How to Paint Unfinished Rough Wood and Furniture

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Finding the key pieces of furniture when decorating your house can seem like finding a needle in the haystack. You may already have a great table or hutch, but the color isn’t right.

Learning how to paint unfinished wood furniture can give you the personal touch of decorating that will make your home stand out and allow you to breath new life into your wood furniture.

​The Best Paint for Wood Furniture

It can be overwhelming to pick a color let alone pick a brand and type of paint for your wood projects.

While the color is completely up to you, let’s break down two basic paint types that can help you find the best paint for unfinished wood projects.

​Water Based Paint

While you normally tend to avoid any water around wood, water based paints are perfectly safe for your finished or unfinished wood surfaces.

Water based paint is known for how quick and easy it is to use due to it drying faster than oil based paints.

A woman paints a stack of unfinished rough wood

​Water based paints ​don’t tend to last as long as oil based paint on furniture that gets used every day. This type of paint is great for furniture that does not come into contact with water, food, or daily touching/sitting.

Oil Based Paint

For your every day use items such as cabinets, dining tables and chairs you will want to use an oil based paint. This is because oil based paints are heavier and able to withstand daily wear and tear as well as water contact.

Oil based paints do take longer to apply and dry due to the heaviness of the paint and coats​– because of ​this, it’s hard to apply oil based paint evenly. To get the best possible result, grab the best paint sprayer for furniture to ensure ​a speedy application and an even coat all through out the surface. Also make sure that you are in a well ventilated area or outside due to the stronger fumes it produces.

If you are still on the fence or unsure about which type or brand of paint to use then always take a moment to ask DIY friends or a home store specialist about what kind of paint for wood furniture they would recommend.

​How to Prep Before Painting

Unfinished wooden chair left outside for painting

Before you can just slap the paint on your unfinished wood surface, you need to take the time to prep. Depending on if your wood furniture has been painted before, it may need a little more prepping before you begin. The same goes for your dried wood slices.

  1. First you will want to clean your furniture. Make sure there is no dirt, dust or grime on the surface. You will be creating more dust with sanding, but it is best to get up as much as you can before so that it does not get dual layers of grime.
  2. If you are dealing with furniture that has doors or drawers, remove them if possible to ensure that you do not paint anything closed or miss corners.
  3. ​Next, sand down the surface of your wood. It there is paint already on the furniture then you will want to use a ​medium grit sandpaper​ to smooth down the wood and remove any paint that is chipping. If your unfinished wood surface is bare then you will want to sand down any knots in the wood or any rough edges. Make sure to wear a high quality dust mask whenever you sand. 
  4. ​Use your hand to guide you by running it up and down the wood along the grain. You will be able to feel any rough areas and pinpoint where you need to sand. The overall finished surface should feel smooth.
  5. Wipe down the entire piece of furniture with a damp cloth to remove the sanding dust particles. You don’t want any dust on the furniture when the paint goes on because this will chip your paint.
  6. As a final step before you open the paint cans, make sure that if you are painting inside you have a well ventilated area and that you have paid down drop clothes or newspaper to protect your home surfaces. Also if you are painting dual colors, ​adding a design​ or need to make clean lines in the paint, use a painter’s tape on the dry surface to box off any areas.

​​​​​Now that your wood surface is prepped and ready, you can begin painting.

How to Paint Unfinished Wood Furniture

When you have decided what paint to use on wood furniture, follow these steps to give your unfinished wood the best refreshing possible.

  1. Apply your primer,​ this is a must for wood​. It will protect your paint from organic compounds in the wood that will bleed through your paint. Primer creates a barrier to protect your wood and your paint.
  2. ​Once the primer has fully dried, apply the top coat. Always​​ paint to follow the wood grain​​​, not across or against it. You can opt for spray paint, a rolling brush, a bristle brush or a foam brush. Find the best tool for your project to give it smooth and clean lines.
  3. Allow the top coat to dry and then follow up with the second coat of paint. The second coat will cover the furniture better and give you a full and even coat of paint.
  4. After the second coat of paint dries you can opt for a third coat if you feel it is needed. However, most DIYers stop at the second coat.
  5. It is not needed, but you can opt to seal your newly painted wood furniture with a sealer. There are many to choose from and each offers a different way to apply and protect. The most popular sealers are paste wax or a polyacrylic sealer. You can also opt to laminate your wood ​to give it more structural integrity.

Painting furniture can take a few hours, mainly because you have to wait so long in-between coats ​for your paint to dry. A few ways to make it less of a wait is to start painting at night, let your primer dry overnight so that it is ready for the first and second coat in the morning.

A woman paints rough cut wood the color white

You can also opt to paint a few things at the same time, mixing big pieces like a mirror frame or the deck in your backyard ​as well as small ​items ​like ​a tile so that you have something else to paint while you are waiting for paint to dry.

If you do opt to paint with the breaks in between, then use a ziplock bag to store your paintbrushes in the fridge to keep them from drying and crusting.


Now that you know how to paint unfinished wood, you can bring new life to your current pieces or spruce up secondhand furniture that you find at flea markets.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.