Best paints to use for furniture

Sep 22, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. ET

Painting a wooden piece of furniture can be a daunting proposition for most of us, but knowing the right primer and paint to use can remove most of the drama. Whether you’re looking at a new, unpainted piece of furniture or an old favorite that needs to be given a new lease on life, the kind of paint you choose is determined by the kind of finish you desire. And, always remember, paint can be repainted over and over again, so relax, pick a color you love, and enjoy the process.

Black painted dresser


First, you need to know that there are two kinds of paints to consider: latex and oil-based. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, so you need to think about your level of commitment and the weather conditions.

Latex paints

Latex paint, which is a water-based product, is very easy to work with, dries quickly, and doesn't leave a lingering odor like oil-based paints. However, latex doesn't perform well if the temperature is less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Why? Because the lower temperature is approaching the dewpoint of the surrounding air, making it nearly impossible for the latex to dry quickly and properly. Streaks and spotting can occur, ruining your hard work. So make sure you have a nice warm, dry day if you're considering latex.

Oil-based paints

Oil-based paint, on the other hand, combines various chemicals and natural oils to create a rock-solid, enduring finish. That's the good news; and in the long-term it may be a good choice, also. However, the bad news is that it leaves a strong paint odor for weeks, depending on your level of olfactory sensitivity. And, because the smell is so potent, it is very advisable to paint your furniture outdoors or in a well-ventilated garage setting—as far from the house as possible. Although oil-based paints prefer warmer temperatures, they are better adapted for cooler climates than latex.


Whether you choose latex or oil-based paint, the best sheens for painting furniture range from eggshell to hi-gloss. You might consider a flat paint only for a specific type of furniture where it suits the original style, such as a Colonial, cottage, vintage or Swedish piece. The best bet for general furniture is probably somewhere in the middle with satin or semi-gloss paint. These clean up well and are more forgiving when it comes to applying multiple coats of paint. However, the more abuse your furniture is likely to endure suggests you should consider moving toward hi-gloss, which is the toughest and easiest paint surface to clean.

A word about primers

Before beginning a painting project, make sure you have the correct primer for the job. Both latex and oil-based paints require their own kind of primers to work well. These primers are important for blocking old stains or covering inconsistencies in the wood's surface. And, like oil-based paints, oil-based primers, which have great stain blocking abilities and adhere to the furniture really well, leave a tremendous odor.

Quick TipWhen you begin painting, start at the top and work your way down, smoothing out any drips or runs on the way. When you're finished, add a satin-finish polyurethane spray over the thoroughly dried topcoat to seal in the beauty and protect your investment.

Home how-to

How to paint furniture

Hand painted furniture can add personality and style to any room in your home. Whether you want to buy painted furniture or learn how to paint furniture, these tips will help.

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