Preparing Your Piece, Before-and-After

Whether you are just starting out on a DIY furniture path or you have experience under your belt,  there comes a time when you want to tackle a grungy, beat up piece of furniture. Maybe this piece is sentimental in value, or it has good bones and you want to transform it. Either way, the ultimate question is can it be saved?

YES should be the resounding answer! Unless it is water-logged, contains mold, or needs massive repairs beyond your means or ability, most pieces of furniture can be fixed up easily. It is all in the prep work. Today we will tackle some basics of preparing your piece to be painted.

Take this little sturdy dresser we found. As you can see it is banged up, dented, scratched, and has some weird goop on the top. But it was well constructed and so we decided to keep and upcycle it. 



If it's really dirty take your piece to an outdoor car vacuum. Seriously! Before you bring it into your home you want to inspect it, especially if found on curbside pickup day. Inspect for bugs, mold, or anything else that might make you rather leave it where it is. If you still want it then remove dust, cobwebs, or other grunge before bringing it inside. To give it a good eco-friendly surface cleaning you'll need:

  • sponge(s)- scrubby side optional!

  • rag(s)

  • an eco-friendly cleaner that does not leave residue, such as vinegar diluted with water

  • a paint scraper/putty knife (for hard stuck on goop, candle wax, or raised paint etc)

Now that your piece is home give it a good surface rubdown. I vastly prefer a vinegar and water solution- dilute the vinegar with water, 2 part vinegar to 1 part water. The vinegar will act as a mild solvent for anything grimy or sticky on the surface of the furniture. It is so important to clean the surface you will paint on because dirt, wax, glue, or other such substances can act as a resist to any kind of paint- meaning the paint will not stick to it. A scrubby sponge can help if there's stubborn residue. Thick candle wax, glue spots, or other random raised up materials can be scraped off with a paint scraper or putty knife.

**Make sure that no matter how 'green' your cleaning solution is, wipe your piece down with a wet rag after cleaning is done, to remove any lingering cleaner. Then let your piece dry.



Next on your list come any structural or surface repairs. Wood glue works wonders for loose joints or cracks. If there are holes or scratches they can easily be amended with wood filler. Apply the wood filler into needed areas with a putty knife- make sure to remove excess around the filled holes. Wait for the filler to dry. Once dry, sand it down flush to the original surface (you want the area to look smooth once painted). Wipe down/vacuum any dust created.

The piece that we found had many dented areas and we filled the most noticeable ones, like scratches and wear and tear to the sides of the dresser, or anything on a flat surface that would look unintentional if left. However we did not perfect everything. Sometimes a flaw in your piece can be used to your advantage and display its age! If you are going for a vintage, antique, or distressed look you do not need to make your piece look like new. Embrace some of those flaws! 

**You can see where we applied wood filler on the top, just in small areas. Ultimately we determined that pink spot to be a nail polish spill so it was scraped off and any damaged areas were also wood filled.



You'll need:

  • a clean paintbrush
  • drop cloth
  • non-toxic, non VOC paint of your choice
  • good music to jam to while painting

Take a deep breath! If you have gotten this far you are more than halfway there. Position your furniture piece on top of your tarp or drop cloth. Get out your paintbrush. ...Now the thing about paintbrushes is that every person prefers a different style. Some like natural bristles, some like synthetic... and then there's always handle length to consider. Maybe you've never even thought of these possibilities before, and that's okay too. Sometimes your project and desired technique will determine what kind of brush you need. Without getting into too much detail for now, any DIY furniture painter should have an arsenal of different brushes for different reasons. We will post another blog entry specifically on brush types soon! 

Just as brushes are complicated, so too can be choosing your paint. I always opt for a non VOC paint (Volatile Organic Compounds, though not acutely toxic, tend to build up in the body over time). This means, for me, a water based paint is needed that can later be sealed with a low-VOC furniture wax or oil that is non-toxic when cured. Annie Sloan Chalk Paint® is my favorite because it is user friendly, non-toxic, easy to use, and is consistent from can to can. It dries quickly, hides flaws in the furniture surface well, and once sealed with the wax can later be touched up very easily as needed (as opposed to latex or oil-based paint).

**We would honestly in no way recommend to 'make your own' version of Chalk Paint® for a few reasons: the recipe will not be the same as Annie's and therefore you will not be using the same kind of paint at all (it's a trademarked recipe), and it will not be consistent between batches. Friends and I have experimented to see if these recipes are reliable, and they just simply are disappointing. However this is simply our preference and we will leave it at that! Milk paint is another type of paint that is very reliable and eco-friendly/non-toxic. Milk paint in this case does happen to be a genre or general category of paint that can be easily made at home, or purchased through Miss Mustard Seed or The Real Milk Paint Co. Both of their existing palettes are amazing. 

...Now to continue on, go ahead and paint your furniture piece! You may need multiple coats when using a water based paint, like 1.5-3 coats depending on how sheer it is, leaving to dry fully between coats. Layering the paint will also provide durability. Level brush strokes going in the same direction will create a smoother surface, while painterly strokes in every direction can be nice for an aged look. Experiment with these brush techniques! Once you have achieved your desired level of opacity on your furniture piece, let it dry fully.

  • clean your brush(es)- if using a water based paint you can clean with soap and water
  • wipe down any drips on the floor



If you want to dry distress (like with sandpaper or coarse steel wool), we always like to do it before sealing the paint surface. Even though it creates a little dust, we like to make sure we can go back and retouch areas with paint if needed. A coarse sandpaper grit will get down to the wood surface underneath usually, so use this if you want wood tones to peak through. Distressing is defined by removing the paint from the surface, so really you can do this with anything. Again, experiment! And less is more, so only distress in areas that would have naturally through time been worn down with age and use. You do not want you piece to look like it has Cheetah spots.

There are many options to seal your water based paint. Again we opt for a non-toxic and eco-friendly finish, such as a low-VOC wax, hemp oil, or tung oil. We do not recommend sealing with a polyurethane, especially over a water based paint, because it will yellow light to medium toned colors. Also if you're going to do a beautiful handcrafted finish on your furniture you might as well not just put a plastic over it. Waxes and oils are very durable, and there are indeed other green soya-based sealers that mimic polys if you are curious. Oils can be rubbed into the surface of the paint with rags, while waxing should be done with a special dense wax brush. Follow your wax's guidelines and always remove excess from the surface of your paint.

This is our finished piece, tah-dah! It has truly been transformed. As you can see we distressed very lightly and naturally. It was painted in Burgundy Chalk Paint® which is lusciously wine-colored. It's been sealed in Annie Sloan's Clear Soft Wax.


If we can do it, you can do it too. Good luck on transforming your pieces!