Projects & Improvements

How To Paint a Wooden Dresser

updated May 5, 2019
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(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

I know some of us at Apartment Therapy have strong views on painting wooden furniture, particularly (gasp!) painting it white, but sometimes it’s gotta be done. This bedside table belongs to my flatmate/landlord, left behind by some long-ago tenant. We both agreed that the knotty pine was an eyesore, and that for the benefit of future tenants, giving it a makeover with a lick of white paint was the best thing we could do.

Have extra paint from painting your dresser? Paint your front door, too!

So on a sunny Saturday a few weeks ago, I gathered some supplies and got to work, photographing the process and keeping track of my steps for the benefit of the ugly furniture in all of your lives. The steps below are easily scaled up for a larger chest of drawers, or most other pieces of wooden furniture, as well.

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

1. Gather Your Tools
In a well-ventilated area, gather together your supplies. For this project, I used:

  • A drop cloth to protect the patio

  • An old rag for cleanup

  • Blue painter’s tape

  • Sandpaper in three different grades: coarse, medium and fine

  • Oil-based wood primer

  • Latex/emulsion paint

  • Water-based polyurethane varnish

  • A plastic paint tray

  • Small, dense foam rollers

  • A small brush for corners and tricky-to-reach areas

  • A soft brush for applying varnish

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

2. Sand
Begin by dismantling the chest of drawers as much as you can, removing the drawers and unscrewing pulls and hardware. Then, take a coarse sandpaper to all surfaces to be painted. Working in a circular motion, press firmly, but don’t worry too much about coverage — the goal with this step is just to rough up the old varnish so that the primer can adhere. After you’ve used the coarse sandpaper, go over everything again with the medium grade paper, this time working with the direction of the wood grain. Once everything is smooth, clean all surfaces with a damp cloth, and allow to dry before continuing.

Note: If your dresser is unvarnished to begin with, skip the coarse sandpaper and just do a light go-over with the medium one.

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

3. Tape Off
Spending some thoughtful time with a roll of painter’s tape is important, not just for avoiding drips and the like, but for deciding where you’re going to start and stop painting. Whether you paint the back, drawer sides, or just what you see from the front of the piece is up to you, but it’s best to be consistent. Tape neatly and carefully and it will save you time in the painting steps.

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

4. Prime
Using brush or a foam roller, apply a thin layer of primer to all the areas within your taped boundaries (if using a roller, you will need a brush anyway to get into the corners and tricky bits). Don’t worry about it looking particularly even (primer never tends to anyway), just ensure you don’t apply it too thickly and get drips. Let dry for the amount of time specified by your particular product (usually 4-6 hours).

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)
All primed.

Note: I used a primer with “knot block” specifically for knotty pine, which is meant to stop the resin from the wood knots seeping through the paint later on. If your wood isn’t dark or knotty, a regular primer is perfectly fine.

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

5. Paint
When the primer has dried, begin painting. I like to do 3-4 very thin and even coats, depending on the color I’m using and the item. For this chest of drawers I did 3, which I applied with a foam roller, a great tool for creating a very smooth surface (again, I used a small brush for the corners). Use long, firm strokes which go in the same direction, and avoid going over the same spot more than once.

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

Allow each coat to dry completely before moving onto the next one, and sand the surfaces very lightly with a fine-grade sandpaper in between each coat. This will remove any tiny drips, or pieces of dust/fluff which landed on the item while it was drying.

Note: It’s perfectly fine, in fact preferable, to use a water-based paint over an oil-based primer. The oil-based primer is what will prevent stains from the wood or previous varnishes from seeping through. You don’t want to use a water-based paint over an oil-based paint, however.

6. Varnish
This step is technically optional, but I like to use 1-2 coats of varnish for extra protection and ease of future clean-ups (particularly as this piece is a bedside table, where tea will inevitably be spilt in the future). Once the last coat of paint has completely dried (I waited 24 hours), apply a very thin layer of varnish with a soft brush. As with the paint, you want to use long strokes in one direction only. After the coat has dried, lightly sand with the fine sandpaper and apply a second one.

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)

7. Hardware
These days, a lot of people are choosing to replace wooden hardware with something more modern, so this might not be an issue for you. In this case I chose to keep the wooden knobs and paint them. For this the same priming, painting, sanding and varnishing steps apply, though it’s particularly important to use a light hand- too much product on your brush will inevitably cause drips. If painting the drawer pulls, come up with a way of keeping them from touching other surfaces.

8. Assemble
After the last layer of varnish, the difficult part is waiting for everything to cure up — it’s best to wait at least 48 hours, if not 72, to ensure the piece is completely dry. You don’t want dents in your beautiful new dresser, so better safe than sorry! Once dry, reassemble your piece and commence basking in the glow of your efforts.

(Image credit: Eleanor Büsing)
The finished product!