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How to Paint Furniture: Old Wooden Chest of Drawers

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This post is the second installment for a page that I am building here on my blog that will be called How To Paint Anything. I get many emails each week asking me how to paint this or that and I hope this page will become a valuable resource for all questions related to how to paint items successfully.  The first post I did was how to paint metal.  I will add more tutorials as I post them so that eventually the page will have a tutorial on how to paint every surface imaginable.

How-to-Paint-Anything overlay on image of just painted piece of furniture.

Today I am going to show you how to paint furniture or how to paint over a chest of drawers that has a stain and varnish/urethane finish on it.

Before and After

Chest of drawers before and after painting images.

This chest of drawers was a hand me down that my daughter wanted for her apartment –just didn’t want it brown.   She chose turquoise to coordinate with fabric on her bed pillows.

Note: If you would like to know how I transformed the drawer pulls.   You can find the post – How to Update Brass Drawer Pulls.

The paint I used: Glidden Peacock’s Plume # A1249 satin sheen.

How to Paint Furniture with Stain or Varnish Already On It

supplies needed:

Furniture-Painting-tools  tray, rollers;; brushes and stirring stick on table.
  • Paint
  • Primer
  • High quality (Purdy is my favorite) angled paint brush
  • Foam paint roller or a high quality low nap roller
  • Paint tray
  • Tack cloth
  • Sander or sanding block
  • Sandpaper of various coarseness – fine to medium
  • Screwdriver
  • Sandwich bags to place hardware in
  • Paint stirring stick
  • Optional: paste wax and soft cloth

Prep The Furniture for Painting

Mask out any areas you don’t want painted with painter’s tape.

Line up drawers on their back ends on a separate drop cloth. When it comes time to paint them, the process goes fast. I use a roller to paint the flat sections an an angled brush comes in handy to brush away any paint drips.

How-to-paint drawers by lining the up in their ends.

Remove the Hardware

Mark the back of hinges and knobs with a magic marker or wrap painters tape around them and use the tape to write on what door or drawer they came from. Place them in marked baggies.

Furniture-Painting-tips-showing to mark and place hardware removed from furniture before painting in a baggie.

This is very important especially when it comes time to put hinged doors back on. They have to go back exactly where they came from or the doors may not line up and close correctly.

Sand the Surface

Sand all surfaces to remove as much of the shiny surface as you can.  You don’t have to take it to the bare wood, but just remove the shine.

I find a sanding block the best and easiest way to sand the surface of the furniture to rough up the finish so the paint has something to adhere to. You can see the one I use in the above photo. It have had it for a long time!  It is one of those well designed tools that stands the test of time.  If you have an electric sander then use that especially if the surface is very slick or beaten up.

Sanding with an electric sander will smooth the surface imperfections making the piece not only look better, but accept the paint better.

Furniture-painting-sanding sheets to use.
  • Use it with medium 100 grit sandpaper. Coarse 60 sandpaper is too rough and will leave deep scratches in the surface. 
  • When I do touch up sanding between dried coats of paint – a sponge style “Fine Grit” sanding block works perfectly.

Once you are done sanding, clean the surface well with a tack cloth to remove all the sanding grit. If there is a lot of grit, use a hot water and dish detergent on a damp rag to remove it. Then let the wood dry completely before painting.

Using a Deglossing Product or Liquid Sandpaper:

A deglossing liquid focuses on dulling a previous old finish in place of sandpaper. If the finish is irregular, rough, dented or scratched, deglosser won’t fix it. Only sandpaper can repair bad surfaces, smoothing them with its abrasive qualities. If the previous finish needs smoothing in any way, sanding is the only way to accomplish it

I tend to not use deglossers as I want to save money and sandpaper is inexpensive in comparison. Both de-glossing and sanding take time to do, and sanding – de-glosses and smooths in one step.

Use a Good Primer

The priming and prep are the key to getting a perfect finish.

the-Best-Paint-Primers on a garage shelf. Glidden Gripper in white and grey and Kilz Original formula.

When painting furniture, if you are not using chalk paint, you will need to use a primer first.  Do not skip this priming step or your paint will come right off or will discolor.  Trust me, I learned the hard way when I first started painting furniture.

My go-to paint primers are Glidden Gripper and KILZ Original or KILZ Max.  Glidden Gripper is best used when you are painting over shiny or slick surfaces.  It is water-based. It comes in 2 formulas – grey – to use under dark and vivid – and white.  I used the white formula on my kitchen cabinet makeover. It is sold at the Home Depot.

There are many formulas of KILZ brand primers:

  • KILZ MAX is my favorite water-based formula.
  • KILZ Original. It is the best all-around primer. It is oil based – but don’t let that scare you.  It only smells a little bit and dries in 30 minutes. If you are painting over a piece that has knots or smells like pine or is bare wood – use this. Since it is a primer – you can use latex water-based paint over it. I used this on my dining room hutch.
    • I use a sponge roller and/or brush when using this formula so I just throw them out when done. 
Painting-furniture-tips showing where to use a paint roller and where to use a paint brush.

How Many Coats of Primer? Apply two light coats of primer, letting the first dry completely before applying the second. Then wait for the surface to dry before painting.

What If You See The Previous Stain Color Come Through the Primer?

When the primer is dry, you should not see any brown color seeping through the paint. If you do – roll on another coat. 


When the primer is dry, use your sanding block to go over any areas that need smoothing.  Clean with a tack cloth;

Now it is time to add 2 light coats of paint, letting each coat dry thoroughly before applying the next.  Use a foam roller on the flat surfaces and a high quality angled brush on the beveled and raised sections.

I chose a latex satin paint, but you can paint furniture in any finish you like.  Satin, semi-gloss, or gloss will give you more of a polished look – satin the least shiny – gloss the most shiny.

If you can find a latex enamel paint in the color you want, then I would go with that as enamel has a very durable finish and is perfect on kids, bathroom, and kitchen furniture where a lot of abuse and moisture can occur.

Furniture-Painting-Tips not to forget to to. Paint the inside edges around drawers and doors.

When priming and painting, make sure to paint the inside edges where doors and drawers go.  If you don’t do this then when you place the drawers or doors back on you will see a sliver of the inside wood and your efforts will not look professional.


Once you have a coat of paint on and it is dry, look for placed where dust has settled, drips, or bugs that have dried into the paint. I go over the areas with the sanding block covered in fine grit sandpaper.

I then use a tack cloth to remove all the sanding dust and roll on the next coat of paint.

Sealing The Painted Surface

If using an enamel paint there is no need to seal the surface. If your paint is not an enamel, then you can seal the painted finish with a water-based poly. Minwax Polycylic is my go to, but you any water-based brand of poly will be fine.

  • DO NOT use oil-based poly over paint. It will darken and yellow the color.
Turquoise paint on corner top of chest of drawers.

Why I Like To Seal Painted Furniture With Wax

Many years ago I used to poly over painted pieces, but I no longer find it necessary with the very durable paint formulas that are on the market today. I have found however on some pieces adding a little bit of polish in the way of paste wax brings the paint color to life.

This step is totally optional. I have painted plenty of pieces where I skipped this step and they still look great.  Certain colors just seem to pop when wax is applied.  I learned this when painting with chalk paint. I was also told that wax doesn’t work over latex paint, but I beg to differ. I waxed this piece and it going on 8 years and looks amazing still.

You can test the wax on the back of a piece of painted furniture if you are not sure if it will make a difference in your color vibrancy.    I used satin latex for this chest of drawers and the wax also does give a thin layer of protection.

Johnsons Paste Wax can and soft buffing cloth on top of newly painted chest of drawers.
  • To apply wax:  Wait until the paint is thoroughly dry or overnight to wax.  Only use wax that is clear – Johnson’s is clear. Minwax is not, it is orange. Fiddes and Sons and Annie Sloan both make clear waxes.
    • Apply a very, very thin coat with a soft cloth.  Rub it on in a quick circular motion. Less is more – so use just a little bit of wax.
    • Let sit on the surface for about 5 – 10 minutes. You will know when it is ready to buff as it will look a bit hazy and feel slightly tacky or sluggish when a dry cloth is wiped over it.  
    • Buff with a blue Shop paper towel or a section of an old soft t-shirt. Buffing the wax into the surface with circular motions until when you wipe over the surface it feel slippery or smooth.
    • Buffing with wax will bring out the shine and color vibrancy. Even on latex paint. On chalk paint, it goes deep into the flat finish. It will sit on top of latex, but can still help.

Wax drying time can vary depending on the temperature.  30 minutes to overnight.  It will take a few weeks to cure and when it does you will have one hard and durable finish.

How to paint furniture in a garage and setting it up to easily paint.

Place Hardware Back On.

When the piece is dry, place hardware back on making sure to place hinges and doors in the same place it was originally.

If you don’t need to use the piece right away – let it sit for a few days before using so the paint can cure. This should be done with or without waxing.   After a day or two you can start to use it and will be rewarded with a beautiful finish for many years to come.

How to paint furniture tutorial showing the after image of a turquoise painted chest of drawers.

I made over the drawer pulls for this chest of drawers using paper napkins and a very cool sealing product.

Purple napkin covered drawer pulls on a turquoise painted chest of drawers.

You can read more about how I did this in this post:

Image of golden brown chest of drawers and after it is painted turquoise.  Written overlay says, First time? Furniture painting success.

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  1. I have a cabinet that I’m just waiting to tackle, so this is great. A couple questions for you, you said the Kilz you like best is oil based. So you can use latex paint over oil based primer? I thought it was just one or the other. Also on your dresser drawers, just wondering if you paint the inside of the drawers at all?

    1. Hi Kimberly – You can paint latex paint over oil primer, but not latex paint over oil based paint. The primer has a very flat finish. Kilz has a formula called Clean Start. It is latex and it does work. I have a big mirror that I used it on. I just had to use more coats until the stain stopped bleeding through it. Just don’t use two coats and assume you are good to go. Let it dry and see if you see a brown or orange tinge in the dry primer. If you do add another coat. I never paint the inside of the drawers, just the inside edge of the body of the piece. I have lined the drawers with pretty gift wrap though.

      1. Hi Diane,love your page i will be on it alot because i do alot of refinishing furniture.Your answer to my question never reached me but i do see with your reply to Kimberly that you don’t paint your inside of your drawers.I am doing an old dresser my Grandfather built (he was a carpenter),it had alot of damage through many years of use and abuse.The inside was done pretty with wall paper of the time and needed cleaning so i removed the paper,sanded and built up the drawers. By my using wood filler which showed,i stained and then put wax on them.They are looking so much nicer now plus they slide in and out without a problem.The rest of the dresser will be stained and a protective coat will be added.My question is will i encounter any problems with the drawers in the future by staining them?Hope to see an answer soon before doing the rest of the dresser.

        1. Hi Loa – Sorry I did not get to respond to your question sooner. I have been away and am trying to get all the questions over the next few days. I do not think you will encounter any problems by staining the inside of the drawers. Think of it as an added bonus to the complete look of your dresser. Most refinishers skip doing the inside of the drawers since you don’t see them. You gave the dresser some extra loving care. You grandfather would be proud.

  2. What a great post…love the color that you used.


    Drop by and enter my current GIVEAWAY…you will have a chance to WIN a canvas print from your family pics.

  3. Wonderful instrux!! Can’t wait for the Chalk Paint tutorial, really motivating Diane … adore those handles!

  4. Hello Diane,
    I so loooove your blog! You always have such do-able project ideas! I know you are also going to do a chalk paint post but wanted to ask a question while it was on my mind.

    I painted all my kitchen cupboards with Annie Sloan chalk paint last fall (old white color). This was the first paint job I had ever done and was so excited to complete my first DIY project in my first house. The cupboards were a med dark oak and I wanted to brighten up the space. Everything I read said no primer was needed so I was super excited at how “easy” this project would be. I took a class with a certified A.S. paint distributor and she too confirmed no primer or sanding was needed.

    I ended up having to paint 4+ layers I think and still it doesn’t look as fabulous as I had thought. I’ve also waxed between 2 and 3 times on each cupboard. Ten months later I have chip spots (where the cupboard or drawer was nicked) and lighter portions where paint seemed to seep into the wood. We are not at all hard on our cupboards. A few months ago a friend who works with wood a lot said I should ALWAYS prime a piece of wood. I wished I had talked to her before I started my big project.

    I’m so sad that I spent so much time, and much more money than I anticipated, on this project and it doesn’t look as wonderful as I had hoped. My A.S. paint rep said it looks like my cupboards were very very thirsty and just soaked up the paint and wax. The cupboards are 26 year old builders standard.

    Can you advise me on what I should do? I know I need to wax again and also maybe do some touch ups. However, I’m also considering starting over…though this is last option and probably wouldn’t be done for a few years. Also, I have two more similar cupboards, one in the bathroom and another in the hallway that I also want to paint.

    Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Emery –
      So sorry to hear about your chalk paint experience. Every DIYer has things go wrong. I have had many. I have used chalk paint on 3 pieces of furniture so far and am sold for its use on furniture. I recently had another reader ask if she could use chalk paint on her kitchen cabinets. I told her if she wanted a distressed look to her cabinets then yes, but if she didn’t I would not use it. Kitchens are too moisture and grease prone and I just don’t see it working as the wax would break down fast in the hot environment. Ten years ago I painted my kitchen cabinets the way I outlined in this post, except I used Sherwin Williams semi-gloss paint. My brother-in-law is a pro painter and at the same time I painted mine, he painted his using oil. He has had to re-paint twice. I have only touched up the cabinet under my sink that gets the most abuse. They have not chipped, peeled, or faded – they are still perfect – so I would highly recommend this method for painting cabinets.

      Are your cabinets wood or a composite? Without actually seeing what they are made of it is hard to guess what may have caused them to chip- probably they were very smooth and shiny. If they were porous and sucked up the paint, then that only would help adhere the paint. This might sound like a silly question, but did they shake the cans at the place you bought them? If they were not mixed well then that could have created a problem. If it makes you feel any better – I use 4 coats on every piece – all very light coats, but 2 coats of primer and 2 coats of paint.

      If you want your cabinets to look new with no aging, distressing, chips, etc, then I would repaint them. If you like the aged look – then I would age the cabinets more where the chips are. Take fine grit sandpaper and start rubbing it over the areas that have chipped. This will help lessen the chipped looked and make them just appear aged. Then go over with a light coat of wax and buff.

      If the cabinets in your bathroom and hallway are the same type of cabinet that is in your kitchen then I would do the sanding, primer, paint method.

      1. Emery,

        I was just reading through the comments, and I think I can help you with your question…if it’s not too late. I painted my kitchen cabinets one year ago with AS pure white. Instead of wax I used the Annie Sloan clear lacquer to seal the paint in. It’s stood up remarkably well. I can scrub them and you’d never know the difference.

        That said, I wish I had used a primer. It took me four coats as well!!

  5. Thanks so much. I have several pieces I want to do and this layed it all out very well! One question-if you do want to wax, how long should you wait after applying the last coat of paint. Overnight?

    1. Good question Glinda – Overnight is fine as long as the paint is totally dry. Humid and hot weather may delay paint drying time. I wax the day after I applied the last coat of paint. I will make sure to add this info into the post.