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Can I paint over stained wood? That’s a question I get asked a lot. And the answer is yes, you can definitely paint over stained wood. In fact, painting over stain is not that tricky. However it requires additional work compared to painting raw, unstained wood. There are a few simple – but essential – steps to a great result.

If you are considering painting your grandmother’s wooden furniture or that vintage dresser you bought at the thrift store there is a high chance the wood is stained. So read on to learn how to paint over stain.

What if I paint directly over stained wood?

When it comes to painting over stained wood, prep is the key. Based on my experience there are 2 main reasons NOT to paint directly over stained wood. 


Number 1 reason is paint bleed-through. It’s one of the most common issues encountered when painting furniture. Bleed-through is a brownish or yellowish stain that peeks through your paint as it begins to dry. These stains are particularly notable on light color paint. Bleeds are one of furniture flippers’ worst nightmares.  That’s why you need to be cautious when you want to paint that old brown dresser with white paint. It’s not impossible but you need to prep it right.

Typical bleed-through. Source: A Ray of Sunlight

Stain sealing

The second reason is that most stained wood furniture is sealed with wax, varnish or polyurethane. Your piece of furniture has a glossy finish? There is a good chance it is sealed with several coats of polyurethane or varnish. Yet, as you may already know, paint does not adhere well to a glossy wood finish. Even if your piece of furniture has a matte finish, it does not mean it is not sealed (some poly have a matte finish). And I would not recommend painting directly over waxed stained furniture or over matte polyurethane.

My motto is: Prep is the key!

1 – First, remove hardware and drawers

Removing drawers and hardware allows an easier cleaning of your furniture. It will also facilitate the painting job. See how I dismantled this Ikea changing table before painting it in green.

I removed this changing dresser’s hardware and stored it in a small plastic container.

2 – Clean, clean, clean

Most thrift store furnitures are very dirty and require extensive cleaning before painting. I Usually give my piece a very good vacuuming, getting in all the nooks and crannies. Then I spray a mix of water and white vinegar to remove all dirt and grease. Here is how to clean furniture before starting any repurpose/makeover job. Be sure to remove all the grease and dirt from the project before moving forward. Consider using TSP or any powerful degreaser if necessary. Even if I’m not a super fan of this cleaning product (mainly because it’s toxic and harmful to the environment), it might be a good idea to use a powerful degreaser if you’re working on kitchen cabinets, a table, or any piece of furniture previously used in a kitchen. Remember, paint simply won’t stick on a greasy surface.

3 – Sand!

I know sanding is terrible, messy and even dangerous for your lungs. But I can tell you right away that most painting jobs will require at least some light sanding. You do not necessarily need to remove all the poly or stain. In most cases, roughing up the surface so the paint will adhere is enough.  

As I already mentioned, no need to sand down to raw wood – even for stained wood – if you plan to paint your furniture. You may just sand lightly to remove the glossy surface. The purpose is to remove the gloss from the previous finish so that the paint will stick. 

This drawer was lightly sanded before painting it.

Once you’re done with sanding, remove all sanding dust using a tack cloth. It’s important to remove dust again otherwise the paint will not adhere to the surface.

If you really really don’t want to sand, there are still  2 options available: liquid sandpaper or chalk paint.

What is liquid sandpaper?

Also known as chemical deglosser, liquid sandpaper is no sandpaper at all. It’s a chemical solution that helps in removing paint, varnish, or polyurethane from already painted/refinished furniture. Among other brands, I would recommend Citristrip Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel since it is considered as a non-toxic paint and varnish remover. According to the brand, it removes multiple layers of dried latex and oil-based paint, varnish, lacquer, polyurethane, and shellac from wood. It can remove five layers of dried latex paint in under one hour.

According to my experience, using liquid sandpaper is not that easy. However if you really hate to sand, it is an option to consider. Liquid sandpaper is also a good option in the tight corners or on furniture carvings.

Chalk paint = no sanding?

According to chalk paint manufacturers, you don’t have to worry about sanding or priming first when using chalk paint. No sanding is required, no primer needed, they say. In fact, the reality is slightly different. Any painting job will require some sanding.  I strongly recommend sanding – at least lightly – even if you plan to use chalk paint. Your makeover will last longer. No need to use your electric sander, sanding by hand with grit sandpaper is just fine.

4- Optional repairs

Now is also a good time to proceed with optional repairs like removing nails,  repairing damages, and filling holes with wood filler… Once you’re done, sand again to smoothen the surface.

I used wood filler to repair this drawer corner.


1 – Do I need to prime?

Yes! Unless you’re using chalk paint and you’ve chosen a dark color (black, dark blue), applying primer is always a good idea. Especially when working on stained wood.

And why is a primer so important?  Primer is important for the following reasons:

  1. Primer covers and seals the stain.
  2. Primer is usually cheaper than paint. So you will use fewer coats of paint in order to cover that old brown furniture with a light color.
  3. Paint will better adhere: you will get a more durable makeover.
  4. And last but not least, primer prevents bleed-through. Remember, bleed-through is a brownish or yellowish stain that peeks through your paint as it begins to dry. It is a very common issue encountered by furniture flippers. The good news is that it is easy to prevent. You just need to apply a proper primer paint

In short, with primer, you will get a better result while saving time and money.

Remember how far you have come. You don’t want to ruin anything now. So go grab your primer paint can and prime! Do not skip this step.

2 – What’s the best primer to cover stained wood?

You can use Shellac primer. According to the brand itself, Shellac-base primer is a primer-sealer, stain, and odor blocker for almost all interior wood surfaces as well as spot priming for exterior use.

You may also use regular primer paint as we did for this headboard bench painted in white and this Ikea changing table makeover – painted in light green. Primer paint is my favorite option when I paint stained wood furniture. It’s quite cheap compared to regular paint and trouble saving.

Ready to apply primer paint

Christina likes using Zinsser Bulls Eye Clear Shellac as a primer and she used it for several paint projects including this Vintage Buffet Makeover: painted white.

While Bulls Eye Clear Shellac was intended to be used a primer, it is popular among furniture flippers. When you chose a bright color for your piece of furniture and plan to distress it, Bulls Eye Clear Shellac may be a good option. With this product, there is no risk to see the primer through your paint when you distress your piece of furniture with sandpaper. If you are looking for a clear stain blocker, you can try this product called BOSS from Dixie Belle Paint Company. It goes white and dries clear. And this product also help to get the smell out of old furniture. What more can you ask for?

I’m not the only one recommending primer paint. Sophie, who is full a time furniture flipper, is also a big fan of primer paint. She always applies primer before painting stained furniture as she did for this lovely nightstands makeover in grey.

A lot of primers are oil-based. Oil-based primers are the most effective at preventing bleed-through. Oil-based primers usually have a strong odor and it is recommended to apply the primer in a well-ventilated space (wearing a mask and gloves is also highly recommended). Not to mention you will need to clean your brushes with mineral spirits or turpentine. Although I find oil-based primers harder to work with than water-based primers, they offer the best results. So it is worth the additional efforts.

Anyway, if you are dealing with an oil-based stain, apply oil-based primer. Use water-based primer when dealing with water-based stains. If you have any doubt, I suggest you go for an oil-based primer.

Recommended primers:

3 – Test for chalk paint bleed through

If you still don’t want to prime and you are considering using chalk paint, you may run a test for chalk bleed through. Apply some chalk paint on several areas of your furniture and wait for the paint to dry. 

If you see red or brown spots coming through the fresh paint, just stop painting. At this point, you’ll probably want to apply more and more layers of paint to cover those annoying stains. But trust me, it’s not going to fix it! Stain or wood tannin will keep coming up. I find it very annoying as well. In this case, just prime. You will save plenty of time and money (yep, chalk paint is expensive). 

The best way to fix bleed-through is to seal. Apply a stain-blocking primer all over your piece of furniture and consider you are done with prepping your piece.

I would recommend letting the primer dry overnight. Take a beer or a fresh coke and enjoy! You just completed the most boring part of the job. The next day, you will be able to start painting.

Paint and Seal

Today is the big day. You are finally ready to paint. Once the primer is dry, you can paint your stained wood furniture like any other one.  

Save this post for later!

Happy Makeover!

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