kitchen cabinets.
All I can say is that my painted furniture gets a lot of use and looks as good today as it did when I first painted it.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference and the type of look you're going for as to the paint you decide to use.
I much prefer the look and feel of chalky paint on old furniture. I also love that I can easily create a distressed look with chalk paint, but the best way to find out which furniture paint is best for you is to try them all out yourself.
Today, I'm going to show you how to prep furniture for chalk paint. If you prepare, paint and choose the correct protective finish to seal your pieces of furniture, there is no reason why your own chalk paint project won't look great for years to come.
★Tip★ If you are looking for more inspiration for up-cycling old wood furniture, you might enjoy the post '6 easy ways to update furniture and make it look more modern'. Grab a free copy of the Furniture Flip Checklist while you're there!
Throughout this post, I've included affiliate links to some of the products I use and love for prepping furniture for chalk paint. As an affiliate, I may earn a small commission if you purchase through one of my links, although there is no extra cost for you.
Table of contents
- Is chalk paint right for your project?
- What is chalk paint?
- Shop Chalk Paint
- Do you need to sand furniture before using chalk paint?
- Do you need to clean wood furniture before sanding?
- How to clean wood furniture before chalk painting
- How to clean smelly furniture
- How to remove grease from wood furniture
- How to fill scratches or old holes with wood filler
- Shop wood filler
- Dealing with woodworm
- Tips for painting brown furniture
- Can you put chalk paint straight onto varnished wood?
- How to clean furniture that doesn't need sanding
- How to sand furniture before painting
- Shop sanders
- Shop sanding supplies
- What to do after sanding furniture
- Do you need to prime furniture before using chalk paint?
- Painting previously painted furniture
- Shop primers
- How to prime before chalk paint
- Shop furniture rollers
- Shop workshop stools
- You may also like:
What is chalk paint?
If you are planning to use chalk paint for the first time, you might be wondering, "What is chalk paint anyway?"
Chalk paint is created from powdered plaster of Paris or calcium carbonate mixed with water and acrylic paint. The result is a gorgeous chalky matte finish.
There are many recipes for making homemade chalk paint, but personally, I haven't tried to make it myself.
Chalk paint should not be confused with milk paint which is usually sold in powdered form and has to be mixed with water before use.
Once mixed with water, milk paint is much thinner than chalk paint.
Chalk paint is low VOCs
Chalk paint is water-based and has minimal volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which means it's non-toxic. It's also practically odor-free, so it's a great option for painting furniture indoors.
You can use chalk paint on many different surfaces, including wood, melamine, terracotta, and metal, and you can even use it to paint floors, glass, and laminate furniture! It can also be painted over a previously painted surface and comes in a spray paint option too.
Even if you prep furniture for chalk paint, you may find that you can see some brush strokes in the finish once the chalk paint is dry, so if you are looking for a perfectly smooth finish, chalky paint may not be the best choice.
On every piece of painted furniture in my home, I've used chalk paint. That's why, in this tutorial, we are concentrating specifically on how to prep furniture for chalk paint.
My favorite chalk paint
There are two brands of chalk paint that I use for furniture painting which I find give me the best results.
Annie Sloan Chalk Paint and Rustoleum Chalky Finish Furniture Paint are available in many different colors and are both very easy for first-time furniture painters to use.
Although chalk paint is famous for being 'no-prep', I almost always prep furniture for chalk paint.
Shop Chalk Paint
Do you need to sand furniture before using chalk paint?
Yes and no! It depends on the type of wood, the condition of the existing finish, and the paint color you intend to use on it.
I know that chalk paint is meant to be used over any surface without sanding but take a look at the condition of the finish on the furniture you'll be painting. If it's in good condition you might get away without sanding but if the finish is chippy or the old paint is peeling away, you will need to sand it smooth.
If you paint directly over a chippy finish, you'll never get a smooth finish and your new coat of paint will soon be chipping away too!
The flat surfaces of glossy furniture should be lightly sanded before painting to create a better base for the paint to stick to.
★Tip★ Instead of sanding, I used primer directly over the finish of this old wooden bookcase before chalk painting. The bookcase is still one of my favorite up-cycled furniture pieces.
Is sanding wood toxic?
Wood dust is known to be carcinogenic, which means it can cause cancer if inhaled. Inhaling wood dust particles could also lead to respiratory problems. To avoid inhaling wood dust particles, you should always wear a safety mask when sanding wood.
The furniture you should never sand
Even though you do need to prep furniture for chalk paint, there are some items of furniture that should never be sanded.
Older furniture painted with paint containing lead. Use a highly sensitive, non-toxic lead testing kit to test for the presence of lead in furniture paint before sanding.
★Tip★ You can find more ways to up-cycle, refurbish and refinish vintage furniture here.
Do you need to clean wood furniture before sanding?
I get this question a lot. The answer is yes! Even if you are going to be sanding your furniture before painting, the first thing you need to do is thoroughly clean the entire piece.
Why do you need to clean furniture before sanding?
When we built our house, the architect suggested we clean the windows ourselves the first time around. Apparently, cleaning the windows is a great way to find any defects in newly fitted window panes and trims.
I find when you prep furniture for chalk paint the same applies. During cleaning, you will most likely find scratches, knicks, or dents that might benefit from a bit of wood filler.
How to clean wood furniture before chalk painting
Even though your furniture piece looks clean, you will be surprised at the amount of dirt that comes off when cleaning.
Here are my tips for cleaning furniture before painting:
When cleaning wood furniture, the first thing I do is get the vacuum out and go over the whole furniture piece with it.
I use the vacuum inside drawers, cupboards, and underneath the furniture to remove cobwebs and dust.
Remove the drawers
Removing the drawers will make cleaning the inside of your furniture much easier.
Write the position of each drawer on the bottom of the drawer with a piece of chalk. Warping in older furniture only becomes apparent when you try to replace a drawer in the wrong slot!
When cleaning the drawers, check for stains, grease, or the remains of old candle wax that may prevent paint from adhering to the surface.
Remove the hardware
When you prep furniture for chalk paint, it's best to remove the hardware before painting to get a cleaner finish. This is particularly the case if you intend to buy new hardware for the furniture piece.
Sometimes, dirt will accumulate behind the hardware. If this is the case, it's best to remove knobs and pulls before starting the cleaning process.
I usually leave the doors and hinges in place, although you could remove them if you think they will be too difficult to paint around.
Tape hardware screws to the underside of each draw to keep them safe. Corral knobs, drawer pulls, and hinges (if removed) into a separate bag for safekeeping.
On vintage pieces of furniture, the screws holding the drawer pulls may have deteriorated so much that it's impossible to get them out with a screwdriver. In this case, I would leave the drawer pulls in place. You can always cover the pulls with masking tape to avoid accidentally painting over them.
Wash with soapy water
The first step to cleaning wood furniture before painting is washing it with detergent and warm water. I use a lint-free rag and my usual mild dishwashing detergent for this.
Use a damp rag to get into all the grooves and embellishments where dust and dirt may be hiding.
If the furniture piece is very dirty, you might need to use a scrubbing brush to work up the dirt before wiping it down with a lint-free cloth.
After washing, dry your furniture with an old towel and leave it outdoors in the fresh air to dry completely.
Standing furniture in sunlight will also help remove musty smells from wood furniture.
How to clean smelly furniture
When you buy furniture from a thrift store or from places like eBay and Facebook Marketplace, there is no telling where it has been stored.
As wood is porous, it sucks in odors and smells from its surroundings which is the reason for that old, musty smell.
Furniture standing for a long time in a cold garage, attic, or basement might smell musty.
If the musty smell does not disappear after cleaning with soapy water, there is a chance that fungus, mold, or mildew may have set in. In this case, you will need to try some of the cleaning methods mentioned below.
How to kill bacteria in wood
Musty smells in furniture could be caused by bacteria.
Vinegar is a great all-around natural cleaner for wood. To eliminate bacteria, and deodorize the wood, add a cup of vinegar to the soapy cleaning water.
Removing odors from drawers
Baking soda is a great natural alternative for removing odors from draws. Place a small container filled with baking soda inside the drawer, close it and leave it for a few days.
If the smell is still there after removing the baking soda, try washing out the drawer with the vinegar and soapy water solution mentioned above.
Here are some alternative odor removers to use inside drawers to prep furniture for chalk paint :
- Cat litter
- Charcoal briquettes
- Charcoal deodorizing packets
- Cedar blocks
- Unused coffee grounds
- Vinegar (a small open container placed inside the drawer)
- Cotton wool sprinkled with essential oils like Lavender, lemon/citrus, eucalyptus, rosemary, Tee Tree, or clove.
You might need to repeat the process above over a period of a few weeks, replenishing the deodorizers as necessary.
Another method you could try is to paint the inside of the drawer with hemp oil. This natural oil might be all you need to remove the odors from drawers.
If, after trying all of the above, the furniture is still stinky, you could try an odor-blocking primer like this. This primer kills tough odors, including those from pets, urine, tobacco, and fire.
How to remove grease from wood furniture
If your furniture piece has been standing in a kitchen, it may have picked up a thin layer of grease.
A solution of white vinegar and soapy water should cut through grease, but sometimes it's not enough.
When the grease is proving hard to remove, I use mineral spirits or rubbing alcohol. Mineral spirits have a strong smell, so I recommend taking your furniture outside to do this.
★Tip★ some mineral spirits onto a clean rag or microfiber cloth. Rub the rag over the greasy area in small sections until the grease lifts away. Don't saturate the rag with mineral spirits, a small amount tipped onto it will suffice.
Once the grease is gone, go over that area with a clean damp cloth before wiping it dry with an old towel. Leave the furniture to dry out before painting.
How to fill scratches or old holes with wood filler
Using wood filler to prep furniture for chalk paint
During the cleaning process, you will see whether the furniture is damaged or has deep scratches on the surface. If this is the case, you should use wood filler in those areas.
Here are some of the best non-shrinking wood fillers to try:
Shop wood filler
How to repair furniture with wood filler
- Sand down rough edges or remove wood splinters.
- Make sure the area in question is free of dust. Follow the cleaning tips above, and this won't be a problem.
- Since the furniture is being chalk painted there's no need for a pre-conditioner.
- Apply enough wood filler to the entire surface of the damaged area.
- Smooth the wood filler and scrape away the excess with a putty knife.
- Once the wood filler is dry, go over it with a sander or sanding block and fine-grit sandpaper to create a smooth finish.
Dealing with woodworm
Woodworm refers to the larvae of certain types of wood-boring beetles.
During the furniture cleaning process, you may come across tiny holes in the surface of the wood. These small round holes usually suggest that the furniture has woodworm or has had woodworm at some time in the past.
Woodworms prefer to infest wood that is slightly damp, so if the furniture was previously stored in a cold damp garage, there is a good chance it might have developed woodworm. Don't be too quick to give up on that furniture piece though, the presence of holes doesn't necessarily mean that the woodworm is still active.
How to know if the woodworm is active or not
If the woodworm is still active, you will notice wood dust or woodworm 'frass' around the holes in the furniture.
Woodworm frass is what the woodworm leaves behind after burrowing into the surface of the wood.
How to get rid of woodworm in wood furniture
Woodworms hate vinegar, so washing the furniture with vinegar and water solution will help repel the little blighters.
If the vinegar solution doesn't do the trick, the most effective commercial insecticides for removing woodworm are those including permethrin in the list of ingredients.
If your furniture has a woodworm infestation, it's best not to bring it into the house until you're you have it under control. Don't run the risk of contaminating the rest of your wooden furniture, floors, or any wooden beams in your house.
Once the infestation is under control, the process of painting, waxing, or varnishing will prevent woodworm from re-entering the wood.
Tips for painting brown furniture
Upcycling old furniture has never been easier! Our guide to painting brown furniture white will have you transforming your space in no time.
Can you put chalk paint straight onto varnished wood?
Yes, as long as the varnish is still in good condition. However, I recommend giving the wood a light sanding to rough it up and create a better surface for the paint to stick to.
If the varnish is damaged or flaking, it will benefit from sanding first. Don't be tempted to skip this step because if you do, it won't be long before your paint is flaking and you will have wasted your time, energy, and paint. That's why good preparation is so important before chalk painting furniture.
★Tip★ I had great results painting chalk paint straight over a varnished chest of drawers. You can see the chest of drawers makeover in my post, How to transform furniture with chalk paint.
How to clean furniture that doesn't need sanding
Even if your furniture doesn't look dirty, you should always give it a wash with a little water and a soft cloth. At the very least, it will have accumulated dust while hanging around waiting for painting.
How to sand furniture before painting
This process is the same whether the furniture to be chalk painted has a chippy finish or if the entire piece needs sanding before whitewashing (see more about whitewashing with chalk paint below).
To save time and energy, use an electric sander to remove the old finish on your furniture.
I love using a mouse sander for sanding furniture because it's light, sits nicely in my hand, and gets into small spaces. I also love that it catches most (but not all) of the sanding dust in the handy detachable dust-catcher.
To quickly cover expansive areas on large furniture like hutches or tabletops, I use an orbital sander first. When finished, I usually do a light sanding with the mouse sander to remove any marks left by the orbital sander.
Which grit sandpaper to use on furniture
If the furniture piece is heavily covered in paint, I'll start with 80-grit sandpaper. 80-grit sandpaper is very coarse and should not be used on fine furniture that only requires light sanding.
Once most of the old finish is removed, I switch to 120 and then 180 through to 220 grit sandpaper.
For most furniture projects, you will find that 120-220 will create a smooth finish without damaging the wood.
On my furniture makeovers, I usually do a first sanding with 120 grit, a second sanding with 180 grit, and a final sanding with 220 grit sandpaper.
Laminated furniture will only need a quick sanding by hand to rough up the surface before painting.
Use a hand sanding block wrapped with 120-grit sandpaper or a sanding pad for sanding laminate furniture.
Shop sanding supplies
What to do after sanding furniture
Follow these tips to get a smooth finish after sanding furniture in preparation for chalk paint.
- Vacuum the furniture to remove most of the sanding dust.
- Wipe the furniture all over, with a damp cloth.
- Check that the surface is smooth and that all cracks or damage are filled.
- Rub over the furniture with a tack cloth to make sure it is completely dust-free.
Do you need to prime furniture before using chalk paint?
Preventing bleed through
Furniture with a darker color like mahogany, redwood, and cedar, contain tannins that may 'bleed' through the new paint finish causing dark stains to appear in your paint color.
The knots in knotty pine furniture may also create bleed-through. In this case, it's best to use a stain-blocking primer on the wood before painting.
If wood furniture has a light color, you could get away without priming, although it's a good idea to use a thin coat of primer before painting, regardless.
To be absolutely sure to prevent bleed-through, apply a second coat of primer to your furniture after the first coat has dried.
By using a primer before painting, you will find that you need to use less chalk paint to achieve an opaque finish.
Whitewashing furniture with chalk paint
If you intend to whitewash your furniture with chalk paint, it's important NOT to use a primer first. Chalk paint wash is painted onto bare wood creating a whitewash look.
You can use chalk paint to whitewash over most bare wood furniture, including pine. The great thing is, you don't need much paint for whitewashing.
Learn how to whitewash a pine table with chalk paint here.
Painting previously painted furniture
Previously painted furniture doesn't usually need to be sanded before applying chalk paint unless the finish is chipping away or the surface has a layer of clear wax over it.
Best tannin blocker primer for chalk paint
To prevent bleed-through from dark wood furniture containing tannins, use a primer before adding the first coat of paint.
I prefer water-based primers because they are low in VOCs and therefore, better for use indoors.
The great thing about using water-based primers is that you can use a natural bristle brush for painting and the clean-up is fast.
You only need soapy water or vinegar to clean the water-based primer out of a paintbrush.
Oil-based primers have a strong chemical smell and are best used outdoors on furniture that requires waterproofing.
Brushes used for painting with oil-based primers will need to be soaked in a chemical cleaning solution to get them clean.
My Favorite water-based primer for chalk paint
I use a water-based primer from my local DIY store but this water-based primer is a great alternative and is highly recommended by furniture painters. This link is for the white version but if you need a different color, it also comes in gray.
Oil-based primers for chalk paint (Outdoors)
If you are painting outdoor furniture with chalk paint, you will need to use an oil-based primer for waterproofing.
Below is a list of some of the best stain-blocking primers for outdoor furniture:
How to prime before chalk paint
Before you start the process of priming, it's best to raise the furniture piece up off the floor.
Raising the furniture makes it easier to paint right to the bottom of the legs, feet, or bottom edge.
You should also place painting carpet or dropcloth underneath your furniture to protect the floor from paint spills.
Use furniture rollers
If you are painting a large piece of furniture like a buffet or sideboard, I recommend standing the furniture on furniture rollers.
With rollers underneath your furniture, you will easily be able to move the furniture around for painting which is especially good if you are painting in a small room or a tight spot.
Here are some furniture rollers to try:
Shop furniture rollers
If your budget won't stretch to buying furniture rollers or you only intend to paint one piece of furniture, there's an alternative method to raising furniture that you should try.
- Stand the furniture on a large piece of cardboard (save a large cardboard packing box for this).
- Place some off-cuts of wood underneath the corners or under each leg. If you are painting a small piece of furniture, you can quickly move the cardboard around to get to all sides.
Use a hydraulic workshop stool
If you are thinking about up-cycling more than one piece of furniture, another handy piece of equipment is an adjustable stool on wheels. Make sure to get one with a tray underneath to store all the tools you need for working there.
An adjustable wheelie stool is a lifesaver for your back and the painting goes faster when you can scoot around the furniture instead of getting up and down off the floor. I couldn't be without mine now, I heartily recommend them.
Shop workshop stools
How to prime furniture before chalk painting
In part two of my media stand furniture makeover series, I explain everything there is to know about priming furniture for chalk paint, including my best tip for an easier clean-up.
You can read all about priming furniture for chalk paint here.
Once the final coat of primer is dry, you can start painting with your favorite color of chalk paint.
Prepping furniture is an important step before painting furniture with chalk paint.
I hope you enjoyed learning how to prep furniture for chalk paint today! You've learned how to thoroughly clean furniture for painting, how to fix chippy furniture, and the best primers to use with chalk paint.
Now you have everything you need to get started on your next furniture project.
If you have tips that you think I should add to this post, let me know in the comments below.
Good luck and happy chalk painting!
Ready to tackle a furniture painting project? Learn how to paint brown furniture white with our easy-to-follow painting guide!
Did you follow all the steps above to properly prep furniture for chalk paint? Check again that you have thoroughly cleaned, and removed all grease and dust from your furniture.
Sanding the surface before applying chalk paint, will help the paint stick better and give a smoother finish. However, some people do choose to skip the sanding and apply the paint directly to the surface.
If you are unsure about the condition of the surface or the paint, it's best to test a small area first.
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