5 Times When Painting Over Something Is a Terrible Idea

published Aug 14, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

If the HGTV generation has a mantra, it’s got to be, “Let’s paint it!” Throwing a coat of paint on anything from a fireplace to built-in bookshelves is often a quick way to nab a whole new look. The thing is, sometimes painting something can be just as quick a route to “I love it!” as “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Here are five situations in which painting may not be the best course of action. 

You know yourself, and you’re not going to do the prep work 

Show of hands: Are you tempted to skip right past all of the prep-related instructions on paint projects? I’m right there with you. But let’s take kitchen cabinets, for example. I talked with my own painter, Sam Ross of Nailed It Contracting in Louisville, Kentucky, who’s painted his share of cabinetry—and seen some paint jobs gone wrong. “You can’t just throw primer on over top of 20 years of grime on a cabinet,” he says. “You accumulate so much stuff in a kitchen, you’ve got to clean the heck out of them to get proper adhesion.” Without the paint really sticking to the surface, he says, it will eventually start flaking and falling off. 

The wood is new

At the other end of the spectrum, maybe you’re considering adding a coat to brand-new, never-touched wood. First off, ask yourself if the wood even should be covered up. (If only the person who painted every inch of trim in my Victorian had done the same before they picked up that paint brush!) If the answer is yes, realize that, especially “if you have a really grainy wood, something like oak, and you want it to look like this brand-new shiny white and you don’t prep it properly, the grain will flash though,” Ross says. The wood can be painted correctly, Ross says, “but you have to do the prep work and have realistic expectations” about what the end result will look like.

You don’t know what’s been done before

If you score a cool vintage piece that’s begging for a fresh new color, tread carefully: Its last coat of paint could be oil-based, and your can of latex will not play well with that. Again, it’s not that you can’t make it happen, Ross says, but “your best bet is to clean and sand it and do oil-based primer.” 

Credit: sirtravelalo/Shutterstock

The piece is in really bad shape

A change in color can only go so far. It’s one thing if you’re starting with a furniture piece with great bones, but if we’re talking about something that’s flimsy or rickety and damaged beyond repair, well, consider parting ways.

You’ve done a time and money equation, and you’re in the negatives

It’s always a good idea to upcycle or otherwise find a new life for an unloved object, but that life doesn’t necessarily have to be with you. Truth be told, sometimes pieces—especially cheaply made ones—aren’t worth the time and cost of all that manual labor and materials. I bought a vanity table online a while back, and as soon as I saw its shiny white finish IRL, I knew it was a bad call. I considered painting it, but when I thought about how long it would take to get into every little nook and whether I’d actually like it any better, I knew it would be a waste of time. (Thank you, Facebook Marketplace, for finding it a new home with a teenager who loved it!) Think about this before you invest anything else in a piece that perhaps you won’t love no matter what.