The Best Paint for Furniture Makeovers, According to Expert DIYers
No-fail finds for wood, plastic, and more.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:07 AM
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If you’ve scored a perfectly solid wood table or dresser that’s been tossed to the curb, only to discover it’s a little worse for wear—a scratch here, a chip there, maybe a tarnished knob or stained shelf—we know the feeling. But don’t give in to defeat: A fresh coat of paint can instantly revive it.
“The power of paint is no joke; you can’t underestimate it,” says Brady Tolbert, creative director at Bobby Berk, who has successfully fooled visitors into thinking his IKEA shelf was bespoke, all thanks to a $15 can of spray paint. No matter the material, we found the best paint for furniture that will make your next DIY project look pro.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
Type of paint: Latex (also referred to as acrylic) is one of the most popular furniture paint options, and for good reason: It’s affordable and boasts a broad color range. But when it comes to high-touch areas like cabinets and chairs, India Shannon of Apt 528 recommends going with something more durable, such as an oil-based paint. “It’s tougher than latex, and because it’s solvent-based, you can wash and scrub it more,” she explains. However, the VOCs are typically pretty high, so you’ll want to open all the windows while applying or take your project outside. If you’re on the search for an all-rounder, chalk paint—no, not the stuff of your childhood classrooms—may be the best bet. It’s a water-based, milky, matte option that can be applied to pretty much any furniture surface with little to no prep.
Prep and primer: “Prepping is my least favorite thing,” Shannon reveals—and thankfully it isn’t always necessary, depending on the material. To determine if you’ll need to grab sandpaper, mineral spirits, or primer, thoroughly check how smooth the surface is, and don’t forget to wipe off any dust or debris. “The prep work is all about giving the paint a clean surface to adhere to,” says DIYer Carrie Spalding of Lovely Etc. “If you paint over loose, peeling paint, the new paint will also come off.” That’s why she includes primer in all of her projects if she can. It’s an extra step, but it ensures everything sticks and, in the case of wood, keeps lighter colors and white from yellowing over time.
Finish: Trust us: It’s a painful experience to go through sanding and painting a piece of furniture only to have it flake in a few weeks. Choosing the right finish is essential. Experts say it’s best to select a shiny option, like semigloss, or to consider a lacquer or wax seal at the end for extra protection against fading, staining, and other signs of wear. Steer clear of acrylic paint; due to its low resin-to-pigment ratio, it’s not as durable. If you really can’t stand a satiny sheen, consider chalk paint. “Use our wax once you’re finished and let it cure,” recommends Annie Sloan, founder of the Chalk Paint brand.
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For Acrylic: Universal Flat Spray Paint, Rust-Oleum
When Tolbert saw a listing for not one, but two of Toogood’s Roly Poly chairs, he had to have them—even if they were a bright yellowy orange. He was able to snag both for $300, a serious steal considering fiberglass options retail close to $1,000 and the acrylic version goes for $700. His solution to the less than pleasant color? Spray paint.
“I’ve had such success with spray paint, especially the Rust-Oleum brand,” says Tolbert, who has used the paint and primer for all sorts of DIY projects, like transforming an IKEA pot rack into a brassy shelf. His top tip to prevent both dripping and the much-dreaded fish-eye effect (i.e., paint bubbles) is spraying superthin coats. In this case, it took four passes to achieve the desired effect. “They’ve totally held up,” he says of the chairs. “I have them in my living room right now—they haven’t scratched or anything.”
For Wood: Furniture Paint, Valspar
U.K.-based DIYer Rachel Verney is a big fan of color. Her house is filled with all sorts of paint projects—from the fireplace to the walls—and most recently a refurbished set of dining chairs. She snagged all four on Facebook Marketplace for roughly $17. After a quick trip down the road to pick them up, Verney got to work with an electric sander. First, she removed all the leftover paint. “They had been painted by the previous owner for an event and then left out in a garden, so a couple were quite moldy and the paint was flaking off,” she shares. After a bit of elbow grease and sanding the especially rough sections, she picked out four different lively pastels. “I love Valspar,” she notes. “Not only does it have a built-in primer and saves me a job, but I’m obsessed with the bright color range.” With two boisterous sons at home, she decided to finish off the chairs with a lacquer top coat, and she happily reports they’re holding up perfectly.
For Polypropylene: Chalk Paint, Annie Sloan
According to Sloan, chalk paint works with pretty much any furniture material, indoors or out, except for an oily wood like teak or squishy upholstery. She recently revamped two white polypropylene IKEA Skarpo chairs with an olive green to better suit her garden. “It helped offset the man-made feel they gave,” shares Sloan. “Chalk paint works well on most IKEA furniture; just be sure to apply a few thin coats rather than one thick coat on shinier, plastic surfaces.” To protect it, she finished the chairs with two coats of Matte Chalk Paint Lacquer.
For Laminate: Alkyd Semi-Gloss Enamel Paint, Behr
Shannon loves searching Facebook Marketplace to salvage cupboards from the ’80s. Painting shiny melamine takes next to no prep, since the surface is already so smooth. No matter if it’s Behr’s oil- or water-based alkyd paint, all have bonded well without primer for Shannon. Her trick is three to four light coats on every cabinet. “Our cabinets have held up for years to cleaning and regular use without a recoat,” she says. “The only time the paint has chipped was when another piece of furniture scraped alongside it.”
For Rattan: Satin Enamel Spray Paint, Rust-Oleum
Whether rattan or wicker, webby fibers are tricky to paint, but not impossible. For Spalding, nothing is better than using a can or paint sprayer to cover all the twists and turns of woven furniture. Before starting, she stresses the importance of brushing off any original paint with a wire brush, then hosing off all the dust-filled grooves as needed. Don’t forget to let furniture dry completely before spraying.
“Most wood furniture is made of several large, flat surfaces, while wicker and rattan furniture is made of many strands of material woven together,” she explains. “This creates a very multidimensional surface that still needs to be evenly painted.” She prefers spray paint because it coats from multiple angles. If it starts gumming up, just ease the pressure on your nozzle. If you plan to bring your rattan outside, Spalding suggests painting even unfinished surfaces, like the underside of a table or bottom of a chair. “This will help prevent warping, cracking, and other problems caused by moisture,” she says.
What is the most durable paint for furniture?
If you’re sticking to latex, try finding a paint that’s mostly or all acrylic, which is tougher than its water-based vinyl counterparts. Otherwise, if you can get over the strong solvent smell, oil is the best bet. For an extra layer of protection, Tolbert’s go-to is a clear top coat.
What is the best way to avoid brush marks?
After addressing the finer details, Shannon recommends painting everything over with a foam roller to hide as many strokes as possible. “Don’t overbrush,” she warns. “You can also sand between coats for an ultrasmooth finish.”
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