FPB – Furniture Painting Basics – Prep


In the world of furniture refinishing Prep-work represents the boring stuff that takes place before painting can even begin.  It’s not particularly fun, it’s often dirty and messy and it goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated by a paying client.

However, it is an essential step if you hope to create a finish that will last.

There are a lot of paint companies that claim there is no prep needed when using their paint.  This is completely… false!  There may be a reduced amount of prep required but no paint, let me repeat… NO paint… is prep free.  Let’s take a quick look at the potential steps needed to prepare a piece of furniture for painting and I’ll openly share what I do, or don’t do, to the pieces I refinish.

First Step…  Clean!

Rubber gloves save!

This step is a must!  Every piece, no matter where it came from… a shed, a barn, a garage, a basement or someone’s living room…  must be thoroughly cleaned before painting.  Any dust, dirt, oil or grease has to be removed if you want your paint to adhere properly.  You can get specialty cleaners to help you with this but, because I am largely refinishing in my home, I prefer to use products with as few chemicals as possible.  Therefore, I will usually clean my pieces with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar with a teaspoon or so of the blue Dawn dishwashing liquid to help cut through any grease.

I will wash the piece down with the mixture until my cloth (and the liquid) is coming away clear.  This might require wiping it down a couple of times.  Once I seem to have gotten the dirt and grime off I will then wipe the piece down with straight water to clean off any soap residue.

It’s not glamorous but it is a truly important step and one I take on every piece, every time, no exceptions!. 

Step Two… Repairs

If the piece has holes that need filling, veneer repaired etc. this is when to do it.  You want the piece to be clean first so that any wood glue or wood filler you use will adhere to the surface.  Once the repairs are completed (that’s a different article!) you may need to wipe the piece down again to remove any dust from sanding etc. A tack cloth is great to use for this.

It likely goes without saying but I do the functional repairs that are needed, as needed. Small dents, scrapes and dings I typically leave because they go along with the story of the piece. I have wrinkles, they have dings – it’s all part of ‘who’ we are and the story we tell.

Step 3…  Sanding

Restoration, removing paint from antique chair with sandpaper

Now, here’s where it starts to get interesting.  I don’t sand every piece.  Most of the paints I use don’t require it.  However, there are a couple of situations in which I will most definitely want to sand the piece – or use an alternative product.

  • If the piece I am going to be refinishing has a rough, damaged, chipped finish, or if the original paint is flaking or peeling off, I will definitely sand the piece (using an orbital sander and a medium grit sand paper like 120)
  • If I have a piece with a high-gloss finish or a very slick surface I will choose to lightly scuff the slick surface to ‘rough’ it up a bit and enable the paint to stick better. 

There are times though when sanding is perhaps not really practical, especially if you are refinishing a piece in the middle of your living room (like I usual am), or if the piece has a lot of details you would be hard pressed to sand down into.  Instead, you might want to consider a de-glossing product, which you wipe on/wipe off or paint on a product (such as Fusion Mineral Paint’s Ultra Grip or Slick Stick from Dixie Belle) that is designed to stick to slick surfaces while providing a roughened base for paints to adhere to better. 

Note that these products are only designed to help the first layer of paint adhere to the surface of your piece better, they do not act as a primer. 

As already stated, I don’t sand every piece. I make a determination, before painting, whether I feel the piece needs sanding or not. If I’m going to be leaving sections of the piece the natural wood I definitely sand those sections so they will take the oil, wax or stain better, creating a smoother look. If I am not leaving any wood bare and do not need to smooth out a rough section, smooth out wood filler or deal with flaking paint then I don’t sand. Period. If the surface is slick and I’m concerned my paint might not adhere well, then I will apply a product like Ultra Grip.

Step 4… Priming

A primer is designed to be painted onto your surface and act as a barrier between your surface material and your paint.  This helps to prevent what is called ‘bleed through’, which is what occurs when oils and tannins in your wood ‘bleed through’ your layers of paint and create unsightly blotches and discoloured segments.  You must use a primer with a shellac in it to prevent bleed through.  Not every product labelled ‘primer’ works.  You could certainly choose to shellac the piece – that would serve to provide the barrier you’re after – but a white primer with shellac would also provide a layer of colour, which helps if you are taking a dark coloured wood to a light painted finish.  Why paint more layers than you have to?

When I use a primer my go-to’s are Kilz or Zinnser water-based primers – with shellac!

What then are the ideal times to use a primer?

  • When painting over a dark surface with a light colour, a primer can reduce the number of coats you need to apply of the more expensive paint colour, while blocking any potential bleed through.
  • When painting over stain or wood that had red undertones (like Mahogany or perhaps Cherry) I would prime every time – you are almost guaranteed to get bleed through otherwise.
  • When painting over raw wood.  Certainly because there may be natural oils in the wood that may rise to the surface of your paint otherwise but also because raw wood is ‘thirsty’.  A primer can serve to significantly reduce the number of coats of your paint colour that you need for a smooth finish.

Bleed through ‘fix’ – if you chose not to prime your piece but experience some bleed through ‘after’ painting has begun you still have a couple of options.  You could simply paint the whole piece in shellac (if the bleed through is particularly bad) or use shellac over the areas where the bleed through occurred (there is even some great spray shellac you can use to deal with this quickly!)

I will not use a primer for every piece. I do when the look of the wood has me concerned that bleed through is likely, or when I am shifting a dark piece to a lighter finish. In that case I’m being cautious about possible bleed through but also looking to being the ‘lightening’ process with a product that is less expensive than the finishing paint!

Step 5… Paint!

I’ll save the discussion of the merits of the different types of paint for another day.  Suffice it to say that the above steps will ensure that you have a surface that will support and accept the paint of your choice, providing a solid base for your paint to adhere and cure to. 

After all…  if you’re investing the time to update a piece, creating a new look, you want to ensure that your finish will last a long time!


Disclaimer – I have provided links to some of the products I mention only to help you in sourcing them. It costs you nothing more to use them but I might make a few cents in the process!

Here is the Youtube video where I also talk about some of the Prep issues with an example (The Ugly Duckling Cabinet!)


Upping Your Moulding Game!

Making a Floral Mirror

I had been scouring local Restores and Resellers looking for a small round mirror for quite some time.  Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to finally stumble upon just the one I wanted for a particular project I had in mind.  For this project consider using any mirror or picture frame for a similar look but also think outside of this scope a little – what about updating a tired old plant pot or urn?  What about an old teapot? Perhaps a decorative plate?  Options are endless!

Old mirror or frame
Creative Paper Clay
Floral Moulds from IOD
Wood Glue
Paints (Modern Masters Metallic Bronze, Annie Sloan Old White Chalk Paint)
Brushes (chippy brush, wax brush)
Cotton Cloth
Wax for sealing

NB:  some of the moulds I used are older and not readily available but consider using any moulds that fit a theme… florals, butterflies, seashore, wings…

To start, make sure your mirror is clean and free of dirt and oils.  For this you simply need a little soap and water, even a wet wipe would do.  This was my mirror, washed and ready to start!

I like to apply my moulds when they are still soft and somewhat malleable – important when applying to a curved surface such as this mirror. I will therefore only make a dozen or so pieces at a time, glue them in place and then begin making more. 
Take out a small amount of the paper clay and knead it slightly to soften and smooth it out.  Press firmly into one of the mould designs, ensuring that you fully fill the cavity. Smooth the back off since this is the side you will be adhering to your piece.  (I will often use an old credit card to ensure the back of the mould is level).
To remove your design from the mould flip it over so that you are able to slowly peel the mould away from the clay.  If you find your clay sticking to your moulds at all brush a little cornstarch into the moulds first, which will make removal easy!
Brush on some wood glue (usually what I use) or even some white craft glue, ensuring that you take it right out to the edges of your designs to ensure there is no curling of the clay as it dries.

Lay your moulded pieces around the frame ensuring that you are alternating shapes, and working them fully edge to edge.  As you can see in this picture I leave a number of gaps that I go back and fill later with smaller flowers and leaves, typically laying larger flowers and leaves first, spacing similar flowers around the circumference of the mirror to create interest.

Continue to make and add more moulded pieces until your design is as full as desired. For this piece I knew that I was planning on distressing back to a base colour.  In this case I wanted a subdued metallic look for the base so I used Modern Masters Metallic paint in Bronze. Use a small chippy brush to dab the paint down into all of the crevasses in and between your moulds.  I did one full coat and then, once dry, used a smaller brush to touch up edges and areas I missed on the first pass.

Allow to dry fully.  The Modern Masters Metallics dries to a hard finish, allowing you to distress back to the metallic finish without risk of removing that layer of paint.  If you are using a different brand of paint and do not want to risk distressing back to the paper clay layer then you should consider doing a light single coat of a Polyacryllic to form a protective barrier prior to the next paint step. 
I also chose to highlight some of the raised aspects of some of the florals and leaves with some gold metallic paint I had (Americana Décor Metallics) but it proved unnecessary – it’s too subtle to see in the final product!

Once your metallic layer is dry it is time to apply two coats of the Old White layer.  Because we will be wet-distressing these layers I strongly suggest using a chalk or clay-based paint for this.  The water will reactivate the paint allowing you to remove it, where you choose, with ease. 
Take one of your cotton cloths, dip it in water and rub gently on some of the high points of your flowers and leaves, exposing the metallic paint below.  The white paint will remain in the ‘low’ spots, while you will reveal the metallic in the ‘high’ spots, creating a lovely contrast. 

Remove as much or as little as you want, revealing the details of your moulds.  If you feel that you removed too much of the white paint you can simply repaint that area, allow to dry and distress again… no worries!
Once you have settled on the final look and determined it is distressed ‘enough’, allow it to dry and then apply your wax with a wax brush (I used Annie Sloan clear) to get down into all of the crevasses.  Dry overnight and then buff lightly with a cotton cloth.

(Links have been provided to help you access some of the more specialized products used – using them will not cost you anything more but I might make a few pennies!)

Adding Moulds Guide

Adding embellishments to pieces is a great way to dress up an otherwise plain or somewhat lacklustre piece.  Large flat spaces can be given new interest, providing you with areas that allow for more techniques to be used. 

For this little piece I created interest by layering paint colours and distressing back to reveal the hidden colours beneath but you could choose to use glazing, washes or waxes to create interest and highlighting the crevices.

Moulds (such as IOD, I used Escutcheons 2)
Paper Clay
Wood Glue
Painter’s Tape
Desired Paint
Fine Sandpaper

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A simple piece

The Paper Clay is extremely malleable but does dry out quickly.  When not in use keep the rest of your clay covered to prevent it from drying out on you. Choose which mould shapes you are interested in adding to your piece, bearing in mind the size or your piece and the area you want to apply the moulds to.  You want things to be in balance. Know that you can use small moulds in a large space when you are adding a number of them – visually this will be the same as if you used a large mould and may prove more interesting, depending upon the finish you choose.

For the above piece I chose to add moulds to the front facing panel of the Demi Lune table – above each of the three legs.  I used a combination of two separate moulded shapes – a circular floral medallion and an Escutcheons 2 to frame the medallion and to make it larger.

To form the moulded shape take your paper clay and press into the desired mould, smoothing out the back to ensure that it is level and flat. I will often make use of an old credit card to scrape across the back of the filled mould to remove any excess clay. 

To unmold your clay turn the mould upside down and ‘peel’ it back and away from the clay.  If you find your clay sticking to the mould at all then lightly brush it with some cornstarch before applying the clay – it will help the clay to release easily.

I will generally apply the moulds to a piece before they have dried.  Although they shrink slightly when drying, I find it easier to shape them on the piece while still malleable. You can bend them around corners if needed and ensure they fit closely upon a surface with no gaps.

Apply wood glue (you could also use white craft glue if desired) to the back of your moulds and place them in the desired position on your piece. You could choose to lay your piece flat so the mould doesn’t slip from its desired location, or you could use your painter’s tape to hold it in the right spot!

Allow the moulds to dry overnight. Remove the tape and paint as you desire!

It’s that easy!    

Ultimately you are limited only by your imagination and, perhaps, the moulds you have available but know that any interesting shapes you have at your disposal can be used as moulds also.

The paint finish below was achieved by first painting in two coats of an olive coloured paint (I used Annie Sloan here) and a custom mixed mid-tone grey colour (a blend of Annie Sloan Chicago Grey, Graphite and a little touch of DIY Bohemian Blue) watered down to create a wash.  Using an extra-fine grade sandpaper, the grey layer was sanded back in places to reveal the olive undertone, which adds a depth to the grey that can’t be achieved with a flat grey paint alone.

Clear wax was applied and then polished to a sheen which creates an almost marble-like finished texture that I love!

Use a light hand when sanding the top layer of grey smooth – because it was applied in a wash it doesn’t take much to reveal some of the olive paint beneath.  Even where the grey paint remains the olive paint will echo through the grey, giving a richer finished colour.

(Links have been provided to help you access some of the more specialized products used – using them will not cost you anything more but I might make a few pennies!)