Simplified Decorating: How to paint and distress furniture

I hope you had a chance to read last Friday’s post on “how-to buy off Craigslist”.  If you have recently acquired some Craigslist or garage sale finds, or are looking to finally refinish a piece of furniture…TODAY is the post for you!  Even if you haven’t planned on slapping paint on some furniture, chances are, there’s an old piece of furniture in your home or garage that could benefit from an update.  And the simplest way to update any room OR any piece of furniture is with PAINT!

Step 1: Choose your piece and paint color

I do not recommend painting an expensive antique; adding paint to such a piece would likely detract from it’s value.  Paint is best for pieces with worn wood, outdated stain, paint that doesn’t match etc. Choose a piece that has the lines and function you need…and have a little vision, it’s amazing what a little paint can do.

When choosing a color, you need to decide what type of impact and style you want for the piece.  The brighter the color, the more of a statement piece.  But be cautious if you decide to go bright.  ALWAYS bring home lots of paint chips and look at them in all of the room’s lighting.  Paint can look VERY different in your home than it does in the store.  I also recommend using Semi-Gloss paint for most projects.  You can also use high-gloss if you want a lot of sheen.

#2 Sand, Sand, Sand

It is essential to sand all surfaces that you plan to paint.  If there is a thick finish or lacquer on your piece, then you’ll need a rougher grade sand paper.  The paint will not adhere well to the wood if you skip this step.  And be sure to wipe down the entire piece with a damp rag when finished. I received a little Mouse Detail Sander for Christmas a few years back, and it’s the perfect size for a woman and for all of my sanding projects.

This armoire was an old pie safe covered with years of dirt, grease and paint. It required both a heavy sanding ad priming, but the result is WORTH IT!

#3 Prime (if the wood was previously painted)

If you are repainting a piece of furniture that has existing paint on it, even after you sand, then it’s important to prime the piece.  If you have sanded off all paint, or if the piece was previously unpainted, then it’s sometimes ok to skip this step.  It really depends on durability. Primer will add staying power to your paint, so make kitchen tables, kitchen cabinets and anything else that will be used regularly and/or wiped down regulary gets primed.  I generally use a latex primer like KILZ.  One coat is sufficient unless you are covering a very dark wood or paint with a light color, in that case you may need 2 coats of primer. Primer can also be tinted if you plan to use a darker shade of paint.

This Craigslist find was both green and red when I purchased it. It needed 2 coats of primer plus paint.

#4 Paint

Once your piece of furniture is sanded, wiped down, and primed (if necessary) it is time to paint!  For tables, dressers, cabinets and other large pieces, I use a small 3 or 4 inch roller.  This gives a more uniform look.  Smaller pieces require smaller brushes or even spray paint. Spray paint is an excellent choice for intricate chairs, small pieces of furniture and light fixtures.  I would recommend always purchasing a spray primer if you go that route.

Used a high gloss black spray paint on this intricate piece

When using a brush or roller, try paint in the same direction with little to no brush strokes. Follow the instructions on the paint and let your first coat dry completely before beginning a second coat.  Most pieces will require at least 2 coats of paint.

#5 Distress or Customize

Over the years I have tried many different distressing and glazing techniques…some very simple, some incredibly complicated.  I have found the easiest way to distress is to wait 24 hrs from your last coat of paint, take a fine sheet of sand paper (200+) and begin sanding the places where natural wear occurs: corners, edges, handles, knobs, etc.  If you’ve achieved the look you want GREAT, if not, sand a little more.  If you want a very worn and weathered look, then distress all over the piece.  If you want just a hint of aged charm, then simply distress the edges.

If you plan to distress, then it might be fun to paint a contrasting color as your first coat of paint, since that’s what will come through when distressed.  You can also customize your piece by hand painting knobs or using different colors for different part of the furniture.  This is about YOUR STYLE so have fun!

I experimented here by using white primer, black base coat and red second coat. At first it looked very average, but after distressing I was very pleased

If you’ve used a lighter shade of white or cream, then a glaze might be the look you want.  I love Valspar’s Bleached Wheat paint with a light coat of Mocha glaze in the edges.  If used this combination for coffee tables, kitchen cabinets and more.

Cabinets painted in Valspar Bleached Wheat with Mocha Glaze

#6 Seal your piece

It’s important to seal your finished product with a polyurethane or polyacrylic protectant, especially if it’s in a high traffic area or if it’s used to eat off (well, not directly of course).  Use the same technique of roller or brush.  And be sure to let dry according to instructions.  You don’t want to ruin a project because you moved it while still tacky (let’s just say I know this from experience).

Best of luck in your painting endeavors…and please share any projects, suggestions and photos you might have from your own decorating adventures!


  1. Thank you for posting this. I have a desk to paint and distress and wasn’t really sure how to do it well. Thanks for the steps. I love all your projects!!

  2. I have a funky armoire that I’ve been trying to decide what to do with – and primer had not entered my mind yet. Thanks for saving me from myself!

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