How to Paint a Dresser So You Don’t End Up With a Sticky, Streaky Finish
Plus the one step you absolutely shouldn’t skip.
Published May 27, 2022 1:00 AM
Some well-intentioned experimenting taught DIYer Jessica Belteau all about how to paint a dresser—and how not to do it. Her most memorable mishap? Trying to cover a white laminate IKEA dresser without sanding the surface first. “The paint was just rolling off—it was not sticking at all,” she says of the almost botched job. Luckily, she was able to recover her efforts by going back and scuffing up the finish. To save you from similar close calls, we chatted with Belteau about all things dresser painting, including mistakes to avoid, then we tried it ourselves to create a complete step-by-step guide.
Are All Dressers Worth Painting?
This is a matter of personal opinion, but Belteau doesn’t consider any dresser to be unpaintable. The main factor to consider is finish, she says. (Is it raw wood, varnish, or something altogether different?) Some, like laminate, are more difficult to paint than others; adjusting the technique (using less or more coats or going a bit heavier on the priming) is key.
Common Dresser-Painting Mistakes You Can Totally Avoid
Not Letting the Layers Dry Completely
This blunder comes in a close second to Belteau’s attempt at painting without sanding. Skipping a drying period could result in a sticky, tacky paint job (which you nor your dresser deserves). Belteau recommends waiting at least 24 hours after priming before you apply your paint color, and then another six to 12 hours between coats.
Forgetting to Prime
Primer gives you a smooth, even finish, creates a nice base for paint to adhere to, and minimizes brush streaks, explains Belteau.
Using a Matte or High-Gloss Paint Finish
Eggshell is Belteau’s finish of choice because it gives a velvety finish that’s easier to clean, compared to a more textured matte option, which has a rougher feel. You can simply wipe the dust right off the surface with a cloth or use Windex to remove stubborn stains. With a high-gloss finish, you’ll be able to spot dirt and nicks way too easily, plus it’s highly prone to chipping (which means more frequent touch-ups).
How to Paint a Dresser
- Mask (optional)
- Container or bag to hold hardware
- Drop cloth
- 220-grit sanding sponge or sandpaper
- Microfiber cloth
- Painter’s tape
- Shellac-based primer
- 1 quart interior paint (we used Behr’s Vine Leaf)
- Paint tray
- Trim nylon/polyester paintbrush
- Angled paintbrush
- 2 short-nap rollers
Step 1: Remove Nonpermanent Hardware
After clearing a workspace and putting down a drop cloth, pull out all the dresser drawers. Use a screwdriver to carefully loosen and detach any screws, knobs, and pulls. Keep the hardware organized by type (they’ll be easier to keep track of this way) and set aside in clear bags or containers until you’re ready to reattach them.
Step 2: Sand the Dresser
Use the 220-grit sponge to lightly scuff the surface of the dresser and the drawers (feel free to use a rougher grade of sandpaper on more damaged areas). Apply even pressure, moving in the direction of the grain, and be sure to go over every spot (don’t forget the drawer edges!). Avoid scrubbing too hard, though, Belteau advises, otherwise the primer won’t have anything to stick to. When you’re done, wipe away the wood dust with the microfiber cloth.
Step 3: Tape the Drawers—Then It’s Prime Time
Line the drawer edges with painter’s tape to protect the sides from accidental smudges. Then coat the drawer frames and any small nooks and crannies with your trim brush. Next, cover the larger areas with the short-nap roller. Allow a minimum of 24 hours for the primer to dry, although Belteau says it could take longer depending on the humidity or sunlight that day.
Step 4: Add the First Coat of Paint and Let It Dry
Once the primer is thoroughly dried, apply paint all over the dresser, using the short-nap roller for the first coat (quick, easy coverage) and the brush on the drawers (to reach all those narrow spaces). Give the first coat at least six hours to dry, Belteau suggests.
Step 5: Sand Down All the Dried Paint Blobs
Belteau’s primer of choice saves her from another round of sanding, but if this isn’t the case for you, go ahead and sand down any paint clumps (you can use a finer-grade sand sponge here to go over tinier spots) that may have formed until smooth. Wipe away dust with the cloth.
Step 6: Paint…and Dry Some More
Apply one additional coat (or two, if you prefer), going over spots you may have missed or gone a bit too light in your paint application, like in the corners. (FYI: Our Style team liked the texture that the regular brush gave the final coat.) Layers make the job last longer, help to bring out the true paint color, and assure an overall even finish, Belteau explains. Just be sure to leave enough drying time in between coats.
Step 7: Paint the Hardware (Optional)
Here’s a handy tip from our Style team: When painting wood hardware, keep the screw on for easy handling. Use the trim brush to apply two coats to each piece, and set them aside to dry for four to six hours in between (hang in there—you’re almost done).
Step 8: Reattach the Hardware
Use the screwdriver to install all the pulls and knobs, plus any other nails or screws you previously removed. Over time, you’ll need to give your dresser a minor touch-up or two. Putting those nails back in may also chip the finish, Belteau points out. Meanwhile, her paint job is still holding up a year later. “I do wonder if using an electric power sander with fine sanding paper would have been faster than sanding by hand,” she admits. “But when I followed these exact steps, it was a huge game changer.”