What Paint Is Best for Furniture?

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Painting furniture can be a fickle process: chipping, bubbling, brush marks and uneven coverage are just a few of the problems that can affect the quality of your paint job. Ensure that you're using the best paint for your project by factoring in the material you plan to paint, the look you want to achieve, and how often and for what purpose the furniture will be used.

Wooden shelf being painted.
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Primer, a type of paint specifically designed for use under latex or oil paints, helps provide better adherence and improved coverage. Primer is available in both latex and oil-based varieties.

When painting finished wood furniture, an oil-based primer is the best option to prevent the finish or stain from bleeding through your paint job. Oil primers are also preferable to latex primers when your wood is weathered or distressed, or when an existing coat of paint is cracking or chipping. In both instances, you will need to prepare the furniture for priming by sanding all the surfaces evenly with sandpaper, then thoroughly cleaning with a cloth to remove any dust or dirt.

Unfinished wood surfaces can be primed without being sanded first -- just wipe clean with a cloth. While either oil or latex can be used on unfinished woods, oil is the best choice for a smooth and even foundation (with the exception of softwoods, on which latex primer should be used).

Both varieties of primer can be applied with a synthetic bristled paintbrush. After applying the first coat of primer, allow it to dry completely; most primers will dry within a few hours, but you can check your product label for a more precise time frame. Once dry, lightly sand and wipe the surface clean. Repeat the process with a second coat of primer.

Latex and acrylic are the main types of water-based paints, and both can be used on furniture. These paints are best suited for slightly porous surfaces like wood, stone and wicker and will hold up through light to moderate use.

Latex paint is generally available in a wide range of colors and sizes, and it's offered in different finishes, such as flat, satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss. While flat paint can be used on furniture if a matte effect is desired, satin and semi-gloss are the most commonly used. High-gloss, however, will offer the most durability and is the easiest finish to clean. Acrylic paint, unlike latex, is most often sold in small containers for craft use, making it ideal for small details and accents. Water-based paints normally require a primer coat and tend to show brush marks more readily.

Water-based paints will usually be dry to the touch in a few hours but can take up to 30 days to cure completely, during which time the piece should be handled with care. Latex and acrylic paint will typically require application of two to four coats.

Oil-based, or alkyd paints, are an extremely durable option that provide a rich, glossy, lacquer-like finish. These paints provide optimal adhesion that makes them suitable for virtually any material. For furniture pieces that endure heavy use or require frequent washing, oil-based paints are the way to go. They're available in the same range of finishes as latex: flat, satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss. As with the latex finishes, high-gloss is the strongest and easiest to wash.

Apply oil-based paints with a brush that has natural china bristles, and expect to wait up to 48 hours for the piece to dry completely. These types of paints are more noxious than their water-based counterparts, and inhaling their fumes can be dangerous, so you'll want to use them outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Also take care to avoid contact with your eyes and skin, as it can cause irritation and even cracked skin.

Spray paint offers an alternative method to brushes and rollers. Because it avoids brush marks that can be problematic with other methods, spray painting is advantageous when you need to paint something with a lot of small detailing, curved or rounded areas, or spindles. In the same manner, this method is best for painting non-porous materials like metal and plastic.

Disposable spray paint cans are suitable for most small-to-medium projects, but are relatively inefficient in terms of coverage and offer a limited range of color options. To avoid these problems, consider renting or purchasing a paint sprayer, a piece of equipment that will spray any oil or latex paint.

Regardless of the method used, a certain amount of stray paint is inevitable when spraying, so be sure to cover the surrounding area with a tarp. Spray paint, like oil-based paint, should be used outside or in a well-ventilated area, and a face mask should also be worn at all times to avoid inhalation of harmful fumes. If painting outside, avoid doing so on a windy day, as this will make it very difficult to control the direction of your spray.

If you're trying to achieve a specific style with your furniture project, specialty paints can help. Chalk paint is latex paint with a matte finish and superior adhesion and coverage; it's chalky quality lends a worn vintage effect that's perfect for a shabby-chic distressed look. Crackle paint also works well with that style by creating layers of peeling paint to create an antiqued appearance. Glazes are tinted transparent finishes that create depth and richness when applied over another paint color.

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