Preparing Furniture for Paint

Preparing your piece for paint:


Let’s get that perfect piece that you found at the flea market ready to paint.  You probably looked it over good for damage before you purchased it, right?  So we don’t need to go over that, now do we?  What’s that? You say you didn’t make sure it was in tiptop shape as you were haggling with the vendor?  You didn’t haggle with the vendor?  Oh my goodness! What sort of amateurs are we working with here anyway?  


The first step in preparing your new piece is to decide what it is that you intend to do with it.  There are so many ways that you can work with a piece.  Perhaps you set out on your shopping trip with a particular style in mind and have it all planned out.  In our experience, this usually ends in frustration.  However, if you go shopping with a mind open to allowing flexibility, you’ll be delighted with how the pieces that you run across “speak to you” and tell you what their next life looks like.  It’s all very fun and magical.


Furniture and other found, rescued, or salvaged junk has a way of selecting its new owners based on the constraints that the situation provides.  Choice within constraint is good and fosters creativity, such as, “I only have $150 to spend on a new dining table”.  You have to search out something that will work, in your space, for $150, which forces your mind into an exciting place.  Maybe that new dining table isn’t a table at all, but a beautiful old wooden door from a razed juke joint in the Mississippi Delta that Blind Lemon Jefferson once played at and a base that you fashion out of old shipping crates.  That, friends, beats a furniture store any day of the week in the interesting and inspiring department.  


Now that we’ve chosen our piece, or it’s chosen us as it were, we should probably get going on prepping it for paint.  Chippy paint can be gorgeous, if that’s the look that you’re going for.  And if your chippy piece seems suitable to preserve as is, we might just choose to clean those parts that you’d like to keep in that state and then apply a sealer to help retard the chipping.  


Now a safety note about old paint:  old paint can and should be assumed to contain lead, which is toxic to humans and pets.  Lead poisoning occurs when you absorb too much lead by breathing or swallowing a substance with lead in it, such as paint, dust, water, or food (  Be cautious when dealing with old painted surfaces.  If paint is flaking off of your furniture, especially very small pieces and dust that might become airborne, consider wearing a dust mask and doing your work in a well ventilated area.  Sealing our furniture with several coats of a high quality water-based varnish should take care of the future flaking problem and keep our risk of exposure to a minimum.


Cleaning.  Cleaning is something that we’re all familiar with, but most hate to do.  Applying paint and/or sealer over the top of a dirty surface will lower your chances for good adhesion, which means your paint might not stick for good.  We’ve certainly had this experience.  Some of the newer paints available are less susceptible to this than others, but it’s always a good idea to clean before we paint. Ok? So let’s consider it part of the process and make it a habit to clean before we paint.  Normal soap and water will do it, but might leave a residue behind that goofs up our paint or finish.  Trisodium phosphate, or TSP, mixed with water is the best, non-residue leaving cleaner for our purposes.  You can find it in your hardware store or home center.  Mix it up according to the directions on the box.


We must be mindful when cleaning that a lot of the furniture that we find will be old and have glue joints and veneer that might not like water too well, so we don’t want to soak the wood liberally, but rather wipe with a damp rag soaked in our TSP solution.


Next in our order of operations is making repairs to loose glue joints, if any.  A lot of really good furniture gets discarded simply because it gets wobbly.  Laura and I really like finding items that need some work because you can get them for a song, often paying a fraction of its mint condition value.  Stay tuned for future posts on furniture repair.