FPB – Furniture Painting Basics – Paint!

I get so many questions from people about what the ‘best’ paint is for painting furniture that I decided to compile a bit of a reference.  My stock answer always is… it depends! 

It depends upon what look you want to achieve, where and how the piece will be used, any allergies in the household… you get the idea.  This isn’t an exhaustive listing of the advantages and disadvantages of various paint types but it should give you a good reference point!

Chalk and Clay based Paints

To start, please know that Chalk paint is named after the textural finish of the paint when dry, not because ‘chalk’ is an ingredient in the paint!  That said, these paints are water-based and finish to a soft, matte look. 

Pros:

  • Minimal prep work required (they may say ‘none’ but it really is ‘piece’ and ‘surface’ dependent.  Slick surfaces will need a light sand to help adhesion, old pieces or those with dark, red wood may need primer to block bleed-through stains… you get the idea
  • Low odor, low to no VOC’s (volatile organic compounds)
  • Fast drying, minimal wait time to re-coat
  • Colours blend easily and well giving lots of variations and options
  • Tends to be thicker than other paints allowing better coverage with fewer coats and can be used to create textures, distresses easily
  • Durable, cures to a hard finish

Cons

  • Numerous brands makes it very accessible (can make your own… but… why?)
  • Bit of a learning curve, especially if you’re looking for a smooth, modern finish
  • Fast drying.  I know this is also a ‘Pro’ but it does present issues at times, though using a spray mister of water while you work can extend this time

Note:  I pretty much exclusively use some version of a chalk or, particularly, clay based paint in my business.  For the styles and types of finishes I enjoy this is the type of paint that works best for me. 

Milk Paint

This is so-named because it contains milk protein.  This also means it does not keep indefinitely.  It comes in powder form and you mix what you need, as you need it. I’ve had a lot of fun using this paint when I’m looking for a farmhouse, chippy look or when I want to ‘stain raw or natural wood. My dining table is currently painted in multiple layers of milk paint, that have chipped to reveal layers of colour below and heavily sealed to protect the surface!

Pros

  • All natural, no VOC’s and has been around for hundreds of years.  Time-tested!
  • Typically this is a thinner paint, though you can mix it thicker for some textural variation (this may cause more chipping)
  • Distresses well
  • Obviously water based!
  • The way it’s pigmented provides great depth of colour and colour variation
  • Works great on raw wood and porous surfaces because it will soak in and act like a stain
  • Lasts indefinitely in its dry state

Cons

  • The mixing.  It can be a bit of a pain to manually get a ‘smooth’ paint.  Immersion blenders work great though!
  • It can be a bit unpredictable – when you don’t want a ‘chippy’ final look.  A bonding agent needs to be added to minimize this but… still no guarantees! Even top coating doesn’t prevent it happening later
  • Once it’s mixed you need to use it, there is no storing of this.  A couple of days at best, other-wise it will smell like soured milk

Acrylic Paint

I do use Acrylic, all-in-one, paints periodically – when I am looking to be able to distress down to a ‘colour’ rather than wood I will use this paint as a blocker, or if I am looking specifically for a smooth, durable, modern finish. My front door is currently painted in an Acrylic paint.

Pros

  • Good for both interior and exterior
  • Durable – even without a topcoat (though you can certainly add one for greater durability)
  • Smooth flowing and levels nicely
  • Also water based – easy clean up
  • Often advertised as all-in-one paints – primer, paint and sealer in one
  • Short drying times – can apply several coats in a relatively short period of time
  • Once fully cured it has a very durable, chip resistant finish

Cons

  • The shorter drying times makes it a little more challenging to ‘blend’ colours on the piece for certain looks. 
  • Although it can be distressed it is not as easy as chalk or milk paint.  Although you can wet-distress you have a very short window within which to do so, in which case you are generally dry sanding

Latex Paint

Full Disclosure – I don’t use latex at all in my business – personal choice more than anything. It’s not a ‘finish’ that works for my pieces and, due to people’s allergies I don’t like to limit the sale-ability of a piece.

Pros

  • Readily available just about anywhere in just about any colour – think… all hardware stores!
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Water based
  • Sprays easily
  • Durable once cured (think trim, walls…) – though prone to chipping with heavy use
  • Comes in different sheens for different looks – Flat, Satin, Semi-gloss, High-gloss

Cons

  • You definitely need to prep your piece before using this paint
  • Typically more of a smell to this one (okay… I’m sensitive to migraines so it does for me!)
  • Some people are allergic to latex (issue for resellers perhaps)
  • Doesn’t lend itself to distressing at all (peels)
  • A good brush is definitely an asset since brush strokes ‘stay’ behind (non-levelling)

Oil Paint (Alkyd)

And… another paint I don’t use in my business, mostly because of my laziness in cleaning (if it can’t be cleaned with water I’m not going there!) and the smell. I’m sensitive so… I’m out!

Pros

  • Extremely durable – the most durable of all the paints making it good for high volume use areas – trims, kitchens etc.
  • Adheres well and also tends to self-level
  • Cures more quickly than water-based paints

Cons

  • It stinks.  You want to use in a well-ventilated area or, if you’re sensitive to migraines like I am… never!
  • It has a long drying time between coats, made longer with each coat applied
  • Must be cleaned with solvent – which also smells!
  • Tends to be more expensive
  • Because of the VOC’s contained in the paint some places have banned its use making it a little more difficult to find than other options

Paints have come a long way over the years and there are a broader range of options available than ever before. If you are not painting a lot, or often, buy in small quantities. Paint can go bad or dry out on you so don’t count on a product being fine to use in the future if it is sitting around ‘forever’ before using it again. If this is the case for you consider Milk Paint.

There are numerous brands and types to choose from and, though they will all claim to be the best, they all have slightly different properties. Try and test them in small batches to see which ones seem to work the best for you. If you don’t like mixing colours yourself then you might want to consider a paint line with an extensive colour range. If you like mixing and blending custom colours this isn’t likely to be the deciding factor for you.

Try them out, play with them, feel them out, determine for yourself which works best for you, your budget and your needs!

Happy Painting!

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