Two Tone Treasure + How to Paint Furniture

April 26, 2011

Wow, such inspiration from this week’s Paint Projects Party, you simply must visit so many of these links!  There are over 400 projects to browse, from furniture to floors to fabrics to home accents.  Oh the power of paint never ceases to amaze me!

Nothing makes me happier than a great second hand find, and the opportunity to revamp the new treasure for a great cause.  This one was for a good friend of mine who recently had a baby girl.  She’s been a little preoccupied with her little one, so her hub and I conspired to makeover this piece for her nursery, currently a work in progress, but sure to beautiful when the space is finished. 

I’ve been looking for the perfect dresser for her for awhile now, and finally scored this one at a local thrift store last week, I was so excited! I brought it home so I could paint it for her as a surprise.

dresser before left


dresser after left side font


With all the pieces I’ve painted over the years, I realized I should write up a full step by step for repainting an old treasure like this one, including cosmetic repair, priming and painting so here goes!

Supplies to Have Before You Start:  Power screwdriver (+ drill bits if replacing hardware), medium (80 – 120 grit) sanding wedge, primer, latex paint color of choice, Floetrol, 2” angled quality paintbrush, water based polyurethane protectant. 

How to Paint Wood Furniture: The Basic Steps

These are my tried and true techniques for repairing, priming, and painting an old hand me down, or a lucky Craigslist or thrift store find like this damaged honey tone wood dresser.


Necessary to Sand?  If your piece is in pretty good condition, you can skip the sanding step or the use of a power sander and go straight to priming.  Bonding primers don’t require sanding, even if your piece is heavily varnished, but I do find giving the furniture a good scuffing with a medium (80 grit) sanding wedge not only helps clean off any debris, but gives your primer a great surface to cling too.  No need to sand away all the varnish and get down to the raw wood, just give it a good 5 to 10 minute scuffing with a sanding wedge, then wipe away any debris with a soft cloth. 

Repairing Scratches, Dents & Holes.  I bought this particular piece because of its classic lines and solid wood construction, but many would pass it up due to the surface damage.  On the top of this dresser, there were deep scratches and a sticky residue, so the first thing I did was sand the scratches on the top with my power orbital sander to smooth out the surface. 

sand top to make it smooth

There was also a deep unsightly welt in the front corner. 

welt on top

No worries, this is a cosmetic problem easily addressed with wood filler, which allows you to repair scratches, dents, welts and fill holes in your wood furniture before you go about painting it.  I’ve tried other products, but to date Elmer’s is the best I’ve found.  It’s moist and moldable and washes off your fingers and tools easily, dries quickly, and is also sandable and paintable. 

wood filler


Gently sanding the top with my power sander combined with the proper use of wood filler (two applications for the deepest welt), led to this perfectly smooth surface. 

smooth top


Filling Holes for New Knobs or Pulls.  If you’ve opted for new knobs, often they will fit right in the old holes, but many modern pulls are sized differently than the old hardware.  Wood filler is also your best bet for starting over. 

filling holes in wood

old pull front

new glass pull

These glass pulls can be found at Restoration Hardware, they’re gorgeous, but pricey.  Definite bling for your furniture, but a worthy splurge for my very dear friend, especially since the dresser only cost me $40 dollars.       

Do You Really Need to Prime?   With wood furniture, the answer is yes and no.  Yes, if you want a smooth even finish and a paint job that will last for years.  No if you want a distressed look and don’t care about the paint peeling off over time, or if are using oil based spray paints, which I have found often work really well without primer.  (Yes, I have read about the newest product on the market, chalk paint, see below!) 

Nevertheless, I always advise if you’re seeking a straight up smooth evenly painted piece and a paint job that will last, using a good bonding primer is key.  If you’re going to take the time and energy to paint a piece, take the time to prime it too. 

My go to favorite has always been Zinsser.  You can use the water based formula with the blue label but it takes up to a week to fully cure and I haven’t the patience.  I prefer to use either the spray or brush on oil based Zinsser Cover Stain with the brown label, it has yet to fail me.  For this dresser, I used spray on Zinsser for the drawers for a super smooth finish – it goes on quickly and dries in about 20 minutes.  (If using the spray version, be sure to work in a well ventilated area and dispose of your cans according to your local waste regulations.)

zinsser primer

For the top I brushed on a thicker coat of Zinsser because it will get the most wear and tear.  It’s a personal preference to use the brush on formula, but for tabletops, desktops or other surfaces which will have lots o’ stuff sliding back and forth, a thick coat (even two!) of brush on Zinsser is a miracle worker, plus you can sand it smooth once it dries (in less than an hour per coat) making it easy to get really good bonding coverage in an afternoon.

In my opinion, this is the very best primer for laminate surfaces as well.  I’ve used this brush on formula on a laminate storage center and also this office credenza, and haven’t had any chipping or scratched paint to date, and both of those pieces experience a lot of daily wear and tear. 

Always Two Coats of Paint.  Once you’re primer is fully dry, sand any drips, brush marks, or paint residue and wipe down with a soft cloth. I never skimp with just one coat, two is always best for uniformity and even coverage, allowing 4 to 6 hours of drying time between coats.  There are two tools I won’t paint without.

1) Floetrol.  This product in the orange bottle is a paint conditioner exclusively for latex paint (use Penetrol for oil based paints).  It’s a product I have used time and again to extend the wet edge (or slow down the drying time) and also to minimize roller marks and brush strokes.  The most frustrating part about applying paint to furniture by hand is the drag that occurs when paint starts to dry too quickly, so the Floetrol helps avoid that drag.  I follow the directions on the back of the bottle, but I also let the paint’s workability act as a guide as to how much Floetrol is necessary.

Floetrol is not a paint thinner, it’s a conditioner sold at all the specialty paint stores, and it won’t change the color of your paint.  It was recommended to me by a professional years ago, and ever since I’ve always used it.  Floetrol is great investment if you’re also painting trim or doors around your house, it’s not expensive ($7 to $10 per bottle) and a little goes a long way. 

floetrol and purdy

2)  A high quality angled paint brush is essential.  If you don’t have the luxury of a sprayer, you’ll be using a paintbrush.  The last thing you want to be doing is picking loose paintbrush hairs out of your paint, which happens with cheaper brushes so don’t bother with them.  You can apply your paint quicker with a foam roller, but you still will end up with edge marks, so I always follow up a roller with a brush.  An angled brush also helps get into grooves and crevices better, plus with a steady hand it cuts in straight lines extremely well.  If you take good care of it, a good angled brush like Purdy will last you for years.

This dresser got two tones of paint for subtle but beautiful contrast.  The drawers are painted with Benjamin Moore’s ‘Prescott Green’ (HC-140, Regal formula) and the top, sides and frame are painted with ‘Prescott Green’ cut in half with white paint.   

prescott green paint


This dresser is for a baby girl’s nursery and soft green is the favorite color choice for the space, which is why I chose this particular shade for her.    

Should You Paint the Inside the Furniture?   I typically don’t because layers of paint can cause stickiness or prevent your drawers from sliding in and out, but it depends on the piece.  In this case, I painted just inside the frame, and nothing more.  With doors I usually paint the back too so there is uniform color when doors are opened, but that is a personal preference.  

paint inside frame


Adding New Hardware.  If you’ve filled holes from your old hardware and are drilling new ones, here are the steps I follow.  Precisely measure the location of your new hardware, then use the proper size drill bit to create new holes for your screws.  I do this before the protective coat, just in case there are any slip ups or mistakes that need to be patched or painted over. 

reattach hardware


A Note on Paint Sheen.  You can choose anything from flat to semi gloss to refinish your furniture, I typically go with eggshell or satin.  But it is the final protectant you use that determines the ultimate sheen. 

Protecting Your Paint Job.  These are the two brands I use: Minwax and Varathane, both in water based formulas.

water based protectants for furniture

You also have the option of using glazes and/or paste waxes for a more hand rubbed finish – see below for links to the sites I recommend that know all about protecting your piece with waxes.   

Both Minwax and Varathane’s formulas are available in either satin or gloss clear finishes.  When your paint has dried for at least 24 hours, apply a water based polyurethane to protect your surface.  Do not use an oil based polyurethane, it will amber or yellow over time. 

Minwax Polycrylic comes in both a spray or brush on formula.  Varathane in spray, brush on, or my latest discovery, a rub on formula in a tube.  This version is quick, easy, and dries the fastest.

wipe on varathane


Once the protectant is dry, you are free to bring the piece inside your home and make it work for your space! 

dresser before font

dresser after left side


There you have it, my step by step for a lasting paint job on wood furniture ~ these same steps also apply to wood cabinetry or laminate pieces as well. 

I’ve read a lot about the latest ‘no primer’ product on the market, Annie Sloan’s chalk paint, and it sounds very promising having read several reviews.  I have yet to try it because it’s more expensive than standard paint, requires an online order, and comes in limited colors, but I’m sure I’ll be ordering some soon just to see how I like it.   I found this helpful article on the pros and cons and also gained some useful information from Amy’s experience working with chalk paint. 

Distressing Techniques: I’ve repainted a piece here and there to achieve a distressed look, but there are three ladies who refinish furniture as a business that I highly recommend for this technique.  These inspiring bloggers have mastered the art of distressing, glazing, and/or waxing furniture, so be sure to pay them a visit. 

1) Shaunna from Perfectly Imperfect (I also recommend her eBook Creating Your Masterpiece), 2) Marian from Miss Mustard Seed (who also recommends both waxes and chalk paint), and 3) Holly from In the Fun Lane, who does the most beautiful white finishes on her pieces for sale.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this step by step today!  It may seem time consuming and labor intensive but remember a quick spray primer and a rub on protectant are the fastest steps, it’s the repair and painting processes that take the most time.  With a little patience, you’ll achieve a perfectly painted piece with smooth even coverage that will last for years to come.

Linking up to Layla’s How To’s Party & Tip Junkie’s ‘Tip Me Tuesday’




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310 Responses to “Two Tone Treasure + How to Paint Furniture”

  1. mona says:

    Just an fyi…I was finishing up a dresser today that I painted white with chalk paint and I applied the poly in the tube shown above and it yellowed after drying. Very disappointing. I had to add another coat of paint over it. Not sure if it was because chalk paint is a different recipe than latex. I did also purchase the no odor water based varathane in satin and used it over Behr zero voc acrylic paint and it worked fine. Both pieces were done in Behr “polar bear”. Does this usually happen when you use chalk paint?

  2. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Mona, I’ve used Minwax Poly on chalk paint but not the Varathane. I’m sorry that didn’t work but try the Minwax (you can see it on the PB Inspired Blue dresser in the Furniture Makeovers project gallery)

  3. Rachel says:

    How long does it take for the MinWax polycrylic to fully dry (for example, how long before a table would be usable without the finish getting dents or marks etc.)? Thank you for the great tutorial!

  4. CentsationalGirl says:

    24 to 48 hours Rachel.

  5. Misty says:

    My husband just bought a paint sprayer. Is it better to paint a dresser with a good ol’ fashioned brush and your materials above or would a paint sprayer provide better uniformity? I’m going to stain the top of the dresser and paint the rest white…. These are excellent tips and I’ve printed out this tutorial for my follow-along :)

  6. Misty says:

    Also, should I add floetrol to the paint sprayer?! Whats your experience with that? Maybe not necessary since there would be no brush marks?

  7. Breanna says:

    Kate! I just bought some of the Varathane Poly in the tube and am having trouble with the application. This is my first time using it and it’s going on streaky. I used a rag at first but it got so sticky so I switched to a foam brush. Any idea on why this is happening and how to fix it? Thanks!!

  8. Centsational Girl says:

    It might be due to temperature Breanna, that stuff dries pretty quickly. So sorry you’re having problems. If the foam brush is working keep using it!

  9. Samantha says:

    So do you apply a latex paint over an oil based primer? I am re-doing a dresser for our son’s nursery and I’d always heard you can’t put a latex paint over an oil based primer.

  10. Centsational Girl says:

    Yes you can always layer water based (or latex) paints over oil based primers, it’s the opposite you want to avoid, I wouldn’t layer an oil based paint over a water based primer.

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