Furniture Painting 101: A Glossary for the Beginning Furniture Painter

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about painting furniture so I decided to put together a glossary of sorts. I’d like to follow up with a detailed overview of the paint brands I’ve tried, but I’m waiting to see if I can get some samples of a number of brands to include before I write.

Let’s jump in! I’m happy to answer questions so, if I don’t cover something here, feel free to comment!

Furniture Painting 101


Chalk Paint: chalk paint is a thicker, matte finish paint that dries quickly. There’s no paint odor, it’s forgiving for the beginner, and (depending on where you buy) it’s inexpensive! It distresses easily and adds such depth of character and texture to furniture. I’m always discovering new brands and each brand has a great selection of colors.

Milk Paint: milk paint is thinner than chalk paint but is also really easy to use and dries quickly. There’s no odor, it’s water-based, and has a light sheen when dried. I’ve currently tried the General Finishes brand and have been very pleased! I’m searching out new brands to try and review!

Acrylic Paint: think “craft paint”. This is a thinner paint that takes longer to dry and, though great for many uses, I wouldn’t recommend for furniture projects. It can, however, be used for glazes (which I’ll talk about in just a little bit below).

Latex Paint: this is the paint you usually buy at the hardware store for painting walls. I’ve used it for furniture projects and don’t like it. It takes so many coats, has a strong odor, and isn’t very forgiving. It’s thin and shows all drips and runs. It doesn’t distress well and, though lasting, is sort of flat and boring.

Spray Paint: We’ve all tried our hands at spray painting something, I’m sure. While it’s a great tool for small, quick projects here and there, I’d recommend steering clear of spray paint for furniture. There’s a substantial amount of prep work that needs to go into a piece before it can be sprayed and this cannot be skimped on if you want a durable, lasting finish that doesn’t look like a “take and spray”. Properly prepping metal for spray paint is even more extensive. It’s all too easy for spray paint to go wrong with uneven coverage, drips, runs, etc. For no more money or time (often less, actually) I’d suggest hand painting over spraying, ESPECIALLY for furniture. And yes, this applies to spray chalk paints too. As much as I love them I’d still hand paint furniture.


Dry Brushing: this involves barely wetting your brush with paint in order to get a light coverage. It’s great for layering or adding a weathered finish to your projects. Lightly dip your brush in the paint and wipe off excess on a paper plate. Remember, less is more!

I got this aged look on these candlesticks through layers of dry brushing

Glazing: glazing is a really simple process that adds a lot of interest to a painted piece. You can mix your own glazes with acrylic craft paint (or other kinds of paint), a glazing medium, and water. Wipe the glaze on (it’s thin and watery but a little goes a long, long way) and immediately wipe off the excess with a cotton rag.

After painting this small dresser teal I finished with a little black glaze that added a depth and richness that just the paint didn’t provide

Waxing: this is a final touch for your projects. There are three main types of wax: white, clear, and dark or antique. White and dark waxes add depth and interest while clear wax seals your work and gives a gentle sheen. Wax can be tricky to work with so I suggest using a special wax brush or cotton rag to apply and working in small sections. Once applied, it can be buffed to increase the sheen. Focus on detailed areas and let the wax fill them in to make them “pop”. When painting with chalk paint I highly recommend using wax to seal and not other paint sealants. Chalk paint is formulated differently than other paints and the wax is made specifically to work with it. Other finishes might leave your piece feeling tacky or gritty, or might not properly protect the paint for long term use.

Layering: layering is a neat way to add interest. Either dry brush layers all over a base coat or sand to show the color underneath in certain areas. I like layering shades of white and gray for a weathered look. Let the base coat dry completely before adding another.

I updated this frame by layering dark gray and white paints (plus a little distressing to let the gold shine through). I let the darker paint settle into the nooks and crannies before lightly brushing the white over the rest

Distressing: this is a great way to add a bit of rustic charm to your project. All you need is a sanding block or a sheet of medium grit sandpaper. Gently wipe the sandpaper along edges and details, focusing on areas that would show natural wear over time; you don’t want your distressing to look too contrived or manufactured.



Bristle Brush: just a basic paint brush. I’ve used the inexpensive 1″-2″ brushes that come in a pack at a craft store. While you do have to pick out the occasional fallen bristle, I’ve gotten along just fine with these. After a couple uses and cleans I feel no remorse tossing and starting with a new brush. I definitely wouldn’t discourage anyone from buying a high quality brush to use for longer, but you’ll get by fine with craft store brushes.

Wax Brush: these can be expensive and to the beginner chalk painter may seem like a necessity. For applying the chalk paint it’s not but for applying wax…it sort of is. I’ve gotten by without a wax brush but I do appreciate having one now that I do. I bought a small and a large and I’ve used the small WAY more often than the large (probably because I don’t often wax my larger pieces). Don’t shell out for the “name brand” brush. Smaller ones from craft store brands have worked perfectly for me.

Foam Brush: when applying General Finishes Milk Paint, this is the recommended method. I haven’t tried anything different (yet) so I’d recommend having one around if you plan on using milk paints. They’re also handy for applying glaze to smaller, detailed areas.

Stain Applicator Cloths: you can buy a pack at your local hardware store for really cheap. They’re worth having around! I use mine to wipe glazes and buff waxes.

Wood Filler: you’ll always want some of this around if you’re working with older furniture. There’s always at least a little damage that needs to be repaired and this stuff is a life-saver. It’s simple and easy to use and takes paint well. You won’t even know it’s there when you’re done! I’ve used Minwax, Elmer’s, and Plastic Wood filler products. They’ve all worked great for me with similar results.


Let me note that a lot of this is my opinion based on my experience. If you’ve found tools and methods that work well for you, by all means keep it up and please share!


One thought on “Furniture Painting 101: A Glossary for the Beginning Furniture Painter

  1. Very, very informative! I was so glad you talked about distressing and comparing the various types of paint. Grammy

    Sent from my iPad



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