Handpainted Furniture – Step by Step

When I first started painting secondhand furniture back in my teens, my youthful impatience meant that the most thought I put into it was what was the cheapest tin of cream gloss I could get down at Wilkinsons. My next criteria was whether I could get away with just putting one thick coat of the stuff on, and to hell with sanding, brush marks and stray brush hairs that would fall out from my equally cheap brushes and stay embedded in the paint for all eternity.
Part of that was to do with a youngster’s budget. But I’ve always been an impatient sort, especially back then. Always eager to race to the finish line rather than enjoy the process itself. It’s a trait that manifested itself when I first started sewing too. Over the years though I’ve become more interested in taking the time to get it right, with each stage of a project. Be that sewing, painting furniture or whatever else I decide to apply myself to. So that I don’t spend the rest of my time, thinking I should’ve taken the time in the first place! (We’ve all been there right? That dodgy seam that it’s too late to unpick now because, heck, it wouldn’t notice once it’s finished, right? But WE know it’s there, and it’s mocking us for our slap dashery every time we look at it, mwah ha ha ha ha … 😉
So, the process I’m about to share is not a quick one. It involves (yawn) allowing paint to set hard overnight, and (double yawn) sanding between coats and such like. BUT, when I take the time to follow this process properly, I’m only ever chuffed with the finished piece. In fact, when I’m sure there’s no-one around, you could catch me running my hand over bits of furniture….ahem…everyone does that don’t they…? : /
So here goes. My top tips for a finish you’ll want to keep running your hands over again and again……

Stage One – Prepping and sanding

1. Remove all hardware. Handles, hinges, drawer runners, door catches. The lot. (seriously who can be arsed to paint around them?!)
2. Keep all screws and fixings together in a safe place
3. Wearing a mask and eye protection (Please at least wear a mask. I made myself VERY ill a few years ago because I didn’t bother) Go at it with your sander (or sanding block if you’re not as lazy as me!) like a thing possessed! I start with a 180 grit pad and depending on how effective that is I’ll either stick with it or try a slightly more or less coarse grade of pad.  If you go too coarse you can end up grinding ridges into the wood. NOT a good look. You’re sanding just to take the surface finish off so the primer paint has something to adhere to….

Kinda like this….obviously darker stained/varnished woods will look slightly different, and untreated wood will require very little sanding at all….but you get the gist….

1. Once you’ve finished sanding you’ll need a lint free cloth dampened with white spirit or turps
2. Dust off any excess sawdust with a brush then wipe down thoroughly with your damp cloth

Here’re my bedside tables all ready for priming…

Stage Two – Priming

1. Dismantle what you can. Take doors and drawer fronts off for painting etc. It’s much easier to paint them and then put them back on than it is to cut in around door edges, drawer carcasses etc
2. I never fork out for specialist primers. IMHO they’re pricey and not necessary (melamine primer is one exception though. That is genius!) On wood furniture I always use humble ‘ole matt emulsion as a primer AND as topcoat. For use as a primer you want it watered down a bit at approx a 3:1 ratio of paint to water. You’re aiming for a consistency similar to Salad Cream!  Just stick it in a big jar, add the water, put the lid back on and give it a vigorous shake. I also like to use sponge “brushes” as you don’t get the brush marks in the paint like you do with standard brushes. But at this stage it’s not vital as the primer will get sanded smooth in the next step.

Paint the piece with 2-3 coats of primer allowing to dry thoroughly between coats and letting the final coat of primer set overnight. Then before you move onto the next step remove all jewelry (if you haven’t already) as until the paint is sealed in the last step, you can mark it quite easily with rings, bracelets etc. I’ve even had coloured nail varnish make a mark (I’m a glam DIYer oh yes sireee!)…

1. Your primer coat will have very fine bits of dust and grit in it when you look closely or run your hand over it. We don’t want that! You’ll need a 280-400 grit (fine) sandpaper. Start finer, and go down a grade if you need to.
2. With a gentle sweeping/circular motion, gently sand the surface. Constantly running your (ring free!) free hand over it as you go to gauge the smoothness you are achieving. You’ll be amazed at how little effort is needed. The paint will come off like chalk, so be gentle, especially on the edges and corners, as you want to avoid sanding back to the wood as much as possible. Once you’re done, dust off any powdery paint with a brush and wipe down with a slightly damp cloth.
3. This technique uses matt emulsion as a top coat too. (the latter stages of this technique do not work with any other kind of emulsion other than matt emulsion. Or with kitchen/bathroom formulas) Water it down a little (about 6:1 this time) in a large jar. Shaking vigorously again. Watered down paint is much easier to work with. It goes on more smoothly and the brush marks are less obvious. Again, using a sponge brush reduces the lines in the paint even more.
4. I decant my paint into a plastic food storer a little at a time so I can stick the lid on between coats and don’t make a mess of my paint jar every time I put the brush in and out.

Stage Three – Top Coat

1. When adding your top coat brush the paint on first in one direction (across in this instance)
2. Then gently drag the brush (without additional paint on it so it’s damp only) in the opposite direction, at right angles to your initial brush strokes…

It’s tricky to photograph the effect this has. If you are able to enlarge this photo then you may be able to see in more detail. Hopefully you can see that the second downward stroke smooths out the more obvious brush lines…

I prefer to do 3 light coats of topcoat rather than 1 thick one…

Stage Four – Finishing (aka “where the magic happens!!”)

This is the part that really makes the piece look super delicious and worthy of lots of stroking…ahem. Ok, maybe that’s just me. Anyway….

1. Using a 400-600 grit (very fine) wet and dry sandpaper, wet the sandpaper and the surface you are sanding with clean water, and in gentle small circular motions sand the surface. You’ll see the paint start to mix with the water and make it cloudy. Go gently!
2. Wipe the liquid away with a lint free cloth and marvel at the magic!

Again, tricky to photograph, but hopefully you can see how the brush marks have blended into eachother here. (Try enlarging this photo if you can) This is after just one go with the wet and dry sandpaper. You can repeat this step until you are happy with the finish but be careful not to sand all the layers of topcoat back…
Once finished, allow to dry thoroughly and then wipe down with a clean, lint free cloth.

Finally…..

1. With a wood balsam, rub a generous amount into your surface in circular motions..
2. Buff with a clean, lint free cloth or according to product instructions. Allow to set hard overnight before placing anything on the surface.
3. This is the stuff I use. It smells just divine. (Beeswax, linseed oil etc)

You can repeat this step as many times as you like. Just leave a few hours inbetween to allow each coat to set after you’ve buffed it. The more coats of this you put on, the harder and more durable your finish will be…

Just look at the sheen on that! I much prefer the sheen that a beeswax/balsam finish gives to that of say, a clear varnish, and it’s unbelievably durable too. No brushmarks, and often a “clear” varnish isn’t actually clear at all and can alter the finished colour of your piece with a slight yellowy tinge…the balsam finish is quicker, easier, smells nicer, and you can keep using it every month or so to preserve your the beauty of your finished piece…

…and there you have it. My own personal method of revamping tired old furniture with a simple tub of matt emulsion. No fancy paints or messy varnishes. As Alexander would say…Simples!!  😉

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67 Comments

  1. Sew little time August 10, 2012

    wow – what a lot of work, but a great finish! i need to try the next time a great junk shop/ boot sale bargain comes my way!

    Reply
  2. didyoumakethat August 12, 2012

    Superb and VERY inspiring!

    Reply
  3. Evie Jones August 14, 2012

    I have always used primer/undercoat followed by satinwood paint followed by varnish and never been satisfied with the finish. This is cheaper, easier and a divine finish.
    I have a piano and an apothecary chest to do in the next few months. Guess which method I’ll be using on them! Thank you for sharing. As they say…you learn something new every day.

    Reply
  4. Jenny Jo October 6, 2012

    Very professional work! Love this tutorial, your pieces look so fresh and clean ~ Jenny Jo (Almond Flour Tutorial featured this past Sunday)

    Reply
  5. MrsC (Maryanne) January 22, 2013

    Portia I’ve just been reading about Karen’s chair, and had to go over this again. It’s so lovely. Can I ask, is emulsion just acrylic paint? As in, water based paint by Dulux, say, for painting indoor things? Just having a moment where we are divided by a common language! 🙂 xo

    Reply
  6. Salvaged Inspirations April 12, 2014

    Love the hardware and finish. Beautiful!

    Reply
  7. Sue Edwards November 11, 2014

    Good tip with the wood balsam, I’m just finishing my first project and was not looking forward to applying varnish and spoiling my hard work.

    Reply
  8. wendy Taylor November 26, 2014

    My god at last ….. I think I love you …. no need for chalk paint no need for expensive primers which I can only buy at a specialist shop and no need for expensive waxes ….. and it looks gorgeous ….. Hallelujah all hail miss P ��

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie November 26, 2014

      Ah…you’re welcome! I hate spending out on expensive products when it’s not necessary! Px

      Reply
  9. Hi there I am so happy I found your webpage, I really found you by mistake, while I was searching on Google for something else,
    Anyhow I am here now and would just like to say many thanks for a
    marvelous post and a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I
    don’t have time to look over it all at the moment but I have book-marked it and also
    included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will
    be back to read much more, Please do keep
    up the fantastic jo.

    Reply
    • portia February 17, 2015

      What a lovely message. Thankyou so much

      Reply
  10. Mary Chidlow May 16, 2015

    Thank you for the detailed explanation. I always buy quality emulsion and always have some left over. Now I can use it ( instead of painting the garage walls ! ) to update furniture which is too useful to consign to the tip.

    Reply
    • portia May 16, 2015

      Thanks Mary 🙂 Glad you found it useful!

      Reply
  11. Manda May 29, 2015

    I’ve used Laura Ashley in both making chalk paint and just emulsion straight on top of primer, then wax finish. Glad to here others use similar and not expensive unlike f&b and as.

    Reply
    • portia June 2, 2015

      Never understood the f&b obsession Manda. Always seemed to me to be a triumph of image and marketing over actual quality. Lovely as it is there are equally good paints out there for a fraction of the price.

      Reply
  12. Carol June 12, 2015

    Could you explain what wet and dry sand paper is and where can I purchase it from. I cannot wait to get started on a chest of drawers. I have just painted a bedroom and with one chimney breast to go I ran out of paint. So I had to buy another pot and was wondering if I could use the rest of it for my chest. I am so please to have come across your site.

    Reply
    • portia June 13, 2015

      Wet and dry sandpaper is a fine grade sandpaper that you use damp. Ask at your local diy/hardware store. They won’t look at you like you’re crazy I promise!

      Reply
  13. Carol June 13, 2015

    Thank you, but quite by chance I found some in a store called Wilkinsons.

    Reply
  14. Sue September 9, 2015

    Help!! I have just had a bit of a disaster. I am trying to brighten up an old dark wooden chest of drawers for my grandsons. I cleaned them up and then painted 2 layers of undercoat on the them. So far, so good. I have now had a go at putting bright coloured emulsion on them. Disaster has struck. The paint is only covering in some places…. Where have I gone wrong as I don’t want to use gloss. Pretty please can you help Portia

    Reply
    • portia September 9, 2015

      Sue do you want to send me an email with some pics and I’ll see if I can help?? Email address under the about tab in the top menu bar. about>contact

      Reply
    • portia September 9, 2015

      Sue, if you email me at kitschycoo(at)hotmail(dot)co(dot)uk with some pics I’ll see if I can help! Px

      Reply
  15. Marian September 29, 2015

    Hi Portia, I’ve just finished painting my lockers and there fab. ?Thanks for sharing your personal method . ? I’d like to paint my desk Grey with white coming through ?help???

    Reply
  16. Allison February 16, 2016

    Hi Portia. I’m doing up an old sideboard which I’ve sanded back to bare wood. I would like to know if silk emulsion paint would work well because I’ve got loads of different shades of grey paint left over. Also, would it need varnishing or waxing at the end? Thamks

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie February 16, 2016

      I’ve struggled with silk emulsion in the past Allison. Especially if it’s vinyl silk. It doesn’t tend to stand up to the wet and dry sanding element of this method and the wax finish isn’t absorbed easily. BUT not all brands are the same and alot can also depend on whether it’s water or oil based paint. Best bet is to grab a small plank of wood and test it all out before committing to your final piece.

      Reply
  17. Jenny Braund February 24, 2016

    Love your helpful, funny instructions, just what I wanted as I didn’t want to go down the Chalk route! I play around with lots of auction treasures but usually try to get them looking antique, this will be a new venture, G plan bedside cabinets here I come!

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie February 24, 2016

      Ha ha! Thanks Jenny!

      Reply
  18. Thomasin February 27, 2016

    Love your blog and what a great tutorial Portia! Just finished painting a 50’s sideboard dark grey – and you’re right, so smooth and stroke-able, what a finish ?

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie February 28, 2016

      Awesome!! So glad it worked for you!!! Thank you so much 🙂

      Reply
  19. Susan February 28, 2016

    Hello, just found your site?Can you tell me if your painting method works on IKEA furniture, will it cope with being sanded ?

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie February 28, 2016

      Hi Susan, this technique is best used on solid wood. Anything made from laminate/veneer etc generally requires special paint. You can lightly sand it to provide a key for painting and use a suitable primer. But the finish is never going to be as durable as it would be on solid wood and depending on the paint you use….it’s unlikely that the wet/dry sanding element of this technique would be suitable. So the finish would be different too. Having said that, Ikea do do some solid wood furniture, so if your piece IS solid wood then yes…it would be fine!

      Reply
  20. Yona April 3, 2016

    Hello Portia
    sounds very much like you know what you are talking about and your furniture looks so smart.
    If you could answer my questions, it would be much appreciated: 1. What ole emulsion means (I read this on your site)? 2. Can I use silk emulsion on my wooden cabinet or definitely matt? I bought Crown silk emulsion-bargain and would like to paint my bedside cabinet. Thank you in advance.

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie April 3, 2016

      “ole” is just a slang or informal version of old. But in this case I use it to mean simple matt emulsion. Silk is tricky with this technique in my experience. If you’re using a water based silk emulsion then skip the wet/dry sandpaper and wax at the end. Px

      Reply
  21. Yona April 3, 2016

    Thank you Portia. It’s because English is not my first language. As for silk emulsion which I bought in bulk…Do you know if it is suitable to paint my garden shed inside. My garden shed is waterproof. I tried to research the Internet re: this topic, but found hardly anything. As you have gardening section, I just wonder, whether you may know. Best wishes.

    Reply
  22. debbz April 10, 2016

    Great tip thanks

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie April 11, 2016

      Ah! It worked!!! 😉

      Reply
  23. Kay May 19, 2016

    Hi,

    Can I be nosy and ask exactly what paint brand/colour you used on these? Just found your blog and this is perfect – I didn’t want to shell out on paint that is £40 a tin 🙂

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie May 20, 2016

      Hi Kay! To be honest it was a mix of leftovers that I had in the shed! If I recall correctly, they were B&Q own brand emulsions and I just mixed a darker grey with some white until I arrived at the shade that I wanted. Px

      Reply
  24. Gilly Connor May 22, 2016

    Hi Portia
    I am refurbishing a 1950 kitchen ..double sink drainer and unit and the separate tall cabinet. With drawers and cupboards. I primed the whole thing in 123 primer waterbase and made my own chalk paint using Matt emulsion as I always do. I read your wet and dry article so gave it ago, you are right it was so worth the effort. My question to you is… As it will be in the kitchen with all that entails I was going to to put on 3/4 thin layers of water based Matt hard as diamond varnish, do you think can this be wet sanded between each coat. I love waxing pieces but really think these need a stronger finish. Love to know your thoughts on this Regards
    Gilly

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie May 23, 2016

      Hi Gilly. Wow that sounds awesome! In response to your question, first of all, anything you do, I would test on a scrap piece of wood first. I have never used the wet and dry technique on a varnish so I cannot advise you from a place of experience. But… in your shoes I would test two methods before committing to the actual piece. 1) test the wet and dry sanding on the varnish, on a scrap piece of wood with the same primer and paint underneath, that you used on your project piece. 2) The main purpose of the wet and dry sandpaper stage, is to smooth out the brush marks. I would reason therefore, that if your varnish is water based, then watering it down a little may prevent the brush marks from forming in the first place; as the varnish will be more fluid and settle across the surface before the brush marks have a chance to “set in” if that makes sense? Otherwise you’re looking at a dry sand between coats. But definitely definitely test on scrap wood first. Also because varnish can sometimes “yellow” on drying and change the colour of your paint finish subtly which is a bit of a bummer when you’ve spent all of that time getting it beautiful! Would love to see it when it’s done!!

      Reply
  25. Gilly Connor May 22, 2016

    Sorry Wrong email

    Reply
  26. Karen Reid May 28, 2016

    Hi, this method looks great – and way cheaper than my first plan! Can you tell me if it’d work on mdf or would this need a primer?

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie May 30, 2016

      Hi Karen, I’d say it definitely needs a primer. How the subsequent layers of paint will respond to the wet dry sanding element I’m afraid I don’t know. The adhesion of the paint layers may differ with the mdf primer as opposed to natural wood, and it MAY mean they come away more easily that they did in my example.. The best bet is to test an inconspicuous area first I’d say! Px

      Reply
      • Karen Reid May 30, 2016

        Great, I’ll give it a go. Thank you for taking the time to reply. Karen

        Reply
  27. Amanda Jack June 6, 2016

    Can I use water based eggshell instead of emulsion please?

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie June 9, 2016

      Afraid I can’t advise as I have never done the wet dry sanding and wax finish with an eggshell paint. (But the finish with the eggshell paint alone is similar to this except you may still have that issue with visible brush strokes). I’d test on a scrap of wood first personally. See how it comes out. Px

      Reply
  28. kerry booker June 17, 2016

    bloody brilliant, thank you. I followed step by step and by this afternoon i had a newly white and waxed wooden table for the new fish tank. I went a step back for one of the end panels after making a me or the table decision during a torrential downpour but I’m chuffed to bits with my first ever furniture tart up. thanks for the hard work and such an easy to follow method.

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie June 26, 2016

      Ah Kerry that’s brilliant! So glad it helped and thanks so much for stopping by to let me know how you got on!! Px

      Reply
  29. David June 20, 2016

    Very good tutorial I am using the technique on a pine coffee table and it is great. The awkward parts are easier with watered down paint .
    Well done x

    Reply
  30. Jodie July 12, 2016

    I am about to embark on my first ever furniture project, I am painting up an old table and chairs for our playroom. The kids will no doubt give it quite a bit of wear and tear and it will be used for crafting so it needs to be very durable and scrubbable. Would this technique withstand so much ‘abuse’?

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie July 23, 2016

      Possibly not Jodie. You could consider putting a glass/perspex top on it though??

      Reply
  31. Cheryl August 21, 2016

    Hi Portia
    I want to paint my sons desk. It was originally pine but we painted it last year with an eggshell paint.Due to decorating his room again I would like to paint it in a different colour using your method. My questions are: Would your method work if I first sanded down the old eggshell paint? And would your method give a suitable finish for a desk, as in being able to withstand writing on etc. Thanks so much in advance.

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie August 22, 2016

      OK, so I would worry that the eggshell would have ingredients in it that may not respond well to the wet sanding. (I’ve tried it on other paints and it peels with the wet sanding if it’s anything other than straight water based emulsion. Eggshell I think has certain compounds in it to give it that sheen so I’d be concerned it’s not straight water based emulsion) My personal inclination would be to strip it back to the pine. But since that is alot of work, maybe you could test the process, on top of the existing paint, on an inconspicuous area first. Like a side of the desk that will be facing a wall or something? In terms of durability I’d say at least as durable as your eggshell would have been if not a little more. The more layers of the balsam you build up at the end, the more durable it becomes. I can’t say it will stand up to being scrawled over in felt tip pen obviously, lol! But for everyday use as a desk. Perfect I’d say. If you want to really protect the top you could consider a sheet of glass or clear acrylic as a top? Good luck!

      Reply
  32. Rachel Annie October 20, 2016

    Hello Portia
    Would this method give a hard wearing finish suitable for a kitchen table? Thanks in advance for your advice.
    Rachel

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie October 23, 2016

      I’d be reluctant to say yes on that one without having tried it out first Rachel. I haven’t used it on something high traffic like a kitchen table I’m afraid.

      Reply
  33. Geraldine Hanley November 17, 2016

    Hello Portia, would this work on a solid wood fireplace mantle? I’ve already sanded it well and the wood appears very receptive but I’m a bit scared to take the plunge thoughI really need a stone coloured mantle to match in with my new living room! Geraldine, Dublin

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie November 20, 2016

      It will work on any bare wood. But I cannot comment on it’s durability in terms of heat or fire retardancy. But I can’t see any reason why that would be a problem either. Or at least any different to glossing a mantle. So I would personally do it. BUT may be worthwhile double checking at your hardware store whether you’re supposed to use a specific “safety” paint around a fire surround. But am pretty sure it should be fine!

      Reply
  34. Nousheen Fathima November 21, 2016

    Hi Portia.

    I live in India and I am new with painting furniture. Have been looking at blogs and tutorials on YouTube a lot lately. Since most of the YT tutorials are American, I find it difficult to find certain products or even know what the alternative is in UK English, which is what we are used to and my google searches led me to your blog. I have a few questions, which I really hope you will help me out with.

    1) Is emulsion and latex paint the same?
    2) Is it possible to use water based matte paint that is used on concrete walls on furniture?
    3) If you answer yes to the my second question, then can I make chalk paint by adding calcium carbonate to the matte emulsion and then sand and distress the painted furniture for the shabby chic look?

    4) I have a can of eggshell emulsion with me, would I be able to get the chalky effect by adding calcium carbonate into it? Or I would have to buy the matte only for that effect?

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie November 21, 2016

      Crikey….ok….so…
      1) No, emulsion and latex paint are not the same. Emulsion is a standard, water based paint, used to paint interior walls.
      2) Yes. See above 😉
      3) Never used calcium carbonate in paint myself. Best bet is to mix a small batch and test on a scrap plank of wood or in an inconspicuous area. Give it a go!
      4) Afraid I don’t know whether calcium carbonate would make eggshell paint chalky. However I do know that it won’t work with the wet and dry sanding technique described in this blog post. Dry sand only.

      Hope that helps some and have fun playing!!

      Px

      Reply
  35. Rhian Pitt January 5, 2017

    Hi, little bit confused by one of the instructions…do you mean that you can use kitchen/bathroom paint as a top coat…or that you can’t?!
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie January 8, 2017

      No, not for this method. Apologies if that was unclear!

      Reply
  36. Andrew Mills April 1, 2017

    Would you please tell me the name of the wax you used as the tesco link no longer work. Thanks

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie April 10, 2017

      Hi Andrew, Lord Sheraton is the brand, available here : http://amzn.to/2cZxJbM

      Reply
      • Andy Mills April 11, 2017

        Thank you for that. Managed to get some from Sainsbury’s.

        Reply
        • Portia Lawrie April 16, 2017

          Ah that’s handy how know…thank you!

          Reply
  37. VL April 8, 2017

    Love this easy, I formative piece and odd cheeky references! I will use and see if it goes. Thank you, Portia.

    Reply
    • Portia Lawrie April 10, 2017

      You’re welcome VL!

      Reply

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