Furniture Painting 101: Choosing Your Paint

Furniture Painting 101: Choosing the right paint | From The Friendly Home

We’ve talked about getting the right base coat and about my favorite tools for painting furniture. Now it’s time to move onto the exciting part: the paint. These days you’ve got tons of choices when it comes to what kind of paint you use and they all have their time and place (except latex paint — please don’t paint furniture with latex paint unless you don’t really care about the furniture). Let’s talk about what’s available and when to use it.

Spray paint. I avoid this one whenever possible, but sometimes…sometimes there’s no better option. So, for metal furniture like the chairs below, or for a piece with lots of spindles (assuming you don’t have a paint sprayer) you really need a can of spray paint, super toxic nightmare that it may be, in order to get a decent finish. Do it when the weather is warm and there’s no wind. Do it outside on a large drop cloth. Wear a mask. Use a spray primer first and then use several light coats of paint and you’ll have a hard-to-scratch finish that will last you for a long time. I do not endorse spray paint except to say that sometimes it is a necessary evil. It should be the exception, not the rule.


Spindles...easiest to paint with a sprayer or (gasp) spray paint.

Spindles…easiest to paint with a sprayer or (gasp) spray paint.

Chalk paint. I haven’t used the famous Annie Sloan paint, but I have used CeCe Caldwell and Country Chic. There are lots of chalk paint options out there — from what I’ve seen they’re all pretty similar. What is not similar? Taking latex or acrylic paint and adding unsanded grout to it in order to make your own chalk paint. I’ve tried it. I was not impressed. If you’re looking for the qualities of real chalk paint, you’ll need to use real chalk paint. Real chalk paint is made with clay and minerals — no plastics, no rubber. Here are a few reasons to love chalk paint:

  • It can give you a variety of looks, from totally solid and pristine to very distressed, all depending on your application technique. Spray for a solid finish, hand-paint with a good bristle brush for anything from slightly distressed to heavily distressed.
  • Easy to distress. Until it is sealed, chalk paint comes off easily with light sanding or a damp sponge.
  • Can avoid sanding. If you’re one of the people who hates sanding, you can get away with using a damp sponge to distress chalk paint instead of using sandpaper, but you should still sand between coats if you want a smooth feel to your finish. (I say you “might” be able to get away with a wet sponge because the moisture in the sponge will draw out some of the different tones in your paint. So what may have been a solid navy blue will now be streaked with lighter white/grey/blue tones where your sponge ran over the paint. For some people, this is a benefit. For others, it’s a drawback. If you don’t like the streaky/mottled look it gives, then be sure you spray your chalk paint AND only use sandpaper to distress it.)
  • Color variation. Not only will you get some color variation from distressing with a damp sponge, you’ll get color variation when you paint with a brush. Again, this is great if it’s what you’re going for. If it’s not what you are looking for, then spray your chalk paint. Water it way down before spraying and then spray light and even coats. (Dilute it to 70/30 paint to water? Maybe more?)
  • Chalk paint is most definitely low-odor and non-toxic. If you are sensitive to odors and fumes, this is your paint.
  • A little goes a long way. Some people complain that chalk paint is expensive. Compared to latex paint intended for walls (not furniture), yes…it is. But it goes much farther (especially if your piece is prepped properly) and, probably, since you’re using chalk paint you’re going for a distressed look which means you don’t need a whole lot of paint to begin with. On distressed pieces, you can get away with a less-than-solid coat.
  • Chalk paint can go on over any old finish…and stick. It might take more than one coat to get it to stick, but it will stick and once it’s sealed it’s a super-durable finish.
  • Easy clean up. Chalk paint washes right out of your brush, off your containers, off your hands, and out of your hair.

Chalk painted kitchen island (sprayed)

Chalk Painted Bed from Furniture Painting 101 at The Friendly Home

Chalk painted bed (brushed and distressed)

Milk paint. Now let’s be clear: I’m talking about milk paint that comes in the powdered form. You mix up only as much as you need, mix the different colored powders together to get the color you want. Think Sweet Pickins or Miss Mustard Seed. You can also get the Old Fashioned Milk Company’spaint at your local Woodcraft. That’s how I get mine. I initially steered clear of milk paint because I thought I’d want it for touch-ups somewhere down the road but once you mix a batch it goes bad after a few weeks (because it’s got milk in it). It turns out I don’t touch up my furniture, so that’s not an issue. Between the generally distressed state of most of my furniture anyway and the hassle of matching both the paint color AND the sheen of the topcoat (clear sealer or wax), I just don’t bother. Plus, we’re not all that hard on our furniture and if it gets that beat up, I’m probably ready to give it a whole new look anyway. All that to say, don’t let the fact that you can’t store milk paint for touch ups keep you from using milk paint. Because, it totally rocks. Here’s why:

  • Authenticity. A chippy/distressed painted finish does not get more authentic than a real milk paint finish. Maybe it’s because milk paint is genuinely old. It’s what people used before lead-based paint, before latex, before acrylic. It looks old because it is old.
  • Surprise! Milk paint sometimes has a mind of its own. You can’t always control it and you shouldn’t try to. While chalk paint can stick to anything, milk paint sticks best to raw wood (it will bond in such a way that you’ll have to sand through it to get it off). Milk paint will also stick to primer and to old finishes that have been deglossed…usually. But sometimes two parts of a piece of furniture that you prepped exactly the same way will have totally different effects on the milk paint. In some places it will peel right off and in other places it will stick like crazy. This is the fun of milk paint. Unless that’s not fun…
  • Control. If letting the paint choose the kind of finish isn’t your kind of fun, then you can add some extra bond, a milk paint product that promotes adhesion, to your paint. I have a bottle of extra bond but I’ve never used it. I think it takes all the fun out of the process!
  • Chippy finish. There is no better way to get an authentic chippy finish than with milk paint. Chalk paint will not (cannot) give you a chippy finish. Chalk paint distresses where you distress it. Milk paint distresses where it doesn’t stick, and you’ll know where to knock off the dried paint because it will curl up and crack right off.
  • Easy to sand. All of this curling and cracking makes sanding really quick and easy. A light sanding over the whole piece will knock off any paint that’s not going to stay and then you’re ready for your sealer.
  • Color variation. Milk paint gives you the most incredible color variation, much like chalk paint, when the paint settles into wood grain or when different minerals rise to the top of the paint in various places on your piece. It is a rich, beautiful finish.
  • Milk paint is most definitely low-odor and non-toxic. If you are sensitive to odors and fumes, this is your paint.
  • Easy clean up. Like chalk paint, milk paint is super easy to clean up.
Old Fashioned Milk Paint in Tavern Green.

Old Fashioned Milk Paint in Tavern Green.


Charging Station | The Friendly Home

Milk paint choosing where to stick and where to flake off…

Acrylic paint. My favorite acrylic paint is General Finishes Milk Paint. I think they call it “milk paint” because it has a low-luster finish that somewhat resembles real milk paint, but real milk paint it is not. The other major brands (Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore, etc.) all have their own acrylic paint meant for cabinets, furniture, and trim. That’s what you want. Not wall paint. Acrylic paint is great for a few different things:

  • Solid finish. If you want a solid, predictable, self-leveling, perfectly smooth finish, you want acrylic paint.
  • Lightly distressed finish. If you want a mostly solid finish but you want to be able to distress a bit around the edges or corners (since if you don’t do it now, your kids will do it later for you), then you want acrylic paint. General Finishes Milk Paint distresses the most easily and evenly and smoothly of any acrylic I’ve worked with — probably because it’s not glossy.
  • Hard-curing, long wearing. A good acrylic paint will give you a long lasting, hard finish. It’s great on kitchen cabinets and high-use furniture.
  • Easy to brush. With a decent brush (like my favorite Blue Hawk brush) you can easily brush on a great smooth finish. If you’re doing a huge project, like an entire kitchen’s worth of cabinets, do yourself a favor and buy a sprayer. You can always sell it later. But for a smaller project, like one piece of furniture, a brush will work well for acrylic paint.
For a solid finish, use acrylic paint. This was brushed on.

For a solid finish, use acrylic paint. This was brushed on.

Oil-based paint. Like spray paint, oil-based paint that you can brush on is the scourge of the paint world (environmentally speaking) but it does have its time and place…for the right people. When we first moved into our house, I used oil-based paint on my 1970’s oak kitchen cabinets. Most of those cabinets are now in the garage and they’re the ONLY piece of painted furniture (factory-painted or DIY) that has not chipped or otherwise shown some kind of wear. They look incredible — the finish has outlasted my factory painted KraftMaid kitchen cabinets. The oil-based paint still looks great even though I painted the cabinets in 2004! Despite all of the benefits of oil-based paint, I haven’t used it again since I did my old cabinets. Here are some things to think about when it comes to oil-based paint:

  • Disposal. Ugh. Disposal is a pain in the neck. You can’t rinse your brush in the faucet (water will cause the paint to congeal and ruin your brush), so you have to soak your brushes in paint thinner or mineral spirits. Those need to be taken to your county hazardous waste disposal. DO NOT pour them down the drain, into your neighborhood storm drain, or into your yard. They are toxic to you and to the earth.
  • Brushes. You’ll need special brushes for oil-based paint — ones marked for oil.
  • Odor. If you’re sensitive to odor, you’ll have a tough time with oil-based paint.
  • Dry time. Expect to paint one coat, wait a day, sand, clean, paint the second coat, wait a day…etc. You get the idea. You won’t have your garage back for a week or so, even if you’re working on a small project.
  • Primer. You’ll need an oil-based primer (like the original Kilz) under your oil-based paint.
  • Durability. So we’ve established that application and cleanup are a major pain in the you-know-what. But you know what’s great? You’ll never have to do it again. If this is a piece you’re planning to keep forever or if it’s your kitchen cabinets and you see yourself in this house for another 20 years, using oil might be worth the hassle.
  • Finish. Oil-based paint self-levels incredibly well, probably because of the long drying time. If it gets too thick, dilute it with paint thinner and keep going with thin coats.
Sorry...this is the best I can do for a photo of the 2004 cabinet paint job (unless you want to see my mess of a garage). Trust me, the paint is still in great shape.

Sorry…this is the best I can do for a photo of the 2004 cabinet paint job (unless you want to see my mess of a garage). Trust me, the paint is still in great shape.

So there you go…a roundup of my favorite kinds of paint. Next up I’ll share my tips for technique and then we’ll talk about sealers.


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