Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood?


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Adding a fresh coat of paint to your wooden furniture is an easy way to enhance the look. However, there are a few things you need to keep in mind before you can jump into the painting process.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about painting over varnished wood and the necessary steps.

Table of Contents

Is It Okay to Paint Over Varnished Wood?

Generally speaking, you can paint over varnished wooden furniture as long as you properly prepare the surface beforehand. You’ll need to adequately sand and prime the wooden surface before you can begin painting. You might need a different primer depending on your choice of paint.

Why Do I Need to Prepare the Surface?

It’s tempting to jump straight into the painting process without preparing the wooden surface. However, it’s crucial to sand and prime the surface beforehand for the best results.

The varnish layer is in place to protect the wood beneath. The varnish defends against scratching, moisture, sun damage, and other issues. This topcoat creates a strong seal that locks out moisture, water, and oils from the wood beneath.

Nearly all paints are water or oil-based. This means the paint won’t stick or last as long if you don’t prepare the surface beforehand.

How to Paint Over Varnished Wooden Furniture

In some cases, you can paint directly over the varnish topcoat without sanding or preparing the surface. However, we’ll be covering how to paint over varnished wooden furniture, including the sanding process. Here are the steps to start painting over varnished wood.

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Step Zero: Clean the Wood and Prepare Your Area

Step zero goes mostly without saying: Clean your wooden furniture and prepare your area. You may want to move outside and get all your supplies ready beforehand. Or, if you’re working indoors, you can lay down a tarp or several sheets of newspaper.

You’ll need to clean your wooden furniture before you begin sanding. You can use warm soapy water or any household cleaner to remove dust, dirt, and debris. You should use this time to take off any handles, knobs, or other fixtures that might get in your way.

Step One: Sand the Surface

The first step is to sand the surface of your wooden furniture. You’ll want to remove the majority of the varnish or at least rough up the surface. Roughing up the surface will give the primer and paint an easier time sticking.

You can start with 150-grit sandpaper and work your way up to 220-grit. If you’re only going to use one level of grit, 180-grit sandpaper will work best. It’s recommended to use sandpaper sheets, as you can easily access every nook and corner.

Take your time and do a thorough sanding job. If you aren’t thorough and reach every corner possible, the finished paint job might chip or peel over time. You can clean off any excess dust and debris with a damp rag.

Step Two: Apply the Primer

After you’re done sanding, it’s time to apply the primer. Wood primers act as an undercoat that prepares the surface for painting. Primers give the paint an easier time adhering to the wooden surface. These undercoats can also increase the durability and longevity of the finished product.

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Ensure the primer is spread evenly across the surface of the wood. You don’t need a thick layer; multiple thin layers are usually better. You can use a paint roller for the big areas of your wooden furniture. Smaller paint brushes can be used on hard-to-reach areas, corners, and other nooks.

The general rule of thumb is to allow the primer at least a day to dry. Some products have different drying times, so read all instructions for the best results. If you notice any bits of exposed wood after the primer has dried, simply add another layer to cover.

Step Three: Smooth the Surface or Start Painting

Now that the primer has dried, you have two options: smooth out the surface or start painting. If you notice any inconsistencies in the primer coating, you can lightly sand them away with a fine-grit sandpaper. Be sure to whip away any dust or debris before you start painting.

Now, it’s time to start painting. The choice of paint will come down to your preferences and budget. However, the paint and primer should complement each other. If you’re using oil-based paint, make sure you’re using a primer that’s suited for the job.

The same thought process applies to water-based or acrylic paints. Typically, acrylic and latex-based paints are recommended for wood.

You can use a paint roller for the larger areas and a smaller paintbrush for fine details. Apply multiple thin layers of paint to your wooden surface. Using a heavy hand can result in stains, running, and a poor-quality finished product.

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Be sure to allow the paint ample time to dry before each layer. Typically, non-oil-based paints will take less than half a day to dry completely. However, your experience will vary depending on the product, whether you’re outside, and other circumstances. Read all the instructions and guidelines on your paint for the most accurate information.

Is It Safe to Paint Over Varnished Wood?

It is safe to paint over varnished wood as long as you prepare the surface beforehand. You’ll need to clean, sand, and prime the wooden furniture before you can paint. Be sure to use a primer that works well with your paint of choice. Follow all package instructions and guidelines for the best results.


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