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Can I Paint Over Varnished Wood?

Painting over a varnished wood.

Painting over varnish is a great way to modernize and revive old furniture. It does require a few steps to ensure that the paint adheres to the surface. With the proper preparation, you can make an old piece look new again. You'll need sandpaper or deglosser, primer, and paint.

We’ve all been there. You’ve been glaring at that table for weeks, considering just throwing it out and buying a new one. What’s standing in your way of creating the look you want? Varnish. Its shine is winking at you. Taunting you. What once protected its surface has become quite the cheeky irritation. You want it gone, but can you?

Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood?

The good news is yes, you can paint over varnished wood. The bad news is that it requires some preparation. With a little know-how and the right materials, you can get the modern look you are going for. The varnish is a clear or tinted topcoat that protects the wood surface.

Once it’s applied, it hardens and provides a slick shiny surface. This is great for protecting your coffee table, or even your wood flooring. However, it can be difficult to paint over because the paint doesn’t have anything to bond to. That’s why the proper steps are essential.

Is it Varnished?

Varnish technically refers to a specific type of sealer that is made using oil and resin. Old pieces are usually varnished. Newer pieces are often sealed with polyurethane, but varnish is still used on some modern pieces. Varnish, polyurethane, shellac, and lacquer, and shellac all have the same basic function, and most of the process remains the same for painting over them. Most unpainted pieces will have one of these sealers applied.

If you want to know which type of finish is on your piece, apply a bit of acetone. Acetone will quickly make shellac sticky. It will make varnish sticky as well, but not immediately. It will simply bead on polyurethane. It dissolves lacquer completely. For our purposes, the process remains the same for all of these finishes.

Materials

The materials you’ll need for painting over varnish are:

  • Sandpaper or deglosser
  • TSP or household cleaner
  • Primer
  • Paint (water-based acrylic is best)

Steps

  • Clean
  • Sand or degloss the surface
  • Apply primer
  • Paint

Sand or Degloss

Polishing an old chair before applying acrylic paint.

The first thing you will need to do is prepare the surface for painting. Clean the surface with tsp or household cleaner. Then it’s time to remove the varnish. You can do this with sandpaper or deglosser. Sanding will either remove the varnish or rough it up enough to hold primer, depending on how much sanding you do.

It will also smooth the surface. If sanding isn’t your thing, you can purchase a deglosser. It’s great for larger projects or difficult to reach areas. If you use deglosser, you should wear gloves. It’s a powerful chemical, and it might ruin clothes or other surfaces if it comes into contact with them.

If you use deglosser. just apply it and let it dry, then wipe the surface to remove the residue. For either method, clean the surface again with a damp cloth, and you are ready to go.

Deglosser can’t be used on particleboard or OSB, because the moisture will cause the wood to swell. If the surface is uneven or needs putty to repair holes or scratches, these areas will have to be sanded with sandpaper. Deglosser is often called liquid sandpaper, but it only removes the varnish. It doesn’t smooth out the surface like sandpaper.

Apply Primer

Primer is recommended for most paint jobs. If the varnish isn’t completely removed, primer is a must. It’s better to assume you need primer than to assume you don’t. “Unnecessary” primer use will still result in a great looking paint job with fewer coats of paint. Not using a primer when you need it will result in a bad paint job that might have to be redone. This is a lot more work and expense than simply using a primer, to begin with.

Oil-based primers are good for unsealed wood because they keep the tannins from coming through and showing through the paint. Oak is particularly notorious for this. They require more ventilation and clean up than water-based primers. Either oil or water-based primer can be used with water-based paint.

In most cases, one coat of primer is enough. If you are covering a very dark stain with a light color, you might need two coats of primer. Let the primer dry, which usually takes about an hour. Then you are ready to paint.

What About Self-Primer?

Paint roller used for coating a wooden flooring.

We all love things that do two things at once. Have you ever tried those combination shampoos and conditioners and found they didn’t do either job to your satisfaction? The fact is it’s easier to do one thing well than two things at once. Self-priming paint might work better than paint without priming, but it’s unlikely to work as well as primer and paint.

Paint

You’ll need to choose a water-based paint. Acrylic is usually best. Keep in mind that low gloss finishes hide imperfections better than high gloss, but they are more difficult to clean. Satin finishes offer some gloss and are generally easy to clean without highlighting imperfections.

Large areas can be painted with a roller. It makes paint easy to apply and gives you a smooth look. Smaller areas can be painted with a paintbrush. If there are intricate details, you can use an artist paintbrush.

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