This is part two in the Furniture Painting 101 series. See part one, all about prep and base coats, here.
An important part of getting a great finish is using the right tools. I haven’t tried every brush or tool out there, but I have tried quite a few. Here are the ones I use:
Blue Hawk 2″ Angled brush. I used to be a dedicated Purdy brush user but I’d heard great things about these little blue brushes so I decided to give one a try. I’m a convert. It’s comfortable in my hand, it washes well, it doesn’t leave brush strokes, it doesn’t shed…what more could you want? Oh, and it’s cheap. I buy mine at Lowe’s. Tip: before you start painting with a water-based paint or primer, get your brush wet and then shake out as much of the water as you can. Starting with a damp brush makes the brush work better and it keeps it from absorbing as much paint down at the roots of the bristles which makes it easier to clean later.
Brush comb. An old fork works almost as well as a brush comb, but I finally broke down and bought an actual comb instead of using an old fork. It makes a huge difference in how clean I can get my brushes and how long it takes to get them clean. Tip: when you’re done cleaning your brush, store it bristles up. This way, any residual paint flows down into the roots and dries there rather than gumming up the tips of your bristles.
A few old plastic containers. Before I throw them in the recycling bin, I use old plastic containers for finishing furniture. I use them for two things. First, I use them to hold paint — whether I’m mixing a custom mix of acrylic paint or mixing up milk paint from powder or just decanting part of a can of paint. The seal on your old sour cream container’s top won’t last forever but it’s perfect for using over the course of a few days or even weeks. It’s a lot easier to open than a can of paint and it keeps you from gumming up the edge of the paint can by repeatedly pouring from the can into a tray or plate. Second, I use these containers to hold water while I’m painting. Tip: keeping water nearby is a great way to keep your paint thin and your brush flexible. Once I’ve been working on a project for a bit, I notice that my brush starts to get a little stiff as the paint dries. Having a container of water nearby allows me to re-wet my brush, squeeze out most of the water, and go back to painting without noticeable brush strokes. It’s also great if I need to take a break for a bit — I just submerge my brush in water and then squeeze it out when I return.
Foam rollers. High density foam rollers are great for giving you a smooth, brush stroke-free finish on expansive, flat surfaces like table tops and cabinet doors. It is possible to wash foam rollers and use them again, but the quality of the foam deteriorates with every wash, so you’re better off just using one roller per project and then tossing it. I hate to use anything that is one-use, but when you’re going for a smooth finish you need a good roller. I try to keep a pack of 6″ rollers and a pack of 4″ rollers in my garage since I never know when the mood will strike! For cabinet doors, I’d probably use a 4″ roller but for a table top or something wider and flatter than cabinet doors I’d use a 6″. When I’m going for a really rustic finish, I don’t bother using a roller since brush strokes are part of the charm. Tip #1: when you’re in between coats, just wrap your roller up in a plastic bag. It will keep that way for a few hours or longer while you wait for each coat to dry. Tip #2: foam rollers are great for applying a sealer, like a clear acrylic poly. In order to reduce your chance of getting bubbles in the topcoat, be sure you don’t jostle the roller around too much or roll it too quickly or with too much force. There’s a bit of an art to applying topcoat with a roller, but once you figure it out you’ll be happy with the result.
Paint tray. I really like these Purdy Eco-Pro paint trays. Sometimes I can find them at Home Depot — our Lowe’s only carries plastic and recycled plastic. In a pinch, a paper plate or a the bottom of a cardboard box out of your recycling bin will work just as well as a paint tray for this application (not so much for painting walls — then you need a real paint tray). When you’re using a foam roller, you definitely need some kind of tray to roll the extra paint off of your roller. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid buying the plastic (even recycled plastic) roller trays! Tip: if you’ve got old, dried paint stuck to your roller tray, don’t pour new paint into the tray. The old paint will flake off into the new paint. Instead, try covering your tray in aluminum foil or wrapping it in an old plastic shopping bag in order to get more use out of it.
Paint sprayer. If you’re doing a huge project, like all of your kitchen cabinets, or if you find yourself painting more and more furniture pieces, it might be time to invest in a good sprayer. I use the Fuji Mini-Mite sprayer (a friend and I split it, which is a great way to buy an expensive tool that isn’t being used daily — ours cost around $600). The Mini-Mite is really loud (like a super loud vacuum cleaner) but it leaves an excellent finish. I’ve also heard great things about the less expensive Earlex Spray Station (costs around $260 at Home Depot — looks like it works just like my Mini-Mite but for about half the price; General Finishes uses one in their spraying tutorials on YouTube) and the super cheap HomeRight Finish Max (costs around $70 at Home Depot — I’ve talked to a few other bloggers use and love the HomeRight for small projects). None of these three sprayers requires an air compressor which is a huge plus for most people, since sprayers that use an air compressor generally require a large-capacity compressor, not the little ones that we use with our nail guns. I don’t have personal experience with either the Earlex or the HomeRight — if you try them or if you have one, let me know what you think! I have tried one of the cheap ($70-$80) Wagner paint sprayers and did not have good luck with it — in fact, I returned it after the first use because the finish was so rough. So I wouldn’t recommend that one! Tip: clean your sprayer as soon as you finish using it, even in between coats. This will keep your spray tip from clogging. Also, keep some spare parts on hand! There’s nothing worse than starting up the sprayer and realizing you need a new part…that you can’t get at your local hardware store. Yeah, it’s happened to me. At 11:00 at night. No fun.
Fine grit sandpaper. I cannot overemphasize the importance of sanding between coats. If anyone tells you that between-coat sanding isn’t necessary, stop listening immediately because they’re crazy. I’m not talking about a ton of sanding — just a few swipes over the surface of your project to smooth it out. You’ll feel the difference (and agree with me, I hope) when you slide your hand across your project. I use 400 grit paper wrapped around an old sanding sponge and it works perfectly for me. General Finishes recommends a flexible 220-grit sponge like this one for between coats — they say that the flexible 220 sponge is equivalent to 400 grit paper. So you might want to try that out too! Tip: don’t apply a lot of force when you are sanding between coats. All it takes is a light sweep across the surface. If you push too hard you’ll sand through the finish, especially on edges and corners.
Chip brushes. When I’m using wax as a sealer, I apply it with a chip brush. Chip brushes are just cheap-o natural bristle paint brushes that usually come in multi-packs. They lose bristles like crazy, so you’ve got to watch that when you first start using a new one, but they’re great for applying wax. There are dedicated wax application brushes, too…but I’ve never bothered to invest in one. Tip: don’t over-apply your wax. Just use enough to cover the surface in a thin layer, let it dry, buff it, and then add additional coats as needed, depending on how much use the piece will get. I usually do a minimum of two coats of wax.
Rags. When I’m using wax as a sealer, I buff the dried wax with clean, soft cotton rags. Tip #1: you don’t have to push hard when you’re buffing, just move the rag quickly across the surface of your project. This brings out the shine in your wax and makes the surface harder and more durable. Tip #2: don’t buy the red shop rags you might see at the hardware store. If you ever wash them with anything else, the “anything else” will turn pink. I dare you to ask me how I know.
Am I missing any tools that you use when you’re finishing furniture? I know we don’t all finish furniture the same way!