Paint furniture like a pro

A distinctive design carries the designer’s “voice” or personal style. I’ve cultivated my own through learning design fundamentals and trial-and-error. I’ve experimented extensively with painting furniture, and found that, done right, paint adds not just color, but textural and geometric interest as well. Of course, it pays to be intentional. Pairing the right color with the right wood, choosing the right paint type, and applying it skillfully can transform by-the-numbers designs into works of art.

Two walnut end tables with three swaying legs. One tables apron is painted blue and the other table in pink.
Perfectly placed pop. Furniture doesn’t have to be only brown and beige. With paint, your color options are limitless

A half circle shaped, slatted stool made of cherry and painted with mint green paint on the seat and between slats.
Let the form and function of the piece help you decide which parts to paint, much as you do when selecting the grain for different parts of a piece.

A sideboard with three wavy, sculpted drawers. Made of ash and painted with a cream color, with angled transitions on the paint termination.
Play with angles and shapes. Since you’re already outside the box with paint, don’t limit yourself to straight and square transitions.

Start with the finish

After establishing the form and function of a piece, it’s never long before my mind wanders to the question “What about the paint?”

I first establish where I want it. I might paint a table’s aprons while leaving the top bare, or vice versa. I’ll paint parts of a leg, perhaps breaking the height of the piece into thirds and stopping the paint about a third of the way down. Take your time planning, and consider how you want the paint to balance with the rest of the piece. My goal here is entirely aesthetic, but there’s a practical benefit to planning since I can figure out where it’s possible to prefinish.

Applying finish to a piece isn’t usually wholly considered until assembly, but I find that when dealing with intersections between painted and clear areas it’s helpful to determine how painting and construction can work together. In some cases, you can paint entire components, and perhaps clear-coat others, before glue-up and assembly.

A side table with three ash drawers is painted with a soft, white color on the apron and top third section of each leg.
One option is to use paint to visually break up a piece. Here, Court uses flat white to offset the pronounced grain on the top and drawers. Painting partway down the legs helps accent their gentle curve.

Now it’s time to select wood species and paint. Not all woods accept paint in the same way, and not all types of paint get along with all woods. Although I am no stranger to bolder colors, I typically pair lighter-color woods, like ash or maple, with a white or cream paint. Maple is very easy to paint over because of its tight grain. Conversely, ash requires far more applications and labor between coats due to its coarse and open grain. Paint settles in wood pores similarly to varnish and other clear finishes, so if you are looking for less texture, open pores must be filled to achieve a level final coat.

Closed-grain woods allow for a broad selection of paint options. I have used a wide variety of paints, from acrylic enamels and latex paint thinned with water all the way to artist-grade spray paints. Yet, I still find myself regularly reaching for traditional milk paint, with which I’ve had great success. Milk paint has wonderful pore-filling qualities and a visually appealing texture. It’s also forgiving and easy to work with. Applied well, it will patina beautifully with use. And no primer coats are needed with milk paint.

Evan holds a package of milk paint, pouring a small amount into a plastic container.
Mix the milk paint to your desired viscosity. Adding milk paint powder to a container and then adding water gives you more control over the mixture.

Evan adds a small amount of water to a container holding milk paint powder, which is slightly mixed and viscous.
Aim for a heavy-cream consistency. Once you find the right ratio, let the mixture sit overnight in the fridge.

The paint color you choose is completely up to you, but remember that the color of any wood left unpainted must be considered. When using bold paints, I first choose my primary wood and generalize it as a color so I can use color theory to make a paint selection. For example, if my primary wood is cherry, it’s safe to consider it as red or a very warm orange. From this point I can identify the colors that work well with red, such as green, which is complementary. Very light-color woods, like soft maple or basswood, are perfect to combine with paint, offering great latitude in the colors they pair well with because they are closer to white or a neutral beige than anything else, much like a blank canvas.

Sharp transitions, clean results

Painting furniture soon presented me with two problems: creating crisp transitions and preventing flaking. Blue tape alone won’t produce a consistently crisp line, and even if it did, simply taping and painting leaves the paint layer higher than adjacent unpainted surfaces, making it prone to flaking. My solution has been to knife or chisel transition lines, then carefully tuck the tape into them. The score line serves as both a cavity and a dam for the paint. As a result, the transition is both stronger and cleaner.

Once I have decided where to terminate the paint, I establish the knife lines. I use a square to wrap knife lines around square parts, and a bevel gauge for angled parts.

Evan holds a box cutter and 4 inch square, letting him scribe a straight line across a leg.
Court scores deepy with a utility knife to create a cavity for the tape to tuck into. Score parts before assembly when possible.

When knifing, be bold. The deeper the knife line, the easier it is to get the tape seated inside it. I prefer a good box cutter instead of a marking knife because it leaves a slight bevel on each wall of the knife line. On harder woods, I will occasionally use a chisel to set the knife lines deeper.

Evan holds a mallet, about to strike a chisel. The chisel is sitting in the cavity of the line he scribed.
If the knife isn’t cutting it, Court deepens the score with a tap or two on a wide chisel. He turns the bevel away from the surface he intends to paint.

Tape it off

I use a good quality blue tape. One roll goes a long way, and the extra money spent on better quality tape is worth it. I carefully tuck blue tape into the knife lines and burnish it with a plastic palette knife.

Evan holds a small block of MDF against the top edge of the table apron, completely covered in blue painters tape.

Tape off any edges you don’t intend to paint, even after assembly if necessary, being sure to press the tape down with a piece of MDF.

Evan holds the edge of a piece of blue tape against the cavity he created with a knife. the tape flexes as its pushed into the cavity. Evan folds down the tape, illustrating the edge of the tape is just inside the knife line.

Tuck the taut tape into your knife line. This will ensure a much sharper and bleedfree transition between paint areas and clear areas and protect the paint from flaking.

Evan burnishes the tape with a small block of wood. Evan holds a plastic pallette knife over the leg. The edge is pressed into the cavity the tape is sitting on.

Flatten the tape and press it down with a block of MDF. Use a flat block to ensure it adheres well to the wood. Then burnish down the tape in the knife line with a plastic palette knife. The eased edge of the knife can firmly press the tape into the knife line without cutting it. Fold back any excess tape.

Paint with the grain

Wrap any areas that will remain natural with craft paper to guard them against accidental splashes of paint. Use a foam brush to apply the paint. Brush away from the transitions to avoid a buildup of paint at the tape. Brushing with the grain helps to fill the pores and create a smooth finish. Leave the tape on until you’re satisfied with the results.

Evan paints a first coat of milk paint on an exposed apron. Paper wraps around the four legs, secured with more blue tape, preventing any splashes of paint from getting on the legs.

Using a foam brush ensures smooth application. Brush away from the tape to prevent any paint from pooling in your knifed lines. Follow with strokes along the grain to help fill the pores.

Evan lightly scuffs the painted surface, holding a green scotch brite pad.
Once you’ve applied sufficient coats of paint, gently rub the surface with 320 grit sandpaper or a green Scotch-brite pad.

Evan hovers a heat gun over a leg wrapped with blue tape, carefully peeling the tape from the surface.

Evan applies a clear coat of finish to the entire table, with a can of Danish oil visible in the backgorund.

Take care when pulling off the tape; it tends to pull up and tear the fibers, especially after burnishing. Use a hairdryer or heat gun set on low to gently heat the tape and melt its adhesive before lifting the tape.

Finally, I apply Danish oil to the clear finished areas. Begin by finishing just the unpainted areas. Once the finish is dry, apply a second coat to the entire piece.

-Evan Court is a furniture designer and craftsperson in Dallas, Texas.

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