How to Prime Wooden Furniture Correctly

If you hope to get the finest painting results, it all begins with a proper primer before the first paint strokes are laid down.
Priming the surfaces before painting furniture ensures that the paint job will last longer and look better. Why do a job twice when you can create top-quality results the first time?
But, to achieve these top-quality results it is important to know exactly which primer to use on the surface you will be painting. So, in our article, we will cover everything you need to know about the basics of proper priming when you paint wood furniture.

Is a primer needed for painting surfaces with milk or chalk paint?

The answer is a resounding, Yes! It is commonly known that chalk paint and milk paints are said to not need any prep and will adhere to anything even without proper sanding. But it is important to remember that primer has more uses than just allowing the next coat to stick well to the surfaces below. But you will also need to seal down the initial coat of paint, and even the wet spots called “tannins” on untreated wood. This will ensure that further down the line your topcoat of paint will not be affected by the paints or wood resins below, a phenomenon called “bleed through”. Some primers will even mask the smells collected on older pieces of painted furniture.

What about coating new wood without a primer?

Even though a piece of furniture doesn’t have a first coat of paint, this doesn’t mean it is impervious to “bleed through” by the aforementioned tannins or wet spots. With this in mind, it is always best to add thin coats of wood primer, importantly if working on older pieces. Unfinished wood is unlikely when you paint wood furniture.

Can primer be used as a top coat of paint?

No, it can’t. You may have tried this yourself and think that it looks perfect, but primer is not meant as a topcoat of paint and has not been formulated to face the elements. You can find more information on this important point in another post that details the way a primer will react as a topcoat of paint.

Different Types of Primers:

Clear Primer


Regular Primer

Adhesion Bonding

Now, let’s take a closer look at how these Primers are used:

Shellac Primer

Also called BIN will effectively block all smells and stains from the surface below and protect the topcoat of paint from future stains and bleed through. Bleed-through will happen when tannins in the wood are released. Sometimes this occurs after just a very light sand, but it can also be more common with some types of wood.

For example, if you are working with an especially dark type of wood and want to paint wood furniture it a lighter colour like pink or white, Shellac would make an excellent base coat that will ensure the colours aren’t affected by the colour of the wood and will also prevent bleeding through. You just need a thin coat. BIN is also a great option for working with Melamine materials. BIN will prevent any paint from soaking into the melamine below and causing bubbling from the moisture content.

Clear Primer

This type of primer is used when you want to see the grain and style of the wood through your topcoat of paint. For example, if you will be painting the wood furniture black but would like some of the original wood to be visible through the paint, a clear primer is the best choice for your project.

The proper way to do this would be to prime and paint wood furniture as normal and allow it to dry. After the paint has dried, you can ‘distress’ the piece to show some of the wood textures below. This is done by soaking a cloth in warm water and wiping off a bit of the paint until the surface below is slightly visible. This gives an antique and polished look to your newly painted piece of wood furniture.

Adhesion/Bonding Primer

This is what is typically used for very smooth surfaces like glass, melamine, plastic, and particle board. For instance, have you ever tried painting one of those bookcases found in Ikea only to find that the paint just peels off after it dries? This will not happen if you use a proper bonding primer. But before you can properly prime the surface, you will need to scuff it up with 120-grit sandpaper first to improve its adhesion capacity. Then wipe away all the dust that has been produced in the sanding before you apply the primer.

Regular Primer

This primer will provide you with the proper surface onto which you can apply your new coat of paint. Using a good primer will save you up to two coats of paint and is always a good thing to have for touching up wood furniture. A tip from the pros is to tint your primer the same tones you will be using in your topcoat of paint. This will improve the final looks and make the painting process a little easier for you. If you are going to paint wood furniture black, it would be difficult to do if you use a white primer.

What’s the best primer for painting wood furniture?

There is no rule written in stone for this, the answer will come down to personal preference. Nevertheless, there are some important things to keep in mind when choosing the primer for your project.

How to choose the right type of primer for wood furniture

Three basic types of primers that you can use: latex or water-based primers, shellac primers, and oil-based primers. If you will be using an oil-based paint over a water-based paint, be sure to lay down a topcoat of water based primer initially.

If you are not sure what paint type you are looking at, you can perform a small test to see which type of paint is on your wood furniture. Take a rag and pour a little acetone or nail polish remover on a corner. Wipe the wood furniture with this rag and observe the results. If the old paint has been removed from the wooden furniture, it is latex or shellac water-based paint. If the paint is unaffected by the acetone, it is an oil-based paint.

Oil-based primers

Oil primers are the standard option to use because of their incredible long lasting ability. They are the best choice for blocking stains and masking odours. On the downside, they take much longer to dry and release more VOCs into the air. They will also require thinner to clean. Finally, they are more prone to damage like peeling or cracking than water-based primers.

Latex-based primers

As the most versatile option, latex primers can be used effectively on the greatest assortment of surfaces including metals, masonry, and wood. Latex is rapidly becoming the most popular option because of their very low VOCs, clean up very easily, and dry quite quickly.

Shellac primers

Shellac primers are good at sealing wood and masking stains and odours. Unlike oil paints, they can dry very quickly and can be used on metals and plastics as well. The downside to shellac paints is that they release VOCs prolifically. They can be cleaned with denatured alcohol.

How To Prime Wooden Furniture

Begin with sanding.

You will see plenty of tutorials that downplay the need for sanding when painting wooden furniture. Indeed, many primers will also claim that no sanding is required. But from my many years of experience restoring old wood furniture, I would say that even just if you lightly sand, it is an essential part of what produces the finest results. Fine grit sandpaper is the best choice and I use an orbital sander with variable speeds to accomplish the work perfectly. Be very careful not to gouge the surface you will be painting, lightly sand. All you need to do is rough the surface up a little so that the primer has something to adhere to. Always remember to go with the wood grain. You can nearly paint furniture now.

Remove any residue.

After you have checked lightly sand off your list, you need to clean the surface of all residual dust. Use a lint-free cloth or tack cloth to do this as paper towels also leave behind residue when you paint furniture.

Get Priming!

Now that your surface is properly prepared, you can get down to priming. Proper preparations are what make the perfect finish.